Spike Chunsoft’s Grand Kingdom brings a refreshing breath of air to the JRPG genre. Released in Japan late in 2015, Grand Kingdom is a tactical RPG releasing on PlayStation 4 and Vita is finally coming to North America. However, does the game offer enough to set it apart from others in the same genre?
Grand Kingdom makes you the leader of a team of mercenaries new to a guild in the land of Ragnail. The kingdom is torn between four factions and players are able to operate to the benefit of whichever they choose. From the outset you’ll be able to select a character from one of various classes and build an initial party. Character customization isn’t extremely detailed but there is enough variety for you to get creative.
Once your party is up and running you’ll be on your way to adventuring. Grand Kingdom takes the classic exploration and adventure you might find in other JRPGs and replaces it with a huge map laid out kind of like a board game. As you navigate your piece around the board, enemy pieces also move. While all this happens near the top of the screen, you’ll see your party cutely walking along on the bottom screen. Some enemies can be easily avoided, while others are either placed in an unavoidable way or given some buff that allows them two moves for every one of your own.
The game features a charming 2D art style that may not be as sharp as what we’ve seen in some similar games, but is still unique nonetheless. Something about the presentation reminded me of the Fire Emblem games.
After playing for just a short while you’ll see the Grand Kingdom is a very deep game with lots of things to do. The combat is the main attraction here, offering a standard turn-based system mixed with real time portions which allow the player to freely input certain commands to form combos. The 2D battles happen in areas broken up into three planes that your characters can navigate freely between.
Combatant positioning is crucial in the game because friendly fire is locked on. Certain attacks target areas and ranges rather than individual combatants (such as an explosion) and if it touches your party members they’ll take the same damage as the enemies. You and your enemies can also be pushed or pulled around battlefield by certain techniques and there are abilities to block fighters from passing around other fighters, limiting mobility. If you launch an enemy and it touches an ally or another enemy even slightly they’ll take damage.
Along with the fresh take on combat, there are traps and obstacles that are generated by certain techniques or bought from an in-game shop. Once you get the hang of the gameplay loop it’s fluid, fast and rather satisfying. The wide variety of dynamics to consider in combat promotes a diverse party; further, the game has a large selection of classes that grows as you play. Some characters excel in melee while others need to be covered by heavier characters so that they can cast or attack from a distance.
All activities during missions in Grand Kingdom are limited to a certain number of actions. Exceeding this limit typically results in failing the quest. Taken at face value this just mandates finishing the quest quickly and spending turns strategically, but the game gets in your way at times. Each step consumes an action and if you land on a trap space you have various options for dealing with it. One of them is to spend additional actions waiting for whatever threat to subside, while another uses TP earned from battles to instantly neutralize the issue.
Another route to dealing with traps is to force your way through and damage the entire party. One pet peeve I had through the game: I don’t like that stepping on trap spaces doesn’t remove them from the board. Moving the piece around was extremely confusing for me initially and activating the exact same trap twice while I’m just trying to get my bearings isn’t really all that fun, especially since they always cost a resource of some sort.
Actions are also consumed in battle; one for each full turn (once every unit has moved) that passes during a battle. The action limit also discouraged me from exploring for extra goodies on missions I had failed previously, but this isn’t too much of a problem thanks to a free roaming mode where you can explore and gather materials. After gathering those materials, they can be used to enhance and craft weapons and armor for the characters. Those weapons can be further modified with certain items you find, adding an additional layer of customization.
Speaking of customization, you can progress your characters in different ways by distributing skill points at each level up, but I can’t figure out if the skills you obtain from time to time are in any way related to how you build your character. Between story missions, there is a great deal to do in Grand Kingdom, almost so much so that it seems overwhelming at times. You can run missions to increase your affinity with any one of the four factions, but failing the missions lowers the same relationship.
Motivation to cultivate these relationships comes in the form of currying favor at the respective towns and facilities, among other things. There are also policies, which are like mini-quests that can net you bonuses to experience and money earned.
One complaint I have about the game technically is that it — at least the PS Vita version — has a tremendous amount of loading. You can kind of understand given its many moving parts, but it does become quite a drag after some time. On another sour note, you can only create one save which is really strange and fairly uncommon in JRPGs.
The story mode features voiced scenes, in English or Japanese, and art in classic visual novel format. I wasn’t blown away by the artwork and the missions themselves are very similar to those you’ll find in other modes, making them seem less unique. It also adds to an overall feeling that the story just blends into the mountain of other content in the game and isn’t the highlight of the experience.
The game also has a significant online component where you can fight wars under the banner of one of the factions in an effort to gain them more control over the territory and overall map. The battles themselves occur against challenging randomized CPU combatants. You can participate by directly fighting in battles or by dispatching groups of fighters you’ve paid to add to the guild roster. The progress in these battles, your overall standing among the factions, and daily play rewards are refreshed between quests and other activities.
Grand Kingdom is a JRPG for those bigger on game-play than flashy production values and gripping narratives. For its effort to do something interesting with the combat system alone it’s worth getting, especially when (to this very day) the genre largely leans on a basic, decades-old turn-based combat system. Fighting and navigating the game board can require strategy at times and so too can sinking your teeth into the tremendous amount of content in this game. While Grand Kingdom makes some strange game design choices at times, it remains mostly a breath of fresh air in a particularly formulaic genre.