In its golden years, my PSP is continuing to get quite a workout. I have always loved playing RPGs on the system, and this has become one of its primary uses over the past few years. Maybe it’s a natural fit; that nub just doesn’t lend itself to full 3D action/adventure exploration, allowing RPGs to shine at their full potential while somewhat dampening excitement of other genres. Whatever the reason, I have enjoyed a healthy amount of both PS1 and PSP RPGs on the go. After seven and a half years of service, while under the semi persistent haze of perceived failure in the face of the DS, you might imagine the PSP has little left to offer. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is a new release that begs to differ.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is actually the fourth game in the Growlanser series, to which I have been completely oblivious until now. Even with no prior knowledge of this franchise or backstory of this game, it comes across as a deep and confident RPG that is finally making its North American debut on the PSP following its initial Japanese release nine years ago on the Playstation 2.
Growlanser is a story heavy game. Even in the world of RPGs, this one is on the dense end of the spectrum. One thing to know going into Growlanser is that to convey this entire story, there is a lot of text. I don’t want to say George R.R. Martin-esque, but that’s where I’ll start. The world of Growlanser is a complex one of politics, intrigue, and all the deception you might expect therein, mixed together with bandits, monsters, angels and ancient prophecies. Honestly, you could cut out three fourths of the components of this game and still have enough left for solid narrative. I wouldn’t say there’s too much crammed in, just know that this is a fully fleshed out world that will take some time to wade into.
The story of Growlanser is one of mystery that unfolds in a very satisfying way. As the protagonist, Crevanille, you will band together with a plucky bunch of heroes and misfits as you try to answer the most pressing questions of the day such as: Why are angels indiscriminately attacking and murdering countless scores of people? Who are these children that are found buried inside ancient ruins? What relation do they have to the angels, and how does this all tie into the societal extermination that happened 2,000 years ago? These are big questions, and the game is fleshed out and handled deftly enough to make them feel important. The pace of the game could certainly use a tune up though, especially through the first hour or so of the game, but the story builds on itself and gets more interesting as you progress.
The story revelations are supported by a sound translation and clean animated cutscenes that really bring the world to life, highlighting the awe of the world and the destructive power of the angels that doesn’t really come across from their in-game sprites.
The majority of the time, you don’t get to watch these gorgeous cutscenes though, and the rest of the game looks nowhere near as good. Most of the story is conveyed through text boxes overlaid with character portraits. These look quite nice in their own right, but coupled with the in-game graphics consisting of low res sprites walking around on digitized backgrounds, the overall graphical package just isn’t quite alive enough to drive the story. The backgrounds are relatively clear and easy to navigate, but they are deathly still save for the occasional wisp of smoke or body of moving water. The game looks alright, and probably looks much better scaled down on the PSP screen than it did on a television, but overall it’s quite average and clearly shows its years.
The mediocre graphics may be evident from the start, but do not let them prevent you from getting to the meat of the story. The heady mix of a tale about trying to save the world set against the backdrop of political and scientific struggles is brought to life through rather excellent characterization (even if the clothes, hairstyles, and general aesthetic are a bit out of date), and is honestly the most gripping page turner of any RPG I’ve played in a long time. There are even multiple main story branches with forty different possible endings to keep you going. Just realize that the pages in this book turn slowly.
Growlanser self identifies as a TRPG or tactical role-playing game, and that seems appropriate. The battles fall somewhere between the classical turn based RPGs of yore, and the grid based approach of sRPGs. In fact, the battle system of Growlanser is quite interesting. Approaching a group of enemies does not transition the game into a separate battle sequence screen. The battles all take place right in the world that you were exploring. This is interesting because enemies are not usually bunched up in front of you and are often spread over the map. Both you and they need to navigate the environment to get near enough to each other for melee attacks. This also places a stronger emphasis on the order of attack since enemies have different strengths, are at different distances from you, and can close that gap at different rates. I don’t think I’ve ever played an RPG with battles that play out quite like this. While initially strange, the style of the fights really grew on me.
The other major components to be managed during battles are the spell choices and attack cool down times. Since all the fighting happens in the natural environment, timing and movement are critical to keep in mind. This is not strictly a turn based strategy. Each attack has its own required cooldown time allowing quicker attacks to be taken more frequently than heavy, slow attacks. Also, conjuring a spell requires a build up period where you are more vulnerable to attacks than normal, and need to be further away or have protectors to pull off. The importance of time management allows the battle system to be more fluid than a turn based RPG while implementing some of the additional layers of strategy of an SRPG. Good stuff.
The in-game fight scenes also allow for a bit more diversity in the way battles are approached. Your average encounter with a creature in the wilderness plays out simply with you doling out attacks until they are all defeated. However, many of the story fights are much more involved. Since you are still in the environment, you can interact with your surroundings during the fight. This can involve actions like flipping switches to shut doors or activate defenses, or even to rescue characters while the battle is unfolding. Movement is important during all fights, but is critical during these story based ones. See, the game doesn’t handle moving during battle extremely well. You can send one character off to do something while the others continue to fight, but they move very slowly and often get distracted by the enemies around them. The margin of error on these story fights in particular is quite small; one misdirection usually means death and game over. Without the ability to save anywhere, a fair amount of repetition creeps in when you have to try battles multiple times to figure out precisely where to send people.
Much of this game is old school RPG. You get Ril (money) for killing things, and you use that money to buy new Ring Weapons (rings that manifest weapons depending on the user’s personality) as well as the more standard armor and consumables. Each ring has three slots that are color coded for upgrade spellstones that you can find or buy to modify your attacks, provide new attacks, or to serve as buffs. Much of the customization comes at the level of modifying your weapons in various ways. On the other hand, your attributes such as strength, intelligence, attack, magic, etc. auto upgrade when you level up, rather than you assigning points to your individual attributes.
All in all, this is an RPG for people who love RPGs. I can’t imagine someone new to the genre would sit down and accept the long winded nature of the unfolding story or the sometimes impenetrable battles, but this game isn’t really for them. This is a deep, interesting, and rewarding RPG for those willing to give themselves to it. Growlanser has flaws, sure, but the scope of the story and the complexity of the world beneath it really are fantastic. Don’t give up on the game in the first hour or two, it continues to improve and impress as you play.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.