Grand Kingdom marches forth for justice, glory, and the jingle of coin.
The emergence of games like Fire Emblem and the older Final Fantasy entries over in Japan has always been interesting to me on an aesthetic level. A Japanese take on Euro-centric knights, kingdoms and warfare is indicative of bigger things going on in the world’s culture, where we all start drawing things from each others histories, and making new things out of them. It’s like Genji and Hanzo being in Overwatch, essentially. Today, we see another example in the historical fiction turned historical fusion, in the form of Grand Kingdom. Co-developed by Spike Chunsoft and Monochrome Corp, Grand Kingdom changes things up in a sequence of ways that feel like one part Fire Emblem, one part Etrian Odyssey, and a heap of genuine newness. Assemble your troops, give them funny names, and let’s head into battle.
In Grand Kingdom, players take control as the head of a band of mercenaries, fighting as sell-swords in a war-torn continent plagued by disputes between four kingdoms. The quartet of nations at hand have been fighting for so long that war is a pretty regular business, and warriors will take up contracts with whatever nation is paying the best that month. After a skirmish goes awry, the mercenary team gets an invite to join The Guild, an institution designed to help mercenary teams get contracts, hire new members, and kind of generally be better at what they do. The Guild head’s daughter is assigned as your personal assistant, some money is generously put into your wallet, and you’re ready to go sell your soul and sword to the battlefield.
Grand Kingdom has a small share of characters with names and faces, but the units you will command in battle are of a bit of a different breed. As the commander of your band of mercs (with mouths, presumably,) your first task will be to hire your first quartet of characters to serve in your first squad. You can maintain up to six mercenary squads in all, and will be encouraged to start expanding your numbers pretty quickly. By this point, you will have been led through a tutorial battle with a hand-picked squad of diverse classes, and so may be already hatching an idea of what you want your first team of butt-kickers to look like.
Combat is the most immediate area in which Grand Kingdom pleases and surprises. Battles take place on a striated battlefield, consisting of three vertical paths of movement shared freely by friendly and enemy troops alike. Battle is turn-based, and each character has a limited action gauge affected by movement, as well as passive and active skills. Characters with melee abilities will typically have one basic attack, which can be developed into chains of differentiated strikes as the character levels up and gains new skills. Ranged characters such as archers and mages have multiple types of abilities. You might find yourself launching strikes from afar, having to time button taps right as a reticule passes the enemy whose day you want to make worse. Alternatively, you might have a mage use her lightning attack, which involves a well-timed turn of charging time followed by a column of firepower that covers as much of her lane of combat as is visible. Between different ally and enemy types, the presence of knockback and friendly fire, and even more to consider, there’s a lot going on in each combat encounter Grand Kingdom brings to the table. Three lanes means a surprising amount of depth and strategy is at work.
The other thing setting Grand Kingdom‘s combat apart is the board game-esque system surrounding it all. Each mission takes place on a turn-based grid map, with a finite number of turns in which to reach for success. Whether the mission is to slay enemies, collect resources, or get to an objective point, a lot can go wrong if you spend too many turns dawdling. Maps are riddled with obstacles, from crevasses to booby traps to tornadoes. As the commander, you will be given a choice of different methods of making your way through. Have some extra turns to spare? Spend three of them safely making your way across that huge pit of quicksand. Running short? Barrel through quickly, take some damage, and hope nobody sinks into an extremely sandy demise. There’s a healthy dose of stress injected into each mission when the turn counter looms up in the corner the whole time, creating a level of tension easy to miss in JRPGs.
It would be remiss of me to go any further without making mention of Grand Kingdom‘s character class system; lord knows, I’ve spent enough time customizing characters by now that I would probably be happy with a game comprising of that and nothing else. There are 17 classes in all, and a random handful will be available for hire each time you take a visit to the employment office. The differentiation between some characters is not always clear at first – between a knight and a lancer, for example. All classes will either show up as always-male or always-female, and some seem like gender-swaps of each other at first glance. With a little bit of levelling and development, though, commanders will find this presumption to not be the case in the slightest, however. Every class has some wonderful distinctions that unfold organically. It would be nice to have some more detailed information about each class available from the hiring page, but it’s fun to learn as you go.
From dragon summoner to necromancer, every character can be customized to an astonishing degree, through both face-level methods – like costumes, skin color, hair and voice – and statistical ones. Characters gain a whole bunch of assignable stat points each time they level up, and the possible roles they can be built up for are really versatile. You want an archer with maxed HP? You got it. Have a squad of four. They’re going out shooting everything, just for you. They grow up so fast.
There’s a lot more that can be said about Grand Kingdom as a whole, almost nauseously so. As commander, you will join contracts with different nations, each one lasting for a certain number of wars. These contracts involve hopping online and into the game’s full-fledged multiplayer mode, where players will fight in real-time for the nations whom they’re currently assigned to. It’s a good idea in theory, and one which takes place on thoroughly-generated battlefields that never really feel the same twice. However, the game offers players the choice to dispatch AI units to go fight the lucrative good fight in your stead, freeing you up to take on single-player missions while they go out. It can be easy to fall into a pattern there, and slightly cheapens the effect.
It’s also worth mentioning that the game is playable on both Playstation Vita and Playstation 4. The capabilities are essentially the same in both versions, but some may find one more accessible than the other on a mostly superficial level. Playstation 4 players can move the camera during battle by using the touch pad, an ability which would be nice to have with the back pad on the Vita version. There’s also the matter of the online mode, which operates better under the Playstation 4’s superior online stability. Other than these things and some very slight visual superiority, the two versions are basically the same. The release of both versions opens up more space for online play, as players can engage with direct skirmishes with each other. While fun, these don’t always feel like the most well-balanced things in the world. At times, I found myself getting flayed in half by an enemy squad far too powerful to be fighting. The online combat has promise, and involved a war of nations that changes in real time, but should be approached with caution.
The sheer flood of nonstop information I’ve been rambling out thus far should tell you one thing above any other: Grand Kingdom is a very complex game. And the complexity works! The story mode is short and only adequately-written, but is complemented by single-player side missions that always feel challenging in distinct ways. Between all of this, multiplayer contracts, and everything else, there is quite simply a lot of game to game here. The one flaw, then, is how the information is handled. To put it simply, Grand Kingdom does quite a bit of text box spamming within its first few hours. The earlier mentioned tutorial battle does things right by teaching through action, but is unfortunately a bit of an isolated incident. It’s difficult to be articulate and consistent in handling the amount of information Grand Kingdom is working with, let alone doing so in a way that doesn’t feel like an info dump, but it can make the early couple of hours feel like a bit of a wall.
Grand Kingdom is a lot of things. It’s visually very pretty, the icing on the cake of multilayered gameplay that gets shockingly addicting with an amount of relative ease that would make a games-paranoid parent shudder with dread. It invites players to become strategists, combatants, and managers all in one, and does so with relative aplomb, assuming the player is willing to do a hell of a lot of reading and memorization when the game begins. There’s definite trial-and-error going on in Grand Kingdom, but never purposeless. Pick up your Vita or Playstation 4, and get ready to enlist for the truest glory of all; money.
Final verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4, Vita (reviewed) ; Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, NIS America ; Developer: Spike Chunsoft, Monochrome Corp. ; Players: 1-4 (online) ; Released: June 21, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Playstation Vita copy of Grand Kingdom provided by the game’s publisher, NIS America. Impressions on the Playstation 4 version were added on June 21st.