While 3DS has Fire Emblem as a major heroic-fantasy tactical RPG, PSVita is still looking for a title to succeed to the great Final Fantasy Tactics The Lion War of the PSP. NIS America thus offers to fill the void by localising Spike Chunsoft’s Grand Kingdom in the West.
Grand Kindgom has a somewhat classic game structure, divided between story, online and free raoming, the latter being used to collect resources without time limit. The play interface, common to all those modes, will be shown as following : your party is represented by a pawn which advances on lines laid down on the map, a bit like a board game. Each move costs one turn, so you have to plan your itinerary ahead to clear the map before the turn limit. Moreover, every combat turn also costs a turn on the map and natural obstacles will often bloc your path. Those ones can be avoided by using items or field skills, but most of the time they will cost you 3 turns or 30% of your HP (not the right thing to choose, believe me).
Spike Chunsoft’s title has no more than five types of missions, which will come back periodically : going from A to B, beat a set of designated opponents, collect a certain number of resources, defend one or several points of the map or “infiltration” tasks in which you mustn’t touch an enemy piece. The first three are pretty self-explanatory, but defense and infiltration is a whole different matter. Timing is extra tight and even one misused turn generally leads to the enemy reaching the objective, which means game over. Those missions ask you to use, very wisely, some items that freeze the movements of enemy pieces for 3 turns : every single of them must be used with the right timing. Those two complicated missions rules won’t be much present in the main story, which makes you even more think you’re doing the same stuff over and over.
With such a limited game system, Grand Kingdom needed a solid battle system. Mission accomplished, because it’s rich, well-designed and gorgeously rendered in 2D on OLED. The sprites are very detailed and the characters’ animations are remarkable. Allies and enemies fight each others on 3 distinct lines, where you can place gimmicks (objects you can place to support your team or prevent the enemy from advancing). Up to you to make the best use of the classes’ capabilities in order to hit the enemy fast and strong. Your four characters and the opponents (who often outnumber you) are acting on a turn-based flow of time. The turn order is absolutely crucial since most of the magic spells need time to charge and you don’t want to be interrupted while doing so. The point of Grand Kingdom’s fighting will then be to analyze and anticipate the enemy’s movements so that you can hit and KO as many opponents as you can in one turn. Your positioning is vastly important too, because you have little leeway in the use of your magic and skills : most of them are limited to 3 or 5 uses in one whole chapter. Be extra careful though, because friendly fire is activated! Make sure you don’t hit your buddies when calculating your trajectory, even though it’s bound to happen given the short distances. In short, maneuvering in Grand Kingdom requires wits, dexterousness and adaptability.
The other great quality of Grand Kingdom is its numerous and varied classes. You’ll periodically have to go to the recruitment menu in order to strengthen your team until you find a fitting balance. Every hired character (for whom who have to shed a certain amount of gold) has customizable look (hair, face, colors, voice) and base stats can be chosen too. Every specialization has its strengths and weaknesses, none is less efficient than others, so it’s quite easy to pick four that fit your tastes. The Rogue (thief class basically) can hide himself and set traps, the Medic is quite recommended for her healing skills, the Witch can master extra-powerful black magic, the Arcanist can use both support and offense magic, the Hunter (archer cass) can shoot arrows in a curved trajectory, etc.
Loaded with HP and gifted with insane strength, the Dragon Mage stands out. The beast has also appreciable range thanks to its fire breath, devastating enough to wipe out the units in front of him. This unit is so overpowered that the story mode refrains from putting it against you! But where’s the catch, then? To make up for its immense advantages, this class takes to spots instead of one : a party in which a Dragon Mage is present will be limited to 3 characters! Other drawback, the allies cannot go past it on the same line, which can hinder your positioning strategy. The job is still ultra-fun to use, and is even more effective when supported by the Medic who can further increase its attack power with Attack Mist.
Spike Chunsoft enhanced the content with 4 additional DLC classes : Valkyrie, Archer, Dark Knight and Paladin. Lucky you, because you won’t have to pay extra cash for those since they’re included in the base game in the West (you’ll thank me later for having smashed my piggy bank to fund your game). While Archer is basically the female version of the Hunter (their skills are different but the effects remain the same), the Valkyrie is damn fine close combat unit. Like every short range job, she learns some attacks that can be later organize as a combo, in the order you see fit. And it happens that some sets of attacks, in the right order, allows the Valkyrie to KO virtually every type of unit of same level in one turn. Definitely a very, very precious ally.
While you can only thank the developers for offering such a rich array of classes, Grand Kingdom does fail in the management of those. True, you can create several teams, but those ones won’t level up all at once. I suppose you could use one or two alternately, but at high risk to be quickly underleveled. Fights don’t give many experience points, so it’s pretty tiring to “catch up”.
More tiresome still, the menus of this game are a pain. Nothing is explained correctly, even in the digital manual, being a lot too short for such a complex tactical. The preparation menus are far from being intuitive and team management is cloudy at best. There are something called “orientation points” that I was earning regularly without having the first idea of what they are for! Unbalanced and unexplained, the growth in stats when leveling up can even be misleading… Seriously, the game system didn’t get even remotely close to be user-friendly.
Grand Kingdom is a rather hard game. Chapters feel long and testing, healing is scarce. For much that you have various ways to heal your characters, every single one of those is quite limited. For example, the game won’t allow you more than 4 healing potions per mission. The Medic does help, but here again she can heal only a couple of times in one entire chapter. The medical bag, a gimmick to be set near your characters can also be a lifesaver at times. Other than that, your party will recover a bit after each fight (up to 20% of HP) depending on your number of combo hits.
At a certain spot of the map you’ll encounter one of the 4 cleric sisters : Milly, grinning at the thought of the money she’ll take from you, Holly, always ready to help, Elly, sleepy and unfocused, and Melly, who will ask you alms of any amount. Despite all that, it is strongly advised to start a mission when above the recommended level. The fights can quickly turn for the worse, especially since you’ll be outnumbered quite often. It will be the case in boss fights, in which your skills will seriously be tested : there is no room for mistake. Last trump card, field skills give you bonuses like damaging enemy pieces before entering the fight, or increasing the experience gained.
Grand Kingdom’s campaign felt underwhelming. The story starts as Vlad, a common mercenary, seeks a new employer after the last one left him behind. The player is Vlad’s strategist, similarly to the first Fire Emblem on GBA. You are advised to head for the local guild, which immediately affect a lovely aide, Lilyas, to your group. From there you’ll be experiencing an extremely classic narrative in which the guild will be facing the heirs of and old and evil Empire craving to re-seize power over the continent, by any means. Nothing unforgettable in the 12 chapters, except maybe the very last one, a lot more intense, better directed and full of decisive fights.
After the 20 hours or so of the main story, NISA’s title is far from over since 4 additional campaigns were given as free DLC in Japan. This represents a lot more hours to be put in the game. In fact, the postgame is thus… 4 times longer than the main story! You’ll come to be more familiar with the Royals of the countries featured in the multiplayer, because each scenario describe one country at war. Beware though, difficulty rises fast.
Online now. Frugaly called “War”, it is probably the most disappointing part of Grand Kingdom. The gameplay feels like your average free-to-play mobile game, with endless fights and nothing entertaining around them. The multiplayer is a world in perpetual war, each player siding with one kingdom. You have to enter a territory and take as many forts as you can while fighting what appears to be ghosts of other players (the enemy units’ behavior clearly let us think of an AI). The only good thing of this part is that you can play a party of 6 characters instead of 4.
The principle is that you make an alliance with one of the 4 countries of Grand Kingdom’s continent, and then defend it or attack other territories. The alliance lasts for a set numbers of battles, after which you’re free to change your master.
You can then pay a visit to the Queen or the King (Queens being still far more popular than the Kings) and use the capital’s facilities. The smith’s is here to create or upgrade weapons, and various shops sell a large array of materials.
Although it has nothing to do with the Western version which will have everything on disc (including former DLCs), let me stress that Grand Kingdom was the most horrible kit game I’ve ever seen. I first bought the standalone campaign, only to realize trophies were still locked. So I re-bought the whole, which triggered a double purchase because it didn’t take the previous one into account. Worse still, Spike never made the Noble class available for purchase on the PSN (it was a pre-order bonus), despite the unit being in the recruitment center, and playable in War. This is just-irritating-bullshit.
Not entirely convinced by Grand Kingdom which, true, has great combat, a wonderful 2D and an amazing art direction that found the perfect balance between retro and modern, but a certain number of silly drawbacks give it a bitter taste. Not a huge hit, but a nice little tactical-RPG to quench your thirst for more strategy.