You’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the Grandia series at first glance. This adventurous JRPG series is one of those that – for better or worse – never really found its footing with a wider audience, and though it had a strong start in the late ’90s, Grandia mostly fizzled out by the mid-2000s for a number of reasons. Despite its relative ‘failure’, Grandia has had a lot of influence on the JRPG genre in the years to follow, and it’s certainly acquired a passionate fanbase as time has passed. Indeed, that small, but vocal fanbase is probably the main reason why Grandia HD Collection has now been released for the Switch, collating the first two releases under one up-rezzed and prettied-up banner. Or, so it would seem. Though the two games included here are still enjoyable RPGs in their own right, Grandia HD Collection is, unfortunately, a game that embodies the concept of ‘cut corners’.
Let’s get the additions (or lack thereof) of this re-release out of the way first. You’re given the option to utilize either English or Japanese audio for either game, both games have obviously received the HD treatment, and the various content differences (i.e. the PSX vs. Saturn versions of the first game) between the original multiplatform releases for both games have supposedly each been merged into one cohesive whole. Apart from these things, there aren’t any other notable additions to speak of, which comes as something of a disappointment. Unlike, say, the recent line of Final Fantasy re-releases, there’s no global quality of life features included to soften the occasionally creaky decades-old design of these classics. There’s no feature here to let you skip dialogue scenes or speed-up battles, no toggles to buff your team to overcome any difficulty spikes that may rear their heads during boss fights, and no save states to replace the dated save system. For all intents and purposes, Grandia HD Collection is essentially giving you the original, unaltered experience of these games, but now you can play them in widescreen.
The issue, unfortunately, is that the few alterations that have been made haven’t exactly been good ones. Both games are absolutely riddled with a deluge of graphical and audio bugs. Some of these are borderline game-breaking (we had Grandia II crash mid-battle once, destroying all our progress since the last save), but most of them are minor annoyances that drag down the overall experience and make it come off as being quite sloppy. For example, the sprites of Grandia have been passed through an HD filter (which admittedly gives them an unnaturally smooth look), but the developers didn’t actually filter all the sprites in the game. This means that on rare occasions an animated character can judder madly between HD and SD sprites as each frame in their animation plays out.
Or, in another example, we experienced a few music tracks in Grandia that don’t loop properly, meaning that they stutter awkwardly every time the song nears its end. Or, in yet another example, one of the main characters in Grandia II has a graphical bug with the texture on their face when their eyes are supposed to close. When their eyes ‘close’, the entire upper half of their face is replaced with a rather creepy-looking empty shadow as the game fails to load the proper texture. To be frank, there’s an astoundingly high number of bugs and performance problems everywhere you look; it’s nigh impossible to go more than ten minutes without something failing, breaking, pausing, or otherwise not working or looking as it was clearly intended. Given the state of this release, it’s rather difficult to believe that this product passed QA tests in the lead up to release. It’s that bad.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, we’d like to point out that the games both still work well enough that you can play them through without too much issue; we haven’t yet run into or heard about any bottlenecks that majorly impede or obstruct gameplay. If you can stomach the rampant performance problems and lazily-remastered assets, this is still a portable, reasonably stable version of two wonderful games. However, the truth of the matter is that while this may be the most convenient way to play these two classics in the modern age, it is far from the best way to play them. Make of that what you will, but it feels very much like a failure for an HD release on a modern console to add so little to the original releases while also introducing so many new issues that the originals never had.
Looking past the poor porting work, both Grandia and Grandia II prove to hold up reasonably well given their age. Although the stories are often a little too self-indulgent with the painfully long cutscenes and occasionally plodding pace, they both feature fantastic writing. Characters are lovable and memorable, but the most impressive part is how they change over the course of the narrative and respond to the events that unfold. Dynamic character arcs weren’t new at the time, but they weren’t exactly popular either, and it’s refreshing to see RPG characters from this time period that don’t remain static regardless of what happens to them over the course of the adventure. The gripping writing is present in both releases, but it manifests in different ways. Grandia is an uplifting, Saturday morning cartoon-esque story following an adventurous, troublemaking boy named Justin who gets caught up in a conflict involving a mysterious ancient civilization called the Angelou. On the other hand, Grandia II is darker and a little more political, following the story of a foul-mouthed mercenary named Ryudo who – after picking up a job protecting members of a church during a strange ritual – gets caught up in a desperate quest to prevent the return of the god of darkness. Though Grandia feels a little more focused and original in its story than its successor, both of them tell riveting tales that sufficiently keep you engaged from start to finish, even with the unskippable cutscenes.
Arguably the main reason why Grandia achieved its cult fame was because of its combat system, which proved to be revolutionary for the time and to this day still stands as one of the best combat systems we’ve seen in a JRPG. Battles in both games play out in real-time with a variation of the famed ATB system of the Final Fantasy series, in which all participants – both your heroes and the enemies – have their actions governed by a shared gauge on the bottom of the screen. Everyone has an icon that moves along the gauge at different speeds, and after making it about three-quarters of the way to the end of it, a character can then select their next action, but it doesn’t go into effect until their icon reaches the end of the gauge. Things get interesting here, however, because characters are made more vulnerable in that ‘cast time’ between selecting and doing an action, and this vulnerability can be exploited to either delay or outright negate the action that was being attempted. So, for example, if an enemy is winding up for an attack and you manage to hit them before they can get it off, you push them back on the gauge and cancel it.
Depending on how well you plan, this can even lead to you going through some battles without getting anybody hit at all. To build on the previous example, the enemy that gets pushed back on the gauge could’ve been pushed far enough that they ended up behind the next party member up for an attack, who can then cancel that enemy’s next attack. It’s a wonderful system to play around with and it’s sure to keep you engaged as you must finely balance timings to maximize efficiency. For one thing, battles play out on a field in which both sides are constantly moving around each other. Characters may have to run a small distance to their target before they can attack them, which will add on to their cast time and make them that much more vulnerable. Also, if multiple different attacks land on one target in quick succession, the damage is multiplied substantially by a combo counter. That door swings both ways, of course; if you’re not careful, enemies can gang up on a party member and punish them cruelly.
It’s the dynamic and timing-based nature of this battle system that keeps it so relevant today (Child of Light used a tweaked version of this battle system) and makes it so enrapturing. Unlike other JRPGs of the time, this isn’t a simple matter of spamming moves and letting stats do the work; you have to take an active role in making sure that all the pieces line up properly moment to moment if you want to survive. Of course, most enemy mobs aren’t terribly threatening on their own, but the boss encounters often require you to use some relatively advanced tactics to gain the edge and eke out a victory. In short, this is one of those rare battle systems that has both depth and approachability; you’ll have just as much fun playing with it dozens of hours in as you will when you first encounter it.
Outside of battle, both games unfold more or less as you would expect of late '90s era JRPGs. You bounce around between towns, overworld sections, and dungeons on your adventures, with enemy encounters thankfully being telegraphed to you by various monsters roaming around the overworld while you explore. Bump into one of them and you’re then taken to the battle screen – there are no random encounters here. Puzzle-solving is kept to a minimum, although the odd environmental challenge is thrown in every now and then to break up the rising monotony of simply walking from one objective to another. Nothing exactly surprising or revolutionary in this area, then, but it’s all solidly built and enjoyable enough.
It’s difficult to assign a score to a game like Grandia HD Collection, simply because it both succeeds and fails for entirely different reasons. The timeless quality and fun factor of the two games included make it unfair to give this one a low score, yet the shoddy work done on the porting and remastering holds it back from being worthy of a high one. On the whole, we’d give Grandia HD Collection a light recommendation, as it’s a great way both for newcomers to see what the fuss is about and for veterans to take a trip down memory lane. However, we say this with the caveat that you should probably wait for a sale and for the developers to deploy some patches to fix all the broken parts. The Grandia games deserve a much better remastering treatment than they’ve been given here, but Grandia HD Collection is nonetheless a respectable release.