Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky has a lot to answer for. I first saw that incredible film on plain old through-the-aerial TV as a child, back before I even knew there was a specific term for Japanese animation or that the cast of hand-drawn movies weren’t obliged to burst into song at the drop of a hat. I soon forgot the finer details – and even the film’s name – but I never stopped yearning for stories of lost cities in the sky and impossible girls from magical places.
So it’s a good thing for me so many RPGs are more than happy to try their hand at creating something along those much-loved lines: Falcom’s Ys, Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon Saga, and Overwork’s Skies of Arcadia to name just a few obvious examples all have that fantastical combination of a young man in way over his head coming to the aid of a mysterious woman hailing from places remembered only in myths and legends. Game Arts loved the formula so much they designed whole a series around it – Lunar – and then followed it up afterwards with Grandia.
Even when measured against other brightly coloured RPGs from the nineties starring teen heroes Grandia opens with a scene undoubtedly more naive than most, with leading boy – and he is a boy – Justin running around with the even younger bundle of pinkness Sue in tow, both of them pretending household aprons are legendary armour and a child’s toy kept in a locked chest under a local mum’s patient eye is a great prize. This event goes on for quite a while, introducing you to all the local kids and making you hunt around the nooks and crannies of opening town Palm’s canal and harbour district for items that are of no use to you after getting clues from people who aren’t of any real significance to the story whatsoever in a place you’ll be leaving behind forever in a few hours anyway.
I should be annoyed at Grandia for making such a great show out of wasting my time in this way but this troublemaking duo pursue their self-invented task with such aplomb I find I can only cheer when they unearth a new “treasure” and feel concerned when a rival’s younger brother childishly bursts into tears. And I should be even more annoyed at our hero’s young age – I’ve been weary of child protagonists for years now, especially when they’re not even lazily disguised as battle-scarred teenagers destined by fate and fated by destiny to topple great evils but actual children – I’m tired of RPG writers thinking party members too young to ever have to worry about feeding or clothing themselves are the most appropriate mouthpieces for impassioned speeches on the indomitability of the human spirit to come out of – but Grandia’s cast always mesh beautifully with the setting invented for them. Young Justin’s vibrant outlook on life fits his colourful world like a glove, a place where “pirate” and “adventurer” are regarded as professions with the same legitimacy as “innkeeper” “museum curator” and “sailor”, where ruins filled with unsolved mysteries and slumbering powers from long ago dot the landscape wherever you go – who wouldn’t share Justin’s attitude if they lived somewhere like that? Even Sue, the overtly kiddy kid with the cute animal friend who sits in her purple hair and is clothed head to toe in traditionally girly attire is a genuinely lovable character I’m happy to spend time with. She is a child, but in a more rounded and realistic reading of the term: She’s heartfelt, tends to runs with the biggest emotion that pops into her head, and at times displays the piercing clarity of someone who is too young to properly consider the feelings of everyone else in the room. She also physically tires along the way, taking conspicuously longer to level up just as her friends blossom into monster-crushing warriors, and there comes a point where it’s clear to our perpetually energetic party that adventures aren’t all fun and games before a home-cooked meal and a warm bed and an exhausted Sue reluctantly teleports home to safety. It’s a surprisingly mature farewell for an otherwise emotionally straightforward game, with Sue not painted as weak or defeated for needing to step back (by this point she’s performed feats most of Grandia’s seasoned adventurers could only dream of), she’s just been pushed too hard for too long at too young an age and the little girl who once sneaked onboard a ship and almost ended up tossed overboard rather than get left behind has matured enough to realise she can’t go any further. Even Justin refuses to give her a slap on the back and one-note pep talk on how impossible is just a word to let people feel good about themselves when they quit, choosing to do the right thing for his friend even if it doesn’t match up with his idealistic view of adventure and exploration. This scene is incredibly important for Grandia because it makes it very clear that when the plot gets serious – and things do eventually get noble-sacrifice-serious – you can always trust Justin to switch gears and behave appropriately. Displaying an honest awareness of his current situation and the needs of his friends gives you permission to enjoy the times when he is once again tapping into his bottomless well of positivity because you know the game isn’t about to make a fool out you for going along with his big smiles and breakneck pace.
Establishing this trust is crucial to Grandia’s success because it’s mostly through Justin’s reactions that we get to see the joy not only in the usual RPG malarkey – ancient civilisations, ghost ships, and walls that split the sky – but also in mum making tea, train rides, and setting off on a boat to new lands. Justin’s boundless passion for exploration is completely justified by a life that keeps presenting him with opportunities to escape in a rickety cart from a collapsing mine, climb up a rope in an exaggerated hand over hand style to escape a sinking ship, crawl through vents to rescue newfound friends from metal cages, and avoid health-sapping traps and collapsing walkways in ancient ruins. Some places are so expansive the gang have to set up camp along the way – sometimes several times along the way – which makes huge strides towards reinforcing the idea that Justin’s travels are taking him so far away from home and also presents the perfect opportunity to show the party truly bonding as they share lamp lit sleeping tents together and chat by the fire after a long hike, their lively chatter enhanced by character portraits bursting with personality. Grandia goes far beyond the typical neutral/happy/sad/shocked art set and instead bestows the main cast with a ridiculous amount of facial expressions, the attention to detail in their use so high these images can even change mid-sentence as someone’s mood shifts or a new train of thought comes up – it’s more like seeing a live close-up of a character’s face than a best-fit placeholder for their current frame of mind.
Their sprites are as energetic as their portraits, with lots of bespoke animations for specific scenes and plenty of “unnecessary” movements acted out with masterful pixel art: one of my favourite examples is watching Justin pop his hat on differently to the way he takes it off in a game where nobody playing would really expect to see him do either, but he does so just because Game Arts’ staff knew it would be such a charming thing to do. Grandia’s a game keen on showing you what’s happening rather than telling you about it, detailed sprite sheets packed with so many unique grabs, poses, pointing, high-fives, and enormous monsters with individually destructible appendages you wonder how they managed to fit it all onto two CD-ROMs.
This visual sumptuousness can’t help but spill over into the location art: You can find a ship’s compass gently bobbing on its gimbal, leafy potted plants dotted around a welcoming home, flickering flames in stone fireplaces, and big rivets in cold flat iron. There’s fresh produce for sale spread out on brightly coloured rugs or laid under stripy awnings to protect them from the bright sunlight and washing lines decked with clothes gently swaying in the breeze, every one a different combination of shirts and underwear. There are rolled-up maps that’ll rustle in their earthenware pot when you walk nearby and old brooms to knock over as Justin barges past. Groups of lockers you may never see let alone open, each one holding different items of clothing and unique images stuck to the inside of their metal doors if you care to take the time to look. The Saturn’s distinctive treatment of textures gives all of these elements a sort of… I like to call it “crunchy” detail: There’s less fidelity and finesse than most of us are used to these days – than most of us with PlayStations were used to at the time (the year the Saturn had this Sony console owners were enjoying the stunning Final Fantasy VII and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) – but painting in broad 3D strokes allows for a lot of unique if less detailed objects to exist and the overall effect is still one of vibrancy and life, your imagination guided by the low-poly shapes and embellished by seamless pixelled details: Seagulls wheeling in the air overhead or an expertly judged suggestion of fish swimming in crystal clear water, their indistinct shapes swimming against the current as the sunlight catches the surface, their shadows underneath giving the stream a hint of depth. Light effects are more often than not painted directly on to textures rather than even something as simple (by modern standards) as a coloured translucent overlay. It’s a”cheat” you can spot a mile off whatever the cable, display, or upscaler you’re using to play the game – and doing so will only make you smile when you realise this isn’t an example of a corner sloppily cut but evidence of an artistic eye cast over every plank of wood, shining golden ornament, and previously unseen mosaic embedded in a wall – every intricate room and lush forest an astoundingly lavish hand crafted stage for your globetrotting adventure to play out on.
Even the manual gets in on the fun: there’s the thicker “Operation Manual” to flip through if you just need to find some straightforward information accompanied by helpful screenshots and then there’s the “Adventure Manual”, the basics of Grandia’s RPGing explained not in plain factual text but presented as chatter between Justin and the rest of the cast, with Justin ever on the receiving end of the wisdom being dispensed. It’s as delightful as it is utterly unnecessary and just one more example of the effort and care found throughout every aspect of the game.
Which isn’t to say Grandia is a flawless endeavour: It’s far too easy to save yourself into an unwinnable situation with no way to even tediously grind your way to victory, I’m no fan of anything to do with its magic system, and the way Feena – the highly experienced and renowned adventurer (not to mention one of only two beings in existence from an advanced ancient race) – so firmly slots into second place the moment she joins the team and over the course of the story needs rescuing several times by a boy who was playing with pot lids and going home to his mother for tea just a few hours earlier is extremely frustrating and a waste of what could have been a more dynamic and equal partnership. Luckily for Grandia – and for us – these are on the whole unfortunate bumps in the road on an otherwise spirited and engaging journey, and you always believe the charming companions you travel with are ready to cheer you on and lift you up when it gets tough.