I've been playing Grand Kingdom for dozens of hours now and I still don't really have a handle on what my squad should be. I'm reasonably content with my Blacksmith/Archer/Rogue/Sniper combo, but I always feel like a better configuration is just over the horizon.
That's the mark of a really good team-building game - one that makes you consider all of the possibilities. In many respects, Grand Kingdom is a really smart, enjoyable tactics RPG that makes me want to keep coming back. It has so many good ideas. And yet, it feels like it lacks that extra layer of depth that might have pushed it above and beyond and made it one of my favorite games of the year.
As it stands, Grand Kingdom is a messy, often ambitious game, and thus difficult to encapsulate in a couple paragraphs. Here's what it boils down to: Using earnings from various quests, you hire mercenaries from 17 different classes and put them together in squads of four, then take them out on various missions. The missions all involve moving a piece around an isometric map and either trying to reach a particular destination, find a certain item, or kill a required number of enemies.
The maps are interesting in that they keep you on a linear path that occasionally branches into different points, as opposed to the chessboard-like setup of other games. This approach makes Grand Kingdom's missions feel more like quests than static battles - a feeling enhanced by various obstacles and random events that pop up along the way. In another interesting twist, death isn't always final (though it can be in campaign missions). Rather, it will usually cost you nine moves on the action gauge, which inexorably counts down as you move around the map. Some challenges require you to finish a mission within a certain number of actions, with XP bonuses available for particularly efficient runs, which has the effect of making you carefully plot out your moves around the map.
When you encounter one of the enemies roaming around the map, the scene shifts to a 2D battlefield with your team on one side and the enemy team on the other. Battles are turn-based, and characters have both a movement and action gauge that governs how far they can move across the field on a given turn. Once you come into contact with any enemy, you can try to do as much damage as possible with skill combos.
In the early going, you can brute force your way through enemy formations relatively easily. But as you encounter higher-level groups, they will begin incorporating obstacles and hazards like needles, exploding barrels, and fences. It's at this point where you need to start giving some serious thought to your team composition, because running up and hacking and slashing your way through an enemy line will almost certainly get you surrounded and killed.
In that, Grand Kingdom's moment-to-moment combat feels something like a puzzle, which is always a good feeling to have since it means you can't easily brute force every map - something that becomes boring after a while. And when everything clicks and you wipe an enemy off the face of the map, it feels really good. I should add that you can also build your own obstacles, most of which come into play in the online component, which I'll get to in a moment.
Grand Kingdom's missions are broken into story quests, single challenges, versus battles in which you race an enemy team to complete an objective, and open maps. All of them do a reasonable job of keeping things varied and interesting, but the open maps are particularly ingenious in the way that they offer you a place to roam, level up your characters, and take on especially powerful enemies. They're a great place to break in a new party, and one more example of Grand Kingdom's thoughtful design.
In another smart move, NISA has seen fit to include free of charge all of the DLC from the Japanese version, which includes five additional character classes and four full campaigns with nine missions each. That pushes Grand Kingdom's overall single-player count from a pedestrian 12 campaign missions to a far meatier 48, with the additional benefit being that they offer insight into the motivations of the game's four major factions. Mostly, they offer an avenue for those who prefer single-player to enjoy Grand Kingdom without having to engage with the online component.
But having said that, you'll definitely want to check out Grand Kingdom's online component. If you don't, you'll wind up missing out on a large portion of what makes this game so interesting.
The Forever War
Beyond its unique battle system, Grand Kingdom's biggest wrinkle is its online wars. By taking on a contract, you can side with one of four factions and fight battles for them. In return, you gain access to special items as well as special rewards from the faction's leader, which offers some incentive to pick a side. Thankfully, your choice isn't permanent. If you get tired of a particular faction, you can always switch up and try someone else when your contract expires.
Once you pick a faction, you can opt to either dispatch your squad or take command yourself. The former option effectively creates ghosts of your party for other players to fight, which in turn earns you XP. The best part of uploading your squad is that you can watch a replay of one of the team's battles when you call it back. There's something incredibly satisfying in watching your plucky little band of A.I-controlled upstarts defeat a player-controlled squad and ruin their day. It doesn't happen often-my squads rarely won more than one battle per dispatch-but that doesn't make it any less fun.
Should you choose to take control of your squad directly, you will find yourself in a race to conquer the other faction's fortresses before they can take out your own. This is fun but also a tad overwhelming, as you have to be quick about using your field skills because enemy pieces won't wait until you decide to make a move. I was rarely successful in such missions - the enemy always seemed to take my fortresses too quickly - but they made for a fun diversion regardless.
That said, the online wars serve to highlight one of Grand Kingdom's primary weaknesses - poor player feedback. After a few battles, I found myself getting bored with the wars and instead opting to passive dispatch my team while I was away. When I got back, I'd see that the war was finished, but I would have no idea of how it went for my faction or really what it all meant. Landerth would always "win" because it had the most players, but it wasn't clear what exactly they were winning. Shorn of any meaningful content, the wars started just washing over me.
Grand Kingdom is bad at feedback in other ways as well. It took me ages to figure out why I couldn't use certain field skills, eventually realizing that they were only good against player ghosts in versus missions. You can put points into stats, but they only impact stat growth, which is initially somewhat confusing since you don't see them directly impacting your character's numbers. To its credit, Grand Kingdoms has plenty of tutorials, but it lacks the pop-up messages that help to explain its rather dense mechanics.
The result is a game that feels somewhat messy, piling on mechanic after mechanic without adequately explaining what they mean or why they matter. I eventually figured out what Grimoires were for, how to learn new skills, and the rest, but only after a lot of trial and error.
More damning, perhaps, is that Grand Kingdom is a big, messy game, but it still feels like it's missing that extra layer of depth. I hesitate to call it shallow, but I wish it would go just a little deeper, whether in introducing player ultimates or allowing you to combine classes in interesting and meaningful ways. Enemies also start to blend into one another after a while, almost always requiring that you fight a generic squad of faceless characters drawn from Grand Kingdom's class pool. Once it falls into its established rhythm, it does very little to shake things up, forcing you to fight the same enemies over and over again.
And that, ultimately, is why I'm feeling a little burned out on Grand Kingdom after a few dozen hours. I feel like my squad can still be improved, but I don't really have a reason to do so. The main campaigns are actually pretty easy with a marginally effective troop composition, and the story is inconsequential, casting you as a newcomer on the rise in a mercenary guild as you fight through a series of enemies from within and without (and you have a rival! ... snooze). Add in some troublesome load times on the Vita, and it starts to feel like more of a drag than it should.
In Grand Kingdom's case, the grind is meant to be its own reward, and I won't deny that it's fun to try out different combinations and see what each class to offer. But I sort of feel like Grand Kingdom puts all of its cards on the table in the first five or so hours; and after that, it's a grind to the finish. In that respect, it falls just short of greatness.
But man, if they make a Grand Kingdom II with more unique enemies, expanded classes, and deeper party mechanics, I'm all in. The seeds of something really special are there, they just need a chance to blossom.
Grand Kingdom really needs pop-up messages that explain why certain options are unavailable. Loading times on the Vita are somewhat irritating.
There's a lot of game to play through; and if you choose to level a party up to level 99, it will keep you busy for a very long time.
Grand Kingdom features an English voice cast, and it's not too bad either. The music is forgettable but never intrusive.
Grand Kingdom's anime-inspired visuals really pop on the Vita's screen. Items and weapons also change character appearances, lending it additional variety.
Grand Kingdom has a lot of really great ideas: its map setup, its use of obstacles to force you to think tactically, and its online integration are all great. But once you get past the game's second layer, it starts to plateau, which is disappointing. Whether it's more unique enemies, multi-layed class synergy, or more consequential online wars, Grand Kingdom feels like it's missing that little something extra. With that, I really hope there's a sequel. I'd hate to see all these great ideas go to waste.