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Grandia Xtreme (PlayStation 2) artwork

Grandia Xtreme (PlayStation 2) review

"Grandia faithfuls know that long dungeons aren't a problem with this series. Its Active Time Battle combat system is one of the best around, and Xtreme improves it."

Grandia Xtreme is awesome, but not because of its plot. Nothing about it's worth analyzing; the storyline is so basic that it could be completely summarized in a single sentence, and the characters have no depth. Evann the reluctant soldier, Myam the hyperactive catgirl, Lutina the silent assassin and five other archetypes fight against the maniacal Colonel Kroitz — all armed with personalities fit for bad fanfiction. And, while every Grandia uses the dark-god-rising plot, this one does it with short cutscenes and poor voice acting.

Grandia Xtreme doesn't care about its story. Neither should you.

With two towns and one save point for the entire quest, Xtreme is the epitome of a dungeon-crawler; 90% of the game is spent in dungeons, 10% is spent preparing for the dungeons. There's only seven, one for each element plus three randomly generated, but they're the largest I've seen, focusing on pure exploration. Every one is a minimum two-hour hike, and while there are portals leading back to the only save point, these are few and far apart. With monsters leveling up as you do, new items appearing with new visits and bosses that respawn for a second round, it's obvious where you're supposed to pass the time.

Grandia faithfuls know that long dungeons aren't a problem with this series. Its Active Time Battle combat system is one of the best around, and Xtreme improves it.

ATB blends the hustle of real-time combat with the strategy of turn-based. Speed stats determine the order like it was turn-based, but characters run around the field in real-time, with a bar at the bottom of the screen controlling it all. Both allies and enemies have icons on the bar, which stop when they reach the Act point, where commands are decided. If the attack is normal, your character makes a break for the enemy and strikes; if it's a special technique, he'll start charging. After that, the icon reappears on the opposite end and the process resets. Timing is crucial and reflexes are essential; counter the enemy and ensure your own attacks get through.

It's a vigorous style, and Xtreme hones it by changing the bar into a circle; it works the same way, but it's truer to ATB's cyclic nature. Battles are tweaked, too — before, special attacks were bought by spending special points, now they're taught in the heat of combat. You'll be fighting, input a normal command and one, maybe two, maybe three, maybe even all four of your fighters come together for a devastating combined strike, one you can use freely from then on out. No warning. Random.

And they'll do it with finesse; for those who complained how the first Grandia's specials were too basic or how the second's were too long, Xtreme hits the right balance. When Myam unleashes a hail of freezing arrows, it's a glorious, shimmering display…and it only lasts five seconds. Evann and Lutina pair up for a fancy burst of fencing prowess that's rigorous, elaborate, but brief. They look and feel epic, but don’t break the battle’s flow.

Magic's revamped, as well; leveling up doesn't teach new spells and characters don't even have their own MP. Instead, magic's equipped through mana eggs with built-in MP plus a set of attacks, and the only way to get stronger spells is by combining them. Sand + Flare = Lava, Wind + Aqua = Mist and hundreds of other mixtures exist. Each warrior also has several slots for equipping various skills, including stat upgrades, immunities and defenses. Careful magic tinkering and skill selection can augment strengths and shield weaknesses.

It's a ton of fine-tuning, but that's what makes Xtreme a detail junkie's dream. The eight characters, fully interchangeable for most of the adventure, allow for any kind of party at any time. The dungeons encourage multiple visits to survive; the final one practically demands it with a hundred levels of grueling random generation. Don't go back, don't level up and the monsters will demolish you, no question. It's tough. But Xtreme's deep and rewarding combat soothes the pain, helped by quick load times and a frame rate smooth enough to shame its big brothers. Twenty characters on-screen and not even a sputter.

Xtreme’s strong points harmonize during the gameplay. You stroll along in the serenity of an underwater dungeon, running through darkened catacombs and skipping across the seabed. You’ve been here before, you know the way, but the enemies are stronger and the treasures are greater; this second trip provides needed experience and pivotal mana eggs. Every battle drains your health and your patience, but it's all eased when you take a portal back to home base, saving the game, stocking up, healing and coming back where you left off.

You’re rested and ready when you confront the boss’s grotesque insect form; ready for his crippling attacks and status changes, ready for his cruel transformation, ready for a battle that tests wits and impulses. Your high-level lightning magic deals heavy damage and the Lustration skill keeps him from putting you to sleep. His deadly Ocean Wave attack could crush the party, but you cancel it every time. The beast falls after a rousing twenty minutes, and because he wouldn’t have without the effort you put into crafting your team, his dying screech is all the more satisfying. That's a common experience in Grandia Xtreme.

Xtreme seems destined to be the Grandia legacy's footnote, if it's remembered at all. That's a shame, really; it’s a turn-off if you're looking for the usual RPG fare, but people who prefer the game aspect of role-playing games couldn't ask for a better purchase. It’s a chance to bask in the biggest part of what makes the Grandia series such a treasure, the combat-heavy cousin of a trilogy known for amazing combat. A rare and precious title.

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Staff review by Zack Little (August 01, 2006)

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