Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS4 and PS Vita
Release Date: June 21, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game
I obnoxiously fought with recalling the name of Monochrome's newest tactical-RPG release, Grand Kingdom, on PS Vita/PS4 for quite a while. Not because it is exactly a hard title to remember, but I constantly got it confused with Grand Knights History; a former and almost localized Vanillaware PSP release.
Apparently the confusion was not unwarranted as both Grand Kingdom and Grand Knights History share the same director, Tomohiko Deguchi, despite having completely different development teams behind them. Either way, Grand Kingdom managed to finally find a sticking point within my memory with its more unique take on tactical-RPGs.
It is quite common for most Japanese strategy-RPGs to intimate the likes of either Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, but Grand Kingdom is not really similar to either of those even on a fundamental level. If I were to toss any particular loose comparisons, I would say that Grand Kingdom somewhat reminds me of a hybrid between RPGs like Valkyrie Profile with how it handles active, deep turn-based combat and the classic Ogre Battle with the importance of team composition.
The entire premise of Grand Kingdom is the player assembling a mercenary troop and taking on various jobs. Mercenary works comes from either the somewhat brief main story that does just enough to convey the world's sense of character, or participating in large-scale battles with the surprisingly robust online functionality that involves making contracts between four key nations. Though it may be tempting to either go heavily into either single player or online, in reality, both aspects truly feel like two sides of the same coin in Grand Kingdom and the player is strongly encouraged to utilize both actively.
The reason why both single-player and online are important is that neither is mutually exclusive and often play off of one another. For example, a huge component of Grand Kingdom is making squads. Even if you may only actively play one 4-person party at a time when it comes to moving your chess-like piece on a simplistic grid in normal missions, you can have entirely different parties getting other rewards for you in the mean time. I often found a routine is sending in dispatching new parties online to fight in a war simply so I could gain level ups and money while I was asleep.
However, without a doubt the strongest facet of Grand Kingdom is its deep party customization and active combat. You can go as detailed as you want when it comes to creating unique character attack combos and maximizing their timing to deal the most hurt, almost akin to a fighting game, or set button-mashy preset attacks -- and that's just for melee classes. Grand Kingdom does a great job at making the handful of classes feel very unique, like perhaps having a trusty "Challenger" class place explosive barrels to impede enemy movement or spellcasters, like Arcanist, pelting foes from afar and juggling them in the air with well-timed button presses. There is a real satisfactions in creating your own party and finding out what works for you (or doesn't, in the case of accidental friendly fire).
One of my biggest problems with Grand Kingdom is that there is simply not that much incentive to really change things up. The combat depth is there, but the level, mission, and enemy variety simply to utilize it simply is not. As one is chipping away at online missions or main story objectives it is real easy to create a huge disparity in levels and stats between different squads, which will likely lead most to sticking to one party and delegating other squads to get them free stuff online. This is a real shame because the combat has so much depth.
Frankly, you will see a lot of the same enemies rather quickly as well as samey scenarios on maps. For me personally, party stats eventually mattered much more than me getting creative at eliminating them through actual strategy. I hate to say it, but I found a bread and butter routine for my main party and it would have been too much of a grind to make my five other squads catch up any time soon to purposely change it up.
It is a shame, because aspects like online are surprisingly robust and, sadly, not really for me. Beyond dispatching party members to get you free stuff (....you can tell I used it for that a lot), there is a whole other layer involving the four factions. Players can plan out invasions, make treaties, gather resources to expand a war's effort, and plenty more when going online. There are even neat touches like being able to battle (AI-controlled) parties of other players during these section based on which faction you war against.
It is clear that Grand Kingdom wants to become a title that one keeps returning to. And, in all honestly, after the main story, the online functionality is likely the biggest and best way to strengthen your party for those who want to go for a Disgaea-like meta game when it comes to re-leveling characters for better base stats. For me, however, all I saw was a grind without that much incentive despite the promise of added, faction specific, story missions for significantly higher party levels.
One can tell Grand Kingdom has a lot of heart, however. In my case, it was not immediately easy to tell as the game has the unfortunate luck of being immediately compared Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir, which is simply unfair as both the 2D visuals and soundtrack are quite charming overall (just... not astounding like Vanillaware stuff.). That said, aside from the aesthetic, and eventually through the more-likable-than-you'd-expect main story, the Vita release is hindered by some technical foibles, specifically load times. It may seem minor, and it may very well be for people, but I found myself put off by having to often wait five or seconds when trying to get nitty gritty with slotting attack different abilities or transition between different menus rather often.
It often feels like Grand Kingdom is at odds with what it intends to achieve. In one moment, the combat, party customization, and online functionality are surprisingly deep and have several creative ideas with their execution. However, it loses in a battle or attrition as it struggles to introduce much incentive, or actual enemy/map variety, to do much more than follow a formulaic grind after the brief main story. I appreciate Grand Kingdom's initial ideals, but I wish my morale in the long haul was simply higher justify a continued march at its side to proudly wave its banner.
+ Pleasant 2D art direction and soundtrack
+ Tons of party customization for attack/combo slotting, group formations, and
+ Several creative ideas for online functionality through various warring factions that strongly encourage returning regularly for perks
- Simplistic battle maps and very few enemies types do not lend themselves to gameplay variety
- The huge disparity in stats created through level-ups can easily create the temptation of simply using 'what works' at the sacrifice of actual gameplay strategy
- If one does not get into the online aspects they may find themselves hard-pressed to do much beyond the short main story
- Noticeable load times on Vita
Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10)
Grand Kingdom is a creative take on Tactical-RPGs from its deep combat mechanics and many unique warlike online systems, yet, without a strong enough formation to several other gameplay components may unfairly cause it to be forgotten after its brief tale is told
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.