It must be noted that this review was done solely on the PlayStation Vita, without any opportunity to play on the PS4. Therefore any problems encountered during the review could potentially be Vita only. I make special mention of this, because there are basic problems that ruin the shine of a game that could have been seamlessly fun, but instead turns it into frustration.
The goal of Grand Kingdom is be the best mercenary squad in your organization. There is a story that sees you join a prominent mercenary organization, but a lot of the game is war contracts and non-story quests to grind for money and prestige. It is an endless game of choosing which side you want to support in the war at any given moment. Outside of the menu screens, as all non-combat locations are just menu overlays on a picture background, you will live on a map. Your squad is like a chess piece, moving around the map to engage or sneak around enemies to fulfill your goal. Different missions have different specific goals like kill a certain number of squads, protecting a specific spot from being landed on, or reaching an area in a given number of moves. All quests, story or otherwise, have a turn timer, so this game rewards those of an offensive mentality. The one exception is travel maps which has no turn timer, allowing you to fight and gather resources to your heart’s content.
Despite a simple game, there are major flaws. The first problem, and most serious, is the inexcusable loading time. Almost every screen requires a ten second loading time. Now, this might not seem like a lot, but for a game that requires lots of screen shifts, it adds up over time and reduces immersion in the game. That high of winning a close fight is dulled from having an unneeded wait to witness the aftermath, not to mention performing basic activities like equipping characters or making war contracts. When a game that looks like it could be run off a SNES has worse loading times than a SNES-era mobile game run on my iPhone 4S, something went wrong with the optimization.
The next problem is despite there being an offline mode; a lot of the meat of the game is solely online. The game’s theme is to be a mercenary army that helps the four sides in their endless war for global supremacy. Sadly, that war is relegated to online, and all the perks of it. Why is this a problem? Not everyone has access to internet or even reliable internet, as what happened to myself when I first got this game while stationed in China. I had to wait until airport Wi-Fi allowed me the luxury of enjoying what the war section had to offer. This also compromises the game’s long term relevancy. The moment the company decides to shut off the servers, half of the game goes poof, making it no more than a mobile game on a Vita than a phone.
That internet issue aside, the war section serves a wonderful purpose of handling character bloat. With all the characters you’ll be recruiting, either because you find better ones or want more squads, they need to be used for something. Nothing sucks worse than having a bunch of unused, leveled up characters around. Just send them to fight in a war. Sign a contract with one of the four empires and send them to help out. They will get XP and other rewards for fighting. Even if they are level 1s and lose every battle, they will still gain some XP and not die permanently. Also, the more you help out a nation, the more your relationship improves, which allows for access to nation-specific shops and items. It is a win-win mode that you can choose to participate in yourself, or just assign some squads and let the computer handle everything as you play through the story. All this is against other human opponents, thus why being online is mandatory.
Combat is fun and challenging but not without problems as well. Your squad has a maximum size of four, built anyway you like from the multiple classes available for hire. In combat, each character has two bars, one for movement and one for performing actions. You can move your characters along a three-line track to set up attacks, with any remaining movement points syphoned into the action meter. While the basics of combat are easy and fun, subtle flaws ruin the overall experience. Hit boxes feel random and potentially dangerous as friendly fire is always on. For example, lancers have attacks that go through opponents in the same lane or hit multiple lanes, making battle tricky as you never want to hit your own guys. And while I freely admit I just might suck at judging distance, it always felt random if my attacks would hit my own guys even when assumingly given ample room.
As mentioned earlier, the game takes place on a giant map that your piece moves around on. Each turn in combat counts as one turn of map time, making the idea of a defensive strategy entirely moot. This is not a game that wants you to play it safe or even consider being defensive, because it punishes the player. You could create a brilliant team with a defensive posture defended by traps on the field, but it’ll cost five turns. That is four turns too many. When the ability to change the game’s difficulty is unlocked, it only makes the game more speed focused, trading max turns for experience and gold bonuses. If you’re the type of player who enjoys a stout defense, then this game only punishes you.
The final flaw of the game is the level matching system. Some parts of the game do not level match, while others do, making for a frustrating time as different types of missions are affected. Story missions have a preset difficulty level allowing for the tried and true RPG method of grinding past the difficulty, but if you’re that type of player, you’re stuck doing basic quests always at your level, and vice versa for those who enjoy the level matching challenge. This forced way of doing things only serves to alienate players who have rigid play styles, whereas an optional sliding difficulty scale would have made everyone happy.
With all this negativity, there are positives to the game. The soundtrack is exciting to listen to and never gets boring while listening to it on repeat. The voice acting and artwork are also of high quality. While there is not a lot of talking due to all the non-story mission grinding that occurs, the developers took pride in making sure the voice talent made their characters believable. Very rarely do I ever notice the background in a game, as I’m always too focused on not getting killed to stop and watch the sunset. Grand Kingdom’s artwork had me stop and watch the leaves rustle, giving that extra little bit of immersion. Too often in a game like this, the backgrounds are static, but in Grand Kingdom there is movement and flow that can hook you away from the battle.
Character customization allows a lot of flexibility because of the random nature of recruiting. Every character receives random stat grades regardless of class, making for interesting choices. Fighters could be given a boost in their magic and wizards could be more on the buff side. There is still a lot of min/maxing going on. What the stat grade does is determine the rate of randomly receiving bonus points to that stat when leveling up, and how quickly the stat can level. Every time a unit levels up you’re given four points to spend any way you see fit. Each point fills up a star meter, with a higher stat grade requiring less stars needed for a bonus point. Don’t worry, even if your starting units have bad grades they can be trained better, which is half the fun of grinding in the game.
Four points is not a lot, which is where the equipment system comes into play. The meat of character customization is in your equipment. Each weapon has slots which can add gems for bonuses. That Valkyrie getting all her leveling points in strength can feel more balanced if you add a constitution gem to her spear. Wizard not smart enough? He is a gem away from torching the competition. With the game wanting you to have more than one squad for use in the war section, all those weaker gems have more longevity than in other RPGs.
At the end of the day, Grand Kingdom is fun on paper but poor in execution. Simple mistakes like poor loading times and locking away content to online only, hamper an otherwise fun game. Problems I had with combat and the style of gameplay would be less compounded if not for the long waits.