Learning magic is full of danger. One day you’re just getting your head around the basics of summoning different creatures and the next you’re stuck in an inexplicable time loop to prevent a trapped Archmage from reclaiming an artifact of unimaginable power. At least, that’s the way things go in GrimGrimoire OnceMore as Lillet Blan tries to survive her studies at the Silver Star Tower.
A remaster of 2007’s GrimGrimoire by Vanillaware, this game does a lot right in its attempt to capture the action of a Real Time Strategy title. Things begin as Lillet Blan arrives at the Tower to study magic. The “new student at the academy” setup is familiar enough that players will feel at home in the first few minutes of the game. Lillet is sent to various professors, each specialising in a type of magic that she must learn. These lessons take the form of RTS battles that make up the gameplay in GrimGrimoire OnceMore.
Players take control of different summoning runes, each of which can bring different creatures into battle. Demons can do heavy physical damage, while ghosts can bypass physical attacks entirely but are weak to magic. Learning the strengths and weaknesses of the different schools of magic and using them effectively is the core gameplay loop players will find themselves in.
Speaking of loops, the story here is one big time loop that Lillet is doomed to repeat. Five days after she arrives at the Silver Star Tower, a powerful mage who had been sealed away within the tower is freed and Lillet dies a horrible death at his hands. Don’t worry, though; she is immediately sent back to the first night she was in the school, complete with the knowledge of what will shortly come to pass.
It’s a fascinating setup for the narrative and is easily the best part of GrimGrimoire OnceMore. As in the original, the five days in question play out differently each time Lillet tries to avert the catastrophe that only she knows is coming. Each loop offers a bit more information about the world and what side both the students and teachers are on. There are enough twists and betrayals that we had a lot of fun on the journey. Similar to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, another Vanillaware title, mastering time and finding a way to break the seemingly endless cycle make the journey worthwhile.
Fans of RTS classics like StarCraft will spot a lot of familiar mechanics. Certain units harvest mana, which can be used to summon familiars, establish new runes, or create defensive structures. Each level has a limit on how many units you can create, so you need to be strategic in how you build your small armies. Even the mighty dragon unit can be stopped in its tracks by a single sleep spell, so you can’t rely on simply overwhelming your foes with brute force.
However, every single map is frustratingly similar to each other. Because the entire game takes place within the Silver Star Tower, the backgrounds are always the same, just with some slight variations on enemy placement and type. These changes don’t do enough to make the maps feel unique, though. In a setting that is literally brimming with magic and otherworldly creatures, this is a massive opportunity that has been completely missed. It is an issue made even worse by the fact that the background is so plain, wasting Vanillaware's visual talents, that you can’t always see the small details that have been changed.
Despite inheriting the repetitive maps of the original, GrimGrimoire OnceMore otherwise does a decent job of improving on the PS2 title. Players can now purchase upgrades to the different schools of magic through the use of the game’s Skill Tree, but this feature feels so basic that it is surprising the original shipped without it. There is also Grand Magic, which allows you to rewind time to an earlier point in the battle without restarting completely or to unleash powerful spells on your foes once per map. Both of these additions help the game’s pacing massively and save GrimGrimoire OnceMore from feeling nearly unplayable by modern standards.
The biggest improvement to the game, however, is the ability to fast-forward time in battles. Characters move painfully slow at normal speed and battles will otherwise take half an hour to complete even without potentially failing to complete the objectives and having to start over. This will probably happen at least once per map as you get later in the story as you try to figure out which runes to place to counter what the enemy throws at you.
The visuals have had an upgrade, with art that feels perfectly at home in the fantasy world established in the game. Cutscenes play out like visual novels, with a single linear path that Lillet follows in each time loop. The animations of the characters are largely static and subtle but their designs are distinct enough that you won’t completely forget them between loops. The voice acting has been completely re-recorded and the music is perfectly adequate as background noise to the battles, neither getting in the way nor standing out as you play.
It’s a shame that the maps of GrimGrimoire OnceMore feel so repetitive because there is enough here for fans of Real Time Strategy games to get sucked into. The addition of the Skill Tree allowing you to upgrade your units and being able to speed up time during combat change what could have been a slog into a relatively fast-paced title. You can get through most of the story in around 10 hours and you can go back to complete some of the challenge maps if that’s your thing. The story structure, however, is the star of the show here and remains well worth the uninteresting maps.
GrimGrimoire OnceMore takes one of the most under-appreciated RTS games of its generation and fixes some of its biggest problems, making this a worthwhile game for both new fans and those who have played the original. While the repetitive maps mean that most levels feel too similar to each other, the story is fun and the visuals have had a solid upgrade for the Switch. There is just enough depth to the strategy to keep you guessing without overwhelming new players.