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GrimGrimoire (PlayStation 2) artwork

GrimGrimoire (PlayStation 2) review

"Plot plays a large role in GrimGrimoire. You’re either viewing the story or you’re fighting a battle. There’s no character customization in between, since you learn skills as you go, at set points in the narrative. That’s all there is to it. Every time you win a battle, you’re rewarded with a few more pages’ worth of information."

Near the center of the world, a tower rests atop a rocky cliff, a sanctuary for the magically inclined. Children hunted elsewhere as witches can live in peace while mastering the talents that have resulted in so many deaths by fire. They can learn the art of runecrafting, summon familiars and train with teachers, free from pressing concern for life and limb. So it has been for years, but that all changes with the arrival of Lillet Blan.

To look at her, you might not expect much from GrimGrimoire’s youthful heroine. Blonde locks frame a fragile, porcelain-like face that seems lost beneath a conical witch’s hat. The heavy tome she clutches looks almost as if it could swallow her alive. What Lillet lacks in physical presence, though, she makes up for with heart and determination. That’s a good thing for the tower’s residents, whose lives rest within her capable hands.

When Lillet arrives, life in Silver Star Tower is proceeding as normal. Students meet with the instructor of their choosing and they learn about runes and grimoires. The latter, which refers to a wizard’s book of spells, is closely linked to the former. Once a witch possesses the appropriate tome, she can create powerful runes that control all manner of beasts, from fairies to golems to spirits and devils. For Lillet and the player, grimoires are paramount.

Lillet knows little about such things when she meets with the school’s headmaster, a bearded old wizard named Gammel Dore (no relation). Private lessons with the various instructors roaming the tower’s musty corridors soon change that. One day, Lillet might learn about the creatures of hell from the suave devil instructor, Advocat. The next, she may discover the art of alchemy with assistance from a teacher who has a lion’s head fixed on his broad shoulders. Each instructor has a distinct personality and a tragic secret or two, all brought to wondrous life by vivid (and slightly animated) character illustrations and near-perfect voice acting. That’s important, since narrative surrounds each battle.

Plot plays a large role in GrimGrimoire. You’re either viewing the story or you’re fighting a battle. There’s no character customization in between, since you learn skills as you go, at set points in the narrative. That’s all there is to it. Every time you win a battle, you’re rewarded with a few more pages’ worth of information. Then you repeat the process. It’s straight-forward, just the way so many people like it.

The same can’t really be said about the battles, which have enough complexity that you’ll still be learning new skills during the final acts. They don’t really feel like anything you’ve experienced in previous RPGs, either. In fact, despite its fantasy trappings and production values that wouldn’t feel out of place in the most lush of Square-Enix outings, GrimGrimoire isn’t really a role-playing game at all. Instead, it’s a real-time strategy title. Visual presentation aside, it shares more in common with Pikmin or StarCraft than it does Final Fantasy.

Rounds begin with several monsters assembled near some runes, ready for your instructions. As Lillet, you can view a limited portion of the map that later expands as your troops increase their area of occupation. You’ll see it all in a two-dimensional side perspective. Maps are typically extremely detailed, but never portray anything more than the crumbling passageways that form Silver Star Tower. Most of Vanillaware’s renowned artistry is saved for monster designs.

Those first few monsters you have available will soon be joined by others you might choose to summon. Battles all work about the same way. You start by directing your basic troops--think of them as pawns, if you like--to collect life energy from special crystals spread throughout the area. They’ll hop to the task quite gladly, but they’re sitting ducks if your adversary happens to send out something to kill them. Therefore, as you accrue magical energy, you can use it to create new runes and to summon more powerful monsters to defend your helpless workers. You can also construct defensive barriers and hopefully set up a situation where you can take the time to summon truly powerful beasts like dragons.

Ultimately, the goal in nearly every stage is to destroy all of your opponent’s runes. Sometimes, the developers add an extra condition. You might have to defend an ally, or you might have to simply survive the enemy’s onslaught for 20 or 30 minutes. Such distinctions don’t really alter how you need to play, which is GrimGrimoire’s most significant flaw. Long before the story has exhausted itself, you may tire of the battles.

At least the game becomes challenging. Before each conflict you can choose from several difficulty levels. The difference between these stages tends to reflect how irritating the gameplay is. On ‘Normal,’ you’ll have a consistent challenge that will continue to rise until genre newcomers drop down to ‘Easy’ or ‘Sweet’ about halfway through the game. On those settings, many of GrimGrimoire’s most annoying aspects--particularly the delay as you wait for new beasts to arrive, or as you wait until you’ve gathered enough mana to summon them in the first place--are reduced to a manageable level. Unless you crave a challenge, in fact, you may enjoy the game more if you play it that way from the start.

There’s another flaw that you can’t toggle off, however. It crops up right in the middle of battle, as monsters are attacking you from all sides and all you want to do is organize your troops in a hurry. Suddenly, you’ll try to select a group of fairy archers to meet a wandering group of phantom monsters. You press the ‘square’ button to select one and slide your cursor along the map until you find her intended destination. Then you press ‘X’ to put the relocation in motion, only nothing happens. Or worse, you accidentally clicked on a carefully-positioned sentry and now he’s wandering where you don’t want him. Troop management is a near-constant frustration for the first two thirds or so of the game. There are certain nuances you might appreciate, such as the option to highlight one character and then gather up to seven of his or her type into one group, but even that sometimes fails you. Until you get the hang of the rather odd interface--and you will by the time the game ends--things can get downright sticky.

Despite such hiccups, GrimGrimoire remains one of the more interesting titles available for the PlayStation 2. Its visual presentation is gorgeous and battles are truly a sight to behold, particularly when you have giant dragons lumbering across the screen with a devil or fairy vanguard. Flames burn hot, spectral projectiles fly and your controller rumbles as titans clash. Such moments are memorable and framed by a well-presented story that will keep most people playing even if they’ve grown tired of strategizing. Not everyone will be able to get past the flaws, but those who do will find a game that perfectly fills a space they never realized was empty.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (June 22, 2007)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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