Granblue Fantasy: Relink review: a slick JRPG wedded to the rule of cool

Granblue Fantasy: Relink is a JRPG that is ticking off many of the action RPG tropes. It would be in danger of becoming workmanlike, such are the number of things you can tick off on your fingers like a plumber ordering parts: boss fights against improbably huge glowing monsters, an evil god, catboys, numbers popping off enemies, women who appreciate the combat applications of a thigh-high split skirt, anachronistic sunglasses, horned giants carrying halberds of the same approximate size as a caravan.

In practice, though, you sort of can’t be mad at Granblue Fantasy: Relink. It’s built around a layered combat system that seems impenetrable if you don’t take some time to understand it. But really, Granblue Fantasy: Relink is just a game so committed to the rule of cool that the entire setting is physically impossible, and every battle is a disorientating Panic! At The Firework Factory that flirts with being a photosensitivity nightmare. I’m not selling it as such, but it’s actually charming.

Astute readers may remember that I had trouble reviewing this game, but since the retail launch it’s been much more stable for me. Stable enough that I have been able to join the crew of the Grandcypher for a standard, save-the-chosen-one-save-the-world sort of adventure. In this case the world is the Sky Realm, where instead of continents there are just loads of small islands with different biomes, floating in an endless sky. Oh, the tweets Neil deGrasse Tyson would thread. The chosen one is a magical young woman called Lyria who can control a big dragon, and with whom the main character – the captain of the Grandcypher, in my case a girl called Horace – is life-bonded.

The life-bond thing happened in Granblue Fantasy the mobile game, to which Relink is a direct sequel – although Relink doesn’t bother retreading this ground. The important thing is that Lyria has been kidnapped by an evil yet sexy lady called Lillith (aren’t they all), who is using Lyria to awaken a… some sort of realm-traversal bird made of stone… I forget the details. The important thing is that, taking along three of your crew, you explore islands and get into big scraps in between extremely dramatic cut scenes.

The scraps are the main thing. You start at a bucolic floating city, and fly in your steampunk airship to a nearby beautiful, often elemental-themed island (snow island, lava island, collapsing goblin mine island, and so on). These islands are semi-open maps where you can find optional treasure chests but are basically funnelled in one direction. The eventually comforting rhythm is that you’ll fight some increasingly difficult waves of mobs and mini-bosses until you get to the area’s main boss, which is usually some species of fiery wyvern or, most memorably, a huge Shadow Of The Colossus-style mech.

A boss fight against a huge automaton in a desert in Granblue Fantasy: Relink
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Cy Games

You can play as any of your crew in the fights, a varied roster that includes gun-wielding swashbucklers, serious paladins and alluring magicians. It’s in combat you discover the Relink of the title refers not only to rescuing Lyria but also how you fight. When an enemy’s stun gauge fills up, you can perform a link attack with whoever else is attacking it – a sort of special double-up. You also have Skybound Arts (SBA), which are each character’s extra special attacks (i.e. if they have a sword they will hit the enemy with the sword a lot). To trigger these you need to max out your SBA meter, which fills as you perform your smaller, run-of-the-mill special abilities, like heals, buffs, debuffs, AOE attacks, that sort of thing. If the other characters have filled their SBA meter too, then you can trigger a Chain Attack, each character on the board dusting off an SBA before you all work together to do a super hyper mega final attack called, like, Void Bastard or similar.

But that’s not all! There’s also your Link Level. Performing link attacks, SBAs or resurrecting downed pals contribute to your Link Level, and when that gets to 100% you can trigger Link Time – which means your enemy goes into super slow-mo and you can swish about dealing extra damage. It’s a lot to handle, and combined with some rare boss fights where it’s suggested you split up, the combat is easier to manage if you’re playing in co-op with actual people. Unfortunately, and despite Relink selling a cool million copies, I found the matchmaking extremely variable, so I’d suggest having a group of friends earmarked as “the people I play Relink with”. But if you don’t have any, then the combat isn’t unmanageable. Or rather, the combat is so frantic, as magic and colour explodes everywhere like an over-the-top Jackson Pollock, that single player doesn’t feel much less chaotic.

There are other things to engage with that make things easier, too. The sensible player should check and upgrade their Masteries, a sort of pared-back version of a Final Fantasy Sphere grid, where you can spend points to win prizes (increases to attack and defence stats, and new special abilities). Adventuring around nets you rare crafting materials, which can be exchanged to forge and improve weapons, and sigils, which are magical items that can be attached to characters for passive buffs, and can and should be switched up depending on the biome you’re going to. On the occasion that you run into a boss you can’t best, you can return to town to farm XP in quests from the XP Farming Quest Booth, which basically replays previous levels you’ve beaten, and provides XP and crafting rewards. It’s well worth putting the time in to understand all this, because it makes the combat less confusing and more rewarding, but the game introduces many of its core concepts through quick tooltips rather than learn-by-doing action tutorials. This is to its detriment.

Nice good boy helper Rolan captured by the enemy in Granblue Fantasy: Relink
This is Rolan. He will sometimes bemoan that the enemies working for Lillith must pay the ultimate price. As you can see, that morality works out great for him. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Cy Games

Defeating a large goblin leader enemy in Granblue Fantasy: Relink

A mission accept screen in Granblue Fantasy: Relink

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Cy Games

Still, you can probably make a decent fist of the first few hours of Relink without understanding anything. It’ll just take you a lot longer to finish, though there are also accessibility and assist options to automate some or all of the more complicated aspects of the combat. There are some larger problems with a couple of the fundamentals, in any case. The combat lock is unhelpful to the point that it’s easier to not have it on if there are multiple enemies to deal with, and, despite the nice animations, all the attacks feel weightless, rendering your giant sword more of a cosplay replica with a safety tag popped on it by a man in a high vis vest who definitely doesn’t understand what you’re dressed as.

Maybe it’s because they get so huge that the relative size of any one attack loses all meaning. In one boss fight I generated almost a million damage with a special attack, the damage indicator itself used as storytelling for drama. But the bosses are such massive spectacles that you sort of don’t mind, and elsewhere the game is slick and streamlined to remove any friction in playing. When you complete a sidequest (kill X number of wolves) you can automatically warp to the quest giver to turn it in. If you’ve returned to town to XP farm, you can immediately warp back to the last checkpoint of the main story.

Granblue Fantasy: Relink has absolutely no pretensions about it, isn’t saying anything, and is quite dedicated to it’s fantasy. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and a hot witch who explodes roses everywhere in battle is cool. So are attacks the size of a planet, and monsters with hands on strings flying everywhere, and pirate captains who are also dudes with big cow horns. Unless all of that doesn’t sound at all cool to you – in which case, best avoid this game, if I were you.

This review is based on a retail build of the game, provided by publishers Cygames, Inc.

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