Japan continues to be the life support machine keeping the PlayStation Vita alive. While support outside of the console’s homeland has dwindled to almost nothing, Japanese developers continue to ship major titles on the Vita, either alongside shinier PS4 versions or as Vita exclusives. Unsurprisingly, this means that some of the biggest Vita titles coming out recently have been JRPGs, and the latest one, Grand Kingdom, is no exception.
As a tactical RPG, Grand Kingdom breaks away from the norm and blends in a bunch of unique ideas together, mashing up bits of Valkyria Chronicles with pieces of Radiant Historia, bits of tabletop RPGs, a sprinkle of XCOM and even a dash of Planetside 2. While a few factors seem to be forgotten or fumbled, Grand Kingdom manages to create not just a fresh new gaming experience, but one of the most satisfying portable experiences I’ve had on the Vita, while also releasing on PS4.
In terms of setting, it’s a basic Japanese high fantasy tale; there’s dragons, mages, thieves, castles and kingdoms. While the game’s story is advanced through scenes featuring numerous characters, the player themselves is a voiceless entity witnessing it all, similar to the commander from recent XCOM games. You’re the boss of a rag-tag group of mercenaries trying to make a name for themselves, working with a local kingdom and rising in the ranks to take on bigger and better jobs.
The main story unfolds over the course of just 12 story chapters, each around an hour or so long. Not only is that chapter count low, but it isn’t until around the halfway point that the story even begins to pick up any kind of significant steam. It serves more as an excuse to play the game, which is a shame given the likeable characters and well-produced voice acting.
Thankfully, as part of Grand Kingdom’s localization, all of the DLC content released for the game in Japan is included in the Western release, which adds a whopping 36 additional chapters of story that delve into the backgrounds of the four great kingdoms present in the games online features. It’s a hefty amount of extra content that makes the overall package feel a lot more complete.
Jumping into the actual game is a bit overwhelming at first. Each mission takes places on a large gameboard of tiles that you, as well as enemies, move around, one turn at a time. It’s a system similar to how you navigate a dungeon RPG like Etrian Odyssey, but the board game aesthetic that it’s presented in, complete with chess pieces to represent the player and the enemies, gives it a fun twist.
Challenge lies within the very act of navigating, as not only are there invisible enemies that you only see move every third turn, but many missions have a turn limit, giving you a fail state if you don’t finish within the amount of turns given. In many cases, the turn limit is just a fun motivator to plot out your next move, and rarely inconveniences you. There’s a wide variety of mission types, though, and a few of them, such as having to gather resources from a dozen points on the map within the turn limit, can really test you.
If you step onto the same space as an enemy, you’ll engage in combat. Characters and backgrounds are rendered in a beautiful and crisp 2D art style reminiscent of Dragon’s Crown, and this attention to artistic detail also carries over to cut-scenes. The combat space is a side-on view with three rows for characters to stand on and move around in, your squad being on the left while the enemy appears on the right. This is where a lot of the Valkyria Chronicles influence comes into play. Each character moves one by one, and has a movement gauge that, until emptied, allows you to move across the field anywhere you wish. Once you’re in place, you can activate attacks and skills, with a staggering amount of depth.
Melee characters operate on a system where multiple skills and attacks are assigned to the circle button, with additional ones mapped to square and triangle, allowing you to chain attacks together to create combos. Don’t like the way your attacks play out? Go into the party menu and you can select a character and manually change every skill assignment, and hop into a training mode to test out your new setup. I took a character that was delivering weak 3-hit combos and turned her into a 6 hit-combo beast that was killing almost everything in her path.
Ranged units like mages, archers and healers use a “technical” system, which sacrifices combos for a palette of 6-8 skills that you can freely cycle through and activate. Ranged characters take a bit more finesse to operate, as their abilities often require you to be standing just far enough away from the enemy to be in range, and a few skills allow you to mash the attack button to fire off multiple arrows or fireballs, juggling the enemy into oblivion. If the enemy gets back up with just barely any health left, a satisfying assist gauge allows a teammate to swoop in and deliver the killing blow. This same gauge can allow your own party member to survive a killing blow as well, so it’s up to you to decide when to use which ability.
After a brief series of tutorial missions, you’re given the ability to hire and customize your own squad of units. The game features 17 different character classes – another aspect of the game expanded by the included DLC – and characters can be given custom names, hairstyles, voices, colors, and starting stats. Later into the game, you begin getting accessories that, on top of changing stats, change a character’s in-game appearance, offering even more customization. You’re given a cap of 50 recruits, as well as six squads of four that you can place them in and customize as you see fit.
Each class plays in truly different ways, making you really think about the type of team composition you want. Many of the classes seemed like nothing more than gender swaps at first, though. There’s the female bow-wielding Archer and the male bow-wielding Hunter, for example. Once you bring them into battle, though, you quickly learn that their skill differences make them all unique.
The amount of depth in the gameplay is staggering. Archers and knights don’t use the same series of menu navigations, so you have to actually play an archer as a ranged character. It’s a unique system that encourages experimentation and strategizing, but maintains enough simplicity that you won’t have to bust out a calculator to figure out the most optimal path to victory.
The only hindrances here are minor faults that lead to annoying battle errors. Healers throw potions at a strange angle that, if you’re too close, will simply land on the character directly in front of you, but the angle is never accurately displayed, which can lead to plenty of mishaps in the heat of the moment. The fact that skills are mapped to a variety of buttons also means that there isn’t necessarily one universal accept or cancel button in battle, which means there have been plenty of times where I tap circle to cancel, only to accidentally use up an attack.
As I said earlier, mission variety is enormous; you’ll rarely do the same type of mission twice in a row. One of the most unique ones, stealth missions, require you to navigate the world-map in a puzzle-like fashion to avoid encountering any enemies at all. Another has you weaving between spots on the map that you need to defend from incoming enemy assaults. You’re bound to find some missions you love and some you hate, but the amount of variety means you’ll never be stuck doing something you don’t enjoy.
Somehow, on top of all of this, the game features an online multiplayer mode that has more depth than the rest of the game. Too much depth, maybe. In War mode, you can connect to PSN and sign a war contract with one of four nations that are constantly at war with each other. Once you pick a nation, you can drop into a variety of active warzones to fight off enemies and claim the land (and rewards) for your side. The enemies you fight aren’t standard goblins or ghouls, though, but actual squads from other online players. While you don’t fight them in real time, squad AI can be customized in detail to ensure they perform just as the real person would, either in a defensive situation or an offensive one.
It’s impressive that the game has something like this included, but there are so many moving parts, so many menus and timers and pieces of info, that even if you thoroughly read and re-read the in-game tutorials on the mode, you’re going to be wandering blindly through it for a while. If you manage to grasp the mode and it’s systems, though, it’s a truly bottomless part of the game that is sure to offer endless hours of gameplay.
Grand Kingdom is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever had on my Vita, combining so many ideas together and somehow making them all work. Like a weird looking dish at a foreign restaurant your cousin recommended, you might doubt it can be anything other than a huge mess, but once you get a taste of it, you’ll realize just how wrong you were.
Version tested: PS Vita