Glory and fame. Companionship and adventure. Mead and gold coins. Life as a sellsword is truly eventful and exciting. In the fantasy world of Resonail four nations fight for power and the player becomes the leader of one group of mercenaries that goes against the tide. Japanese role playing games are often about kidnapped princesses and heroes in their teens and prophecies, but in Grand Kingdom for PlayStation 4 and Vita the player has very little to do with the central conflict. You're mostly there to make a buck on war and destruction.
Focus therefore lies on building a strong and well balanced troop by hiring swordsmen, archers, mages and maybe even a dragonrider or two. These characters have no impact on the story, but you'll get to name your champions and give them back stories that at least gives them a bit of personality. After that has been done you can send them out in combat to level up and conquer the world for one of the four kingdoms. You will get to choose which side you're on by signing a war contract and taking on missions, which may sound a little dishonourable, but after all it is mercenaries we're talking about.
Basically, the story doesn't get any deeper than that and the characters aren't all that interesting or well written. As if that wasn't enough, the player's best friend, Flint, is one of the most detestable video game characters we've ever come across. He's a violent, snide, drunken and sexist bully. Despite the fact that he was supposed to be our friend we constantly found ourselves hating him throughout.
With that said, the actual world of Resonail is an exciting place filled with dangerous enemies and beasts. The fantasy environments that Monochrome Corporation designed look stunning as well, with beautiful two dimensional backgrounds and pleasant character designs. That's why it's regrettable that you never really get to properly explore the world. The bulk of the playtime is spent in the heat of battle on small, flat arenas, and when you're not fighting for your life you're most likely staring at menus filled with tactical options or a board game-like map.
All the missions in Grand Kingdom are played out on this grid where your little band of roughnecks could be likened to chess pieces. Sometimes it's all about protecting a specific point on the map from the other nations' pieces, but mostly you're just tasked with getting from point A to point B on the other side of the board. Along the way there are enemy troops, sentries and traps lurking and waiting for you but you'll also come across the occasional treasure chest. By moving your piece one step the enemy also move with you, and if you can predict their movements you'll be able to avoid some of them altogether.
Some tiles hide concealed shortcuts and resources which can be used to craft items and equipment as well. Everything you do on the board - advancing, looking for treasure, fighting enemies or disarming traps that has been laid out - costs you one of several turns, and if your goal isn't achieved when your turns are out you lose. You can't save your progress when a mission has been started, so it's important to deploy your tactics from beginning to end if you want to go all the way.
The board game concept is simple and well executed, and gives Grand Kingdom a really fast tempo - there's hardly any down time between battles at all. This would surely have been fatal for any other Japanese role playing game, where several hours of monotonous grinding and dragged out, static fights make up the core of the experience, but the battles are actually the highlight of Grand Kingdom.
Just like many other games in the genre the battles in Grand Kingdom are turn based. What's not especially common is that you're free to move about on three different horizontal rails, which allows for many tactical options. It's not just about choosing the right attack at the right time as you'll also need to think about positioning so that you can reach the enemy but at the same time also take cover behind boxes and other objects when they retaliate. You're given a certain amount of steps to take in any given round, and the ones that you don't use you can instead be used to perform more powerful attacks.
Everything is in constant motion, and if you don't pay attention to your own units it's possible to fall victim to accidental fire. Fortunately you can decide for yourself how the group should be placed on the field when the battle is initiated, so that the vanguard doesn't get in the way of your mage's long range spells in the back. And while, if we're being honest, Japanese role playing games don't always entertain us, things in Grand Kingdom feels a bit more modern and interesting.
Your troop can consist of four characters at a time at most, and because a single mission can last up to an hour to complete it's vital that you bring plenty of supplies and knowledge of which of the 17 (!) different classes work well together. Many of them, like fighters, lancers and hammer wielding blacksmiths, are best suited for the frontline, as they're able to keep the guard up and provide cover for the units behind them. Rogues can move the farthest on the battlefield and therefore they're good for sneaking up behind enemy troops, archers can fire their arrows above obstacles and medics can put out health items on the field that then in turn can be picked up by the other characters.
But despite the fact that most of the components that make up Grand Kingdom are well done and feels fresh, there are plenty of flaws to highlight as well. The load times are long and frequent on the Vita version (which we played) and since the story is flat it kind of feels like the campaign is there solely to introduce the player to all the game systems. Most of the content is found when playing online, where you connect to one of the four nations and go to war with hundreds of other players. You choose a war to take part in and a troop to send out in battle, and then if falls upon you to defeat other players in order to win territories for your nation, which in turn unlocks unique shops and items.
If you don't have the time to play yourself you could even put your troop in autopilot so that it keeps fighting the online battles when you do other things. The ultimate goal is obviously to win the war - but as there are so many players involved it's rare that you actually feel like you're doing real progress. You don't have any contact with the players that fight for the same nation as you do, so it feels a little impersonal. After dozens of hours you're mostly just sitting there, still building your troops just for the sake of it. You send them away and wait for them to return stronger than they were before, so that you can repeat the process time and time again. Of course, it would have been easier to commit to this cycle if the developers put a little more effort in the campaign and its world.
In other words, how much you'll get out of Grand Kingdom is highly dependent on how important story is to you in a Japanese role playing game, and your stance to online gaming. We feel that Spike Chunsoft and Monochrome has prioritised correctly in development, though. Their tactic war simulator offers amazing battles, deep role playing systems, interesting game design and plenty of fresh ideas to the genre that justifies a purchase for many role playing games fanatics out there.
This game may appeal to those who don't normally appreciate JRPGs, and its particular strategy is easy to get into, yet provides depth. The war of Resonail may be violent and grim, but we plan on staying there for a long time to come. In the pursuit of glory, fame, gold coins and the perfect troop.
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