The PS2 is home to more Japanese-developed role playing games than any obsessive fan, let alone a rational gamer with a reasonable budget, could ever dream of playing. Most of them have a quirk that sets them apart from the rest. With Grandia III, it's unquestionably the battle system. But from its spunky teen lead and his winsome female friend, to the land of mysteries and monsters they inhabit, the tale is almost tragically rote.
You can blame this lack of imagination on a desire to serve up what works. You'll find a girl in peril, a world on the brink of destruction and a dangerous rival with a personal and selfish vendetta. It stars a young boy who's too naive to keep himself from roaming across the world with a sword in hand and generally doing good every chance he gets. Sound familiar?
What saves it is how the story is told with panache. Yuki is a pilot, obsessed with building planes and soaring through the skies. Alfina is a communicator, a girl who speaks to ancient gods that take the form of giant mythical beasts (summons, you might say...), the apparent center of the world's ill-defined religion. This story setup calls for cinemas that bowl you over, but none of these elements do anything to prevent a game that hits the same notes as most other RPGs.
The detailed visuals put it among the most polished RPGs on the PS2, though, and help barrel right through the weaker moments. Most RPGs go for the overly ornate. Grandia III 's naturalistic world, covered in sun-dappled forests and glistening lakes, sets it apart from its competition in an unexpectedly pleasant way.
The series' most famous feature, though, is its battle system - it's so compelling that hardcore fans suffered through the otherwise punishing banality of Grandia Xtreme a few years ago just for another crack at it. Thankfully, it's back - and improved. Essentially, there are two key elements to balance: the positioning of your characters (they must run from one end of the battlefield to another to attack) and the timing of your moves versus the enemies'.
Pulling off an attack at the right moment will enable you to interrupt an enemy's and keep it from attacking you. Timing everything perfectly enables you to wreck your adversaries even more mercilessly with air combos. As any gamer knows, pummeling helpless enemies as they flail through the sky is utterly addictive.
There's also your usual complement of special attacks and magical spells, and with four characters in battle, there are plenty of options for destroying your foes. You're responsible for extracting and upgrading your magic and skills from special items, which is not original. Nor does it offer much freedom. It is, however, satisfying enough that you'll spend happy moments tinkering away in towns trying to find the best combination of abilities and spells to trick out your party and deliver maximum bodily harm.
Irritatingly, the characters often have trouble making their way through the crowds on the battlefield, something you have absolutely no direct control over. This has always been a problem for the series, and it's a shame to see that it hasn't been addressed here. Also irritating is the fact that the game's most interesting character, Miranda - the main character's young single mother, a distinct individual in a land of clichéd beings - is written right out of the plot less than halfway through the game's first disc. This leaves us with the usual pack of over-enthusiastic, bubble-headed teenagers.
The resulting game is a worthy adventure, all the same. The characters are likable and the story is just interesting enough to push the action forward. The visuals are always worth looking at, and the battles are almost invariably entertaining. This is clearly a game developed by veterans who know exactly what works - they just didn't deviate from that formula an iota. Some elements, like the graphics and battles, are clearly top-notch, and either way, there's little that grates. Grandia III is a consistently entertaining RPG, if not a cutting-edge one.