Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: SCEA (1999, PlayStation)
Game Arts' Lunar series has a pretty decent following, especially amongst English speakers. This was mostly because it was one of the few JRPGs of the 16-bit era that received competent translations thanks to Working Designs.
After the original two releases (for the Sega CD), their remakes (for the Saturn and PlayStation), and a completely negligible side story (Magical School for the Saturn and Game Gear), fans kept clamoring for a new Lunar installments.
What Lunar fans perhaps may not have realized is that the series' spirit lived in Grandia, another series by the same company. It may be missing the interesting mythology behind the Lunar world, and they definitely falter from the lack of Toshiyuki Kubooka's distinctive character artwork, but they practically perfect one area where JRPG developers often still can't get it right -- the battle system.
Considering you spend a huge portion of any JRPG in battle, it's a wonder that so many games are dull or plodding or just plain irritating. Grandia introduced a pseudo-real time battle system that not only forces strategy on to the player, but also manages to be enthralling, quite an achievement considering that you're still just picking selections from menus.
During battle, each character's turn order is depicted on a gauge at the bottom of the screen. The action unfolds in real time -- similar to Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system -- except you're made explicitly aware of your foes' places in the turn queue, allowing you to plot accordingly. The action pauses whenever one of your character's turns comes up, allowing you to make a move.
In addition to the usual magic spells, each character has two primary attacks -- a "Combo", which consists of multiple powerful attacks, and a "Critical", a single, quick attack. There's a short delay between the time when an action is decided and when it's actually executed, indicated on the action gauge as a line of red. If you manage to hit an enemy with a Critical attack during this small window, you'll stun the enemy and cause them to lose their turn.
On the flip side, if you're not paying attention, the enemy can do the same thing to you. As a result, each time you pick a command, you have to weigh your decisions, be mindful of the speed and distance of your attacks, and take some risks at every turn. If you play it smart, it's possible to emerge from battle completely unscathed, which rewards you with additional experience and a special victory theme.
The shaky camera in the first game adds to the chaos, zooming around the battlefield and focusing on the most brutal attacks. Crushing sound effects accompany every blow, and slain enemies that explode in a mess of coins and shattered polygons. These effects were toned down once the series went 3D in Grandia II, which is a bit of a shame
The first Grandia is most like the original Lunar games, featuring the story of a young boy named Justin, adventuring out into the world and eventually taking down an evil empire. It's clichéd, but it's eminently likable and the strongest of the series.
The second features an interesting protagonist by the name of Ryudo, and while it starts off strong, it tragically devolves into a silly plot wherein you must destroy the world's pseudo-Pope. Grandia III, while gorgeous, collapses even further into banal storytelling, with only a few side characters holding up a plot that's weighed down by the moronic starring cast. Yet, again, it's the battle system that keeps all of the Grandia games afloat, and makes them all worth checking out.