Most of these character are supposed to be men, in case you were wondering.
As part of my quest to play and beat those PS2 games that have been collecting dust on my shelf for years, Steve-O and I spent our free time together over the last couple of months playing Growlanser Generations. Growlanser Generations includes Growlanser II and Growlanser III. Many, many moons ago I beat Growlanser II and made it about halfway through Growlanser III before shelving the game for reasons I can’t recall. It’s a fancy collector’s edition including the original soundtrack for both games (which only calls for one CD as they recycle a LOT of tunes), a pack of cards, and clunky jewelry I never wore and have no intentions of ever putting on. This was a Christmas gift from my Hubby-to-be (meaning over 7 years ago!). He bought this for me because, well, I’ve always been a lover of video games and anime. The guilt over not finishing this collection has been hanging over my head for years. With Steve-O’s assistance (Hey, someone has to grind while I chase Little One around) both games have finally been played through.
Growlanser II is the first game we played. The main character’s name is Wein. No, I am not mature enough to pass on all the wiener joke opportunities even though the pronunciation of his name doesn’t sound like wiener. Still, it is fun and he totally is a wieney at times. And he has a major lisp. Like, seriously. Sometimes it is endearing. Other times it grates at the ears. When he says “Oh, Max!” (About a hundred times throughout the short 15 hour game) I could picture him flailing his wrists around and batting his eyelashes. At least I giggled a lot at that. I did NOT giggle, however, when Hans opened his dirty, low-born mouth. Ugh. Hans is obnoxious and a prime example of a character who is supposed to be funny but completely isn’t. I rolled my eyes whenever he spoke. I said, “Oh my God shut up!” many, many times during this game. And only to him. I always sided with Charlonne when she laid the “snotty rich bitch” attitude on him during their conversations. I’m really glad the quality of voice acting in video games and anime have improved since these games were brought over to the US because for the most part they all sucked.
I think these games are supposed to be strategy/tactical RPGs. I say “supposed” to because they emulate the genre without ever reaching that point. By the time we were halfway through Growlanser II we were under the impression the creator’s idea of “strategy” is to replay a plot mission a few times until you figure out what the hell the game is expecting you to do. Like many strategy RPGs, before the beginning of a plot battle the screen flashes your mission objectives. You’re told what to do to keep from getting a game over, such as “All Enemies Destroyed.” Both Growlanser games have “Mission Clear” and “Mission Complete” notifications at the end of each battle but your battle conditions screen never tells you how to get the superior “Mission Complete.” That is up to guessing as well, and during the first half of the game before we got super-powerful gems and gear we certainly didn’t have the gumption after already restarting the same fight three times to try again for a Mission Complete.
Back to that guessing game business. Many times the game will have those annoying battle conditions to shake things up, but it is never very clear as to what you’re supposed to do. There’s the run-of-the-mill “Do not let more than X number of civilians die” objectives. These are painful. Keeping your OWN group alive is difficult enough when halfway through the fight the game pops enemies on top of your mages (after the first couple of fights it’ll become a given) and they start your entire party on top of each other so your melee characters spend the first five minutes of a time sensitive fight riding each other’s asses because they don’t know how to walk AROUND each other. And whether you’re saving NPC civilians or guards, you can’t expect the soldiers on your side whom you have no control over to actually be any good. No, even ally soldiers who look equipped to the teeth in heavy plated armor still can’t seem to take more than two hits from an enemy soldier. It’s like they are wearing cleverly disguised toilet paper as armor. Oh, and enemy soldiers love to spam powerful Tech attacks which magically seem to always stun whatever they hit. It’s almost funny, Our Perimeter Pulse move barely managed to stun anything. It’s uneven odds that like that frustrated me a lot, on top of poor AI pathing mechanics, and uncertain battle objectives which I’m finally getting to. You’ll be told something like “Set the fort on fire” with no indication as to how you’re supposed to do it. Normally, it involves getting your character(s) to a certain spot of the map before getting pummeled to death. There’s a Tech skill called “Dash” which makes the character move a LOT faster. The game lets you think it is optional. it is NOT. In fact, I suggest you get it first before learning anything else. For every character that can learn it. Because when you’re not standing your ground you’re running from one side of the map to another (or chasing enemies trying to run away) within a certain amount of time and doing so without Dash is nearly impossible.
On the bright side, unlike games like Final Fantasy Tactics, you don’t have a grid to worry about or each character having a certain amount of squares they can move per turn. If you tell someone to move somewhere, they’ll get there… eventually. You have relatively open maps with stairs and bridges, stuff like that. No, your obstacles are the unexpected: characters getting stuck on each other and on their surroundings. They’ll walk against a rock for the rest of the battle until you finally say, “Hey, what is Xenos doing?” and notice he’s in the corner playing with himself. Then you have to manually instruct him to do otherwise.
Now that that mini-rant is out of the way, let’s get further into the game mechanics.
Growlanser games have a pretty traditional RPG level up system. Whenever a character levels, you’re given Master Points to assign as you deem fit. These points can be assigned to passive Skills such as Hit Up, Max HP Up, Quicken Aria, etc.; Magic to learn healing and offensive spells; and Techs, which are abilities to be used in battle like Knockback, Dash, and Critical Hit. The usefulness of each category is dependent on the characters for the most part. Except Dash. Everyone needs Dash. Chances are you’ll want most of the passive skills as well because they tend to be tailored to each character’s needs. Mages are more likely to be able to learn Quicken Aria and Max MP Up, while the meleers get Equip Limit Up and status effect additions to their attacks. Those came in pretty handy… Growlanser games have a mean poison!
RPGs are well known for equipment management. Well, in Growlanser games, you have one piece of equipment to worry about, and it is a simple matter of “go to next town and purchase whatever equipment upgrades my characters can wear if I have the money.” That’s because your real micro-managing is with your rings and gems. Everyone in the playable party is a Ring Master: they wear special rings that turn into customized weapons for each character. Wein’s ring weapon is a scythe, for example. You never worry about equipping weapons or a weapon’s stats. What the player needs to focus on is the rings you are putting on each character. Not only do rings come with stat adjustments, they also have up to 3 gem slots which range in values from 0 to 9. For example: if you equip a ring with gem slots that read “7-5-2” this means you can equip up to a level 7 gem in the first slot, up to a level 5 gem in the second slot, and up to a level 2 gem in the third slot. The higher level the gem, the more powerful the ability. Most of the time. Many times this requires sacrificing stats for better item slots. A ring could have 40 attack power but if it has 1-0-0 for gem slots you’re never going to wear it.
Gems can do some pretty crazy things. Having the right gems on can make or break a situation. There are gems that can allow you to steal, give you stat boosts upon leveling up, make a character immune to magic, and teach a mage every single spell, for starters. The most crucial one, that is too easy to miss, is the level 9 Transport Wings. This gem will make your Indirect (Indirect=Ranged) attack dealer the new star of the party. This game has obnoxious line of sight issues and invisible attack range barriers. When characters get stuck on rocks and each other these factors can make some really frustrating situations until this amazing gem comes into play. With Transport Wings, your indirect attacker can hit anything on the map, anywhere. Group that with Hans’ innate speed (made even more extraordinary by leveling/stat boosting gems) and the plethora of status ailments he has a chance of inflicting on enemies with his attacks, and suddenly Hans was able to kill half the enemies on the map before the melee characters could get into position. As much as we couldn’t stand him, he became one of the game’s saving graces.
This specific gem was far too easy to miss, which comes to one of my big complaints about this game that they thankfully fixed in Growlanser III. Navigating the world in Growlanser II is a bit like Final Fantasy Tactics. You have a world map and every area you are able to visit is nothing more than a shiny dot on your screen. You click on where you want to go and the main character follows, sometimes getting into random fights along the way. When arriving at your destination, a menu pops up with your list of options. This is how you “visit” shops and inns, and speak with important NPCs for plot and side quest purposes. The issue here is that if you don’t click on every damn spot on the map in between every bit of dialogue or plot advancement, you permanently miss out on chances to gain side quests and build relationships with your party members. It is pretty frustrating, especially when we were innocently strolling along and accidentally went the way we were “supposed” to go first after not playing the game for a few days and forgetting which city we were supposed to go next. If the game even told us where we were supposed to go. We found out after the fact that we missed out on the chain quest to get the Transport Wings gem. So… we cheated and inputted the code to gain all the gems and rings in the entire game. VERY handy. Very cheating, but very handy. And at that point we didn’t care anymore.
Especially considering the fact that because of this game’s closed door policy with its side quests, we seemed to have missed out on a playable character that is in the game’s opening cut scene for crying out loud! How do you do that to someone? Honestly! We filled our final slot with some boring generic guy named Brent who didn’t even have eyes! On top of that, I’m pretty sure we got the worst possible scenarios for everything and we somehow had the highest affinity with Hans, the character we hated the most and intentionally were a complete jerk to him during his dialogue scenes. He must thrive on rejection or something.
Let’s talk about magic. I love magic in video games, though it is definitely hit-or-miss depending on how the developers decide to implement it. Is magic with using in the Growlanser games I played? Yes and no. One really, really awesome feature is the ability to cast buffs outside of battle. That’s right, you can Attack Up, Cycle Up and Shield your characters before entering the fray. AND the game is kind enough to inform you that Attack Up and Shield (as well as certain debuffs) can stack up to three times! This is definitely a live-safer during some of the more difficult and/or time sensitive plot battles. By the time we were playing Growlanser III we were making a point to put all of our buffs up before entering our next storyline destination. Otherwise, using magic is a pain in the arse until later in the game. It takes SO long to cast damage spells that actually do worthwhile damage, and your character’s MP pools are so God awfully small, and… get this… in Growlanser II there are NO consumable items. None. So if your mage runs out of MP, guess what, they get to pick their nose for the rest of the fight because there’s no way you’ll voluntarily throw them in the midst of battle only to die if an enemy looks at them cross-eyed. This is not saying they won’t get themselves killed anyway, because the game absolutely loves filling the battle screen with all kinds of ranged enemies who are smart enough to concentrate all their fire on your squishy mages. Or ally NPCs who seem to be wearing nothing but tissue paper for armor.
Despite your frustration during plot fights, you’ll find yourself laughing at the enemy death lines because they are hilarious. Just as you’re dealing the final blow and saying “Take THAT you prick!” the dying soldier will say something hilarious like, “How dare you kill me to death!” or something else equally ridiculous. Otherwise, the writing is about as cheesy as it gets. Xenos, the resident heavy-hitting meatshield, has some particularly charming lines that we fell in love with.
Let’s move on to Growlanser III. Growlanser III took the foundation laid by its predecessor and built upon it to create a longer, and more involving RPG. Many of the glaring issues with II are still present, like the terrible pathing system and cloudy mission objectives. In fact, there is one other annoyance I don’t remember coming across during Wein’s adventure: lag. Growlanser III loaded the screen with enemies and allies and everything in between, causing significant lag during multiple fights. Lag that mysteriously didn’t seem to affect the move or wait time of my enemies, yet made my characters act like they were trying to fight in a puddle of mud up to their armpits. So other than that pesky lag issue, Growlanser III is better than its predecessor when the developers actually felt the need to go out of their way to maybe make a different or better gaming experience.
One of the main differences you’ll notice at first is the addition of an interactive world map! Yes, like many other RPGs, we could now walk around the world map from town to town and dungeon to dungeon. Though you won’t want to waste too much time in dungeons. They are painfully boring (even by long RPG grinding standards). The developer’s idea of adding dungeons was to create a big block maze with randomized square rooms that may or may not have enemies, and may or may not have loot. And 99.9% of the time the loot was not worth going for (and we didn’t even cheat in this game) and halfway through the dungeons the EXP left much to be desired. You even get to explore towns and actually enter inns, approach shop stands, and watch NPCs go about their every day lives. It is important to speak to all the NPCs as well. They’ll randomly hand out goodies or side quest items.
Unlike the previous installment, Growlanser III gives you a central hub to utilize for various purposes. You get a restaurant, and can recruit merchants to sell you all kinds of goodies. Viktor, the friendly Russian scientist, has a lab where he creates consumable items for you, including stat enhancing apples! Oh yes, and in battle items! I cannot explain how much of a relief it was to be able to pop an elixir instead of waiting for a mage running low on MP to cast Heal on a dying party member. It’s the little things I appreciate, really.
Viktor is a pretty important character, especially considering he hijacks your party on multiple occasions so he can fix the teleportation devices to make them useful. Because, you know, finding them wasn’t enough. By the time you can teleport from city to city it will be a welcome relief. The central hub is also where you can race fellow party members (WTF?) and change up your party. Another big difference. Instead of controlling the same eight characters for the entire adventure you only get 4 at a time, but you can swap them out at your complex in Voltone. Where you also have access to astounding (sarcasm) conversation options with the other characters. There isn’t an obvious affinity bar like in Growlanser II. You’ll know if things are going well, trust me. And if you play your cards right you can unlock some extra stuff to do.
Another reason I liked Growlanser III more is because you have greater customization with rings and gems. There are gems in this game that will duplicate rings and gems if you take the time to do it. There are also items called Fairy Tears that will increase ring levels on gems! This means if you find a ring with favorable stats, you can increase the ring levels on it to 9-9-9 and duplicate it as many times as you like. Voila! We pimped out our party pretty quickly once we found a ring that was a keeper! It made inventory management a whole lot easier, because enemies drop all kinds of ring fodder that clutters up your inventory pretty quickly. Once we had our ideal set up, we could sell everything with a clear conscience without taking a whole lot of time carefully reviewing the stats on each one. In comparison, Growlanser II just feels like you’re never really getting ahead, and you’re at the mercy of receiving whatever rings or gems the game feels like giving you.
Overall, I can’t give a particularly sterling review of these games. They’re part of a niche market that I feel is dying off, and even then this isn’t a great example of a Japanerific strategy RPG. Newcomers to the genre are better off sticking with well-established classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem. The story and characters in the Growlanser games I played aren’t good enough to keep the average gamer plowing through the game if they get frustrated or stuck. I do think these games are playable and beatable for most gamers, provided they’re either especially patient or don’t mind consulting the internet. If you’re an RPG/tactical RPG veteran looking to expand your repertoire, it can’t hurt to give these games a go.