Earlier this year, I played a few different Vanillaware games to pay homage to the game developer before 13 Sentinels arrived. The first among them was Grand Knights History. Grand Knights History is an obscure title for the PSP released in Japan during 2011, Vanillaware developed the game, and Marvelous Entertainment published it. It never made way outside of Japan. Luckily for me, a dedicated fanbase saw it fit to localize the game on their own.
You begin your adventure by choosing one of three warring factions. There is a small tidbit regarding each faction’s mantra and goals to aid in your decision-making process. Unfortunately, these factions seem to be worthless in the grand scheme of things. I believe their original purpose was to pit players against each other online. Since that functionality has ceased (and never existed outside of Japan), the faction decision is virtually worthless.
Movement in the world relied upon traversing a grid-like map. You move your piece as you see fit, and each time you do so, enemy pieces move as well. I did appreciate the stylistic choice to represent the player character and enemy characters as chess pieces. It adds a layer of artistic design to the overarching strategy theme of the gameplay, which was uncharacteristic for Vanillaware until this point in time.
The combat system in Grand Knights History is turn-based. You decide the action of each member of your party before the turn begins, and once you’ve locked in your decisions, everything plays out on the battlefield. Different attacks require a certain number of “Action Points” or AP. More sophisticated attacks, such as partner moves or attacks that target multiple opponents, require a higher cost. You begin the game with a set number of AP and accrue more for each opponent you defeat.
If you find yourself struggling to beat a formidable foe and decide to flee from battle, your “Bravery” will decrease. If your Bravery falls too low, your team’s lack of morale will cause your starting AP to be less. Moves you rely on might become unavailable due to the lack of AP.
Grand Knights History features a variety of different encounters, some good and some bad. All potential encounters can be seen plainly on the map as you move your characters around, so while the events themselves may be random, stumbling upon them is not. The “story” encounters (as opposed to battle) are bite-sized procedural interactions that usually impact the player’s party. For instance, you might stumble upon a Merchant that sells goods that aren’t available until further along in the game, or you might find someone selling apples, and they offer to heal your party. These provide an excellent opportunity to spend some hard-earned cash to gain a small advantage on your foes. While they are nothing groundbreaking, it does add a bit to the charm and help break up the monotony of battle.
Enemy encounters exist as a black chess piece on the map, but sometimes they are also hidden on random spaces. They are always moving around, so it’s essential to plan your path to avoid potentially problematic enemies. Once you cross paths with one of these pieces, a battle begins.
The barebones story, which never saw a western localization, hinders the game’s overall experience more than it adds to it. The fan translation is impressive, but it seems that there isn’t much of a narrative in the first place. The clear intention here was the focus on online play. There isn’t much here, which is disappointing, considering some of my favorite stories ever told come from Vanillaware titles.
The game remains a very cool concept, even more so for the PSP era. I’m a massive fan of the art (obviously), and the gameplay is unprecedented for Vanillaware; they haven’t dabbled in turn-based combat since GKH. 13 Sentinels takes some cues from a turn-based system, but it’s not as strict as this.
Some of the game design choices leave you questioning what they were thinking at the time of development. In the single-player campaign, you have a limited amount of time to “train” your squires. Once they pass the time limit, no further training options are available. I guess the goal is to send them to the online-centric “War Mode” to duke it out with other players for territory and prizes. This mode was unavailable outside of Japan and will exist for all eternity in the state that it was in during its last week of server uptime.
I am glad to have experienced this game. It is a fun and obscure piece of the overall Vanillaware story. I wonder what my thoughts would be surrounding GKN if I had lived in Japan during its release. Another lifetime perhaps.
Here is some of my favorite artwork from the game: