Classic Niche—Growlanser Series

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Strategy RPGs are bittersweet tactical bliss, including such wonderful titles as the Disgaea series, Arc the Lad series, and—of course—the bangin’ Final Fantasy Tactics. This week on Classic Niche, we talk about a series that is popular in Japan, but has received only a lukewarm reception in the West, the Growlanser series. There are four Growlanser titles that have made it to America:

  • Growlanser Generations (a collection of Growlansers II and III);
  • Growlanser IV: Wayfarer of Time; and
  • Growlanser V: Heritage of War.

Hardcore strategy RPG fans will find this is a treat, with decent character development and battle systems—but what entices most people is how the story varies with your decisions. These changes range from who is on your team, to who lives, dies, and even to the general arc of the story. Your decisions can easily take the life of one of your playable characters, so the game definitely requires some thinking before action is taken. These decisions are typically made in dialogue as well as in battle.

The games’ stories normally center around warring countries, sometimes with a supernatural twist. All of their titles have a list of endings, numbered as letters (i.e. ending A to ending H). Games nowadays tend to have a wide range of outcomes rather than just “Best”, “Good” and/or “Bad” (or in Mass Effect‘s terms, Red, Green, or Blue). This kind of thing is just not as prominent anymore.

I generally liked the art of Growlanser Generations. The character art is sharp and highly exaggerated, which is typical of old ’80s and ’90s anime designs; I find it fun, but it may look ridiculous to others. However, the downside is that the characters are far too pretty in a game about warfare—and I say that as someone who’s played a lot of JRPGs. The highly exaggerated designs are also pretty interesting, however. They are intricate, and have a great presence.

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Most of the titles have a 2D-sprite look in-game, which I’m a sucker for. The sprites are decent but won’t be winning any prizes; animations are minimal and not necessarily clean. The art in-game looks very similar to Star Ocean Second Story, which mixes some 3D elements with the 2D plane, and has sprites running on top of them. The game literally looks like a PS1 game, not a PS2 title. Still, I generally appreciate sprite art and felt pretty nostalgic while playing it. Others might deem it too old school, which is perfectly understandable.

Career Soft, the developers, did dabble in 3D art with Heritage of War, with just very basic models and environments that were typical of early PS2 titles—which is unfortunate, considering that Heritage of War was released towards the end of the PS2 era. In contrast to the usual battle system normally employed in Growlanser titles, Heritage of War distanced itself from the others as it tried to experiment.

The battle systems of Growlanser are of the other stronger points to the series. The player navigates the map in isometric view, and battles happen in-world. The analog stick is used to select allies and give them directions. Combat plays out similarly to RTS titles like Starcraft and Warcraft, but with a fun JRPG flair. Allies can cast spells but require time to recharge, and can even charge for longer to increase the level of the spell further before using it.

The combat system might sound basic but, in conjunction with the Ring System, story challenges, and fully customizable leveling for your allies, you’re given a lot of control. There are no armors in-game, so characters equip rings instead. Rings normally have three slots with numbers and a particular element. Based on the level and element associated with it, you can equip particular spells or stat boosters.

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From Growlanser III onward, Career Soft improved this aspect by allowing your character to level up the rings you receive, allowing stronger techniques to be utilized, and improving stats given by the ring. (As you progress through the game, you realize that the naming conventions of the rings play a big part in what type of stats each one will give.) This leveling created the possibility for pretty flexible customization as to where points would be allocated, and which skills were boosted.

If I were to choose which games are the best in the series, it would have to be between Growlanser III and IV. Growlanser III was a huge improvement on Growlanser II. The characters are interesting and have unique designs. The main character, Slayn, is a gentlemanly sort, sporting a vest and ruffles and a giant-ass sword. What’s not to love?

This isn’t to say that Growlanser II is bad. It’s actually pretty fun. The warfare drama, of the sort one would find in Suikoden, makes me happy, and combined with the supernatural themes it made for a unique experience. The story was decent, minus the cliche of the amnesiac hero.

If you just want to play just one of the titles in order to get a general idea of the series, I’d recommend Growlanser IV: The Wayfarer of Time, which was recently revamped for the PSP and Vita systems, so the graphics are much more polished, and even the 2D character art in the game looks better. Improvements from Growlanser III are there. You also acquire a fairy companion, based on a personality test taken in the game, which provides bonus stats for your character, and aids your progress down whichever story path you choose. The story is pretty awesome, combining themes and motifs of warfare and religion, which include the appearance of angels and the destruction of humans.

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Career Soft is still in business, but not in name. Their Growlanser series was published by acclaimed niche RPG publisher, Atlus. After remaking Growlanser IV: The Wayfarer of Time, most of the company merged with Atlus itself. Although the name of Career Soft may have diminished, the staff still works on titles with Atlus. Most prominently, they worked on the Devil Survivor series on the 3DS, also a fun and challenging series to try if you get the chance. If you have played and enjoyed Growlanser, you may want to give their other series, Langrisser, a shot. None of those made it into America, unfortunately, but there are translation guides available and a translated version of Langrisser IV with which you can get your fill of strategy RPGs.

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I have been an avid gamer since I was a child, playing Legend of Zelda on the NES and began true niche gaming during the SNES/Genesis battles.

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