Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In the Hype of Grand Knights History

Back in early 2007, the cover of that month's PLAY magazine feircly grabbed my attention. The cover was an artwork of Gwendolyn by George Kamitani, and after buying that issue, I found the world of Vanillaware.

Vanillaware is a small game company originating from a small development group from SEGA who originally developed the game Princess Crown. Odin Sphere was Vanillaware's first game as an independent developer, and was developed with only 12 members present in the then current Vanillaware. Odin Sphere was released in May 2007, and Grimgrimoire was released only a month later. Muramasa: The Demon Blade was released in 2009. And now, we come to 2011, where Vanillaware will release Grand Knights History.

Simply upon it's announcement, I have become extremely hyped for GKH. Why? Because I'm a Vanillaware fanboy. But, why am I such a fan of Vanillaware's games?

Of course, the one major factor is the one most apparent to everyone who just looks at a Vanillaware game: the superb 2D graphics. However, what sets Vanillaware apart from other developer of 2D graphics, is how Vanillaware breaths so much life into their sprites. Everything in a Vanillaware game moves. The characters breath in and out realistically, the trees waft in the breeze, the stream water flows, and the stars soar in the sky. It's the level of detail present in Vanillaware games that set them apart not simply in terms of 2D graphics, but graphics of any type. Vanillaware games truly feel alive, and that quality really brings their games alive. This "living" quality is one of the reasons I love Vanillaware, because it aids not simply in the visual enjoyment of their games, but the enjoyment of the stories and gameplay present in their games. Which brings up the next topic ....

The gameplay of Vanillaware games. In this modern era of videogames, many developers will put forth so much work into their graphics that they leave the other qualities of a game behind, especially gameplay. Not so with Vanillaware games. It always surprises me how well Vanillaware games play. Odin Sphere may look like a straight-forward 2D beat-em-up with a stamina gauge (and at its core, it is), but the level up systems were brilliant. The way one had to eat food to level up their health, and forage and cook food in order to level up their health even higher was brilliant. It really connected the player with the game's world by incorporating real-life functions such as planting, cooking, and eating into the game's world; it just made the game world feel truly alive. Furthermore, the separation of leveling up the strength and health of a character was great. Then there was the separation of the story between the 5 characters, who all played differently and had their own stories and bosses. It really kept everything fresh and interesting throughout the 40-hour main story. Grimgrimoire's gameplay was basically Starcraft with unique character types, but it worked brilliantly. Muramasa is the lowest moment of Vanillaware's gameplay design career, as it was simple and straight-foward with no real unique quality other than the special attacks; regardless, the game was satisfying.

Outside of gameplay, comes the quality of Vanillaware that I probably like the most: story. George Kamitani has penned the storylines for each Vanillaware game so far, and with the exception of Muramasa, each storyline has been one of the best I've ever experienced, in or out of a videogame. Odin Sphere is a superbly written and well-developed epic tragedy. The story touched upon so many themes and conflicts that by its end, it truly felt complete. The way the story mode was split between 5 characters made the story even more satisfying. I really couldn't ask for any more. To this day, Odin Sphere has my favorite storyline in a videogame. Grimgrimoire is a superb mystery story; furthermore, it was very mature in it's scope, having many different types of relationships between its characters, even having a lesbian relationship. Princess Crown's storyline is a great "coming of age" story that truly developed the character of Gradriel on many different levels.

And that's what makes these stories stand out so well: their characters. The characters in Vanillaware games are very iconic in their development; making them very likable, and thus making the player actually care about the characters. This is a problem I have with most videogame stories, as well as manga, anime, and movie stories; the stories don't have much of an impact on me because I don't care about the characters. This has never been the case in a Vanillaware game, except for Muramasa.

It may sound strange, but despite having some great graphics, gameplay, and music, Muramasa is my least favorite Vanillaware game because it lacked good characters and a good story. It just made the graphics and gameplay have less of an impact because the lack of good characters kept me from being immersed into the world of Muramasa. It pains me that I didn't enjoy Muramasa's story, especially since I enjoyed Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire's storylines so much.

In terms of music, Vanillaware games aways impress a LOT. With the exception of Princess Crown, each Vanillaware game has music composed by Basiscape, the music composition group headed by the legendary Hitoshi Sakamoto. A common misconception is that Sakamoto composes all of the music heard in Vanillaware games; this is not true, as most of the compositions come from other composers within Basiscape, Sakamoto usually only does the main themes and a few other themes. This is notable because the music heard in Vanillaware games are very unique and unlike the music heard in Sakamoto's more better known works like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. The music in Vanillaware games truly enhance the experience as a whole, as the music tends to touch upon many different emotions. Be sure to listen to the soundtracks of Odin Sphere, Muramasa, and Grimgrimoire if you haven't; they're truly some of the best soundtracks in gaming.

And so, this brings us to Grand Knights History. As of now, we know GKH will have two of the prime elements of a Vanillaware game: 2D sprite-based graphics and music composed by Basiscape. Surprisingly, GKH is not being directed by George Kamitani, making this the first Vanillaware game not directed by him. Tomohiko Deguchi, who was previously a designer and programmer for Odin Sphere, Grimgrimoire, and Muramasa, is the director. Another role Kamitani usually does that is being taken up by someone else is the role of character designer, which is being done by Kouichi Maenou, another Vanillaware veteran. This doesn't really have me concerned, as Vanillaware is full of talented people, and I'm sure George Kamitani is over-looking the project in some form since he is the president of Vanillaware. The art direction is also clearly Kamitani's, so that distinct Vanillaware flavor is still present in full effect; I woudln't have even guessed Kamitani wasn't the character designer if it wasn't noted. What I mainly hope for is that Kamitani is writing the story for this game, as I'd love another epic.

On the gameplay side of things, the act of creating one's own units in an army sounds great. The player has the choice of choosing which character they want to be the main character they follow in the story, and despite there only being 4 of them (and 3 kingdoms), Kamitani has written great stories with small casts before, specifically Grimgrimoire. I know I may be setting myself up for disappointment again, but I have high expectations for the story of GKH based primarily off of how amazing the stories for Odin Sphere and Grigrimoire were.

Then there's the music. Only one track has been played, which is played on the main site, but it sounds fantastic, and it's clear the direction the soundtrack is taking. It's bound to be just as great as Basiscape's past soundtracks for Vanillaware games.

Grand Knights History is now my second most anticipated game behind Asura's Wrath. Vanillaware has become one of my all-time favorite games with only 3 games, and I hope they're just getting started.

Hopefully, George Kamitani's plans of training a new director and developing two games simultaneously has grown to fruition and we'll be getting another Vanillaware game soon; one directed by George Kamitani himself. I have to admit that I was concerned over the status of Vanillaware with no news from the company in two years, but now I hope that they thrive and grow as a truly unique game development studio.