As time goes by and one generation of handhelds bow down to make way for new hardware, I can't help but notice a recurring theme, not only on the PSP but on the Vita as well: people love recreating console RPGs on handhelds. This trend has gone back as far as Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions and continued through Final Fantasy I, II, and IV. The first two Disgaea games and the first three Persona games were also all ported to the PSP. The third Disgaea released on Vita earlier in the year and the fourth Persona is set to release this winter season. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is the fourth entry in the critically acclaimed Growlanser series, and it's coming to the west for the first time. Whether you're an RPG fan looking for a quality addition to your collection or if you're a fan of the series eager to play this one in English, you can't go wrong. Like many of its kin, this remake is an improved version of what many could call a classic; in addition to the lengthy and well written story, there are new characters, new options, new items, and more to discover.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time puts you in control of Crevanille, a youth raised by a band of mercenaries who quickly discovers that he is what is called a ruin child, and that he and the other ruin children are a hot commodity amongst the various nations thanks to their abilities. One of Crevanille's abilities is the convenient ability to see the future, or remotely view events happening elsewhere, so you can keep up with the various factions as they enact their plans. Thanks to his status as a ruin child, he is recruited into the army and is given access to the various ruins scattered throughout the continent, which in turn gives him the ability to cast the spells that are in many ways the fulcrum of each and every plot point in the game. Sure, the 'mysterious orphan raised by a ragtag group' trope has been done to death, yet it works so incredibly well in Growlanser thanks to the writing, characters, and plot. Throughout your travels, your influence in the plot wavers and fluctuates; sometimes your actions have direct implications on the war and you are the focus of the narrative, whereas other times you are flitting around the edges as the other major players take over, and we see the events through Crevanille's visions. Here, the warring nations Dulkheim and Valkania, the Angels, and the mercenary band known as the Death Wings are all killing the life out of one another as you piece together a 2,000 year old puzzle to stop the world from impending doom. It's filled with common tropes, but they all blend together so well to form a story that is memorable and very well told.
All these factions, groups, and allegiance changes would be indecipherable if not for the little touches that keep the plot lively. One thing you, as a gamer, need to come to terms with is the fact that this is a story about a rather substantial war – people are going to die and it will put your heart in your throat. I've played plenty of games with great stories, but that doesn't prepare you for sprite genocide, and doesn't lessen the effect of a monster of a man recklessly slaying women and children with a glee reserved for comic book villains.
Growlanser IV is a PSP game, but it's available for play on the Vita and if you have one I highly recommend transferring it over there because the OLED screen does wonders for making the game's colors pop. Growlanser looks good on the PSP's screen, but it looks gorgeous on the Vita. The backgrounds are pre-rendered images and the characters are sprite-based animations. While neither are outstanding, the colors and detail of the background are undeniably beautiful, and the art direction is fantastic. It's not quite as good as Final Fantasy VIII or IX, but that doesn't mean it's bad by any standard; in fact it's much better looking than the aforementioned Disgaea 3, which I reviewed earlier in the year upon its Vita release, and that's a full-blown Vita/PS3 game! As beautiful as the rendered backgrounds are, they would be even better if you could zoom out, as some of the larger battle maps seem really claustrophobic when you can only see 1/10th of the map at any time. Wayfarer of Time also outdoes other anime-inspired games in the cutscene department, with fully animated and voiced FMVs.
Of course, a story is only as good as the gameplay that is the primary structure of the game. Luckily, Wayfarer of Time blends traditional turn based and real time strategy elements together into what is honestly one of the better battle systems I've played in an RPG. There are no random battles in this game, instead you just fight the enemies on the map. Once you get close, their numbers pop up and you're thrown into a battle. From there, you issue commands to each of your teammates. If you tell your ally to attack, he will walk until he is in range then attack until the enemy is dead. If something comes up and you need that ally to move somewhere else (say he has to press a switch or open a chest, for example) then you can press triangle to pause the battle and issue a new command at any time. It is a rather simple system, but it's very rewarding, flows well, and is a lot of fun.
In addition to physical attacks, both short range and long range, the allies you have in battle can also equip spellstones and cast spells. In spite of much of the plot revolving around spells and the ability to cast them, they're really not that useful until later in the game. Spells are useful and can be cast anywhere on the given battlefield, but they take much longer to charge up, leave your characters exposed to additional damage, and are no stronger than physical attacks, so even the dedicated magic users are often just as effective at smacking snakes as they are casting ice blocks to pummel pumas. It gets especially ludicrous when you are exclusively casting spells and you have to wait for what seems like ages for your ice assault animation to finish. Fortunately, you can press circle at any time to skip the spell animation. This is not a feature that is advertised, so be sure to play around with it. Later in the game, you can even dualcast spells between two members of your party, but this requires much in the way of preparation.
Before any battle you must prepare yourself with a simple yet complicated and deep equipment setup. You only equip one piece of armor and one ring. The armor gives you a defense boost, but the ring is where it gets complicated. Each ring has a variety of different properties to keep track of, including a potential stat boost for every one of your character's stats as well as three slots, each with a designated color and level that are randomized. Each of these slots can equip a spellstone, and what spellstones are allowed is determined by the color and number on that given slot. Matching up colors from slot to spellstone is highly recommended but not necessary, while the spellstone level is absolute; if a slot level is 2, you cannot put level 3 spellstones in that slot. Spellstones can grant the user specific abilities, spells, boosts, or even knacks that offer elemental affiliations for attack and defense.
Everything on a character can level up based on repeated use, which is why the matching of colors on a given ring and spellstone is important. Putting a yellow stone in a yellow slot means the spellstone will level up faster, giving your characters upgraded spells, stats, and abilities as they level up. Spellstones and rings also give your characters specific level-up bonuses, so keeping one ring on a character for an extended period of time to maximize both it and its user's stats is recommended. One thing I personally found quite confusing was the existence of the player's 'familar', which is going to be slightly different for everyone playing. The familar takes care of all the talking for the silent hero and helps the player to understand what's going on better, but it also has stats of its own and can be upgraded through use of the dollhouse, and those stats boost Crevanille's abilities, but in my 60 hours of play I never figured out precisely how.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time may be a little grind-tastic, but it's got a solid campaign and there's plenty to do to keep you busy. My play through took a shade under 60 hours, though the actual play time clocked was only 46 hours. Many of the game's missions have certain requirements for completion, or a time limit, so you will face many game over screens thanks to the enemies besting you on your first try, which is why there was such a difference between my clocked time and the actual amount of time I put into the game. There are also over 40(!) different endings to unlock based on your relationships with the various characters and your actions throughout. Your relationships change according to what answers you give to various questions, so you can't just rush your way through the dialogue and pick the top answer if you want your allies and underlings to respect you. You can actually obtain multiple endings in each play through, but you still need to play the game multiple times to get them all.
As much as I truly enjoyed my time with Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, there are certainly some issues that you need to be forewarned about. First and foremost, movement can be a real pain from time to time. Movement seems imprecise at times, but the real issues come in battles, where your party members will sometimes refuse to walk around obstacles or allies, instead walking directly into a tree or rock. This is especially annoying when the 'obstacle' is a teammate in the middle of a spell-casting animation, because it requires the player to manually move them and reset their casting timer. It's an issue that can be avoided if you're diligent, but when you're in the heat of a massive battle, you might not be paying attention to Crevanile walking in place, stuck on an obstacle, and will instead be wondering why he hasn't attacked for half a dozen turns. Growlanser also seems to expect the player to know where they're going at all times, as there were plenty of instances where I got lost and had to look up a FAQ to find out where I needed to go.
After the disappointment that was Gungnir, I was hesitant to dive into an RPG series I was unfamiliar with, but after only a few hours I was hooked. The gameplay is enjoyable right from the get-go, the story hooks you in early and strings you along, the characters are sympathetic enough to make you care about what happens to them, and 40-60 hours of RPG goodness with enough unique variance between plays is more than enough of a reason to pick up Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, whether you're familiar with the series or not. Do not miss out on this one.