Grand Kingdom (PS Vita)
NIS America / Spike Chunsoft | June 28th, 2016 (North America)
Platforms: Playstation Vita and Playstation 4
Grand Kingdom is a game that will fly under the radar for many, but it really shouldn’t be missed if you are a strategy game fan. I’ve been playing the PlayStation Vita version (on a PSTV) of the game for a few weeks now, and I absolutely love it. But I am a huge SRPG fan, with Final Fantasy Tactics being my favorite game of all time. If you aren’t a fan of FFT, Disgaea, Tactics Ogre, and the like then this game may not be for you. Grand Kingdom is all about strategy. The battle system is the most unique I’ve seen in years, maybe ever. And before battle you move around the “field” (kind of like a world map) using a chess piece, plotting your route and using items — you aren’t simply moving from spot A to B. Both moving around the field and battling require a lot of thought, as well as party formation and item management. If you are into deep strategy JRPG’s then you should check this game out ASAP.
Before getting too deep into describing what the game is and isn’t, I want to get some of the basics out of the way. First of all, I have not finished the campaign, but that is because I have played in several online wars, tried every quest type, and spent most of my time leveling up all 17 classes to at least level 12. I have not completed the campaign portion, but I can assure you I’ve tried every little aspect of the game, sinking at least 65hrs into it. The reason I didn’t finish the campaign is not because the game is bad but because the other features are much more compelling. There are plenty of side quests and wars to complete without advancing the story. Speaking of, I really didn’t give a crap about the lackluster narrative and wanted to spend as much time as possible experimenting with every class. This is not a story driven game, and you will probably do the same thing as me when you get your hands on it. With that out of the way let’s move on.
Grand Kingdom was released digitally June 21st and the retail version came out today (June 28th) in North America. It is distributed by NIS America, one of the best JRPG localization companies out there, and it was developed in Japan by Spike Chunsoft. Tomohiko Deguchi, the director, also worked with artist Chizu Hashii on Grand Knights History, the spiritual predecessor that never made it over to the states. Grand Knights History is similar in it’s art style and field movement, but I’d say Grand Kingdom is superior game for a number of reasons. First, let’s talk about how it plays.
So I mentioned that the battle system is one of the most unique I’ve played in years, but really it is not completely original; it is a clever mash-up of many other RPG battle systems. The one thing that I think is new; however, at least to my knowledge, is the way you move around in battles. Players have “troops” of 4 characters (6 if you recruit other real players’ characters to fight alongside you) on a 2D battleground consisting of three rows. Each character has 2 gauges, one for their actions and one for movement. You can freely move along all 3 rows until you deplete your movement gauge, then you may perform actions such as attacks until you deplete your action gauge. Certain classes like ranged units can use their remaining move gauge to fire off more attacks. And conversely, melee/defense units can use their action gauge to guard. The remaining action gauge points determine the guards strength; you have to gamble in this way, deciding if it is worth performing more attacks resulting in a weaker guard or not attacking at all to have a very strong guard. This is a really interesting element of the battle system, especially when your characters start learning advanced support and guard actions.
The actions each character can perform are determined by their class. There are 17 classes in total in 4 categories: melee, ranged, magic, support/special. Nearly every class has 2 gender counterparts that are similar in some ways, but, for the most part, every class plays differently. I don’t want to spoil all the classes because discovering their intricacies is part of the fun, but here are a few examples of the units you can recruit: the fighter uses a sword & shield and is an all-around melee unit with powerful combo attacks, special guard actions, and a self-heal; the medic uses acid flasks to attack & poison enemies, potions to heal units, and other bottles to place mist traps on the battlefield; the dragon mage casts spells atop a giant fire breathing dragon and is the most powerful unit in the game (because of this you can only have a troop of 3 when using a dragon mage); and the challenger is an odd unit who fights with a big barrel that he can set as a trap, throw as an explosive, or use to commit suicide and deal heavy damage to everyone around him. Some classes can move all around the battlefield and attack up close, some set traps for advancing enemies, some hang in the rear guard and shoot arrows or cast spells, and there’s even some like the rogue who can turn invisible to sneak behind enemy lines. There is a lot of variety in the classes which adds even more strategy to choosing your troop configuration.
Now I talked about movement on the battlefield, the classes, and some of the skills, but I didn’t explain how the different attacks, traps, and spells work. Attacking is turn based, but it requires quick reflexes as well as smart planning. Melee units can combo attack enemies, juggling them in the air, forcing you to time your button presses just right because once you miss an attack your action is over. Ranged attacks display a rectangle with a moving cursor and you have to press a button when it is over the enemy, but you can’t just wait because if the cursor makes it to the end of the range without you pressing anything then your action ends — it is almost like a rhythm game. Landing ranged attacks is harder than you’d think. Then there’s the aforementioned traps that you can spread out along the three battle rows to stop enemies from advancing or to protect your weak units. And there’s even the classic RPG staple “charged attacks” that are very powerful and target an entire row, but you have to wait a few turns until the charge is complete. And just to make all of this even harder there is friendly fire! You have to be careful with every attack because it is very possible to hit your own team members or heal the enemy.
Something you should know about Grand Kingdom’s system is that there is no “MP” or equivalent in this game. Certain skills — mostly healing, trap, and charged skills — have a limited amount of uses per quest. I know some people are upset about this, but it is actually just different terminology and doesn’t really play differently than games that use MP; Grand Kingdom just doesn’t show you a gauge and MP skill/magic costs. It is simpler this way: for example, you might know you have 8 uses of Wind Bullet (a powerful gunner AOE attack) per quest so you have to plan accordingly. Instead of seeing an MP gauge that tells you you have 64 MP and Wind Bullet costs 8 MP per use, you just have a limited number of uses. You can, of course, use items or field skills to replenish your skill uses. This brings me to another complaint I’ve heard about this game: you can’t use items in battle, only on the field between battles. Again, I have no problem with this as I think it adds another dimension to the strategy. There are no potions you can select from an “item”menu to use during a battle, but what Grand Kingdom does have is a medic with a skill called “heal potion” that she can use 5 times per quest.
I could say so much more about the battle system, but I think it’s time to move on to other elements of the game. I want to briefly talk about the story, or lack thereof. If this game has any weakness it is its narrative. What is presented to us is nothing new or special. Grand Kingdom gives us a war torn country with four nations fighting each other constantly, and the nameless, faceless player is dropped into the middle of the conflict as a mercenary. It is hard to get attached to or root for any nation when you’re a mercenary who can sign contracts with any nation at any time. You are the commander and characters speak to you in comic book style vignettes but we never see what you look like. There’s also no compelling characters, just JRPG archetypes. The main characters we see are Flint, your fast-talking, alcoholic right-hand man; Lilia, the mercenary guild captain’s innocent, brainy yet naive daughter; Weiss, the white-haired, perfect seeming tough guy rival; and the gruff legendary hero and captain of the guild, Godfrey. You meet a few other characters along the way, but none of the characters in the game are particularly interesting. I do have to say, however, that I thought the English voice actors were way better than what we usually get with JRPG localizations.
Remember, though, this is not a game you play for the story. Sure, I do love narrative-driven games, but as I mentioned in my Gone Home review, there are two sides of the video game spectrum: narrative games that put story and character first but lack in gameplay, and fun games with terrible stories, or none at all. I like both sides of the spectrum in a variety of genres, but what I don’t like are games that fall in the middle with average gameplay and an okay story while never trying anything new. There is nothing average or tired about Grand Kingdom’s gameplay. And yeah the story is pretty lame, but I think I covered all you need to know and now I’d like to move on to the most interesting, most ambitious aspect of this game: the multiplayer features.
The multiplayer components are the hardest part of this game to describe on paper. In fact, the whole game is one of those that isn’t done justice by words or video, you really have to play it to get a feel for it. I’ll do my best to describe it, though. The online play in this game is actually asynchronous, but it is very, very in-depth. Actually, the A.I. Is occasionally so good that I thought I was playing against real people in real time for the first few days of my playthrough. You can have up to 6 different troops of 4 units (3 with a dragon Mage) each on your mercenary team.
When it comes to online wars you have two options: dispatch and detachment. Detachment puts your units on the battle field with A.I. instructions and they fight automatically for whatever nation you are currently contracted to fight for. You have several options when determining how your troop will fight, from preset options like “sneak + attack the enemy with the lowest HP” to direct custom orders of what actions to take in what order. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong with my detachments because when I send troops out, usually with the purpose of leveling up, I often end up getting a “0 wins – 2 losses” result. This is a rather difficult part of the online wars, but perhaps if I gave the custom direct orders I would do better. The good news is you also have the option to dispatch units, controlling the team via a chess piece just like offline PVE play. When you do this you face off against your opponents’ A.I. troops. You’re never really fighting an enemy in real-time, but you also kind of are in a way because they are moving around the same board fighting A.I. versions of your troop while you do the same. Wars take place in real time, usually lasting about 30 minutes, but moving around the field is done in “turns.” It is a really clever system that allows everybody taking place in the war to move around and battle at their own pace, but at the same time there is a sense of immediacy. Another cool aspect of online play is that your units can be hired by other players, netting you gold when the war is over.
When it actually comes down to the battling portion, online PVP play is a lot like offline fighting. The war planning features are where PVP and PVE differ. You can vote to place ballistae, cannons, catapults, and even powerful summoned beasts all over the world to help whatever nation you are currently selling your sword to. You can message your allies and plan your attack routes. You can defend your bases or attack the enemy’s. It really is a hell of a lot of fun and like nothing I’ve experienced before. I’ve seen some RPG’s dabble in turn-based online battles — like Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions on PSP for example — but none of those games’ online modes seemed to catch on or work as well as this game. I feel like Grand Kingdom’s online mode will still be pretty active with diehard SRPG fans a year from now. A lot of time, energy, and thought was put into the multiplayer component of this game, and I think it may be Grand Kingdom’s biggest selling point because of the high replayability it provides.
One of the best parts of fighting online is seeing all the customized characters in other players’ troops. Everything in Grand Kingdom is customizable. Your characters’ hairstyles, faces, voices, and clothing colors can all be changed. On top of all that, every item in the game is represented visually on your characters. This is unbelievable. You never see characters holding different weapons when you make equipment changes in other RPG’s, you only see stat changes. This does backfire in some ways, though. For example: I have a gunner with a purple mustache and bright green glasses; I don’t want to see either of those items on him (he looks pretty ridiculous), but they offer great stats that I don’t want to pass up. I wish there was an option to turn off the visual changes that items make on units. On the other hand, I do like the fact that you can modify your characters in so many ways; I often find myself sacrificing stat points to make my Dark Knight look as badass as possible. Between all the items and the in-depth character customization, it would be unlikely that you would run into a rival troop with a unit that looks exactly like yours.
Your characters aren’t the only thing you can customize. You can alter your team flag and your “chess piece” by unlocking new ones through achievements and purchasing them from merchants. You can also unlock special game boards that alter how you perform and move along the quest field. Nearly every aspect of this game’s customization adds a level strategy as well — almost nothing is just cosmetic is Grand Kingdom. You can even change your troops formation, add obstacles to your formations like arrow shields and spear traps, and add flags that add special properties to the battle. There is so much detail put into every aspect of this game (…except the story).
All of these customization options would mean nothing if the graphics and art style weren’t great. Luckily, everything looks absolutely amazing in Grand Kingdom. I love the hand drawn anime art, and this style is by far my favorite to see in any RPG. The looks is sorta like Disgaea but in 2D, or like Odin Sphere, a less popular example but better comparison. I can’t praise the art enough. Sonically, everything is decent but nothing special. I already mentioned the English voice acting is pretty good for a JRPG so that’s a plus. I’m not a big audiophile so I don’t notice sound much, but I do love movies/games with strong acting and I feel that the voice actors may have been able to breath some more life into the story if they were given a better script.
I have a lot of thoughts about this game, nearly all of them positive. The thing I have to keep reminding myself, though, is that this game was basically made for me. So I’m not sure how others who don’t enjoy SRPG’s or who hate anime art styles will feel about it. Personally, Grand Kingdom has everything I love in a gameplay-driven JRPG. I love the look of the game and the gameplay is even better. I love when games try new and unique things. I feel like some of the multiplayer aspects may be a bit overly ambitious and misguided, but they never got in my way of enjoying the game so I didn’t even bother mentioning them. If the story was a bit better or kept me interested a little more I think I would be giving this game a perfect score. We don’t have a half points here, but if we did I’d give Grand Kingdom a 9.5 out of 10.
This game probably won’t sell a ton in North America or get too much press, but I recommend you give it a shot if you love strategy games, JRPG’s, or just want to try something new and unique. NIS America has a small cult following in the US, nothing like the big AAA companies, but they have such dedicated fans for a reason: they always distribute great games that they know their niche audience will love. Grand Kingdom is no different.
Joe Portes is a writer of Fiction and Essays, as well as a Creative Writing instructor in Upstate New York. He has edited literary journals and online magazines where his stories, interviews, and reviews have also appeared. His work has been in or is forthcoming in the Indianola Review, Pitkin Review, and Free George Magazine among others. Aside from writing for the Pop Culture Beast, he maintains a blog at JoePortes.com where you can read about everything from teaching college freshmen, to his love of podcasts, to playing video games.