The year is 2007: A certain impressionable adolescent (read: me) who would regularly visit Border’s Books to peer through the anime magazines would see a beautifully drawn ad for a game about…well, who cares? The art was some of the best art I’d seen in a game. It was called GrimGrimoire, the main character was a witch, and it was being made by some new team called Vanillaware; that was pretty much all anyone could tell from the ad, but it was enough for me to know that I wanted to play it. I ended up getting a copy as a birthday gift and it didn’t dawn on me until I put the game in for the first time that I had no idea what kind of game I was in for. It was in an anime magazine, so it could be just about anything: A turn-based JRPG, an action JRPG, a visual novel, it could even be an action game.
To my surprise, it ended up being a real-time strategy game. What you should know is that it happens to be the first one I ever tried, and it didn’t take me long to get my ass kicked but I didn’t let that stop me–after all, have you seen that art? My efforts were ultimately rewarded: I went on a blind date with GrimGrimoire and fell in love with it.
Although GrimGrimoire was their first title (fun fact!), Vanillaware would go on to make a number of beloved, much more well-known games like Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Muramasa: The Demon Blade that would largely overshadow GrimGrimoire. Especially with the release of Odin Sphere Leifthrasir last year and the upcoming release of Dragon’s Crown on PS4, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about Vanillaware lately–mostly about how now that my second favorite game by them is coming out on the PS4, will we see a port of my favorite as well? My favorite, of course, being GrimGrimoire.
When asked about hidden gems on the PS2, GrimGrimoire is usually among the first few games I mention–quite incredible, if you ask me, considering that I’m usually not a fan of RTS games. What’s more incredible, though, is that I run into so few people who’ve so much as heard of GrimGrimoire. I know it’s by no means a mainstream game nor is it considered one of the finest RTS gaming has to offer, but the fact that it’s a usually-liked game by Vanillaware–their first game, for that matter–makes me wonder how it’s flown under the radar for so many people? And I thought, well, in honor of its tenth anniversary this year and the fact that Vanillaware’s been on my mind lately, why not talk about this hidden gem, and maybe get more potential players interested?
The first thing I’ll usually tell people wondering what GrimGrimoire is that it’s basically Groundhog Day meets Harry Potter meets Starcraft. The second thing I’ll do is assure whoever I’m talking to that unlike Odin Sphere–which, mind you, came out only a few months after GrimGrimoire–it’s surprisingly not laggy. For those unaware (possibly a lot of you, seeing as how this issue was mostly fixed in the PS3 port and totally fixed in Leifthrasir) perhaps the most common complaint for the PS2 version of Odin Sphere is how badly it lagged when there was a lot going on on-screen (which is very often). Knowing that GrimGrimoire is an RTS game would probably make anyone a little paranoid then–after all, if it had come out first and likely had more going on on-screen, the lag is probably just as bad, maybe worse, right? Surprisingly, wrong. I don’t know how or why, but somehow, GrimGrimoire runs significantly smoother than the PS2 version of Odin Sphere. This is nothing short of incredible considering that the screen is often crammed to max capacity with magic circles, dragons, zombies, fairies, homunculi, etc.
Now seems as good a time as ever to tell you what you’re actually doing in GrimGrimoire: You play as aspiring witch
Harry Potter Lillet Blan during her first few days at the prestigious magic school Hogwarts Town of Silver Star. After 5 days, however, she goes back to Day 1 a la Groundhog Day. Quickly catching on to the situation, she uses her magical abilities to discover what’s going on in the dark underbelly of her beloved new school. Playing as Lillet, you’ll use different kinds of magic (glamor, necromancy, alchemy, etc.) to summon different kinds of creatures (fairies, ghosts, dragons, etc.) to achieve your goals.
As you’d expect from a Vanillaware game, the painted art is impeccable and extremely distinct. Environments are fluid and awe-inspiring, character designs ooze with the fantasy GrimGrimoire wants to bring you into, and even the smallest animations are mesmerizing. Art, of course, isn’t the only hallmark Vanillaware secured in the creation of GrimGrimoire. Many of your ally units have cameos in many of their later games, as well. The elves and fairies, for instance, appear in Odin Sphere, as well. For better of for worse, Vanillaware also laid the foundations of its status as a team that makes difficult games with GrimGrimoire which is generally considered to be at least somewhat challenging. Personally, I found Odin Sphere to be much more difficult since GrimGrimoire gave you the means to be much more in control of the battles you fought (not to mention that you didn’t have to drastically change your style of gameplay ever few hours) but I still wouldn’t recommend it to someone looking for something they can breeze through. That said, I also wouldn’t totally deter people who don’t play many (or any) RTS games from it either. The game gives you a staggering degree of control, so much that it even helps the most uncomfortable of RTS players (even like me when I first played it!) warm up to it. If my 13-year-old self who had never played an RTS before this one can figure it out, I’m confident anyone else can, too.
Although Vanillaware has expressed interest in making a sequel for GrimGrimoire, for whatever reason (many fans speculate it was them getting too busy keeping up with the overwhelming success from Odin Sphere which, again, came out only months after GrimGrimoire) it simply hasn’t happened. Jouji Kamitani, the founder of Vanillaware and creator of GrimGrimoire, has stated that if GrimGrimoire were to ever get a sequel, it would likely be some kind of online versus game with the same or similar gameplay from the original intact. A lack of a multiplayer mode and the difficulty of the game, in my experience, tend to be the most common complaints GrimGrimoire gets, so I think that by making this online versus version of it (which would effectively kill 2 birds with one stone) could be exactly what GrimGrimoire needs if it ends up being next on Vanillaware’s to-do list.
If you needed one last incentive to give GrimGrimoire a try, it’s one of the very few games I’ve played with a canonically queer protagonist. To give more details than that would be to spoil a large part of the game, but what I can tell you is that yes–Lillet Blan, although never explicitly defining her sexuality, is queer. It’s already been discussed here on The Lifecast why diversity and representation–especially when it comes to having LGBTQ+ characters–matters so I won’t delve into this too much, but what I will say is that I’m almost positive that this was the first game I ever played with a canonically queer protagonist in my life.
As a matter of fact, GrimGrimoire was a game of many firsts for me: It was the first time I blindly wanted a game just because of its art (luckily it worked out for me with GrimGrimoire–that’s a trend that definitely didn’t keep up, much to my dismay), it was the first game I played with a canonically queer protagonist, my first RTS, and in fact I’m pretty sure it was also the first time I played a game with a dual audio option because I distinctly remember playing the game in Japanese with English subs because my 13-year-old self couldn’t believe how cool and almost futuristic that was (and because frankly, the Japanese voice acting was much better for the most part anyways). I find it very fitting that GrimGrimoire was a game of so many firsts for me seeing as how it was also Vanillaware’s first game. Whereas I don’t consider myself to be an especially huge fan of Vanillaware’s game, I do think that they’re among the most artistic triple-A games that get released, and for that I give them a lot of credit.
Although GrimGrimoire may not be the best game on the PS2, it’s a game I’ve never really understood why so seemingly few people have played. It seems to have nothing but positive features lined up for it, yet perhaps because of how soon Odin Sphere came out and overshadowed it, it seems to generally go unnoticed by a lot of gamers who I think would love it if they gave it a chance. If GrimGrimoire were to be re-released on PS4 with a multiplayer option–ideally one that could handle online and local multiplayer–I think that would be the breath of life this underrated gem needs to remind people what set the bar for quality in Vanillaware’s games. A bar which, in my opinion, has still yet to be reached by any of Vanillaware’s other titles even 10 years later.