(PlayStation Portable Review) Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time

Developer: Career Soft
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role-Playing Game / Strategy
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time from publisher Atlus and developer Career Soft is an action role-playing game that marks the fourth entry in the long-running Growlanser series. It is also something of an oddity. Originally released in Japan in 2003, it is only now being made available in North America on the PlayStation Portable some five years after its successor, Heritage of War, made its way onto the PlayStation 2. Now, nearly a decade after it first hit store shelves, gamers on this side of the globe are finally getting the chance to experience this incredibly involved—and incredibly trying—adventure.

As Crevanille, an orphan raised under the protection and tutelage of Dixon and his Alten Schwart mercenary company, you are the key to solving the 2,000-year-old mystery of what happened to mankind two millennia ago. Dixon happens to be one of the few inhabitants of Noyeval’s four nations (Dulkheim, Kingdom of Iglesias, Kingdom of Marquelay, and Kingdom of Valkania) to believe that man was not only brought low by a host of mysterious, powerful angels, but that they have returned to once again lay waste to everything in their path. Dixon also believes that you are the key to stopping them. But in order to face them, you must learn who—or what—they are. To that end, you will gather a motley crew of mercenaries, amnesic spell-casters from the distant past, scientists, and wandering warriors to traverse the increasingly hostile lands in search of clues scattered throughout ancient ruins as to how to meet this terrifying threat.

It’s slow going at first, though, and the only person at your side in the beginning is the young archer Remus. Remus was discovered in the woods by Crevanille and Dixon’s daughter, Regina, and like yourself, has found a home in the mercenary troupe. For whatever reason, Remus is put under your care, and the two of you set about battling alongside the mercenaries and seeking your fortunes together. Being stuck with Remus sheds some light on a character pattern that emerges throughout your quest, which is that characters are both very clichéd—Remus playing the role of the irritating, naive upstart—and very useful. As you are a close-range, sword-wielding fighter, with optional access to spells, it’s nice to have a specialized long-range character to pepper the enemy as you close in. And as with most of the other characters you run across, you simply learn to take the good (their abilities) with the bad (nearly everything else).

And that gets to the heart of one of my biggest gripes with the game: character interaction. Fans of relationship sims will undoubtedly find a lot to like in Wayfarer of Time. Not only are there branching dialogue options to explore new conversation topics and further evolve relationships, but you will also go on furloughs that allow you to spend time with certain characters to deepen the friendships—and, in some cases, take things to another level. Despite these interactions being a series of still shots and short conversations, they are actually quite involved: there are opportunities to take squadmates to the theater, to dinner, and even to museums, with each visit adjusting your respective positions on the relationship spectrum based on the number of trips and locations visited. But much of this becomes available only later in the game, after a good dozen hours have been put in. Initially, and popping up throughout the remainder of the game, interaction takes the form of characters presenting you with two types of conversations: those that allow for more varied responses (positive, neutral, negative, and a few in-between) or more direct in nature (yes or no). I quickly came to dislike many of my compatriots because of how the game handles these conversations, which often ended with me being sidelined and subverted by my subordinates.

Trying to subtly nudge a player along a set path is one of the trickier aspects of branching-paths-heavy games. Some games manage the task quite well, such as BioWare’s earlier titles, but some, like Wayfarer of Time, have all the finesse of a brick to the face. Whenever you’re presented with a simple yes-or-no question, even when it seems as though your input might make a difference, the game simply ignores you and engages a dialogue loop until you agree with whatever it demands. While the game could very well be using these responses as a variable in the various relationship equations, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that I, as leader and supposed savior of mankind, was routinely ignored in favor of whatever a secondary, or even tertiary, character wanted. This doesn’t happen just once or twice but numerous times throughout the game, and each instance served only to diminish my role. I frequently wondered why the developers even bothered; if they were always just going ignore what I wanted, then why even give me an option? Not only did it make me care less about the storyline, reticent as I was to continue participating in this world of looping conversations akin to dialogue purgatory, I came to really resent the other characters who were constantly getting their way. To combat this, and to deliver a sliver of comeuppance, I became as big a jerk as possible.

In most role-playing games, I end up being the good guy who will go anywhere and do anything for the downtrodden. I can’t help myself. If a keep has been overrun by vicious monsters or a squadmate’s people are being oppressed on some far-flung planet, I’m your man. Not so in Wayfarer of Time. To register my discontent with the game and its illusion of choice, I only agreed to help whenever something was overtly beneficial and would either ignore or give a terse response to the other numerous pleas and suggestions. Unless a character was a Ruin Child, spell-casters who are children of the ancients that are found asleep in the world’s ruins, the only thing the other characters could count on was me not wanting them in my presence. Whether it was the solemn samurai, innumerable ridiculously busty women, or my familiar, they were all treated the same: with contempt. Okay, so I did come to like my familiar, a fairy-like creature that only spell-casters can see. But everyone else could go jump off a cliff.

It was actually through my familiar that I came to realize how much my curmudgeonly efforts were paying off. As you level up, you gain energy points that allow you to train your familiar in their dollhouse. Stored points can be used to have them exercise, study, brush up on etiquette, or polish their conversation skills. Familiars can not only help out in combat by scanning enemies, but they also keep you abreast of what’s going on through stored Event Memos. They are handy creatures. After many rounds of training, Yumi, the chosen name for my familiar, was able to reveal to me the Friend Rating I carried with my squadmates. Needless to say, the results were not good. Well, you know what, Remus? I think you’re an unlikable person, too. Now go shoot something.

When I wasn’t lashing out at the circumstances my predetermined path put me in, I was bringing to heel anything that got in my way in a world that was becoming increasingly unraveled. As you move away from the silly characters and their over-the-top, eye-rolling reactions (see:  Dixon’s wife and Remus declaring themselves mother and son after meeting each other for a few hours), you come to find a rather interesting story and addictive combat system.

As annoying as the day-to-day interactions can be, the overarching storyline actually manages to be quite the yarn. The angels-versus-mankind scenario might not sound overly interesting, but some great intrigue emerges from their appearance, as it sets the nations’ rocky relationships into a tailspin. Already chafing at their close proximity to one another and their mutual mistrust, the world’s nations erupt into all-out war after the angels begin to attack city after city. In the midst of the chaos, commanders rebel and form splinter groups, which creates a web of relationships that will see you hated by a group allied to one led by friendly forces. The slow beginning pays off nicely as it serves to set up this sequence of upheavals and shifting alliances, with those characters met at a military academy—including a few exclusive to this version—now serving as the leaders of these new factions. The conversations and interactions from hours before start to come into play as you either try to get old friends (or foes) to side with you, you with them, or throw down the gauntlet and take to the battlefield. Crevanille’s ability to see visions while he sleeps allows you to gain additional insight by peeking in on the other factions and witnessing all of the politicking going on behind the scenes. The instability only increases as each group strains to stave off their enemies as they recklessly race to learn how to cast spells, summon monsters, and access powerful ancient technology.

All of this turmoil means that your team will have to do a lot of fighting to just go from town to town, much less explore the booby-trapped ruins. Along the way, a variety of missions will arise amidst the encounters between enemy squads and roaming monsters that involve saving villagers, escaping from ambushes, and holding off waves of attackers. Every so often, you even get a choice as how to proceed; granted, these moments often involve pretty minor choices, but they are nonetheless a nice way to add some variety. A problem arises with some of these missions, though, and that’s when the game doesn’t make it clear what has to be done. Some missions feature bonus-related countdown timers and pre-battle victory-condition screens, but other times, there is nothing to indicate what exactly is required of you; instead, you’ll learn what has to be done once a certain character dies or if something is triggered and the Game Over screen appears. Adding to the frustration is the fact that there is no checkpoint system and only a limited number of save points, which means that a lengthy mission that abruptly ends in failure will have to be repeated from the beginning, including rebuffing the characters one by one, getting back to the location of the mission, and then speeding through (not skipping altogether, mind you) whatever conversations and scripted sequences preclude the actual fighting. Considering the number of times this happens, the aged setup and contextual omissions can be taxing.

The missions themselves vary greatly. Some do a good job in taking advantage of the time-centric approach and the situations that arise from the fluctuating fortunes of war, highlighting the numerous possibilities the sprawling storyline allows. Then there are others that are borderline terrible, tainted by a lack of information and ultimately spoiled by their poor design: excessive enemy spell-casters dragging out already lengthy fights, last-minute surprises that feel cheap, needless time constraints that increase irritation rather than tension, suicidal friendly AI in escort and protection missions, and rudimentary switch- and navigation-based puzzles that drag on and on with little payoff.

Combat, however, is more consistent and has a lot to offer, despite some rough spots. Time is at the center of the entire system, with each move requiring a set amount of startup time and characters having points determining how fast they move during battle (MOV) and how long they must wait between actions (ATW). This has some less-obvious but significant implications, such as high-level, stronger versions of spells requiring the same amount of mana as weaker versions but requiring a longer casting time, which necessitates careful planning to ensure maximum effect during the heat of battle. Being able to cast outside battle at the highest level also adds in the factor of possibly holding back to receive the full benefit, but that could also mean waiting too long and having troops fall after a few whiffed attacks. Movement can be particularly deadly whenever the enemy has long-range units, with even enhanced characters taking a while to trek across the screen. Conversely, it can be a pain targeting enemy units as they move because of the game’s erratic targeting system. Once enemies start to move around, they can enter the area prematurely, bunch up, and separate. Enemies entering the battlefield can be particularly frustrating because they cannot immediately be targeted, despite the imminent danger in which they put your characters. Trying to sort through the close- and long-range units is also problematic due to the game’s targeting system defaulting to enemies far away, both physically and by priority. I initially thought there was a type of sorting system, with left and right corresponding to distance, but I would frequently find the first enemy to be some far-off foe that my unit had no way of reaching without resorting to spells, which they might not even have; there’s no reason the default target should be half a map away and not the enemy two feet away.

There are many variables outside of movement that affect combat, and these also allow for you to become more involved in character progression. Although weapons cannot be purchased—characters use the same weapons throughout the game—rings and spellstones can be. Rings, which offer their own stat perks, have three colored slots of various levels. These slots can be filled with spellstones of the same or lesser level, with same-colored stones maximizing the effects of the stone. Effects differ, but they range from increasing the chance of a critical strike to increasing spell effect range, greater defenses, new spells, and higher attack damage. Stones with the friendship perk become available later in the game and allow characters to synchronize their spells for some really neat combinations, such as wind and fire for fiery windstorms; this makes for some really enjoyable experimentation, and was a great way to inject some new life into the spell system. Stones also unlock Knacks, special abilities that can be used in and out of combat. These can only be replenished by sleeping at one of the handful of inns or random beds scattered throughout the continent, and they offer everything from multi-hit attacks to increased viewing range in caves. Knacks serve as a means for melee-centric characters to have extra abilities that they may lack due to stones nullifying magic capabilities as well as giving casters greater flexibility.

While grinding can help to overcome being neglectful of Knacks and ring and stone combinations, it’s best to keep them in mind, especially since some ruins house particularly nasty enemies. There is some automation, though, with options to automate all characters at once or each as required during battle, but I found that, unless you hold a significant advantage, it’s best to maintain a hands-on approach, as characters will get stuck and not attack or use incorrect attacks (e.g., physical attacks against enemies immune to physical attacks). A three-point waypoint system is also available in combat, but the inability to set an attack or cast negates much of its benefit. As with targeting and so much else in Wayfarer of Time, automation and waypoints are functional but not optimal. However, ensuring characters are properly equipped and getting the most out of the stored rings does offer a rewarding subsystem for those who like to tweak and tailor.

Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time has a lot going for it and can be an incredibly engaging title, but its nearly decade-old design is showing its age. A lengthy adventure mixed with heavy character interaction and plenty of combat awaits those who can put up with obtuse mission directives, excessive menu wading, and smoke-and-mirrors choice system. On the other hand, the relationship system, hybrid real-time and turn-based combat system, and experimentation-friendly spell system fit together nicely with a sprawling narrative that features constant political intrigue against the backdrop of an upcoming invasion by sci-fi-styled angels. Some polish and streamlining would really have done wonders.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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