As a game console, you know your goose is cooked when you have a new game available and your successor can play it better than you can on day one. That said, ATLUS’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is an excellent game and, if internet release schedules are any indication, a great sendoff and way to end the turbulent legacy of the PSP. It is an enhanced port of a PS2 game, but its absence from English-language regions makes it fresh in my eyes. It also helps that this is the first Growlanser title I’ve gotten my clumsy hands on.
It is important to first mention that as a franchise, Growlanser is a offshoot of sorts of the Langrisser series. Langrisser was a largely Japan-exclusive strategy RPG series in the nineties of which its claim to fame was the enormous scale of the battles. The gameplay was comparable to, say, Advance Wars in that fights had a rock-paper-scissors modus operandi with an emphasis on terrain effects. The art was also consistently provided by Satoshi Urushihara, responsible for some popular anime at the time. But once again, the size of the stages were what set it apart, with players having control of dozens of units in any given battle. After interest in Langrisser died down, developer Career Arts followed up with the equally German-sounding Growlanser. Growlanser differs from its predecessor in that while aesthetically similar, the games are more drawn in and personal in nature, more closely resembling a standard jRPG while being much more.
The first thing any newcomer will notice coming into this game is the art. In 2012 it really stands apart from most other games featuring anime-style art. Instead of being creepy, sterile, and overbearingly saccharine, Growlanser has a more rough around the edges retro feel. Urushihara is still doing the art, and it captures the feel of late eighties/early nineties fantasy anime OVAs. I dig it quite a bit, even if some of the female character designs are the usual stereotypical anime nonsense. The music fits right in as well, mostly consisting of heavy, fast-paced synth action. The battle theme especially evokes that classic, nostalgic feeling without being archaic to the point of blandness.
The plot and the way it unfolds in Wayfarer of Time is ambitious. It claims upwards of forty different endings, mostly having to do with how you interact with the supporting cast. You can foster both strong friendships and romantic relationships, and are given several dialogue options to choose from during conversation, with no clear guide to the consequences of your choices other than your own judgement. A refreshing change from the obvious color coded moral choices in other RPGs. The plot itself plays with the more intimate nature of Growlanser, throwing the world and characters of the game against a massive destructive force that is difficult to comprehend, let alone successfully fight against. A lot of the time you and your allies are powerlessly swept from one event to another, merely being able to do what they can with the hand they have been dealt amidst the chaos of their surroundings. It is oftentimes intriguing and tries very hard to skirt around cliches with varying degrees of success.
The battle system, while being frustrating at times, is really neat and what sets Growlanser apart from its peers in a big way. Non-event battles are triggered by being close enough to enemies (think Chrono Trigger) and play out in semi-real time. Time stops when actions are chosen and can be stopped at any time to change them, and positioning of your units and the enemy are important. A time bar similar to the ATB system in Final Fantasy dictates when actions can be taken, and spells take time to cast which can be upgraded in power at the cost of more time. Battle flows smoothly and is fairly fast-paced for something based on strategy, unless you’re playing an event battle that provides specific win/loss conditions. Those can be problematic. The majority of the time, you’re given typical kill this person/don’t let so and so die type orders, but occasionally you’re given instructions that vaguely ask you to interact with the stage somehow, or prevent key units from escaping. The former can be an exercise in frustration, especially since the thing you’re supposed to interact with is usually not pointed out very clearly, and doesn’t stand out at all visually, forcing you to send your characters putzing around the map while simultaneously trying not to succumb to an onslaught of enemies and experience penalties. You can’t even actively poke around, you just have to bump into whatever it is the game wants you to. The latter tends to be pretty exciting, forcing you to take a more active role in managing the positions and actions of your characters.
After playing Wayfarer of Time, which is the fourth game in the series chronologically, I am definitely interested in seeking out the rest of the franchise that has been released in North America. The classic, retro aesthetic coupled with its unique mechanical flavor make this game really stand out to me, and all of the options and variables you encounter along the way open up a ton of possibilities for replay. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is a definite winner, and while I never touched my PSP to play this game it is definitely a worthy final game for the handheld that RPG fans owe themselves to check out. Or if you have a VITA, just play it on that because it rules.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time
|Pros||Unique and fun battle system, cool retro anime style, well done, flexible story|
|Cons||Specific battle victory conditions can be a pain, no subtitles during voiced cutscenes in a portable game sucks|
|Verdict||Great last hurrah from the PSP|