Grandia is one of those series that many people have heard of but far less have actually played. I like the idea of ports and remasters of older games so that newer generations can experience the classics they may have never had the chance to. But it is a tricky balance since the pricing of ports can unfair based on the minimal amount of effort that often goes into these projects as well as the age of the games themselves. When done well, such as Mega Man Legacy Collection or Sega Genesis Classics, it can be phenomenal. But when done poorly and priced high they can be huge disappointments. It's for that reason I was particularly excited and worried in equal measure for Grandia HD Collection. I haven't played the original Grandia in almost 20 years, and that was a long time ago.
While the package is entitled "Grandia HD Collection", it only contains Grandia 1 and 2. This is unfortunate, as Grandia has several spin off games as well as a third main line entry to the series. At the full price point of this collection I would at least expect the spin off titles to be included. Despite this, the first two main Grandia titles are both great games in their own right and deserve the place they have earned in people's memories even if I would have strongly preferred this collection to be more robust.
The Grandia series was well ahead of its time in several ways. For the most part, Grandia 1 and 2 are engrossing RPGs with an excellent battle system, fun stories (if simple), and truly excellent soundtracks. Both games feature, blessedly, non-random combat encounters. All potential foes are shown on the screen and most can be avoided if you don't want to fight them. I have always appreciated that in my RPGs. But Grandia is unique because I always want to battle. Always. And that is an extremely rare praise for an RPG to win from me. It is indeed the battle system where the Grandia series has always shined the brightest.
At the time Grandia was released, Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle System was the norm. Any Final Fantasy before 12 will give you a good idea of how that system worked but Grandia shook things up by placing all of the heroes and monsters on the same track at the bottom of the screen. Depending on each character's initiative score, they move quicker or slower across the track, all in real time. When they reach the end of the track you can select your action.
Actions range from basic attacks called combos, technique attacks called criticals, and individual special moves and spells that vary between each character. Using a combo has you attack several times and rack up damage quicker. But using a critical attack is unique. It will cause less damage than a combo, but it will also knock the enemy back on the action track forcing them to wait longer to take their action. Also, if performed at the right time, a critical can entirely cancel an enemy's action. It makes for a nice risk/reward system and allows for some tactical planning when you have multiple characters in the field. While there are more nuances to the system (such as dodges, spell and special attack upgrades, etc), these are the basics. The battle system is so fun and engaging it still can stand up there with the greats, even amongst newer titles.
As fun as the games are (and they really are fun) the ports are really lacking in many ways. The gorgeous sprite work in the original Grandia has been smoothed over with a filter and has much less "pop" than it used to but also retains some muddy textures. These aspects dull the visuals. It doesn't look terrible, but it certainly doesn't help. The visuals of Grandia 2 are less adulterated, but Grandia 2 was never a good looking game to begin with, even at the time it was released. It has the early sharp polygonal style and ugly texture work associated with the sixth generation of gaming consoles, and the port exacerbates it to an unwanted degree. Again, it doesn't make the game horrible to play, but the visuals are a missed opportunity for improvement.
What really suffers, though, is the frame rate. Battles in Grandia 1 and the over world exploration in Grandia 2 can slow down and drop well below what is considered to be an acceptable frame rate in 2019 on the latest generation of hardware. It makes me wonder where the "HD" in the "Grandia HD Collection" comes from.
The improvements are pretty much only found on the audio tracks. The quality is greatly enhanced, having the original score and voice acting present without the awful compression artifacts in the original presentations. And the soundtracks are glorious. Grandia music is phenomenal, and really makes the experience a pumping one. The original voice acting has been reused, and it is as awful as ever, reeking of cheesy, poorly directed dialogue with oddly emphasized intonations consistent with these generations of games. Again, it is a missed opportunity to truly remaster the game with new recordings, or the ability to toggle between the original or the re-recorded voice track. I can understand and appreciate the need for perfect preservation/emulation, but for a collection that hails itself as a remaster, it sure doesn't embrace the ideas of performing any actual remastering these classics. It doesn't even offer save state functionality, forcing you to save at specific points like the originals.
For better or worse, these are essentially the original games, faults and all, with clearer audio and better load times. While much of this review sounds quite negative, I don't want to end on that note. Grandia and Grandia 2 really are fun games. They have fun characters, decent (although simple by today's standards) plots, a lot of memorable moments, great music and an excellent battle system. It's just such a disappointment to me that the HD Collection does almost nothing with that idea. These are just ports of the original games with mildly enhanced audio, and in some ways play even worse like the graphical filters in Grandia 1. And while those games are great, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed. Perhaps if this game fessed up to be just being a port collection rather than styling itself a remaster I would feel differently.
Do I recommend playing these games? Oh yes, absolutely. Grandia 1 and 2 deserve four stars by themselves. The games are dated, yes, but they stand the test of time, flaws and all. They are (mostly) timeless and I would replay them over and over. But maybe wait for this specific collection to go on sale.