Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Grand Kingdom (PS Vita) Review

Grand Kingdom begins with a simple premise - you start as a mercenary group looking for work.  It then adds some layers to make it a very unique game offering, mixing single player and online asynchronous multiplayer versus elements.  The resulting game is definitely a mixed bag, but I will say that it at least looks good.  The artwork and character graphics are really nice and detailed.

At its core, the game wants you to form a contract with one of four warring nations, and participate in battles to help them win territory.  Performing well in battle will get you more money and influence within their city.  You can stick with one or jump around as your whims dictate.  In other words, you actually do play as a mercenary.  To gain fortune and fame, you can take on several different kinds of quests.  Campaign quests will further the single player narrative of your group.  Versus battles will give you and a few other mercenary groups a common goal, and it is up to you to avoid each other, or directly interfere to gain the upper hand.  Single are quests given by each nation, and usually have some kind of restriction or gimmick to them, such as low move limit, harder enemies or no contact with enemies.  The last are Travel quests, which allow you to run around a given area, gather materials and fight enemies.

Each quest takes place on a map, where you move around like a piece in a board game.  Every move takes one turn, and you have a set number of turns you can take before failing the quest.  There are treasure chests to open and materials to gather set around at various points.  Sometimes hazards block your path, and you can choose to turn around, spend time to safely navigate it, or even use an item to clear it away.  There are also a few shortcuts for the player to use.  Your group members each have special abilities that can be used on the map if you have the TP to use them, plus items that can be used as well.  Unfortunately, such things tend to affect your whole group, even if it's only one or two people that need to be healed, which ends up wasting some of your limited healing.  Unit abilities and items are crucial to making it through several of the missions in the game, so get used to them.

You aren't the only one on the field though.  There are also enemy pieces that move around while you do.  If you run into one of them (visible or not) you will start a battle.  Battles are actually really neat and can be fun.  There are three planes that you can move between.  Each unit can equip up to six different attacks to use on your turn.  Ranged units like mages and archer will display the affected area before you confirm the attack.  Your target reticle moves from one side to the other, and you must press the button each time to do the attack, allowing you to aim it fairly well.  You can attack as many times as your vitality gauge allows.  Melee units attack right next to them, but you can link their various moves into combos, and even launch the opponent.  Fun!

Now for my gripes with the combat.  First is that it is too easy to hit your own people.  Attacks like the bottles and arrows show the trajectory, but it lies on how wide it considers the hit box.  You have to be fairly far from another unit to actually have your attack arc over them.  Arrows are better than boxes and bottles, but they can still hit a unit next to you.  However, you cannot use them like this, since you can't attack unless there is a target in your ending zone.  If a unit gets launched and contacts another, it will do damage to that unit as well.  This can work in your favor, but I find it helping the computer most often.  Plus, you take almost full attack damage from something that isn't the attack.  What!?

"But wait...there's more" as they like to say on infomercials.  There are techniques that will put damaging patches on the ground.  These are limited in use, except to the computer, because they don't need to plan for the future.  So, they often rush you and throw it all around your character to box you in, often before you even get a turn.  Effective?  Sure.  Cheap?  Hell yeah.  Combine it with the catapults and other things that will target your side each turn and you can have some really cheap battles to overcome.

Besides the combat annoyances, I do have a lot of other problems with the game.  First, I will tackle quests.  I like the Campaign quests, since they have a set level and are one of precious few things you can over-level for.  The other is the Travel quests to gather materials and fight enemies.  While you don't get any bonuses for doing anything there, they are great for leveling up units.

However, even they have some problems.  First is that you can get rare items if the resource percent (shown before you embark on a Roam quest to a location) is 100%.  This would be great except enemies can gather resources, thereby robbing you of your rare item because the developers put the resources in the path of the enemy.  Since you can't always get to the resources before an enemy happens upon it, this is annoying.  Minor, yes, but still annoying.  Roam quests also contain bounty monsters, which the game warns you are stronger than the surrounding monsters.  It doesn't say how much stronger, so when I was level 8 in the level 3 area, I decided to fight one.  It was level 15.  Yeah, that seems really reasonable.

Versus quests try to be unique from the others.  However, the other mercenaries rush to fight you, so they lose that uniqueness and just become normal quests.  To top it off, the other mercenary squads I fought seemed way to powerful for their level, with better stats and more attacks than the same units I had.  The Single quests and their gimmicks tend to be the most annoying.  I guess it is nice that they increase your reputation with one of the nations, but that also limits which ones you can do, often taking the four listed to two available.  One tasks you with fighting X amount of groups.  Ok, makes sense.  It then puts the normal difficulty enemies at the fringes of the map and plops lots of stronger enemy symbols in the way.  That's just one example, but plenty of the Single quests I tried used a gimmick and set up the player to easily fail.

Recruiting characters to use in battle is also a crap shoot.  In the beginning, they provide you with a good mix of standard types to fill out your first party.  Then they will randomly cycle in eight mercenaries of various types with different skills and bonus points for you to hire after each quest.  Once you pick one, you can then change the name, look and set the bonus points.  However, you cannot set what skills they have or their class.  Why only go halfway?  While I was trying to fill out my parties, I eventually needed another healer or two.  I had to wait for several hours (4+) of doing quests before it would let me buy one, since it was intent on offering me multiple valkyries, archers and mages.  If I could just create the character fully, paying more for certain things, this wouldn't be a problem, and I would be a slightly happier camper.

In addition to the single player content, there are also wars going on between the four nations.  This is the multiplayer/online portion of the game, and the part people can participate in with the "Lite" version.  The game explains part of what is going on, but not all of it.  When I participate in an online war, sometimes one win or loss will end the battle.  Other times it will just repeat until the battle is over or I just quit out.  I have no idea why there are different outcomes, the fights seem the same.  It also seems to match me up to other groups that again have more attacks and higher stats at the same level.  Or, it will put me against higher level groups, because that's what will help me not suck.  There's no way to know the level of an opponent until you actually fight them, so you run the risk of coming across much stronger units that you have no hope to beat.  This seems to run against the quest mentality that puts enemies at your level to (pretend to) keep it even.

I usually end up just dispatching my troops and let the AI use them.  It's some free experience, but wow do you lose even more.  Until the game released, my records were usually 0:10.  The only groups that had wins were the ones with Dragon Mages (the best unit I think).  Afterwards, my win/loss rate dramatically improved to 2:10.  I'm sure the AI isn't supposed to win, but I'm sarcastically glad that I fueled a lot of wins for somebody...as it sure as heck wasn't for me.

Maybe part of my problem with Grand Kingdom is that core things seem to be under-explained.  My favorite example of this is the stats.  Yes, they do blatantly tell you what the stat does, but not how an increase affects it.  I pump level up points into something, and it doesn't actually seem to get better.  Strength affects physical attack power, but does that mean it affects ranged attacks like bows and vials?  It must, since nothing else would, based off the descriptions.  Vitality affects the attack gauge recovery speed.  So, does that mean I get my turn faster?  Or does increasing it get me more attacks per turn?  Or is it the move gauge (Agility) that determines when I move?  In practice, it seems to not matter, as your class determines turn order.  Then what does increasing Vit or Agi actually do?  So even though they do say what a stat is supposed to do, in practice it actually either tells me nothing or is meaningless.

Given the random and replayable nature of the PvP and quests (other than the campaign), the game does boast a healthy amount of playtime.  For Grand Kingdom, it is a double edged sword, though.  While I was trying to get all the units, level up some, try them out and do some quests, I spend my first 12 or so hours to go nowhere.  Unlike that feeling in something like The Elder Scrolls games, where it is because you have so much to do, here it felt like I was playing in circles.  I thought I was going somewhere, but really wasn't.

To be fair, maybe I just wasn't "getting" Grand Kingdom.  Maybe what it does isn't clicking with me.  The PvP focus goes against how RPGs play, and it's not a combination that really works in my opinion.  I played the game on the Vita, but I feel it would at least be slightly better on the PS4.  The Vita version loads too often and too long, which should be cut down by the more powerful system.  Plus, the game wants you to constantly be online, which is better for a console than a handheld with limited battery life and a non-constant connection.  Ultimately, I feel very unsuccessful while playing the game, with no indication what I was doing wrong and what I could do to improve.  There is a good game somewhere in the mess, but it has to dump or fix the half of the game that undermines the other half.

The Good:
Map movement and battles are very unique.  If you enjoy PvP and random quests, there is a lot of playtime and replayability in the game.  The art in the game also looks really good.

The Bad:
The PvP focus undermines the RPG aspects.  You can't just create characters.  Important aspects don't seem well explained, and the game is very inconsistent.

The SaHD:
Flint is really annoying.

(Review codes for Grand Kingdom was provided by the publisher)

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