Skankin' Garbage's Review of Growlanser: Heritage Of War
Growlanser has had a pretty funny history in the United States. Working Designs, a defunct localization company, went out of business trying - and suceeding at a high price - to release games from this series in America. Finally, Atlus, who publishes the series in Japan, decided to start localizing the games themselves. A reviewer on another site called Growlanser 'the bipolar girlfriend of Japanese RPGs.' I suppose I can't really say for sure, since I haven't played the entire series; however, it's very unfortunate that Atlus decided to start localizing Growlanser with this installment - one of the most bi-polar games I've ever played. It's hard for me to dislike it; but, for every one thing it does right, it does another thing so terribly wrong.
To expand more on what I'm talking about, the first place you can clearly see what I'm talking about is in the graphics. Growlanser: Heritage of War's graphics are comprised of three main elements: A 3D field - naturally, with 3D characters as well, beautifully-drawn anime portraits of the characters which are shown during conversations, and anime cutscenes. Compared to the other two games, the character portraits look so much nicer and more colorful. They're a sight to behold, especially during the anime cutscenes, which were too far and few between, in my opinion. Now, that's all well and good; but, what about the meat of the graphics - the 3D environments and characters? To give you an example of how bad it it, when my friend first saw it, she thought I was playing a PSX game that was released around the time of Final Fantasy 8. To put it in perspective, Growlanser V - Generations (the Japanese name of the game) was released in early August 2006. Final Fantasy 8 had its Japanese release in December 1998. For Heritage of War, a game released eight years after Final Fantasy 8, that's very, very bad. It's dissapointing and bewildering to see one aspect of the graphics handled with such care, while another part of it gets the shaft in the worst way.
Now, you might say, "Well, graphics don't make or break a game!" Sure, reader: Graphics don't make or break a game, although they can greatly enhance the experience; however, this easily-noticeable, superficial example exemplifies a pattern visible in the rest of the game, particularly in the gameplay and the story.
Let's start with the gameplay. Heritage of War borrows a bit from several different genres: it's one part Standard RPG, one part Action RPG, and one part RTS. This could have been cool, had they borrowed any of the parts that made the good games in their respective genres truly shine. The interface is standard RPG fare: Your characters walk around on the map, and battles begin in real time as your characters approach enemies on the map (there are no random battles). You control the main character manually for the most part, while all of the other characters act automatically; however, you can open up the command menu and issue a specific command to any character (you also need to use this menu to cast spells or use items). As you can see, it sounds a fair amount like an Action RPG/RTS hybrid; but, it really fails capture the essense of either aspect, due to the pace of battle. For starters, every action in the game has a set amount of 'wait time' added to it, so your characters aren't performing tasks continuously. Also, opening up the menu pauses the battle entirely, breaking the 'real-time' flow entirely. The lack of consistent pace, as well as pauses in the action, cause the game's action to lose its urgency and be too slow in general to be very good as either an Action RPG or an RTS. Surprisingly, I found out that the gameplay was tweaked heavily to remove even more breaks: In the Japanese version, your characters couldn't move during the 'wait time' of actions, and the game came to a dramatic halt every time an enemy was killed. Imagine playing a game like that!
Growlanser games have always sported heavy character customization, and it is offered in Heritage of War in the form of the 'Skill Plate' system. Basically, when characters equip weapons and armor, they have certain skill plates that can be learned by fighting with them equipped. Afterwards, you set the plates down on a hexagonal grid, which 'flows' from left to right. Each plate has an arrow moving diagonally up or diagonally down (some are interchangable, and very rarely, some plates will branch both ways simultaneously), allowing you to put a another plate in front of the arrow and use both plates. Eventually, by acquiring 'knack points' during battle, your skill plates will level up, allowing the skill to become more useful. There is room on the grid for several 'flows,' and the idea was to give you several different options with which to change between on the fly during battle; but, the way you set up your flows winds up being very inconsequential. It can be intimidating when you start out, but once you realize that you can get through the game very easily by just making several flows with a bunch of skill plates that you like, and plowing through the game. In the end, it just topples on itself for being too customizable.
Surprisingly, for all the crap I talk about the gameplay, it was alarmingly not-boring to play. Maybe it was the thrill of the attempted innovation, or the ability to control your main character semi-manually in a genre that is so exclusively hands-off. Maybe it was just because the storyline battles are so dramatic. Either way, I don't think it's something I have a very logical explanation for.
The story begins with a man named Seldous, whom, with the help of his friend Vanette, is looking for a way to achieve peace on their continent. He eventually, with the help of some new companions, is able to achieve peace by erecting the Admonisher, a huge death star-like laser. Fast-forward roughly twenty years into the future, where you play the role of a few different characters in different parts of the world, to show what life is like a fair amount of time after peace has been established by the Peace Maintenance Brigade (PMB), run by Seldous. Finally, you gain control of the main character, Haschen, who gets involved in an accident that causes him to have no choice but to join the PMB. After that, he joins up with different PMB members and they go adventuring to do PMB stuff, and eventually find out a bunch of nonsense, and wind up fighting for the peace, and for the justice, and all that other corny stuff.
Quite frankly, this game is incredibly corny. Surprisingly, though, the game manages to pull off several of its cliches in ways that don't make you groan and feel like you're playing every other generic, uninspired Japanese RPG. In fact, the game even touches on some pretty cool themes: What is peace? Is peace the absence of war, or the absence of hostility? Can you attain peace without being peaceful? These themes were explored, though not as much as they could have been. In fact, the game has a few very intense cinematic moments - my particular favorite is one near the beginning of the game, where Seldous says that he will begin a new era without wars; what's happening on the screen - what he's doing as he delivers this line - made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
The biggest problem with the game, though, is that it shoves important plot points under the rug, in a manner that kills the suspension of disbelief. There are many examples of this in the game, but the biggest one is that one key member of the PMB starts two - maybe even three - coups during the course of the game, dividing the PMB in two each of those times. When Haschen and co. stop this person each time, this character explains their motives, and the heroes solve the problem, and this character is allowed to return to their position in the PMB, as if nothing ever happened. What the HELL is that? Other than that, there's a lot of stuff unexplained. Some of it is forgivable, because the next installment in the series is a direct sequel; but, there are definitely some things explained poorly or not at all, that probably will never be touched on in the sequel, resulting in a great story that feels poorly glued together.
Growlanser: Heritage of War had a lot of potential, but overall, is just way too sloppy to be an amazing game. It's very unfortunate; the characters are cool, but don't have enough interaction, keeping them just a bit too shallow and static; The story is cool, but there are so many different points to it that even the game itself can't seem to keep track; The gameplay boasts a lot of great, yet poorly realized ideas. Slated for greatness, but destined to mediocrity - This accurately sums up the 30-35 hour experience of Growlanser: Heritage of War, the most 'bi-polar girlfriend-ish' game I've played in years. Given that it's limited edition, single print only, it's going to be hard to find; that, combined with my sentiments on the game, make it equally hard to reccomend to anyone who isn't already a fan of the Growlanser series.