Spike Chunsoft and Japanese design studio MonoChro Inc bring us Grand Kingdom. In this strategy game you take on the role of a fame obsessed military commander looking to etch their name into mythos with raw power and force of will. Sounds like the electoral college. Parts RPG, parts board game, parts RTS, Grand Kingdom can sometimes manage to be as unyielding as all three. Gameplay centers around the political, financial and military advancement of your mercenary group that is subdivided into six potential “troops.” Each troop carries four or less party members, that you then use to explore the game’s various levels, participate in PvP and advance quests. It’s a fun idea however in practice it can get to be a bit tiresome.
The focus of the game is really going to be on building up your army and bulking up your units. While there’s a narrative in place for those that still play JRPGs for the story, you know who you are, Spike Chunsoft seems to be trying to deliver an experience that’s mostly focused on player interaction and number crunching. The core story characters are only there for administrative duties, providing you with services such as situation room reports and enemy scouting. All the while urging you on that you have to participate in more battles, participate in more wars and earn “prestige” to raise your visibility on the global scale.
This is where things get a little meta, as there is an actual global scale. See, your decisions aren’t shifting the narrative towards a ton of pre-defined outcomes. Rather you’re participating in a grand scale, augmented reality game of sorts. While you act as a bit of a Militaires Sans Frontieres, you’ll be forging a contract with one of four color themed nations. The blue champions of justice, Landerth, the red war hungry blood letters Valkyr, the yellow magic addicted Magion and the isolationist battle weary green loving Fiel. There’s a fifth, “fallen” nation that is void of any live player participation and instead serves as the single player campaign’s prerequisite baddie, but they’re not even worthy of their own lands. When you choose to participate in Grand Kingdom’s never ending war, you’ll be siding with hundreds of players against hundreds of other players interested in either annexing or protecting their host homelands. You are both insignificant and significant. You have to wonder if your piddly little forces made a great deal of difference, but it feels good when you’re part of a successful war effort or, at least, ratcheting up your own win to loss ratio.
There are ways of course to make your sole army more effective and make sure they are indeed having a profound, beneficial impact. The game is all about customization, customizatiom, customization. Each battle more or less comes down to the performance of your individual mercenaries. Mercs that, outside of the tutorial, you are entirely responsible for hiring and training. That’s right, from your very first team you’re going to be selecting every single one of your own units and training them as you see fit. Unlike most strategy RPGs, you won’t be getting any heroes or a starter army to get you going. While each class will have their specializations and predefined skill trees, the abilities they use in combat, stat spreads, gear, weapons, look, even their catchphrases are yours for the making. You can further decide their combos, take advantage of special “grimoires’ to teach them otherwise unattainable skills, give them their tactics in combat, and decide marching orders. There’s really an impressive amount of control the game gives you over your individual characters and their troops, and making sure you’ve devised a solid plan for the AI to follow is almost as important as seizing direct control of your army and scrapping to the death.
There are a few unfortunate downsides to just how secretly vast Grand Kingdom is. It doesn’t really tell you any of this upfront, and I only uncovered the depths of the system and the level of variety from hours and hours of playtime. For as many tutorials and in-game hints as the game contains, it feels like it explains very little. Even my unit selection was hindered by thin explanations, and I found class descriptions did little to help, I was better off just biting the bullet, hiring the unit I was interested in, and exploring them extensively in combat.
Stages of the game remind me more of family game night. You’ll often have a goal or various goals you’ll have to reach, but there are also free exploration game modes you can dive into to earn experience, hunt bounties and dig up treasure. In quests you’re often going to be limited by a set number of “actions”, and using up all these actions before achieving your goal will resort in a failure. Visible on the board are enemies, resources, obstacles and merchants, called “symbols,” they’re more reminiscent of game pieces. Advancing on any stage often takes quite a bit of forward planning, especially when your movements are limited. It adds a nice level of strategy but you should be mindful on most stages you can’t save, and in most war efforts you can’t up and quit until its over, lest you miss out on the juicy rewards. That means you have to be sure you want to dedicate a good chunk of time to Grand Kingdom game night before you get rolling.
Combat meanwhile takes place on a 2D battlefield with three “lanes” you can navigate. Here you can setup traps and obstacles, while being mindful of those your opponent has laid out. Each unit then gets their own turn with which to act, where you’ll be either setting up or smacking the crap out the enemy in real time. Each party, player and enemy, has a “leader”, and the game encourages you off these particularly dangerous units first in order to debuff the other’s group and gain more combat rewards. As I mentioned earlier you can also set up combat AI for when you dispatch your troops, best for when you plan to retire from a game session or your other troops are just twiddling their thumbs.
There’s also a hard bit of a grind in the game. Fighting a handful of monsters, or player opponents, often isn’t enough to gain experience points. Rather I had to clear entire quests, participate in multiple conflicts, and tie up other odds and ends such as bounties and troop dispatches to eke out just one more level. Now keep in mind that every single unit starts at level 1, and your unit’s rank and the effectiveness of their skills depend on a variety of factors (your own player rank, the number of times a particular stat has leveled up), and that’s a gigantic amount of time and effort to even make one unit the mean brawling machine you need them to be. Now do this for each member of your troop. Now do this for all six troops of your army. Yeah. It adds up.
To top it all off it’s not exactly easy to grind like it is in comparable strategy RPGs, such as Disgaea or Fire Emblem. Enemies level up with troop level, and if you have a high level troop, then introducing a greenie to the mix means there’s a good chance that new unit will be decimated and won’t get any of that sweet experience. Online matchmaking also seems a bit broken. Sometimes while participating in a war effort I might find myself facing off one party after the next escalating in level. So my level nines, broken and haggard from two prior battles with level 10s then level 12s, find themselves set up against some nasty level 14s or 15s that eat them for breakfast. The next war effort however might match me with players that were significantly lower in level. I can’t say I felt bad chewing them up, war is hell, but I couldn’t make hide nor hair of when the system decided to match me with someone lower or higher. Playing offense and defense only seemed to impact party formation, and not who I fought.
That wasn’t my only problem with online play. The game requires a lot of long syncing. If you accidentally break your online connection, prepare for your game to hang and to let loose some frustrated curses at your Sony gaming machine. The actions of your army, your army’s defenses, even the tech your army researches, is decided via online vote. I mean sure, I’m aware Grand Kingdom is doing its best to handle a massive scale fictional war, but taking a break from fighting to decide on school level politics always took me out the game a bit. There are also online leader boards and hell, do a good enough job and bards will sing your name in the street, but if you look at who is at the very top, versus you with your army scrapping at the bottom, boy does it feel like an astronomical challenge to even get close to the top.
Grand Kingdom is addicting. If you’re already a nut for strategy RPGs, Grand Kingdom is going to scratch that itch fine. It reminded me a bit of Disgaea 4 or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, they were imperfect games, but the level of unit customization kept me playing those titles for ages, and I don’t see myself stopping with Grand Kingdom anytime soon. While I wouldn’t necessarily shy away from the title on my Playstation 4, it was nice to have it on my Vita because building my units, perfecting my army, and tackling quests was the perfect thing to do on my commute. I really did love creating the meanest, nastiest units possible and sending them out to either fight in my name, or taking the reigns and cutting through the battlefield.
This review is based on retail PSVita code provided to us by the game’s publisher.