Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time (PSP, PS Vita-compatible)
Developer: Career Soft
Publisher: Atlus USA
MRSP: $39.99 (PSN download only)
Release: July 31, 2012
It seems difficult to pick an exact genre for the Growlanser series, and that's a good thing. There’s a hearty mix of traditional console role playing, strategic and tactical battles, along with a hint of dating sim. Nonetheless, of all its various parts, the strategic and tactical aspect is probably the most strong and potentially alluring.
Let me note right now that the Strategy RPG genre is one that I have found requires an amazing amount of my patience. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time has been no different for the twenty five or so hours I have logged so far. (My game clock says about 18 hours - but, we'll get into that discrepancy shortly.)
The game wastes no time in showing what kind of experience it will be. Turning it on starts with a gorgeous animated opening that fits right into my feeling of what “classic anime” looks like. Colorful characters with just the right amount of detail in habit this colorful yet familiar world. Satoshi Urushihara’s character designs manage to display a quite classic and refined style. (Although do be careful when googling his work in public.) This lovely art style is consistent and well dispersed throughout the game. Large portraits for important characters are displayed during all major story parts.
Here is where my first complaint about the game comes in. The translation is by no means awful, yet it occasionally feels a tad stilted or awkward. Given the fantasy setting, the occasional line can come off as a bit jarring. I wouldn't say it marred the experience, but it was something that stuck in the back of my head. Maybe I'm just getting old but I don't know what it means to "build our names on your corpses."
Then there are sometimes where it just feels wordy, like the description of the familiar creation process where I am asked to note the densities of the fluid (liquids I don't really get to see) and it just feels kind of weird.
Anyway. It's not at all bad, but there are just these moments. It didn't have a strong negative impact on my opinion.
After naming the main character the game begins to paint its scenery of war. Crevanille, as the game offers by default, does not say a whole lot directly but instead fueled entirely by lines chosen by the player. And there are a lot of choices. On occasion options are grayed out, implying multiple replays or previously unchosen options being required to go these ways. These greyed out options are many times the most interesting ones,
An adopted son of the leader of a band of mercenaries, Crevanille is quickly thrusted into a variety of situations that blend the issues of his unknown past, the warring countries of the world and the destructive powers of "angels" who leveled the world's advanced civilization 2000 years prior. War, destruction and loss are frequent occurrences and test the various characters throughout the story.
With so much talk of war, Wayfarer of Time smartly blends into a very appropriate battle system that focuses on strategy but also allows it to be used for random encounters as the party traverses the world. The battle system is an interesting combination of strategy RPGs and active time systems. Positioning matters and the game is nice enough to help with this. If a character is ordered to attack an enemy and they are not close enough, they will walk to them. This of course costs time and time is very valuable in Growlanser.
There are not only the basic attacks but spells, skills and knacks as well. Spells are charged and invoked. This brings up an interesting mechanic where the difference between a level five spell and a level one spell is only the amount of time required, not MP. While preparing to cast spells, however, units are more vulnerable.
Skills are innate abilities that affect various aspects of the characters. They allow attacks to inflict status or help improve the way the characters perform their other actions. Knacks are special tricks that the character can do such as analyzing enemies or making the character the target of all the enemies attacks, taking the heat off the other charters.
These spells, skills and knacks are not built into the characters, however. Instead of equipping weapons, the characters in Growlanser use "ring weapons". These not only function as weapons but are how the characters grow. By equipping spellstones into the ring the characters are able to both gain bonuses and learn new abilities.
This was a bit confusing at first. A spellstone not only does its own thing, but also allows the characters to learn a variety of tricks. For example a stone that increases a character's chance to get a critical hit may also teach the Analyze knack.
How fast they learn is based on if the color (green, pink or yellow) matches the slot color of the equipped ring. Each ring has three slots, which are not necessarily each a different color. These slots each have their own level which determines how powerful of a spellstone can be equipped to the slot. Rings themselves can level up, allowing higher level stones to be equipped to the slots.
On top of all that, the rings grant bonuses to the equipping character's stats. Often a the choice of better stats or learning skills and spells quickly is placed in front of the player. I never felt there was one set in stone "best way" to level up my characters. I like that. With multiple replays implied within the game itself, it means there is enough freedom to work with that I do not feel locked into a predetermined optimal path for the characters.
Battles tend to come in two flavors, even though they are both run on the same battle engine. Normal battles, which are fairly frequent when traveling between areas, simply require all enemies to be defeated or that the player runs away. In these cases only an entire party wipe will end the game.
However there are often missions which can have more complex goals and are these are where the majority of the game's challenge comes from. In these missions some enemies may have to be defeated before they run away, some NPCs must be protected or it may even be as simple as just surviving for a certain amount of time. Sometimes simply fighting the enemies is not enough. Destroying objects on the field or flipping switches may be necessary for victory. There is quite a variety.
Most of my frustration, and a huge chunk of lost time, came from these battles. What becomes unfortunate is a few poor design choices that led to my major complaints with this game. A game generally wants to give the player a challenge. How much of a challenge usually varies from game to game, but it is my belief that the more of a challenge you want to present a player with, the easier you must make it for the player to take the challenge.
Dialogue skipping is not an option in Wayfarer of Time. Restarting at the beginning of a lost battle is not either. A game over means a return to the title screen along with loading, going back to the last saved point and a general repeat of the same dialogue and events over and over.
Heck, let's just say that I am just no darn good at Strategy RPGs. The issue I have then is that Wayfarer of Time does not seem to be interested in holding my hand and easing me into the genre. A lack of options for even speeding up the text or mid-battle saving makes this clear. It made each one of my losses a personal matter of "Do I really want to keep playing?"
Then we get into little details, things that start to stick out once I already have slight annoyances with the game. Petty things? Perhaps. I would not expect it to bother all gamers. However buying items in the store is a one at a time deal. Same with selling. Spell animations can be long and once I discovered I could skip them with a button press I found myself doing it all the time.
So therein lies the rub. Had I not had those losses, I probably would have had more steam. If I didn't have to see one particular scene eight times, I don't think I would be writing these things. I probably wouldn't have even thought about the lack of dialogue skip.
I believe there are many gamers who would both want and enjoy the kind of challenge that Growlanser offers. Which is why I do actually recommend this game, but not to everyone. Actually finishing those missions that I retried time and time again was immensely satisfying. Put the system down and fist pump type satisfying. The question is, how long will you stay with a game until you can achieve that?
In its core mechanics, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is a solid experience. The battle system is well designed. The spellstone system is both interesting and enticing. I would even go so far as to place the story in the "enjoyable camp" despite my earlier gripes. It is the little things - the pebbles that fill up the rest of the jar, if you will - that made the game not my personal cup of tea.
If you are the type of gamer who is willing to sit down, give a game your all and accept the lumps that it is going to give you, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is a game worth your time. It's one I'd recommend to any Strategy RPG aficionado.
[8.0 - An interesting spin on the Strategy RPG genre with a sprinkle of small but unfortunate design choices that could easily prevent some players from really enjoying it. Not for the easily intimidated.]