Now that the world's done drooling over Odin Sphere, it's time to find the next stunningly beautiful game that came out of nowhere. That search is already over. GrimGrimoire is every bit as breathtaking as its action-oriented cousin, but instead relies on tactical thinking and classic WarCraft-style play mechanics. As with any real-time strategy game, the goal is to usurp resources, use said resources to create bigger and badder units and eventually crush your opponent. In that regard, Grim sticks to established ideas set in place years ago. Everything else is pure magic.
Whereas most RTS games try to make the experience as real as possible, with intricately detailed units and real-world sound effects, Grim purposely infuses the entire experience with majesty and awe. Everything that moves, from the tiniest mana-grabbing elves to the stupidly cool dragons, is a work of art in motion. Any time you manage to save up enough mana to produce an egg, fend off an onslaught of spell-slinging homunculi and transparent ghosts and hatch the egg at the last second to reveal your towering dragon, it's a moment worth cherishing. Graphics don't mean everything, but, as with Odin Sphere, they can make a great game soar into total excellence.
Even the largest stigma of console RTS games - poor controls - is alleviated to some extent. A sensible button layout allows quick movement and the ability to command multiple units at once. Our only complaint is that you can't give mass orders to, say, everything on the screen. You have to order by race, so for example, say you want to send a swarm of fairies, two golems and a ravaging chimera to intercept an incoming menace. You have to order the fairies, then the golems, then the chimera, with no way to say "everyone attack!" It's a small issue, but worth addressing.
As beautiful as this world and its inhabitants are, we couldn't help but tire of the battle area. You spend so much time duking it out inside the cavernous hallways that you'll wonder what the rest of the Grim universe looks like. Other areas are mentioned in the story, but our experience is largely limited to the same dingy stairways, while the missions are almost always "destroy all other enemies."
Speaking of the story, would you believe it's actually pretty good? We're big fans of publisher NIS America, but even we can see that most of the RPGs it brings over are filled with silly tales that go in one ear and out the other. That's just not the case here at all - Grim looks like an expertly drawn fantasy novel come to life, so it's fitting that it reads well too.
You play as aspiring magician Lillet Blan. She's just arrived at a school for witches and wizards and is constantly overwhelmed by the creepy students, eccentric teachers and mysterious creatures. The headmaster, Sir Gammel Dore (ummm), welcomes Lillet and begins teaching her the ways of Grimoire magic. After five days of teaching (and one of the longest tutorials in memory), everything goes to hell as an ancient enemy is revived and everyone is killed. Lillet gives her best Clerks line about how she's not even supposed to be there, and wakes up back at the beginning of her five day stay. Armed with the knowledge of what comes next, she has to figure out who set the Archmage free, who's trustworthy and why she's the only one being flung around time. It's not going to melt your brain, but it's compelling at the very least.
Each time the cycle resets you learn more and more about the Grim world. You also retain all the magical skills you learn, so battles radically change each time as well. Even though you're visiting the same time period, you'll talk to different people at different times and see new creatures, unlock more powerful summons and see the true side of each devious teacher.
The game isn't just pretty on its face, but in execution as well. Each Grimoire of magic, Glamour (nature), Alchemy (science), Sorcery (demons) and Necromancy (undead) looks, animates and behaves differently. Great care was put into their appearances and functionality, so each seems like a real, existing branch of magic inside this world. Granted, not all the units are terribly useful and you're bound to prefer one over the other three, but each allows for a great deal of army customization.
Pity it's not more accessible - loads of gamers will pass right by, either confused by its RTS rules or put off by the whimsical setting, which is completely their loss. Even the pacing is tight. You're slowly awarded more and more power, but the real showcase, the dragon, is given to you early to build a sense of awe right away. It's fun from the very beginning and remains so 20 hours later, enough to put it in the same league as the all-time greats of the PS2 era.