Review: Granblue Fantasy: Relink

31 Jan 2024

I mentioned in the intro to my previous review for Granblue Fantasy Versus: Rising that when you see the title “Granblue Fantasy” attached to something, you are seeing a game based upon what is a long-running mobile title that has stretched the concept of a browser game based on JRPG combat about as far as it logically can. But while Granblue Fantasy Versus was the first attempt to bring these characters both to an international audience as well as make for a wider franchise, it always felt a bit off… because at its core, this game was an RPG. It sort of deserves an RPG.

Thus, it is not wholly surprising that Cygames entered into a partnership with Platinum Games back in 2016 to develop Granblue Fantasy: Relink, an action RPG based upon the game… which immediately turned into a mess. The original drafts for the game had a completely new character as the main character, and considering it was originally intended for the PlayStation 4, you can get a sense of how times had changed. By 2019 Platinum Games had left the project, and considering that it is now 2024 it’s clear that Cygames – a mobile game developer – was doing the heavy lifting for most of the project’s lifespan.

Suffice to say that if you haven’t heard of the game before now, or even if you’ve been following it, you probably are expecting the game to be something of a mess. Like, how could it not be messy as heck? Is it possible that after a lengthy development, the game that’s emerged is not only functional but actually… good? Should you consider purchasing it when it launches on February 1st on Steam, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 (the latter version played for this review)?

A Journey to the End of the Skies

Relink does not start the crew from the beginning, but somewhere in the middle. As the game opens, you choose between the male or female character for the game, along with being able to set your name just like in the mobile game. The idea is obviously that you are meant to see this as a next step within the same journey you’re on in the mobile title… and sure enough, the game kicks off with the crew’s airship, the Grandcypher, breaking through the boundary to enter the Zegagrande skydom.

Far from being a greatest hits tour of things that are well-explored within the game up to this point, Relink is at once a fresh start and a familiar trip. The Grandcypher crew is still seeking the map to Estalucia, the lost land at the end of the skies, in a world composed of several flying islands. (If you think of Skies of Arcadia, you’re about halfway there.) No sooner does the crew arrive than they are attacked, but right away the captain’s bonded companion Lyria summons the primal beast Bahamut to fight off the attacking monsters… at which point something afflicts Bahamut, and he attacks the ship.

This forces the Grandcypher to dock for repairs, which ultimately leads to Lyria trying to calm the primal beast of another island… and being abducted by the sinister Church of Avia, who appear familiar with Lyria’s ability to the point of having waited for her. That’s more than enough motivation for the crew to go after her, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s something major at play within the skydom. And, naturally, the only way forward is for the crew to navigate a mystery, fight a whole lot of giant monsters, and deliver speeches about the power of friendship before, during, and after every significant plot development.

While there are definitely parts of Granblue Fantasy: Relink that, much like the source material, are essentially just reciting the greatest hits of Anime Fantasy Adventure, that’s not really a bad thing. The strength of the game’s storytelling has always been that it finds interesting spins on familiar formulas because it is based on formulas that are well-worn and well-loved, and that’s part of what makes it work. The villains are impressive bastards who clearly have you outgunned at many turns, but you also frequently surprise them because it turns out you have a whole lot of firepower on your side, which means that it feels like an engaging push-and-pull.

One thing that I do feel is a bit of a weakness is the character selection. Not only do I feel like the recruitable crewmates beyond the “core” crew are some of the more long-standing but boring offerings, something the Versus franchise is only just starting to branch out from, these crew members lack any banter or role in character dialogue. Like, it’s nice that whatever party you have with you, Eugen and Io and Rosetta are all chiming in with feedback… but why is it that your party could be Lancelot, Zeta, and Ferry, and none of them would have anything to say about the situation? It feels like any party members beyond the core group are guest stars added purely for gameplay purposes.

But that is a minor quibble, and not even something that’s unusual for the main story quests within the game. (Although I’m saddened by, say, the lack of Vira.) As a whole, the story is enchanting and engaging, and while there are places where I would have dearly liked more character interplay, what we get ain’t bad.

We’ll Have to Work Together

Gameplay is honestly a bit part of the game, and it’s here where the title really needs to get up and do a dance. It has to feel familiar to the original game, and familiar to people who have played the fighting game, and be functional on its own. That’s a pretty tall order… but to its credit, it pulls it off not just adequately but well.

At the most basic level, this is a fairly standard action combat setting. You have free camera control, a button to jump, use a basic attack, use a special attack, and either use a special Link Attack when an enemy is staggered or pick up items in the area. There’s also a lock-on button, a guard, a dodge, and a button you hold down to access your skill menu. Skills are mapped to the four face buttons, so much like the main game you can have up to four at any given time. You also have access to your Skybound Art when fully charged, which allows you to hit an enemy hard and, if possible, chain together with the Arts of your crew members to produce a devastating burst attack.

Much of the gameplay flows naturally from that, of course. Being an action RPG, you have both Perfect Dodge and Perfect Block mechanics. Each character also has a large skill tree full of abilities to unlock, which you handle by managing a shared resource of points. And while the captain has to come along for every main story quest, you are in no way obligated to control them; if you want to play as someone else, that’s fine.

Since everyone has a unique special attack button and two unique traits, it’s possible for all of the characters to play somewhat differently. Recruiting new party members is a matter of getting Recruitment Cards, which allow you to choose from a list. Each party member has numerous additional weapons they can equip, as well as Sigils that alter their stats from improving critical chance to increasing attack power as your health lowers.

Several of these ideas are very clearly taken from the mobile game, but carefully reworked to have an actual purpose when removed from the draw-and-grind mechanics. For example, weapons can be upgraded and need to be uncapped periodically… using rarer resources which require some effort to acquire, thus creating a certain upper limit to character grinding past a certain point. The treasure trade feature is the main form of mercantile interaction, but it again allows you to trade various other treasures you acquire for more relevant rewards instead of relying upon grinding certain quests.

And yes, there are endlessly available quests that serve as battle arenas or minor setpieces, which can also be taken on as part of online groups. (I did not get to experience the online functionality, just because I was playing before release.) So there is space to grind. There are also all sorts of fun little things during main story quests, like the little obstacle course-style crystals you have to collect to reveal certain chests. It’s all fairly minor, but it’s also all fun. I always found myself engaged, scouring the corners of the map, looking for items I hadn’t picked up, eager to see what new quests this stage of the game unlocked, and so forth.

I Never Imagined it Could be Beautiful

Over the course of its nearly decade of operation, Granblue Fantasy has accumulated a definite style to its towns, NPCs, and visuals. Relink is very clearly keen on capturing that distinctive style, with all of the character designs and environments lovingly pulled from the many pieces of familiar art. There’s a bit of a charm just to the very nature of seeing a 3D model of the oft-noted and oft-modified “Default Guy” illustration wandering around the streets of towns, which are also modeled after very familiar background art. Considering how good the art in the game is to begin with, having all of these landscapes expand outward and be given form is a delight in and of itself.

Animations are fluid and expressive, with even minor enemies getting a notable flair to their movements. There’s no part of the game that looks or feels stiff, and even the cutscenes are well-managed with expressive camera shifts and appropriate posing. In some ways it’s almost gratifying, seeing the game going from its 2D origins into 3D with a sense of wild abandon, like this is what the original has struggled to do for ages.

One thing that is just a little off-putting at times is how true the game is to the artistic designs but without any sort of cel-shading or outlines. It’s not that the models or designs look bad, just that compared to the original illustrations or the shaded versions seen in the fighting games, sometimes it feels a touch weird. That’s a minor quibble, though.

The audio of the game is, of course, a delight; it uses both familiar tunes and novel ones, with longtime composers for the game Tsutomu Narita and Nobuo Uematsu (yes, that Uematsu) taking on musical duties once again. The voice acting is delightful, with both Japanese and English options available; I defaulted to Japanese because I’m so accustomed to hearing these characters in Japanese, but the English cast is excellent. (I hadn’t heard Allegra Clark as Rosetta before, but it’s an inspired casting choice.)

A Singularity Experience

In all honesty, I keep going back over my experiences with this game time and again. It’s entirely possible that on some level my brain is just too fixated on this game and this setting and so I’m being seduced by the siren song of “it’s a game about a thing I like,” and I’m overlooking its flaws along the way. There are minor, niggling flaws. Yes, the quests are a bit repetitive. Sure, the combat is probably not honed to as fine an edge as it could be. No, the story doesn’t perfectly balance the need to introduce new players to the game. A map in towns would be nice if not utterly vital.

But no matter how much I second-guess myself, I keep coming back to the facts of the matter. I like this game. Not because it’s a part of Granblue Fantasy, but because it’s a good action RPG. The facts that make it a good action RPG are just inherent to the game. Sure, the fact that it’s part of a larger franchise means that it skips the “how the party got together” stage of the story and gets into the weeds, but that story does exist if you want to go play it. This is a big, sprawling, fun game that delivers everything I personally wanted and more beside.

So at the end of the day, despite everything that made this look like it was going to be a disaster, Granblue Fantasy: Relink is not just an alright game. It’s a really good game, a delight in terms of action RPG gameplay, and easily a title that you can start sinking a huge amount of time into whether you know this crew or not. I’m excited for the prospect of more, from more characters to more stories. And if you’re looking for a new RPG to sink your teeth to at the start of the year, you already have a strong example.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by CyGames for PS5. All screenshots courtesy of CyGames.