I play a lot of role-playing games. You know this already. You read Random Encounters every week. You understand my fascination with this strange and quirky genre.
So hopefully you won't be too angry when I tell you that my shelves are overflowing with the cartridges of RPGs that I've opened, launched, and immediately given up. As I've opined before, many of these games make bad first impressions. They're not great at getting you hooked from the get-go. They're slow burns.
So when I picked up Growlanser Wayfarer of Time, which Atlus released last week for PSP -- yes, PSP! -- I was surprised to find that I couldn't put it down.
Some history. Wayfarer of Time is the fourth game in the Growlanser series. It was released in Japan for the PlayStation 2 way back in 2003. It was then remade for PSP last fall. And released in the US last week. Though some of the other Growlanser games have made it to America, this is the first time we're seeing the fourth one. History over.
Now let me give you five big reasons I can't stop playing:
1. The story grabbed me immediately. I'm a sucker for quirky characters, emotional resonance and stories that take themselves seriously without taking themselves too seriously. That's all here. There's betrayal, death, love, fairies, angels, monsters. Good and evil. Pretty-boy warriors. Animated women with comically oversized proportions that make me glad the game is on PSP so I don't have to worry about anyone else watching me play. The usual.
Here's the story in one sentence: There are a bunch of angels and for some reason they're destroying towns and slaughtering people you love -- yes, angels are killing the people you love -- and you're the hero born to defeat evil and kill all the angels and all that jazz. It's spunky and entertaining and I like it a lot so far.
(Now here is where I bring up the most annoying part of Growlanser Wayfarer of Time: As far as I can tell, you can't toggle subtitles during the frequent anime cut-scenes. So you won't know what's going on unless you can hear what they're saying. This is downright unforgivable for a portable game. If you're playing on the bus, be prepared to either A. miss important dialogue or B. wear headphones.)
2. Branching dialogue. Many JRPGs are stuffed with what fans have dubbed "But Thou Must" loops, recurring prompts that give you fake or misleading choices. (Would you like to rescue the princess? No? But Thou Must!)
Growlanser gives you genuine dialogue choices. Often. Some of them are quite funny. Others are quite serious. But they all seem to trigger different responses, and from what I hear, some of them might even change the ending.
3. The combat is really interesting. It's sort of like a blend between a turn-based role-playing game (ie: Final Fantasy) and a grid-based strategy-role-playing game (ie: Shining Force). You bark orders at your party and send them to attack monsters. Once you give each character an order, he or she will keep executing it until the target is dead or you give him or her new commands. To spice this up (and kill enemies faster), you can tell your party members to cast spells or use special abilities or circle the battlefield looking for treasure. You probably shouldn't tell them to circle the battlefield looking for treasure.
What's neat is that sometimes monsters will do smart things. Maybe they'll go after villagers you're trying to defend. Or retreat to flank one of your isolated party members. Position plays an important role here, and if you split up too much in a large battle, you might find yourself dead fast.
4. NPCs talk to you in hilarious ways. In most RPGs, you can go into a town, enter buildings, talk to civilians, and make a mess of their pots and pans. In Growlanser Wayfarer of Time, you can go into a town, knock on the doors of buildings, and get civilians to come outside just to talk to you.
So you'll spend a great deal of time bouncing from house to house, knocking on doors and watching as NPCs come out and say NPCish things like "I wonder what's for dinner tonight!" before backing up and closing their doors. This is hilarious. Especially when you knock on a door and watch a child come outside, say "I can't talk right now!" and immediately go back inside.
5. It's tough. Growlanser Wayfarer of Time is difficult! It's challenging! It ain't easy!
This is good. You will die. You will see the game over screen. And you will like it. You will lose progress. You will beat yourself up trying to get your characters in better shape. Trying to make smarter decisions. Trying to be faster. You will continue playing and playing until you enter a Rocky montage. Motivational music will pump into your ears. You'll train harder than you've never trained before. And you will win. You will win hard. You will defeat those monsters. You will save those villagers. You will protect your friends and family.
And you will lean your head back and scream a bloodcurdling scream, the type of scream that echoes through the caverns and mountains and leaves your enemies terrified. Terrified of your wrath. Of your power. Of your Rocky montage. You're the best.
While I haven't yet spent enough time with the new Growlanser to feel comfortable definitively telling you to go play it now, what I can tell you is that I am enjoying it quite a bit. And I haven't even gotten to the part where you get to build your own base, Suikoden-style. Stay tuned.
(I can also tell you that XSEED just sent over a copy of The Last Story, out next week for Wii, and that after playing it for an hour, I can already tell it has more charm and personality than Xenoblade did in 40. More on that next week.)
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.