For a long time I’ve had the bad habit of installing a ton of games on my phone and tablet but never actually playing them. I went through a phase where I downloaded a variety of the more popular titles like Puzzle and Dragons, Dungeon Link, Final Fantasy: Record Keeper and Terra Battle to sample. While I found something to like in a number of these games, none ever really hooked me. So there they languished, idly occupying space on my smartphone’s flash storage.
Grand Sphere: Legend of the Dragon is a free to play mobile game from Silicon Studios, the developers behind the Bravely Default series. It launched in Japan over the summer, but an English translated version is now available on both iOS and Android. After seeing some positive impressions online and given the developer pedigree behind the game I decided to give it a chance.
Like Puzzle and Dragons and many of its ilk, Grand Sphere involves a central loop of recruiting characters with various elemental affinities, leveling them up by feeding them other characters or upgrade materials and taking your party of adventurers through single player missions, competitive challenges and periodic co-op boss fights.
What sets the game apart is the RPG combat Silicon designed. Many other titles of this type abstract battles into puzzle games of one sort or another. Both Puzzles & Dragons and Marvel Puzzle Quest use a form of match-three. Dungeon Link has its line drawing and Terra Battle offers an interesting flanking and linking system where tiles are moved on a grid.
Grand Spheres adopts a more traditional RPG combat paradigm. Your party of four (plus one guest character from another player) are faced by a number of monsters in each mission. By default each will simply attack whichever enemy you have targeted. To make things more interesting each turn a few random “power spheres” will appear under you party. These allow one of your characters to take a special action, whether it’s an attack that hits all the enemies on screen, a healing spell to recover some HP or a buff that ups the entire party’s defence for a turn.
Deciding who will use which sphere constitutes the bulk of the strategy in the game. You must consider the elemental affinities of each character, the elemental composition of the enemies, determine the highest threats in order to devise a primary target, or even determine if spheres should be saved for later turns when more powerful enemies could appear.
The cleverly designed touch interface allows battles to be quick, but with thrilling choices and many opportunities to optimize your approach. You can reorder the combat order by sliding characters left or right, power spheres are activated by swiping down. You need only tap an enemy to select them as your initial target. When you have everyone set up clicking the big orange “Battle” button initiates the action, followed by an enemy counter attack. Characters also each have a unique special skill that acts somewhat like a limit break. Their “SP” meter fills up as they take damage, and when it is full you can swipe up to engage their most powerful attack ability. Finally, there are summons you will discover and assign to your party for use during battle. You call them by tapping the “Burst” meter once it is filled to at least the first tier. Most powerful summons require higher tiers before they can be deployed.
Each mission in the single player offers up to three stars. One for completing the mission, the second for you whole party surviving, and the third is a speed bonus. All confer bonus rewards if achieved, so it’s important to plan ahead and be as efficient as possible.
For me this quality combat turns the genre on its head. For most the missions you play are just a way to grind experience, gold or materials, placing the greater emphasis on the team-building side of the experience. Many literally automate some, or even all of the combat leaving you to wait until you win, or need to tap your screen to keep it from going to sleep. Even more involved games like Terra Battle quickly become tedious to play, and the disconnect between the game pieces on a board and storytelling make it difficult to form any attachment to your team.
Yet, in Grand Sphere I engage with the enhancement and evolutions systems simply as a means to an end: getting back into combat. It’s to the point where I exhaust every offered opportunity to play a mission, even where other players might consider the rewards I offered less than worthwhile. But the combat is so interesting that getting drops and bonuses are just gravy and the experience of playing is reward enough.
The bulk of the game is contained in a single player campaign which includes a sizable number of missions and locations. There is a story involving a kidnap of the Grand Summoner, Lady Stella, by the demon Belial. The player, in the shoes of Lady Stella’s childhood friend and current Knight Commander sets out to save her with the help of his spritely sidekick Commette and Eioh, Lady Stella’s chaperone/attache. It’s a sparse narrative told mostly through a few dialog scenes in each map, but the charming banter between Commette and Eioh and the Japanese voice acting makes them worth not skipping.
Co-Op bounties and raids occur on a fixed schedule and open for an hour at a time. Special events will earn you unique currency to spend in the event specific shop. Each day you are given six tickets to start a bounty. You can make it public or add a password so only your friends can join. Hosts get earn extra rewards, but you can also check the pub and jump into open bounties being hosted by other players. The bounties usually play very quickly, despite requiring up to four players to input their own commands. The special monsters have unique abilities and go through phases, but the goal is to collectively whittle them down to zero HP within a given turn limit.
Finally, in the Arena mode you can try your luck against parties from other players. It’s not exactly competitive since your opponent will be AI driven, but it’s a fun diversion seeing how other people have built their teams.
As a free to play game Grand Sphere employs many familiar tactics to monetize the experience. Going on single player quests requires energy that refills slowly over time. Link points, earned quickly from using guest characters or as bonuses for clearing missions, are used to “Scout” new characters to add to your team but the chances of getting better than two star pulls is very low. For a guaranteed three star or higher you need to spend Gems, the currency that can be bought with real money. You do earn gems slowly from a variety of sources, including ten a day that are hidden on the two main hub screens. They are also doled out in chests, as mission prizes or from a long list of in game achievements.
I’ve not found the free to play aspect to be onerous thus far. Grand Sphere does not resort to annoying pop up ads or nag screens. In a week I’ve already seen a few special offers for premium scouts at a sale price, or which guarantee a higher level pull than usual. Gems can also be used to refill your energy immediately, or continue a fight after all your characters have been wiped out. Usually that does not seem like a good value and it’s a little too easy to click agree on accident. Thus far I haven’t been compelled to spend any actual money, but I can definitely see throwing down a few bucks later on to get some high value fighters.
As you may have gathered, I have been shocked by the quality of Grand Sphere and how compelling it is to play. I’ve yet to even touch on the great art or the lovely music. As an additional plus I’ve found the performance on my aging Galaxy S4 to be excellent, something not always a given in the mobile market. Final Fantasy: Record Keeper was notoriously laggy for me, rendering the game unplayable for months at a time. Hopefully Silicon Studios finds great success with this game. They’ve designed something very special in a crowded landscape of cynically produced time and money sinks. The core mechanics are good enough that it would be great to see paid spin offs with a greater focus on story that use written characters instead of a party of randoms you build up yourself. Until then I’m happy to plunge back into game again and again, after all I want to see how my max level three star gunner will handle herself after another evolution.