When people talk about Grandia - a series that sparked into life on the Saturn and original PlayStation - they talk about its battle system. It's often cited as the best ever in a role-playing game, and it's easy to see why - it combined situational awareness with the comforts of turn-based decision making, allowing you to take your time to line up attacks that can strike multiple foes, or escape harm yourself with the right positioning of your party, all while managing the gauge that allowed you to delay the enemy's advances while making your own.
Sampling Grandia's combat again on the HD Collection on Switch - the first chance to revisit the original since its debut - proves that yes, the combat is tremendous, and has arguably been never bettered. Even with a no-frills port that buffers sharp 2D character sprites in a 3D world to a glossy sheen, Grandia's combat continues to stand up against the many fumbled attempts since to evolve turn-based battles into something more involving.
But there is more to the series than its combat. When I think of Grandia, I think of adventure - of mysterious ruins, crossing vast oceans and trudging through stickily humid jungles. This is in part due to how the story plays out; our hero Justin, a budding explorer who inherited a mysterious stone from his missing adventurer father, is given a message from a lost civilization to return it to where it belongs - several continents away - acting as an excuse to set off, see the world and make a few friends along the way.
It's not just where the story takes you that imbues a sense of adventure, but how you see it all. The battle system occurs not through random encounters, but by running into enemies roaming the map, whereby you can initiate surprise attacks, gaining an advantage in battle, or avoid them altogether. Meanwhile, the environments were fully polygonal and could be rotated left and right with playful taps of the shoulder buttons. Combine that with the occasional use of voice acting - a rarity back then - and Grandia felt far more involved than the static text boxes and pre-rendered backgrounds of many adventures of the time.
As liberating as combat and exploration was, Grandia's biggest flaw is its pacing. The best moments of the story, when your party and a military force you've been tangling with the entire game finally discover the secrets of the ancient civilization you've both been looking for, don't come into play until the game's final acts, while the overarching path to get there is linear and often meandering, with few opportunities to backtrack or discover more of the world through side-quests - all at odds with the freedom in combat and the dungeons that house them.
And as brilliant as combat is, Grandia's battles aren't exactly the fastest encounters. Simple quality of life additions that makes older RPGs more palatable would have made a big difference in this HD collection - what I would do for a fast-forward option that Square has introduced to its many Final Fantasy remasters!
But the journey really has its moments, ticking all the boxes of idyllic role-playing destinations ripe for a good explore - there's a haunted pirate ship shrouded in mist, an active volcano guarded by a dragon, a chain of islands surrounded by coral reefs, and an ethereal city from a forgotten era.
One of Grandia's highlights is an early game location tantalisingly named 'The End of the World' - a giant wall gating off an entire continent for reasons unknown, which of course you have to climb to continue your journey, a dungeon stretching higher and higher with seemingly no end in sight, with both you and your party exhausted and exhilarated by the possibilities to come. Whether intended or not, it has you share the ups and downs of a long journey - a common foible of the genre perhaps, but one Grandia had you indulge in more than most globe-trotting adventures. But, as is always the case, you'd be glad you were along for the ride by the end.
Pacing is something the second Grandia handles much better, swapping adventuring for the mercenary life as you aid a church in cleansing an evil god that's spread itself across the land, its monstrous body parts infecting society. The story asserts itself with more urgency, keeping up the momentum between dungeons with twists and turns along the way, and briefer runtime to go with it. And while the game loses the visual personality of its predecessor - this HD remaster makes it look more Playmobil than ever before - the battle system remains largely intact and continues to shine, with a more dramatic camera that swoops around the arena between attacks.
Like many other RPGs, Grandia resets the universe with a new instalment, with the systems around it trying new things each time. With the series tapping out after three games (and sort-of PS2 sequel Xtreme), we never really saw it fulfil its true potential - I can only imagine where it could have gone given the chance to reiterate like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Persona had, franchises that only really hit their stride four or five games in.
Grandia and its sequel might not be the greatest role-playing games, but they encapsulate so many things about why I love playing them; the joy of encountering exotic new locations and uncovering their mysteries, long journeys with a grand pay off at the end and, of course, the beating heart that gets you through it all - the combat. Despite being born in an overcrowded, golden era for the genre, Grandia still stands out as a favourite for many, and this package - warts and all - will help you see why.