Excellence has a quality all its own. Few people seem to doubt this, but rarely seen is the logical corollary: Mediocrity is just missing something. Granstream Saga serves as the ultimate proof of this, as it's hard to imagine a game more infused with mediocrity, or more lacking in the mysterious quality of excellence. Granstream is Shakespeare translated into monosyllables, Jay and Silent Bob run through a G-rated filter, a Beatles song performed by the Lawrence Welk orchestra. It's not bad so much as it's just profoundly... blah.

My god, he has no face! HE HAS NO FACE!!!

    The odd thing is, Granstream's got more than a few elements that chould have made it quite good. The battle system's an interesting precursor to Zelda:OoT's circular combat movement, and the graphics are surprisingly clean and crisp for a PSX title. The story's nothing to write home about, but it should be serviceable enough (seeing as how it's served so many other games so well) and the overall polish of the game suggests the development team had a sufficient budget to make a decent game. They just... didn't.

    So what are the base facts? Granstream Saga is an action RPG chronicling the adventures of Eon, standard orphan hero raised by kindly old man, possessor of mysterious but powerful artifact, and apparently the only person in the entire world who can go pick up a sword and fight monsters, despite the plenitude of weapons everywhere in the game. Eon's world, Granstream, is the victim of a history that should surprise no long-term gamer: big war centuries ago, ultra-powerful magic/technology unleashed leaving scars across the planet, things have quieted down since but now evil men are out to once more gain forbidden power, darkness begins to spread across the earth, yadda, yadda, yadda.

That's just... very wrong

    In Eon's case, the big worry is that his home, the floating island of Shilf, is slowly sinking back to the flooded earth below. Eon and his adoptive father Valos have attempted to stave this off by chopping off extra chunks of the land (while being careful not to leave any cuddly little baby birds behind) but this isn't a long-term solution. Fortunately, mysterious/virginal/spiritual Amish-looking girl Arcia soon shows up to shed light on how the world might be saved; she's followed soon after by spunky/violent/initially-naked air-pirate girl Laramee, and Laramee's sidekick "spirit beast" bird-thing, Corky.

Together the four of them fight off evil empires, malevolent religious cults, save the four elementally themed continents from destruction, reunite mothers with sons, girls with flutes, evil scientists with good scientists, and discover that their former incarnations were the cause of the whole mess in the first place. Eon offs one of his prospective soul-mates to save the world (fortunately, the player gets to choose who deserves to spend eternity in oblivion) and lives happily ever after with the remaining girl.

    Invective aside, Granstream Saga's story isn't that much worse than countless others in video games and anime... it's just not one whit better or more inventive than it has to be. The story's presented in a PSX-standard mix of in-game and FMV anime cutscenes, and while the anime's just fair-to-middlin', the cutscenes provide a convenient segue to talk about Granstream Saga's one truly remarkable feature: the characters' complete lack of faces.

Even a naked girl with a mace can't save this game from mediocrity

    Here's the deal: while each and every character has a surprisingly crisp, clean, and distinctive polygon character model, complete with locks of hair and unique dress, none of these models has eyes, a nose, or a mouth. Some few supporting characters have beards or mustaches, which are faithfully represented, but other than that faces are completely blank.

    To be fair, this isn't as big a deal as one might think. The vast majority of exploration is done from a top-down perspective, which means the player only sees the top of heads anyway. And in cutscenes, virtually every character of importance is either given an anime-style portrait accompanying their dialog, or wears a mask. From a purely theoretical standpoint, it's a brave attempt to deal with the PSX's graphical deficiencies in an honest and straightforward way... but in practice, it's just too hard to forget that these people don't have faces. It also provides a handy metaphor for the game as a whole: as the game lacks originality, personality or style, so too does it reduce its characters, quite literally, to faceless drones.

    Granstream's clumsy inability to visually portray characters also extends to it's wooden handling of graphics, gameplay, and music. Granstream's characters generally move like they're turtle cursors from the old LOGO programming language, moving forward, coming to a halt, and then deliberately turning a certain number of degrees before continuing. Even little humanizing gestures like Laramee putting her hand on her hip are so rote and programmed you can practically hear the line of microcode being executed.

Pray that you shall never see this game again!

    Squint a bit, and Granstream's combat system might be mistaken for a hybrid of Vagrant Story and Soul Calibur, but the resemblance ends at a distance. Eon moves through dungeons freely, but initiates real-time combat when he touches an enemy. The game then switches to a one-on-one duel between Eon and his assailant - characters move towards, away, and around each other in a polar-coordinate system that should be familiar to anyone who's ever taken Kilik out for a spin. Eon can block, briefly dash in any direction, use magic or items, and switch between three different types of weapons with various speed/power tradeoffs. It's actually a very complete battle system, and it still manages to be more enjoyable than many menu-based schemes... but it's ultimately too stiff, just like the rest of the game. Music's as unremarkable as eveything else, and ultimately sounds like SNES tunes instrumented on the PSX sound system.

    So what are we left with, when Granstream Saga's all played and done? A game that dares no great things, breaks no new boundaries, apparently tried to subscribe to the "average title done very well" school of design and failed in that too. When all's said and done we're left with yet another also-ran from the 32-bit era, a game that apes its superiors but never manages to be much more than... average. Simply, profoundly, completely... average.

Retrospective by Chris Jones, GIA.
Granstream Saga
Developer Shade
Publisher THQ
Genre Action RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PSX
Release Date  11.6.97
107 screenshots