Grand Knights History is the latest game from VanillaWare, beloved creators of such games as Odin Sphere and Muramasa, and until a few months ago, I thought it had a snowball’s chance in hell of coming out in the States. While it is indeed slated to come out sometime this year (it was originally supposed to be released this March, but there appears to be some delay happening with the translation process), there are two reasons why I was so completely convinced of that fact. First, VanillaWare is currently working on Dragon’s Crown for the PSVita, which seems poised to be a greater success in the States than the PSP ever was, so I assumed that a game for a system that will soon be replaced would be skipped over. The second, and more important reason, is how the game itself is set up; Grand Knights History is a traditional Japanese RPG made for the Monster Hunter generation. It’s a game that’s meant to be played online, with a huge network of other players, and I’m afraid it might suffer for it.
The game itself is solid. The character and background artwork is, in true VanillaWare fashion, incredibly beautiful. The game knows it’s gorgeous too, as by hitting the Select button at any time, you can take a screenshot of your game and save it to your memory card. The intro cinema is laid out like a storybook, with a giant tome opening and the illustrations inside starting to move and come to life. The artwork in the game itself continues that visual image, with the character portraits having a look as if they were sketched into life; the pencil etchings that they are made of shift and move as they talk. This particular art style only appears in story sequences however; during fights and battles, the characters are brightly colored 2D character models, appearing before beautiful backgrounds that look like paintings, sans the sketch filter.
Battle itself is pretty straight-forward: it is a turn-based traditional RPG. You have four characters at your disposal, which can be one of three different warrior types: knight, archer, or mage. As you start each battle, you have a set amount of AP points, which must be shared throughout your whole party. Each move your character makes, from a normal attack to a magic spell, requires a certain amount of AP. The more powerful and useful the skill/attack is, the more AP it requires. This can lead to some rather interesting excursions in math land. Deciding on which moves each character should make takes more time sometimes than you would think, so it is fortunate that, in true Japanese RPG fashion, the enemies patiently wait for you to plan out your attacks. Once you have decided on a plan of action, and all four characters have an attack or move set, then the battle begins. Your characters attack, the enemies attack back, and then you begin all over again with a fresh batch of AP, and hopefully less enemies standing in front of you than when you started. As each enemy you kill gives you additional AP to use for your own party, it behooves you to take out weak enemies quickly, so you can use the really punishing, AP sucking, monster attacks on the stronger enemies. Once all the enemies in the other party are defeated, the battle ends, experience points and items are rewarded, and your little party of warriors is free to go on their way.
Where the game stands out from other traditional RPGs is simultaneously my most and least favorite thing about Grand Knights History. Those four warriors in your party? You make them. You can choose from three different job types, about 12 different character models for each of those three types, two different weapon types for each job, 6 different colors for hair, 6 different colors for clothes, and 5 different accessories you can put on each character. You can also name each of your characters freely, although they all come with default names. Stats for the characters are random, but if you don’t like them, you can choose to ‘re-roll’ until you get stats you can live with. In short, the variety of characters you can make, and the customization you can use with them, is rather staggering in a game that doesn’t have the total character-from-scratch creation system sported in Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. Why would this be a bad thing, you wonder? While the character customization is fun, and really makes you think about what type of party you want to have, they are in the end only hired hands. You can create multiple teams, with so many knight characters, that you end up thinking of them as disposable. While I understand the want the developers had for you to use their very fun character creation system multiple times, it unfortunately doesn’t really allow for any sort of bonding or connection with your characters. This also prevents you from playing as one of them.
You are not a playable character in Grand Knights History. You, the player, are put in the shoes of a nameless great knight, who chooses to align himself with one of three countries: Union, Avalon, or Logres. Once you choose a country, the ruler of that country lets you enter in a name for your character, promotes you to captain of their armies, and tells you to go hire some warriors and kick the other countries’ butts. You are quickly joined by a young girl who wants to be a knight; she joins up with you regardless of which country you choose. She becomes your liaison with your warriors, telling you what quests you are expected to do each week, and letting you know various things about them and the world.
I quickly discovered that this game is not like any other VanillaWare game I have played; it is more of a warrior-rearing simulation game than anything. The whole point of the single player, with its quests and all the warriors you can create, is to level up those warriors, deck them out with awesome skills and weapons, and then go online. That is where the real meat of the game is. Online, you can play one of two ways: you can either get into individual battles against other human players, pitting your knight team against theirs, or you can join the war mode. The war mode is a bit different than the individual fight mode, as you can also play it offline to a certain extent. Your warriors are thrust into the middle of an on-going, ever-raging war between the three countries. You move around the map like you do in normal single-player mode, getting into battles with knights from different countries. The next time you go online, your wins and losses in war mode are tallied and added to the wins and losses of all the other human players online, which lets the game figure out which country is currently winning. Basically, it’s like a giant game of Risk, played with hundreds of other people you’ve never met, to ensure that whichever country you chose in your single-player game rules supreme.
I did enjoy Grand Knights History, but not as much as I wanted to. The gameplay is really fun, and I did get rather obsessed with decking out my little warrior people. However, I found that the lack of connection with the characters, and me being some nameless, faceless, great captain, disappointed me quite a bit. Odin Sphere is one of my favorite video games, and I think I realized that part of the reason I like it so much is because of the complex and beautiful story it had. The lack of a real story in Grand Knights History, beyond the basic one of ‘go destroy the other countries for the glory of ours’, kept me from fully enjoying the game as much as I could have. If you go into Grand Knights History with your eyes open, realizing that it is just as much a simulation game/giant online Risk game of doom, as it is an RPG, I think that you will get a lot more enjoyment out of it. As it is beautiful, fun, entertaining, and very much worthy of being played, I hope that everyone will be able to keep that in mind, and will have lots of fun with this unique little game when it comes out in the States sometime this year….hopefully….