Ever wondered what would happen if you took the tried and tested RTS formula and switched the viewpoint from the more traditional top down approach to something akin to an old fashioned 2D platformer? No, neither had I. Thankfully the clever people at Vanilla Ware are clearly far more open to such out of the box ideas as that's exactly that they've done with GrimGrimoire.
The plot of the game actually starts off sounding like something of tribute to Harry Potter, the basic setup being that you take on the role of a fresh faced young wizard at a famous school of magic. Add in the suitably grey and bearded professor Gammel Dore not to mention a philosopher's stone and you can almost imagine the raised eyebrows of J. K. Rowling's army of lawyers. Thankfully that's where the Potter similarities end, the rest of the game instead coming across far more like Groundhog Day with added wizards than anything we've seen at Hogwarts.
The central story plays out over five drama filled days but in order to gain the full picture and thus stop the bad guy you'll end up having to repeat all of them a number of times. Each run through throws more light on the events that transpire and poses new questions about the cast of characters and their intertwined relationships. This entertaining setup is executed with such charm it's hard not to be drawn into things with some beautiful 2D art and well written dialogue proving, if proof was still needed, that you don't always need million dollar CGI to tell a good story.
Lest we forget however, GrimGrimoire is an RTS at heart and it's in the action itself that the true fun is to be found. As you come into contact with various characters around the school they'll challenge you to fight. These battles take place in a side-on 2D view of the battleground, a cross section of the school full of stairs and hallways. The basics of combat will be familiar to RTS veterans involving as it does the collection of resources (in this case mana from crystals) and the creation of units before you send them into battle against your opponent. The suitably fantastical units are created from runes which you place on the battlefield much like a barracks in more conventional RTS titles. Runes come in one of four different flavours, necromancy, sorcery, glamour and alchemy, with different units being created from different rune types. There are twelve runes to collect during the game making an impressive number of units to experiment with. Units themselves vary from your more basic gatherers, the imps and the elves, up to things like fairies with blazing arrows, unicorns, demons, some seriously pissed off ghouls and even dragons.
As units move around the map the unusual 2D cutaway view of things becomes more than a mere cosmetic decision with certain units able to fly between floors of the castle while others need to use more normal means of navigation like the stairs. With different units needing to take different routes there's an element of timing involved to co-ordinate large scale attacks. Thankfully the unit path finding rarely lets you down meaning any horribly disjointed attacks tend to be your own fault.
The whole thing is given another twist when you're forced to consider the effectiveness of units birthed from one rune type against units birthed from another. A dragon for example seems big enough and ugly enough to take care of most things but you'll soon find that even he has his weaknesses which can be easily exploited by an apparently weaker unit that's able to resist his attacks. This lack of any all powerfully wonder units means that banding units together in groups for support becomes standard procedure, their collective strengths and weaknesses hopefully providing a well rounded whole. In case that wasn't enough, the runes themselves also level up the more you use them to produce new units and effects increasing your options yet again. All this choice provides a huge number of tactical possibilities to both defend against and unleash on your enemy.
Unfortunately, for all the variety in the battle system the 2D environments themselves are less enthralling, becoming almost interchangeable as you progress through the game. Their flat nature can also cause problems when it comes to selecting a particular unit in the middle of a crowded battle and while the interface is as well thought out as a console RTS can be you do still sometimes wish for the freedom offered by a mouse. The game also falls into the trap of basing the difficulty curve around quantity rather than quality, later battles being harder because there's simply an overwhelming number of foes rather than because they're particularly cunning.
The 2D nature of everything means it's not pushing the PS2 one iota, but it's lovingly drawn characters and well realised world prove so charming you'll not even notice. The larger units inspire a feeling of awe as they lumber across the screen and the whole game is dripping in those little visual details that show a project has been laboured over by people who care.
GrimGrimoire is exactly the kind of game that will get missed in the triple A Christmas rush. Its 'only' a PS2 game, its arrived with little or no fanfare, its got a daft sounding name and most people will automatically think JRPG when they look at the box. This inevitable slide into obscurity is officially a shame. GrimGrimoire deserves to be noticed and played if for no other reason than it dares to do something different and very nearly carries it off, a quality often in short supply in a world where reliable safe bets, win out over genuine innovation a lot of the time. It's not perfect by any means and it'll probably frustrate the hell out of you at times but for anyone who wants something a little different Japanese 2D side-on RTS's are the way to go. 77%