The PlayStation Portable is falling by the wayside, and, depending on perspective, has been for a long time. Titles like Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time really should have been around much sooner. It's hard to say where the handheld would be right now, but more games with this level of delivery would have made it so much stronger.
Growlanser starts in the throws of war, where the protagonist Crevanille is part of a mercenary group called Arten Schwart fighting for the side he believes to be both financially stable and justifiable. While on the first mission, the island battlefield is bombarded and decimated by a six-winged angelic which the game appropriately calls an Angel. Shortly thereafter, Crevanille is shown his hidden potential: he is a Ruin Child, which is a child left over and preserved from the last attempt at global cleansing carried out 2,000 years ago by the Angels.
The first five minutes of the campaign moves pretty quickly, both in perspective and story pace. I first saw a collection of hairstyles and attire pulled right from an '80's anime. Growlanser then threw a deep, well-structured story at me that cut out the usual boring parts that other Japanese RPGs keep, like small, boring tutorials and giggly girls that look like children; though, one male main character still looks incredibly feminine. In doing so, it allowed me to disregard all of those silly, old school characterizations and instead focus on the major political battle between the four factions and how the main characters played their parts in the whole ideal.
Really, the sheer scale of continental significance hits early, where government officials delegate with military leaders for supremacy over the war that's been going on for far too long. And all of this is only in the first five or six hours, though the core story goes on for around forty, so the game has a lot there, especially for a handheld game--hell, for a PlayStation Portable game!
The game itself is quite linear in terms of how RPGs usually go. It isn't like Final Fantasy XIII by any means, but the general pace of the game is pushed in the direction that the developers wanted it to go, and seldomly do players have to figure out where to go on their own. I imagine that can be perceived negatively, but the story is so well delivered that it'll be hard to complain, or even notice, that the game moves in a fairly straight line most of the way.
Combat is a great throwback to games I used to play in high school, like Legend of Heroes, where combatants moved on their own to get in range of targets. This is the best move, really, since tactical games like Disgaea, though popular, don't traditionally allow for enemies to exist within the world itself. Growlanser doesn't use random battles, and enemies congregate the world as equally as the characters do, and the fights take place in the same realm. This results in quick bursts of combat, and the flow of the game doesn't slow down.
Equipment is handled differently than typical RPGs too. Traditionally, players can buy all kinds of gear for a lot of different gear types, but here the only interchangeable pieces of gear are chest pieces and rings. All characters keep their default weapons, and all stats are managed through rings. Each ring has three slots, and those slots are filled with material-like jewels called gemstones that work very similarly. Skills and bonuses come from those gemstones, and these can be leveled up as well.
Growlanser does so many things well. The unfortunate thing about it is that it's on a piece of hardware that's on its last leg, and most previous owners have given up the PSP because of the PlayStation Vita or simply from a lack of stark PSP titles. The dated graphics don't inhibit the experience, but they really couldn't exist anywhere else but the PSP nowadays. The nice part about it, in a sense, is that it's compatible with the PS Vita. At the time of the review, I had to download it on my PlayStation 3 and then copy it to my PS Vita, but the publisher has said it'll add full support soon. So, in a sense, PS Vita owners can get a good RPG on their handheld right now, even though it's not visually attractive.
One great part to this game was the phenomenal soundtrack. When I had to do something else, I'd bring the game with me and simply listen to the music. It played well throughout the story, and it helped create ambiance throughout each different experience.
Really, apart from the graphics, dated visual style, and the PSP, Growlanser really has something that many JRPGs don't have: potential. The game delivers a driving story that kept me recharging my handheld in order to keep the story moving. If only we could get it on the PS Vita as an actual PS Vita game.
-The Final Word-