It’s time for Japanese RPG fans to party like it’s 1993
For longtime Japanese RPG devotees, it can be difficult to evaluate a game like Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time. After a console generation filled with disappointments and wasted potential on the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii, it’s easy for us to cling to a comforting throwback with cutesy sprites, anime-infused characters, and a pseudo-medieval setting that would’ve felt at home in the pre–Final Fantasy VII days. After all, titles like Growlanser are why I fell in love with Japanese videogaming in the first place—and why I even find myself in the position of working at EGM and reviewing the game.
So, that left me wondering: Did I like Wayfarer of Time so much because it resembled the kind of game I would’ve imported during the halcyon RPG days of the PS1, or because it was actually that damn good? Well, I’m happy to say that, upon reflection, it’s not a simple matter of nostalgia—Wayfarer of Time is truly one of the best Japanese RPGs released in the past couple of years.
Unfortunately, this fact doesn’t exactly signal a renaissance for the genre; like last year’s excellent, overlooked Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, also on the PSP, Wayfarer of Time is an enhanced remake of a near-decade-old Japan-only release (Trails was originally a 2004 PC offering, while Wayfarer of Time debuted in 2003 on the PS2). Of course, the art style and visuals were dated even back then—its mullets, bangs, and big hair are straight out of ’93, not ’03.
And yet, that’s also part of the charm, naturally. At first blush, in fact, Wayfarer of Time comes across like an amalgamation of Suikoden, the PS1 Star Ocean incarnations, and Xenogears, yet it still manages to feel like its own unique experience in the end. Some call Growlanser a straight strategy-RPG series, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. It’s more of a traditional Japanese RPG with strategy elements, but battles play out in real time and rely on real-time strategy from the player; there’ll be several instances where you’ll need to coordinate your party members to complete certain missions. For example, you might need to pull a switch to unlock a door while the rest of your teammates hold off an onrushing horde of enemies. It’s not a simple matter of overpowering your foes, particularly when it comes to the challenging boss battles—it’s about outsmarting them.
While Wayfarer of Time’s combat definitely sets itself apart from standard Japanese RPG fare, the inventory system might put off players—and I’m one of them—who prefer simple, straightforward equipment options such as swords, armor, and shields. In fact, the game doesn’t technically offer any standard “weapons” at all; instead, you’ll equip various rings and infuse them with an assortment of offensive and defensive powers. This system works well enough, but I also couldn’t help but want for something a tad more familiar, particularly since I enjoyed the rest of the experience so much.
Most of Wayfarer of Time’s retro style invokes a sense of charm that enhances the experience, but some of those elements also hold the game back at times. The molasses-slow opening few hours may drive away some players, particularly less-experienced RPG fans, and the tiny sprites make it difficult to discern who you’ll actually be chatting with when you press the X button. Also, the old-school save system—only at an inn or save points—made me constantly paranoid about losing my progress, particularly since the game has the tendency to drop punishing enemy encounters on the player with little warning or preparation.
Once Wayfarer of Time gets going, though, it’s a character-driven adventure with twists and turns that—despite the derivative look and feel of the game—I legitimately didn’t see coming. Dialogue-heavy Japanese RPGs require excellent translations to really immerse the player in the world, and thankfully, this may well be Atlus’ strongest localization since Persona 4, another text-heavy adventure that really treated the English-language adaptation with the care and respect it deserved. But while Wayfarer of Time received the full voice treatment in Japan, that feature’s been cut from this release outside of the animated cutscenes. Still, the writing’s so expressive that I didn’t really mind the omission, especially with the knowledge that releasing a fully voiced PSP game in North America is practically impossible at this point.
Unlike most RPGs, where you’re forced to interact with each character in the way the developers dictate, Wayfarer of Time gives you the freedom to treat each new person you come across as an individual via a vast array of dialogue choices. Have you ever wanted to tell off—or outright ignore—the whiny tagalong RPG brat? In Wayfarer of Time, you absolutely can. In fact, the very second my clingy, naïve stepbrother started whining uncontrollably, I responded to his bothersome braying with a series of dismissive ellipses. When I came across characters I respected, though, I gave them the time of day and did everything I could to grow our relationship. Wayfarer of Time features 40-plus endings, truly rewarding the player and making you feel like your choices throughout the game made a real difference.
I’ll put it this way: If you’re a Japanese RPG fan, you likely have a PSP or Vita. Wayfarer of Time is available as a boxed UMD or as a PSN download to play on the Vita, so you’ve got no excuse to not support this release in one form or another. If you claim to love the genre and yearn for Japanese RPGs that reach the heights of some of the beloved classics, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice if you overlook Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time.
SUMMARY: A true Japanese role-playing throwback that successfully channels the classics of the past, Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time’s challenging, strategy-laden battles and cast of expressive characters will help remind JRPG fans why they fell in love with the genre in the first place.
- THE GOOD: A distinctive, challenging battle system; a cast of well-written characters and a bevy of dialogue optons; tons of retro charm.
- THE BAD: Some of that retro charm negatively impacts the experience.
- THE UGLY: These hairstyles haven’t been fashionable since they sat atop Kip Winger’s head circa 1992.
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time is available on PSP and PSN. Primary version reviewed was on PSP.