Atlus' Growlanser series has had a sizable following in Japan, but when it came to North America the series could never seem to catch a break. It wasn't until 2004 that the second and third titles in the series came to North America via Working Designs, with the fifth title coming via Atlus in 2007. Since then, however, the series was dead - until this year's release of the PSP enhanced port of the forth title known simply as Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time. Is its eclectic mix of real-time battles, shiny anime-inspired character designs worth your time? For most, the answer is probably yes.
Wayfarer of Time tells the story of a young man named Crevanille who was taken in by a gang of mercenaries as an orphan when he was a child. He was told since he was young that he was special in some way, but nothing ever came of it. That is, until a routine mission on a nearby island goes wrong after Angels come out from the sky and start destroying everything in sight. It's later revealed that the angels are set to destroy mankind once again following their last attempt 2,000 years ago.
Much like many other Japanese-style RPGs the story becomes more involved as time goes on as Crevanille finds out that he has the power to fight against the Angels. Unfortunately though, how the game goes about revealing this in the early hours doesn't exactly give the best initial impression to the player. Following a good first hour the game switches gears entirely and drags to a slow crawl until several hours later when the story finally picks back up and generally keeps on building from there.
It's understandable that with all of the game's finer intricacies (which will be discussed later) there would need to be some in-depth tutorials, but it overstays its welcome a tad bit too long for most gamers. Once you surpass that initial lull, however, the game really starts to shine. Bigger and better plot points are revealed, some intriguing dating-sim elements are introduced and the game's battle system really starts to open up.
As stated earlier, Wayfarer of Time's battle system revolves around real-time actions, but not in the manner you might initially expect. Instead of directly controlling your units, you input commands are similar to a turn-based strategy RPG. When you encounter an enemy (all enemies outside of pre-scripted battles are visible on the screen so you can evade them if you wish), a menu pops up letting you set your units' actions. This can range from setting waypoints for moving to another area on the map to picking a nearby enemy to attack physically or via magic. From here on out the game plays out these choices in real-time and continually repeats until you issue them a new command or when the enemy they targeted perishes.What makes the battle system interesting, however, is the fact that until their command bar cools down you can't issue a new order. This comes into play on certain maps which require strategy due to the overwhelming number of enemies compared to your maximum of four controlled party members. Fans of RTS-style gameplay will find a lot to love here as it manages to mix that style with the more traditional Japanese-style mechanics Japanese RPG players have come to know and love.
Of course generic attacks would become boring after a while, which is why Wayfarer of Time includes a "ring" feature. Similar to Final Fantasy VII's Materia system, each character can equip various rings which vary based on their power and what type of spellstones that get an experience boost when attached. Generally you can equip them in any slot as long as the power level requirement is met, but you'll incur a experience percentage penalty if you do so. Each ring can be upgraded by battling enough enemies and you'll obtain a plethora of rings as dropped items from enemies, so the combinations are almost endless and is really up to the player as far as if they want to go crazy with the system or not.
One thing to note, however, is that while the initial concept is executed effectively there are occasionally times during the game where the concept is stretched perhaps a little too thin. You get graded in a pass/clear/completed fashion after each mission, with the latter requiring you to successfully clear every criteria set during the mission. Since the player is generally relegated to the four controlled characters during each mission (occasionally accompanied by one to a few NPCs), one will be naturally stretched to their limits and will require all of the available advantages to be taken to obtain a "completed" rank. Growlanser doesn't really allow for the player to grind their way out of it and some missions aren't clear objective-wise until the mission has already started, so completionists will need to occasionally restart a mission over again to get the best rank possible. Thankfully though doing so doesn't change the story in any way outside of obtaining some rare items not available later in the game, so like with the ring system it's up to the player to decide how they want to progress.
Being a port of a PS2 title back from 2003, Wayfarer of Time isn't the best looking game on the PSP by a long shot. The developers did put in some work fixing up the character artwork and adding in some new animated cutscenes, but the grainy and pixelated backgrounds do clash occasionally in some areas while in others they look quite impressive. It's not something that degrades the experience in any way, but it makes you wish they could have fixed up the biggest offenders while they touched up the other areas of the game. As far as the music goes it's par for the course as far as the Japanese RPG genre goes with only a few select tracks that are particularly grating.
This will be a subjective thing to most, but because artist Satoshi Urushihara was at the helm for this game (and the others in the series), the character artwork has a vert anime-ish and glossy feel to it, along with overly busty females. Thankfully the artists doesn't go too overboard in this department, but if you strongly dislike that type of sexualization you probably won't enjoy Wayfarer of Time that much.
One important thing to note for completionists is that you'll have one hell of a time in this game to say the least. The original PS2 title had tons of endings which were decided by whichever of the various characters you were closest to, alongside other various factors. Wayfarer of Time expands on this with 40+ endings and a plethora of new playable and non-playable characters. It'll take at least a couple playthroughs to unlock everything, but if you enjoy this aspect you'll be in it for a long time coming.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is an interesting mix of both old and new aspects of the genre. Even though it's technically an older game, it's very similar to most of the Japanese RPGs as of late: it occasionally loses its focus and is initially confusing in certain aspects, but the rest of the game is exceptionally engaging and rewards the players who put in the time to play. If you can look past those initial hours and some of the artistic direction your time will be well spent.
|A great mix of RTS and turn-based battle systems.|
|Once you get past that initial lull you're in store for a great story.|
|Hardcore fans will love the exceptionally deep ring development system.|
|The first few hours might be off-putting to some.|
|Some may not find the overly anime-inspired character designs appealing.|
|The original 2003 PS2 graphics still present in the port haven't aged well.|