After playing Vanillaware’s previous PS2 effort Odin Sphere I would be lying if I said I wasn’t just as stoked to jump into their next title. Much to my surprise while the game shares a lot in common with the aforementioned title such as crisp 2D visuals and spot-on game play this is where the similarities end. While Odin Sphere is an homage to classic side scrolling action titles GrimGrimoire has more in common with StarCraft than Contra. That’s right ladies and gents this game is a real-time strategy and a damn fine one at that.
The story of GrimGrimoire is a peculiar one. You assume the role of Lillet Blan on your first day at a wondrous school of magic. As you can imagine the comparisons between this story and a certain Hogwarts student are common, the school is even run by a gray-bearded professor named Gammel Dore. Even with these similarities it isn’t hard to distinguish the two once you begin playing and realize how the story unfolds, which is far and away one of the game’s best attributes.
Your first four days at the school are spent learning the basic rules of magic such as Necromancy, Sorcery, Alchemy, and Glamour. On the fifth day all hell breaks loose when a rogue sorcerer releases the spirit of Archmage of Fear and he is bent on revenge. Of course who could blame him; it seems the Archmage was offed by the headmaster years ago and to return the favor he decides to take out everyone in the school, everyone that is except you.
From here you will begin a sort of Groundhog Day series of events where you will relive the previous four days over and over collecting grimoires (books that contain for the four types of magic) thus leveling up to the point where she can finally defeat the head villain. Collecting these books is pivotal as you progress through the game as it uses the traditional rock, paper, scissors school of magic where one bests the other and so on and so forth. There are a total of three grimoires for each set of magic running the total number of books to twelve and as you progress you will find new spells that can be unlocked in the books you already possess, confused yet?
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here though, from this description the game screams RPG, but believe you me this is a straight-up RTS in the truest sense of the word. Just like WarCraft before it Grim uses a resource system that is used to build units; in this case it just happens to be mana. You begin the game with two attackers, two workers, and a rune from the glamour category called the Fairy Ring. The first objective will be to begin harvesting the mana crystals scattered about the map with your workers so you can amass a larger army. The grimoires I mentioned earlier come into play here as they are where you can build bigger and better units. They also double as a tech tree that allows you to upgrade units to give them more strength and other abilities.
The main goal, as with any game of this type, is to control the map and eliminate the enemy forces. The best plan of action is of course to harvest as much mana as you can before the computer lays claim to the resource. While most RTS games rely on a top-down view Grim brings a new approach to the battlefield that really sets it apart from others in the genre. The game takes place entirely from a side perspective that, at first glance, would lead you to believe the game is a simple 2D action game. This works to the game’s advantage and really helps translate the complicated PC style of game to the console. This can also be limiting as it makes each map feel strikingly similar to the previous one thus creating a sense of repetition throughout the game.
The controls and interface work surprisingly well thanks mostly to the fact that unit management is more of a charm than a chore. Unlike typical RTS games where you are required to do massive amounts of babysitting Grim relies on the fact that more is not always better. Some units can fill the entire screen so keeping track of them is never an issue, and unlike traditional RTS titles there are some advanced units that require more than a simple build command to spawn which adds a nice layer of RPG into the fold. Thankfully none of this ever becomes overbearing as the difficulty ramps up steadily and you never feel like there is too much going on for you to handle.
What is bothersome though is a lack of an in-game save option. It isn’t uncommon to have 40-50 minute battles in Grim and if you don’t have the time to dedicate its best not to even bother. While this is a common standard for RTS games to run this long console players have become spoiled to the point of needing a save spot every five feet. With that said Grim’s save system will likely annoy most gamers new to the genre and in turn shy away some of its user base. Thankfully the game is broken up by cut-scenes that make about as much sense as trying to describe on of the battles to someone who has yet to play the game. These small diversions do a nice job of relaying the convoluted story, even if they don’t make sense 90% of the time.
Just like Vanillaware’s previous effort GrimGrimoire is one of the finest examples of visual fidelity you can find on the aging PS2 hardware. Everything from the beautifully animated character models to the gorgeously rendered backdrops are oozing with style and class that has been sadly dismissed with the introduction of bump mapping and self-shadowing. It is obvious that the developer is a huge fan of creating 2D titles and as far as I am concerned as long as they continue this trend they can keep making them well into the next generation. Needless to say GrimGrimoire is a visually stunning masterpiece.
There is no denying that Grim is not a game for everyone. With long drawn-out battles and a steep learning curve there is a lot to swallow here. However if you take the time to learn the subtle nuances of the combat system and you enjoy the RTS genre in the least bit I can’t recommend this title enough. With its beautifully hand-drawn visuals to the addictive complexity this game screams charm. If you are willing to deal with the few minor annoyances I guarantee you will discover one of the finer gaming experience available this summer.