A fighting fantasy

Vanillaware’s 2011 PSP exclusive Grand Knights History is bursting with the developer’s trademark visual splendour – and the game knows it. So proud is this strategic battle buffet of its good looks the team took the time to include an anytime, anywhere, screenshot function, making it easy to share direct captures of the game’s warm tones and gorgeous special effects with everyone at a time when such a feature was far from commonplace – especially on a handheld.

This forward-thinking ambition is in no danger of stopping at the ability to take pretty pictures either: Grand Knights History so very badly wants to be an online game, its primary “War” mode intended under ideal circumstances to be a grand asynchronous internet-enabled battle where your chosen kingdom vies with the armies of two others for a continent’s worth of territory. The “enemies” you engage here are (or more accurately, were) made up of other players teams when online, and pre-built NPC parties if required.

Complimenting this large-scale warring is a separate training mode. In spite of the slightly dismissive name this actually plays more like a traditional single player campaign, offering a selection of bite-sized main quests, sub quests, and additional events for your hand-crafted team of renameable characters to clear.

The training side of it stems from an interesting little gameplay detail: After a character’s sixty (in-game) day training period’s up they can then be optionally promoted, which allows you to use them in War mode – although you’d better be sure you’re happy to let them go, because there’s no transferring them back once the decision’s been made. The good news is fresh replacements can be created whenever you like, and doing so doesn’t reset your quest progress here.

The trouble is Grand Knights History is a handheld game that wanted to be an online one over a decade ago, and these days not only are PSPs themselves the stuff of retro but the game’s servers have now been shut down for longer than they were ever active.

Happily this isn’t as much of a problem as I thought it was going to be, as the pleasure here isn’t found so much in the grand goal of conquering all before me as it is in strolling across the land and the constant stream of “ordinary” battles I face along the way. Grand Knights History’s fights have that special “just right” feel to them, the perfect balance between the engaging depth of tactical play and the straightforward joy of smacking a goblin in the face with a powerful fire spell.

It all begins with character creation. There are only three main class types – knights, archers, and wizards – but these are then broken down into a number of specialisms (witch, conjurer, and cleric, for example), which are then further tweaked by their starting weapon type (these can be changed simply by buying different compatible equipment from any weapon shop), and even their personality. Astonishingly for such a beautiful 2D game there’s a broad range of visual customisation available too, from “easy” things like different hair and clothing colours to hats, hairstyles, and other accessories – you can even decide if they’re going to wear glasses.

After that your party of four – and they really can be any combination of class types you like – spend a lot of time wandering the land, which in this case is represented as a series of (mostly) interconnected nodes with important features marked by generic icons. This setup reminded me of Wild CardCrimson Shroud, and Unlimited SaGa, an abstracted journey lightly embellished with a few visual hints – such as characters walking on grass when out in the wild, for example – rather than showing every single step travelled. When used in tandem with training mode’s quests this blossoms into something really wonderful, little story updates and intriguing situations firing up your imagination without forcing you to manually navigate a fiddly forest labyrinth or stone dungeon. Maybe somewhere along the way you’ll encounter a travelling salesmen, run into a mysterious person who disappears before you can find out who they really are, or perhaps that enticing treasure chest is actually a sneaky mimic monster in disguise. It really does feel like you’re exploring out in the wider world and away from your home city, especially as quest openers are a specific destination you walk out to, rather than something initiated from a plain list.

As with all RPGs, wandering around inevitably leads to more than a few fights. Most are random encounters, a few are a mandatory part of a quest, some are optional challenges encased in crystal, but best of all are the chess-like pieces seen ominously hopping around the map. These promise slightly tougher than usual skirmishes; never impossible, but always dangerous enough you hope you won’t run into one down a dead-end route or when your team’s running low on items.

All battles take place on two small grids – one for each team. The usual ranged business that tends to accompany such systems has been tweaked into something far more exciting here, allowing strong units to act as a physical barrier for weaker ones, spears to pierce multiple tiles by default, and powerful blows to knock enemies or allies backwards, potentially lining them up for a devastating volley of arrows or a swirl of fire in the next attack. It always feels thrilling and dynamic, every exchange not only tactically important but also visually stunning, the battleground’s curved “Sphere Reel” effect (as named by manual) heightening every already well-animated pose, flex, and leap.

These attacks all come from a shared pool of action points replenished every turn (the exact amount depending on how brave – a separate stat – your characters are feeling at the time), with any extra gained from felling enemies or unspent from the previous turn carrying over to the next; although as there’s a low limit of just twelve that can be stored at once, doing nothing is almost never the best option – and neither is going all-out either. Depending on the situation, selecting the strongest skills/spells for two characters and leaving the others unable to act may not be as smart as allowing all four to rush in with a standard whack each. It’s this constant push and pull over an endless supply of a limited resource that helps to make every turn engaging: All that matters is making the best use of what you have, now, rather than worrying about running out of healing magic in three battles time.

It takes some serious guts to try and make the online thing work on a handheld, especially as a central feature in a game with no established name to fall back on. Does it work? I’ve no idea. I’m years too late to find out and in all honesty I can’t imagine I’d have spent more than five minutes playing it that way even if I wasn’t. But I do know what’s left doesn’t feel like a hollowed out ghost of its true self. I don’t feel like I’m sitting in a little emergency playpen waiting for the real game to come back (the way Sakura Wars Online does), I feel like I’m playing Grand Knights History, offline.

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