This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
Once upon a time, it took me a solid year to beat what I thought was the final boss of Grandia II.
Now, before you start making fun of me, I want to point out that even one GameFAQs guide refers to Valmar's Core as "very extreemly (sic) absurdly abnormally ridiciously (sic) giganticly (sic) impossibly hard!!!" This was also right around 2000, and online help was a little harder to find at that time. I was more or less on my own.
With that in mind, think about all the things that can make a final role-playing game boss difficult. In my experience, those elements include high speed, a wide variety of attacks that target the entire party, multiple body parts, and healing spells. Valmar's Core includes all of those elements and more, meaning that your only hope of killing the thing is removing its ability to heal itself before blitzing it. There's simply no way to last long enough to take out all three of its heads and its core before it wipes out your party.
In many ways, it's the perfect final challenge for the JRPG in which the main wrinkle is that the protagonists and villains share one time bar in a race to see who acts first. The three heads and the core act independently of one another, which strains the ability to interrupt the icons with an attack before they reach the point where they can attack -- the main mechanic -- to the absolute limit. One mistake, and Valmar's Core will show no mercy.
I must enjoy pain, though, because the memories of my year long struggle against Valmar's Core are not altogether unpleasant. It's a wonderfully intense battle that can flip on a dime at any moment, and there were more than a few instances where I was sweating and cursing as my hero icon ran neck and neck with the villain token, praying for a quick interrupt. I think part of the reason that Valmar's Core took so long to beat was that each encounter was such an emotional drain, that I had to take a protracted break after each fight.
It was that fight -- and by extension, the terrific battle system -- that ultimately saved Grandia II for me (okay, the soundtrack also helped). Beyond that, the characters were forgettable, the story was second-rate, and the art design was merely average. If not for its pedigree, and the fact that it was one of only a few notable JRPGs on the Dreamcast, I might have ignored it.
I ended up sticking with it, to my benefit. If anything, I think a few other modern JRPGs could use a dose of the intensity afforded by Grandia II's simple but effective twist on Final Fantasy's 'Active Time Battle' system. I don't mind RPGs that use a strictly turn-based formula, but I do think making the battles a race against time adds a degree of pressure that might otherwise be missing.
Grandia II, for its part, does a better job than most of balancing that sort of pressure with the simple, mechanical process of choosing a move. Once a character icon reaches a simple point, the game pauses long enough for you to make your move. Once you get going again , though, it's entirely possible for a foe to leap ahead and launch an interrupt attack, at which point it's back to the beginning of the line. Success is a matter of knowing when to launch a powerful (but slow to charge) super atttack, healing up, or using a quick interrupt attack, which lends each round a nice element of risk versus reward.
Without those components, Grandia II is a fairly traditional RPG in the way that it handles element attack spells, status ailments, and super attacks. I guess it goes to show how one well-placed tweak can change the entire complexion of a game. It obviously can't compete with the likes of Shin Megami Tensei for sheer depth, but most of the time the action moved so fast that I hardly even noticed.
These days, I mostly have fond memories of the Valmar Core because it was one of my first real RPG challenges. Oh sure, there are much more difficult JRPGs out there, but I was still relatively new to the genre at the time. I figured that if I could beat Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, then I could handle anything short of Ruby Weapon. The Valmar Core was a nice, year long wakeup call.
Ultimately, it was Final Fantasy X that convinced me to buckle down and finish off the Valmar Core once and for all. Having been lent a PlayStation 2 for the Christmas Break, I decided that the time had come to finish Grandia II. Given a little extra motivation, I figured out the best solution for beating the core was to take out the healing face first, then focus on the body. With that strategy, I finally emerged victorious.
Years later, I still consider the Valmar Core fight to be my first true RPG challenge, and the pinnacle of what was ultimately a great battle system. Of course, it wasn't long after defeating the core that I discovered that it wasn't the final boss at all. But that's another story.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.