Three kingdoms awash in turmoil. One mysterious mercenary bent on carving out a fourth kingdom. Beautiful maidens in need of rescue. Enter Wein Cruz, hero-in-the-making. Shake, stir and relax to the classic elements of a strategy RPG.
Growlanser II is the second installment in a series of closely related RPGs that concern the history of three kingdoms. The first Growlanser has not seen a US release and though Growlanser II is based off the events of the first title, the game is certainly playable and enjoyable without any prior Growlanser experience.
The story concerns Wein Cruz, a trainee knight who will shape the future of three kingdoms. As per RPG dogma, he gathers about him the requisite diverse party of conflicting characters. The story spans years within the game universe as Wein tackles new challenges while growing from trainee knight to hero of the realm. Ultimately the story is fairly simplistic and somewhat predictable save for a player’s choice that can drastically alter the final third of the game.
Growlanser II is a strategy RPG, firmly rooted in the tactical tradition. However Growlanser II is free of the common grid or hex-based map system. During battle, players may move in any direction without the arbitrary limitations inherit within a grid system thus giving players a feeling of more freedom than in a traditional SRPG. Spell and weapon ranges are variable according to the character’s characteristics. Characters level up in the traditional manner, gaining experience for both active usage of magic/attacks and an end-of-battle bonus. This experience is distributed between magic, techniques, and skills. While this system does work well, faster characters will end up with much greater levels than slower characters because of their greater attack speed; this results in two classes of characters: useful ones who attack everything all the time and non-useful ones who manage to get in an attack occasionally. The player can ultimately control up to eight individual characters in the end-game, but not all of these characters are worthwhile.
At first, battles seem frantic with action occurring all over the board. This franticness is compounded by the board’s size as it does not completely fit on the screen. The camera zooms to where the action is happening so the player does not miss anything, but this can result in frustration if the player is concerned about a different part of the map and the game continually zooms away from it. Characters’ speeds are determined by a wait bar which must run down before they enact the attack/magic/etc. While this system is a good change of pace from the normal turn-based SRPGs, it can become stilted as character action menus constantly POP-up during the action.
Working Designs includes an auto battle system which alleviates some frustration, especially in random battles. Random battles occur as the party moves from point to point on the map, but are generally worthless. Monsters in these battles are incredibly easy, even at later levels, and the experience gained is laughable (end-game exp for a mission battle = 1000; random battle exp = 10). Due to the nature of the battle system, random battles usually last five to seven minutes, even on auto. Since saves can be accomplished anytime and anywhere, it is often more worthwhile to just reload the game than suffer through a random battle.
Exploration is non-existent as the party simply moves from point to point on a map. Though this streamlines the gameplay, it loses much of the immersion aspect. Localization is good though some gamers may object to the Americanization of some dialogue. Overall, the translation fits the mood of the game, but the humorous scenes are usually much better than the somber scenes that can border on cheesy heavy-handedness. A few instances of spoken dialogue and text not matching are somewhat jarring.
One notable feature of Growlanser II is its weapon system. "Ring-weapons" are found in every battle and will boost some of the base characteristics of the user. Any ring-weapon may be used by any character. They also feature three slots of varying level; each slot will hold a gem. Gems are all-variable character enhancements, some raise attack power, some render extra attacks, some give added protection, etc. The number of gem combinations is in the thousands and finding the right combination of gems will often mean the difference between success and failure.
For all its frustrations listed above, challenge-wise, Growlanser II is relatively easy and none-too-deep. The game does have an added challenge by offering two versions of success: mission complete versus mission clear. Getting a mission complete is often a challenge, especially since the game does not make the requirements known.
Originally published in Japan in 1999, the visuals are adequate for the story, but not awe-inspiring. Players will immediately notice the lovingly drawn anime-style character portraits that POP-up during conversation, but these characters are slightly bishonen and may not appeal to all gamers. Battle visuals are sprite based, but well-rendered.
Growlanser II features a good soundtrack that reflects the upbeat game themes. Though not likely to be anyone’s music of choice, the music does not detract from gameplay experience. The voice acting is hit-and-miss with some voices truly fitting their roles and some voices being cheesy enough to cut with a knife.
Though short, Growlanser II features nine different endings and a few extra hidden endings. However many of the endings are superficially similar and do not require much to achieve. Disappointingly, this set of endings employs a deus ex machina. One set of endings is distinctly different and drastically alters the last third of the game, making the game worthwhile for at least two play-throughs. While this different game-path is certainly interesting, it makes little sense in terms of natural character development. Unlockable extras also enhance replayability.
Packaging is not normally a consideration in a review, but Working Designs released two different versions of this game. The normal release is a single PS2 case that houses both Growlanser II and III. The deluxe release includes that PS2 case, but also includes a collector’s watch, the music soundtrack, a power ring with necklace, and playing cards. Extras in the deluxe will appeal to collectors, but since the games are identical in content, non-collectors may be wiser to find the cheaper normal release.
Growlanser Generations (title of the whole package) should not be missed by SRPG fans. The two games together offer a solid gaming experience and hours of enjoyment. Growlanser II is short enough to entice gamers with short attention spans but lacks the depth normally associated with great RPGs.