The Granstream Saga
Based on: Unrealized ambition, shattered dreams and the death-knell of a once-lauded development house.
Article by Kirin | September 5, 2007
Ah, 1998. The PlayStation was still in the freshness of its console youth. 3D graphics, though somewhat clunky, still had the sheen of novelty. Anime was still making its first inroads past the back corner of the local video store as it marched on its way to becoming a mainstream influence in American culture.
Little surprise, then, that high expectations were afoot for The Granstream Saga, which was one of the first-ever fully-3D action RPGs. It boasted "exquisite animation sequences" to propel the story forward -- and hey, it "debuted at #1 in Japan." Tens of thousands of Japanese gamers can't be wrong, right?
What the box doesn't mention is that sales then dropped off sharply. The game's first-week performance in Japan was undoubtedly bolstered by a fact that escaped most American gamers at the time: development house Shade was essentially a repackaging of Quintet. In addition to the early SNES hit ActRaiser?, Quintet was responsible for the "Heaven and Earth" series of RPGs: Soul Blazer?, Illusion of Gaia?, and Terranigma?. The Granstream Saga promised to follow in the tradition of tightly-designed top-down action role-playing games with strong stories and a thoughtful moral dimension. How much worse the disappointment, then, when it turned out to be a mixture of the mediocre and the truly frustrating.
No face textures for overhead shots: not so bad.
No face textures for dramatic close-ups: seriously creepy.
So let's get the obvious out of the way first: the visuals. One can only expect so much of any developer's first efforts with 3D, and honestly the environments here are perfectly serviceable, if not particularly inspired. Even the character models are halfway decent. Which makes it all the more strange that they have no faces. It's a strange design decision -- an anime-style story-driven RPG depends heavily on conveying the emotions of the characters, and you just can't effectively emote without a face. The 16-bit sprites of Quintet's SNES games did much better on this front.
Then there are the other graphics, the anime cut-scenes. The animation itself is good enough to remind you how clunky the 3D visuals are -- it gets the job done well enough, though you shouldn't expect to see anything astonishingly beautiful. It does manage to include nearly every genre cliché in the book, from the plucky hero to the fiery-tempered girl whose fury is first ignited by an accidental shower scene. But then, so does the plot it's illustrating. The accompanying voice acting begins mediocre and grows progressively less believable as emotions heighten towards the end of the game.
Of course, the actors aren't given much to work with, as the translation is yet another poorly-done aspect of a mediocre game. Besides the overwrought dialogue, the English script also suffers from several inconsistencies, the worst being an NPC named either Ziruas or Jilluous (depending on who you ask).
Close-in, overhead perspective for one-on-one battle: reasonable choice.
Close-in overhead perspective for town exploration: reasonably frustrating.
But enough quibbling about presentation. How's the gameplay? In a word, basic. As in, this is basically a traditional action-RPG with a couple of potentially innovative additions that basically fall flat.
The first of these innovations is a magical item the hero gains early in his quest which offers the ability to restore or replicate items it touches, known as the "scepter." (Despite the name, it's actually a sort of glowing bracelet -- just one of several odd word-choices in the translation. I certainly wouldn't have called a giant laser cannon a "torpedo" either, but what do I know?) This occasionally results in vaguely interesting "puzzles"; for instance, taking a sleeping guard's keys might wake him, but copying them won't. Usually, though, it's just gimmicky window-dressing. Instead of finding fantastic armor lying around, you find a lump of rusty metal which the scepter instantly restores into fantastic armor. How...different. The problem is that you're only allowed to use the scepter when the game decides to let you; no explanation is ever offered for the hero's inability to replicate himself a fortune in gold bars.
Also potentially-interesting-but-not-quite is the battle system. Rather than turn-based party combat, The Granstream Saga goes with one-on-one 3D battles. The system of circling your enemy while blocking and attacking would gain wider acclaim later that year with Ocarina of Time, as well as in a raft of 3D fighters, and might have been a lot of fun here as well if the controls hadn't so sluggish. In practice, most fights are a drawn-out exercise in exchanging slow blocks and attacks. Magic spells are available, but since your magic points only recharge via expensive potions or rare rewards rather than at inns, you'll seldom use them. There are special attacks, too, but you hardly learn any until late in the game. Enemy balance is also a problem -- the few enemies with speedy unblockable moves far outclass anything else in their area in terms of challenge, making each level a dull slog punctated by occasional bouts of frustration.
Q: Is that a Spirit Beast in your pocket, or are you just happy to walk in on my requisite shower scene?
It seems, though, that the developers instinctively sensed how tedious The Granstream Saga could become and left players a built-in cheat to ease things up. The game's ultimate weapon can be found by using a particular item at a particular location...which can be done about five minutes into the game. Using it certainly helps move things along, if you're so inclined.
Should you somehow persevere all the way to the game's finale, you're faced with a supposedly gut-wrenching decision that ties into the death and resurrection themes of Quintet's Heaven and Earth trilogy. Unfortunately, the increasingly horrible voice acting has degenerated such by this point that you can't possibly take this story twist seriously. It hardly matters, though, as only exceptionally stubborn gamers -- or perhaps those that have talked themselves into writing a review -- will have made it that far.
And sadly, that was about it for Quintet/Shade. A few years later, Shade released Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, an early PS2 effort in the form of an anime-licensed RPG that was widely seen as a bit of a train wreck. Beyond that was only Bouken-Ou Beat: Darkness Century, another licensed game so obscure that all information about it seems to have vanished into the ether.
Ah well. Here's to their SNES games, anyway.
So do we, Arcia. So do we...