[Review] Grand Kingdom [PS Vita]

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Title: Grand Kingdom
Developer: : Spike Chunsoft, Monochrome Corp
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Tactical RPG
Platform: Playstation Vita
Price: $39.99 USD
Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: June 21st, 2016 (NA) June 17th, 2016 (EU)

Imagine if you will a 2D tactical role-playing game by Vanillaware. A game that follows most of the norms of a tactical RPG, visual character customization, lots of stats, deep crafting systems, branching choices and factions to align with, but combined with their trademark art style found in their 2D action games. If you are reading this in the East you are probably yawning. For us westerners, that game, Grand Knights History, never saw localization due to a myriad of issues.

Thankfully, a spiritual successor (I argue potential sleeper hit) of that title is here in the form of Grand Kingdom for Vita and PS4. (Note: I also played on PSTV to get a big screen experience. More on that later.)  While playing through for my review of this title, I realized it was important to acknowledge its roots.

I will be completely honest, despite sitting through the opening dev and publisher logo screens, once the game began I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that I was playing a Vanillaware 2D action game. The artwork, specifically the level of detail and animation is what we’ve come to expect from Odin Sphere, or Muramasa Rebirth, or more recently Dragon’s Crown. But this is no Vanillaware title…

Somehow, someway, the director of Grand Knights History, Tomohiko Deguchi, found himself at Monochrome-Corp (http://monochrome-corp.com/) delivering the spiritual successor to Grand Knights History with the assistance of SpikeChunsoft (gang behind those quirky but addictive Conception and Daganronpa games) and NIS (translation: developers and publishers of RPG Crack.)

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Grand Kingdom is a quite remarkable, gorgeous to look at, turn-based tactical action RPG hybrid that has sucked every waking moment of my time. Set in a traditional “Tolkien”/Medieval fantasy setting, with Vanillaware-esque gorgeous artwork, you build a mercenary group fighting for “prestige” and the recognition among one of the “Four Great Empires.” Fans of the anime and manga Berzerk, this is your chance to build and lead your own “Band of the Hawk.” Hell, one of my raiding squad leaders is Gattsu! (???).

After a tutorial that briefly introduces you to navigating  battlefield maps (where you move through the “stage” by traversing nodes – not unlike a board game, in fact you are represented by a pawn chess piece initially) and combat (which occurs once your game piece touches with an enemy unit), the game begins in earnest with the naming and creation of your mercenary unit.

Forming your first “squad” consisting of “4” units (your mercenary unit can have 6 squads) is a relatively simple affair at first. You go to a hire menu where currently available mercs for hire are displayed. Initially only 8 of the 17 classes are available and while it may not be apparent at first, the stats of those available for hire, as well as the classes that are displayed, are random. Return visits always reveal pleasant and occasionally frustrating surprises – maybe you were wise to hire that lancer since upon second visit the new Lancers available for hire have lower stats in key areas; or you may have splurged for a  Dragon Witch, only to return after a mission and find one with better stats. The random nature of the mercenary hire menu rewards return visits and a wise mercenary captain will ensure they keep just enough funds always handy to quickly grab a unique unit.

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Classes include melee units like the sword and shield wielding Fighter; the polearm equipped Lancer; the spear and shield wielding Paladin; and the female counterpart of the Lancer, the Valkyrie. There are magic users including the male arcanist and the female witch; mounted units like the Dragon Witch (which take up 2 slots, meaning you sacrifice a unit for these larger characters) and ranged units from gunners that fire range buckshots to the Hunter male or female Archer class (in case you didn’t notice, some class archetypes have male and female counterparts with differing and sensible class names with some minor stat differences), whose arching arrow trajectory can clear your friendly units and enemy placed objects to hit units clear across the map.

While each class has specific roles and tactical uses (e.g. the polearm units can strike through objects and enemies) you are given a remarkable amount of freedom in how they develop. Each unit has several stats that are exactly what you have come to expect in an RPG – Strength, Stamina, Magic, Spirit, Technique, Agility, Vitality, Constitution and “SP.” Though each class has affinities for specific skills (e.g. you want your magic users to naturally boost spirit and magic) the game doesn’t force you to be beholden to those affinities.

In fact through experimentation with the different stats and classes, you’ll eventually realize that new skills and unique abilities can be unlocked by going off the beaten course. Additional skills can be learned in the form of grimoires which can further customize your character with skills they wouldn’t otherwise possess. For example, I now ensure all my melee units have healing skills, duh, but more than obvious uses, doing so has allowed me to occasionally feel comfortable on some missions not bringing a true healing unit in favor of a hard hitting DPS class like the dual sword wielding Dark Knight. Believe it or not, such squad lineup mix decisions have huge ramifications depending on the force you’re opposing.

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For example, I brought a 4 unit squad, consisting of an archer, witch, a dark knight and a blacksmith – all weak with defensive skills but very hard hitting, against weaker, harder hitting forcers with stronger defense. It became a war of attrition. With DPS not penetrating and my opponents able to go the long haul (and my self healing skills on melee units only going so far) I couldn’t hold out. Replaced, replacing my blacksmith with a healer paid off as I was able to hold out and keep the heavy hitters alive long enough to wear chew them up slowly. Just one of many tactical consideration that begin to unfold with Grand Kingdom, simply with thinking of hiring a unit class, their availability, stats, and unit class mix within your squad. With another lineup, would have been possible to wipe them out within 2 turns…

You can further customize your mercs appearance from hairstyle, to skin tone, to the colors of their equipment. There are unique items that bestow stat bonuses and adds style to your character like mustaches, sunglasses and top hats; and in true paperdoll RPG fashion the weapons and equipment you choose is also reflected on your mercenary during the game, in combat, paperdoll – everywhere.

The variety of classes available, and the squad combinations that can be formed with them, lends itself to significant diversity and flexibility – with that comes a pretty steep learning curve and potentially slow start.. I could see many being intimidated by this during the first opening hours of the game. If you are one of those individuals that restarts an RPG several times until you feel you made the right character, be prepared to do so here as well. It is also quite easy to make a “mistake” in those initial hours, like when I foolishly wasn’t paying attention to the cost of the mercs I was buying and ended up without a healer. Yes, starting out, just go ahead and make a healer. The game does recommend it in a brief pop-up that is easy to miss and ignore. Listen to that pop up, trust me.

With your merc group assembled and itching for combat, it is time to take them on the field and that occurs in the form of quests. Using a job board system that is also random, you can select a “quest” across different types for your mercs to participate in. While you do get some gold and xp by fighting battles, it is through completing quests that you hit the motherload and real pay outs.

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There are several different “quest” types including campaign quests which moves forward the narrative about your role in the mercenary guild; versus quests which are often “races” to complete an objective against another player and NPC mercenary units. Single quests, which as the name implies single player random quests for one of the great houses; and travel quests – unrestricted missions where you are free to explore a map, collect resources and engage in combat.  The level or difficulty of the mission is determined by the highest level character in the squad you select. If the highest level is 6 you will face level 6 enemies and below – in of itself seems reasonable, but I often found myself in some hairy battles as I power-leveled my team without considering how much a difference and impact making sure you get higher end gear to equip your mercenaries with. Fighting level 9 mobs, with a level 9 merc using level 1 beginning gear is a quick path to failure.

The objectives of these quests also vary. Some have you simply collecting the requisite number of resources within a specified turn limit. Others defending key points from invading troops and still others eliminating all enemies on the map. All straight forward, but it is the visual presentation (and combat itself) that takes a pretty standard offering and turns it into something special. That visual presentation, the details placed into every item and object. The little details found in the richness of particles in explosion and magic effects; the additional frame added to stilted dialogue you will see repeated with generic characters (and storyline characters) infinite times.. It doesn’t get old because you see the care and craft placed in it. In an era where cookie cutter games with reused assets can sell well, it is refreshing to see this intricate gem. Even movements highlight a loving care for the art and animation.

As you transverse the mission stage a convex display at the bottom of the screen shows your current squad moving through the environment with a layered panoramic “snapshot” that reflects the current environment of the node your “pawn” piece occupies. When you finally engage in combat, the beautiful artwork and detailed sprites truly come alive.

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The turn based system is based on action points. Each character has a set amount of action points, which in true turn based fashion is used to determine how far you can move and how many attacks you can unleash. Each character can equip an ability or attack to one of the controller buttons (square, triangle, circle, and X) with advanced controls available which doubles the number of attacks you have available using the left shoulder button as a modifier. What abilities or attacks you map to which button is entirely up to you and you will begin to learn and pay attention to the various effects they have and how they interplay with one another. You don’t want to make a push attack your first if it doesn’t allow a follow up to close in on your enemy, maybe you start with a lift attack instead that launches the enemy into the air and have it followed up by a blow that does additional damage to launched units, then end with that push attack to create some distance between you and he weakened or already dead enemy.

Combat plays out with you moving and attacking (or using special abilities) based on your turn order which itself is based on unit size (e.g. heavily armored units move more slowly than a swift rogue, but of course, you CAN modify that with patience and time) and the agility stat. If that wasn’t enough, as your merc unit advances you can place objects on the map to additional offensive or defensive options. Maybe you place wooden barricades to protect your ranged and magic users in the rear. There are crystal pylons which can absorb incoming damage. Even crates you can place units upon to give them a height advantage. The tactical options available are pretty overwhelming and regardless of your play style you will find some favorite winning combinations.

As if building and managing a growing mercenary unit wasn’t enough, the game has yet another surprise in store. As you progress through the main storyline and take on side missions, you may begin to notice that these job opportunities are coming from one of the “Four Great Nations”; successfully completing them gains some favor with them, but to truly gain prestige and recognition you need to go to war.

Requiring an online connection, the war system has you representing one of the Four Great Nations battling for territory. It is here in this war system you will face up against the merc groups of other players, and maybe stumble across some potential recruits you can poach. I will be honest, after trying a few war battles, I quickly returned to the single player experience as I felt ill equipped to go against many of the player merc groups out there even when they claimed to be similar level but have godlike stats and equipment.  I am sure with time I can hold my own and will eventually return most likely after I am done with all of the narrative missions, but it was a nice taste that there is plenty to do post-game in addition to trying to improve your mercenaries. As an added bonus, like many MMOs and F2P games, there are incentives for regularly logging in daily. Honestly, the rewards are weak right now, but then again I haven’t cleared my first 29 days, maybe they get better with frequency of play and becoming a pet unit of one of the Four Great Nations.

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On the PS Vita (I have an original LCD Vita) the artwork, 2D character sprites and more is remarkably crisp and detailed. Due to the limited resolution of the Playstation TV, there was some degradation in quality but it was nice to be able to play this on my home entertainment system and a big screen. In fact, the playing on PSTV made me ravenous for the PS4 version of Grand Kingdom, and I truly hope is is cross-save enabled.

We never got to experience Grand Knights History, and that was a shame localization woes prevented it from coming westward. That said, Grand Kingdom improves on many of the concepts that were introduced by Grand Knights History, and should not be missed. There have been several interviews by Japanese game developers lamenting the difficulty of bringing games west, and we need to show them that the source material is fine as is without tampering to appeal to western sensibilities. Strong sales of gems like this when we do get them will send a strong signal to the powers that be that there is a viable market for these games. Don’t miss out on this chance and grab it ASAP.

About KareemHarper
Having nearly lost his life running up $900 phone bills in the dial-up era calling The Sierra Network, Prodigy Compuserve and BBS lines for gaming and having survived the first dot com bubble burst working at UGO.com/1UP.com, Kareem now works in PR specializing in digital marketing and analytics. Insonmia allows him to juggle a demanding career and his PC gaming hobby.