1998’s The Granstream Saga, is not a remarkable game, it was (even 1998) a deeply flawed action RPG, that featured many good (if not great) ideas that were not executed properly. Shade (the developers) left us instead, with what in my opinion is one of the most glaring examples of wasted potential in an action RPG game from the 32-bit era.
Shade, was a development team formed within Quintet (of Soul Blazer fame), as such, The Granstream Saga can be considered a spiritual sequel. In an interesting bit of information, members of this team worked in SNES’s Illusion of Gaia, and on Sega’s Shenmue.
Clearly, the pedigree was there for The Granstream Saga to be more than just an average to good game. But the entire game feels rushed, as in not quite done ‘rushed’. The game doesn’t have any glaring glitches, (though I have read reports of the game crashing, and booting up right into the ending cutscenes when starting a new game), but it feels like many of its elements are inexplicably unfinished.
For starters, The Granstream Saga’s major historical claim to fame (whether accurate or not) is that it was the first truly full polygonal action RPG made at the time. The claim is largely true, exploration is handled from a hard-top down view that can be rotated (360 degrees), and everything is rendered with polygons, including the characters.
Encountering an enemy shifted the camera to a closer 45 degree viewing angle, and the fighting took place in a 360 space. You could parry, block, and dodge attacks in what feels like a slower version of Zelda Ocarina of Time’s combat (a game that would arrive months later). To be fair, the combat remains one of the game’s greatest aspects, and even though Ocarina of Time blew it out of the water in that regard, The Granstream Saga has one of the better implementations of action combat in a game from the era.
The game featured smooth polygonal graphics, but the ‘unfinished’ feel came in the form of the blank faces featured in all of the characters, and the sometimes glaring pop up (Volcos has this issue even though the camera is on top, and such an angle should have hidden this issue). The blank faces are puzzling, drawing a set of eyes on the faces would have given the character models some needed life, and it should not have been taxing on the hardware.
All that said, the dialog boxes are accompanied by anime drawings of each character’s face. This softens this problem to a certain degree. So, in the end we are left with a game that looks decidedly well despite some big issues, but could have easily looked great with some more polish.
Kohei Tanaka (Pokemon Movie, Alundra, Dragon Ball, and Sakura Wars) delivers a very good score. Still, the game suffers from the small number of tracks featured in it. The dungeon music can get tiresome after a while. Again, the talent and production values are all there, the anime cutscenes are some of the best that could be found in video games on the 90s.
Perhaps the reason why I still hold on to my copy of the game, and I still cherish The Granstream Saga, even though I know it is a very average game, is because of its poor implementation of what perhaps is the coolest story concept of the entire era.
Air Pirates (way before Skies of Arcadia), sinking continents, religious issues, a love triangle in which you are given the choice of picking which girl you can keep, and reincarnation. Only Xenogears can compare in terms of the actual narrative concept.
As with many things in the game, the story fails at times because of the poor execution by the game’s scenario writers. It is maddening indeed, to love a story that is so flawed and ‘half-done’ to the degree of frustration. Translation might be at fault, but the dialog between characters is poorly written, there is almost no character development which minimizes the impact of the grand finale (which was, and remains awesome indeed).
Eon, Laramee and Arcia are some of the greatest characters to have ever graced a console Action-RPG, and yet they are utterly under developed throughout.
The entire article might seem like a long rant, and yet, for some strange reason, The Granstream Saga is that one average game that I still love more than many of the better games of the era. I do recommend nabbing a copy of it, because I do feel that anyone can enjoy its story while at the same time point out all the missed potential that it had. I feel combat remains somewhat fun 22 years later, and that it is a worthy entry for collectors of 32-Bit Era games.