Granblue Fantasy: Relink – it’s good to have some new blood (Picture: Cygames)
A new Japanese role-player attempts to take on the giants of the genre, and it just might succeed with its excellent combat and visuals.
Cygames, the Japanese developer and publisher of Granblue Fantasy: Relink, is about as far as you can get from a household name among gamers. It only set up proper European operations last year but it has big ambitions, to rival the likes of Bandai Namco and Square Enix, and the latest in its Granblue Fantasy series is its most credible attempt so far, to break into the big league.
The Granblue Fantasy universe first emerged in game form in Japan in 2014, for mobile phones and browsers. But Relink is an altogether more ambitious beast, even compared to fighting game Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising from last Christmas. Relink is a full-blown, meaty action role-player, that boasts a high level of replayability beyond just its single-player storyline.
Relink follows the fortunes of Gran (who you can choose to play as a male or female character, and who can, thankfully, be renamed), the captain of a bunch of adventurers who call themselves skyfarers. This is on account of them making their way through a world that consists of floating sky islands, in an airship that is literally an old school wooden galleon suspended from a blimp.
Their overall goal is to find the mythical utopian land of Estalucia, but on entering a new skydom called Zegagrande they discover that something is amiss with the area’s all-important primal beasts and hook up with a mysterious vicar called Rolan. Luckily one of the (non-fighting) members of the party, Lyria, has a mystical ability to control primal beasts, but that selfsame ability draws the attention of a group of baddies, kickstarting a twist-filled plotline.
That plot isn’t Granblue Fantasy: Relink’s finest attribute, although it does pave the way for some varied gameplay sequences, often involving a modicum of puzzling and turret shooting. Gran’s fellow skyfarers are a mixed bunch, with skills that prove complementary in battle – Io is a spellcasting mage, Eugen a ranged gun specialist, and Katalina a sword-wielding female knight, for example – but the dialogue between them is very basic and naïve.
It feels a bit too child-friendly, and one of the party – Vyrn, the small dragon who also doesn’t participate in combat – is so annoyingly voiced that you wish he would just shut up. Sadly, he’s supposed to offer what passes for comic relief.
Visually, Granblue Fantasy: Relink is much more interesting. While the precision of its graphics betray the fact that it was designed for the PlayStation 4 as well as 5, its art direction is impeccable and it would easily pass muster if viewed purely as an example of top-notch anime animation.
Where the game really soars is in its combat. You take control of a four-person party and as you progress through battles, the bond between party members increases, allowing you to perform powerful link attacks and eventually Skybound Arts, which are Relink’s equivalent of Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks, and can be chained by all party members, culminating in a final burst to which they all contribute.
Each party member can also deploy four skills, which can be offensive or defensive and which are subject to cooldowns. The end result is highly tactical and all the action is real-time rather than turn-based, so you have to dodge, block, jump and manoeuvre into positions where you can launch back-attacks or target weak spots. As Japanese role-playing combat systems go it’s exemplary and remains fun and addictive way beyond the end of the main story.
It also helps that there are some great bosses, and plenty of them, pretty much all of which can be revisited when you take on quests available in the hub towns. There you can also embark on Fate Episodes, which fill in individual characters’ backstories and swiftly improve basic stats, making them well worth taking on. Plus, you earn Crewmate Cards, which let you add other characters from the Granblue Fantasy universe to your party – they won’t participate in the story but can be dead handy in combat.
There’s no level grinding required until very near the end of the game, with the ability to quickly embark on quests making even that surprisingly frictionless and enjoyable. However, the fine character progression system goes a long way towards mitigating the need to grind. Relink calls it Masteries, and every battle or quest you undertake yields a large haul of Mastery Points, which must be distributed among your whole party.
Granblue Fantasy: Relink – a very pretty game (Picture: Cygames)
Each character has a seemingly never-ending, branching chain of skill trees, one attacking and one defensive, which bring new skills, extra slots for sigils (which add specific buffs and can be upgraded), and which improve key attributes.
The further down each tree you get, the more expensive everything gets, but the end result is that you can build up super strong characters with distinctive skills and attributes. That system is augmented beautifully by a great weaponry upgrading and forging system, handled by the blacksmith in each hub town. So by the end of the main storyline your characters are vastly more powerful than they were at the start.
Proceedings don’t end there: the main storyline takes about 20 hours to complete but when you’ve managed that there’s a huge amount of extra stuff to keep you interested. As well as a clever loose end from the story to pursue, the quests scale in difficulty almost endlessly, and can be played easily and seamlessly with up to three other online co-op partners. Among these extra quests are plenty of outrageously difficult and satisfying boss battles, that go way beyond anything you encounter in the main story.
If you can get past the twee dialogue, you’ll find a game with some of the most compelling role-playing elements you could ask for, with brilliant, tactical combat and an almost unprecedented level of replayability – all delivered with near-filmic levels of anime visuals. It will certainly delight existing fans but also has plenty to pique the interest of those who usually feel the genre is not for them. Granblue Fantasy: Relink isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough to establish Cygames as a credible force in the world of Japanese role-playing publishers.
Granblue Fantasy: Relink review summary
In Short: A proper, meaty JRPG from a newly ambitious developer, whose top notch combat and art design is let down only by insipid storytelling and voice-acting.
Pros: Superb combat system and character progression, with lots to do beyond the main story. Extensive collection of playable characters, great boss battles, fun online co-op, and great art direction.
Cons: Weak, saccharine dialogue and some annoying voice-acting. The storytelling in general is predictable and cliché.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Release Date: 29th January 2024
Age Rating: 12
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