Grandia III
Game Arts/Square Enix
PlayStation 2
Rated: T

Like most of the console-lovin’ RPG nation, you’ve been going gray waiting (and waiting and waiting) for Final Fantasy XII to finally show its pointy-coiffed head.

And then, in the midst of your boredom-fueled reverie, you notice something, hovering on the edges of your peripheral vision. It’s another one of those Grandia games. The characters, peering through the sword-slash in the game’s cover, give off that cool RPG vibe. You’ll try it, you think. You fire it up … and within about five minutes, you’re wondering why you’ve been wasting your time waiting on Final Fantasy.

In the Square Enix hierarchy, the Grandia series may be the Edge to Final Fantasy‘s Bono, but FF‘s lesser-loved stepbrother has as much RPG mojo as its better-known sibling. Grandia III showcases all the signature strengths this series is known for: lush and beautiful landscapes, tightly-polished cutscenes, and a wonderful, magic-dependent combat system. In fact, the one thing Grandia lacks — the grandeur and make ’em cry emotion of FF‘s soaring storylines — isn’t at all essential to enjoying the hell out of this game.

If the “III” in the title scares off newbies, that’s a shame. This is a standalone project, even if the story’s likely to look awfully familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Game Arts offering before. You’ve got your requisite scrappy youngster — in this case, a wannabe air pilot named Yuki — who gets swept up trying to save the requisite cute, pointy-eared heroine from Evil Men who want her magical powers. The youngsters, as powerful as they eventually become, aren’t even the middling story’s best sell. That honor falls to Yuki’s mom, Miranda — a woman who looks and acts young enough to be his slightly older sister. In a sense, it’s too bad Miranda bails about halfway through the story, taking some of the wind out of Grandia‘s sails in the process. I’d argue you could make a fascinating RPG starring her.

Then again, you’re not really here for the storyline and characters — you’re here for the combat, which is as strategically deep and perfectly constructed as it’s ever been. Grandia‘s wheel-like IP gauge forces you to play a delicate timing game, interrupting enemies’ attacks with a critical strike at just the right moment or using your entire party to pull off a multi-character aerial combo that take out a powerful boss. And if the element-themed dungeons in which you’ll be pulling off these moves begin to look too familiar by the time you’ve flipped in the game’s second disc, give it time: There’s another great combat sequence hovering just a few minutes away.

Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, Aaron R. Conklin wants to be a pirate — just not a sky pirate with horns and pointy ears, thank you. Conklin writes about games for the City Paper.

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