What do you get when you combine the tactical mechanics of XCOM with the card-based gameplay from Slay the Spire? If it is up to Drix Studios from the Philippines, the result is called Grand Guilds. This concept was also able to find enough fans on Kickstarter and the finished game has now finally been released. You can find out in this review whether Grand Guilds successfully linked the popular mechanics of its role models and how we liked the rest of the game.

But what is Grand Guilds about at all? First of all, there is the story of the game. There was war in the fantasy world of Irin for many years, which could only be ended by an alliance of guilds – since then the guilds have ruled peacefully until another evil lurks to come up over the world. In the role of Eliza, a warrior from the Lux Deus guild, we take on the task of gathering a group of heroes around us and stopping the renewed decline of the empire.

Basically, Grand Guilds consists of two parts: dialogue sequences and turn-based tactics. The story elements are told almost exclusively in self-running dialogs in the style of visual novels and are only occasionally replaced by short cut scenes in game graphics. But before we move on to the story and characters, let’s take a look at the game’s combat system, because that’s where you’ll spend the most time.

If a fight is triggered, Grand Guilds changes to an isometric 3D perspective. We see our three selected heroines and can move them round for round on the checkerboard-like field, attack the opponents or use our special abilities. Each character has five action points (AP): Movements cost about 1 AP, the use of the character’s own special ability costs 2 AP. Now the cards come into play: Each figure accesses a previously defined card deck and can perform other abilities, such as taunt, buffs, magic, or particularly strong attacks with the help of cards. These cost between 1 and 5 APs. Effective management and good tactics are therefore appropriate.

The fights are very exciting, especially at the beginning of the game: We are often faced with an overwhelming majority of opponents, most of whom also have particularly nasty ranged combatants. In the battles of Grand Guilds it is important to know the strengths and weaknesses of the individual characters and to assess them correctly. Should we launch a quick advance with fighter Rei, do we draw all enemies with Tank Eliza, or do we better take out opponents from afar with sniper Skyla? Healing spells or nasty traps can also influence the fighting. Selecting and unlocking the right card combinations before the fight adds another tactical level. In its best moments, Grand Guilds plays like a variant of action chess. 

Unfortunately, the combat system cannot convince us all along and this is mainly due to bugs and a lack of variety. Shortly after the game was launched, many elements still felt very raw: For example, opponents ignored the taunt, got stuck on objects, or simply didn’t move at all. The level of difficulty varied so much that we were pleased about the possibility of being able to adapt it at all times: the developers urgently need to work on balancing. It is also often not entirely clear which lines of sight and attack the opponents have. Just as it was unclear until the end which objects would give us cover from long-range fighters. The fact that the verticality of the maps (with one exception) is irrelevant seems to us more like a bug than intended, but it disturbs the illusion of real combat situations enormously. Not to mention the frustrations committed by the stickly control and camera: How often did we accidentally discard the wrong card or was the view blocked by elements in the picture? Drix Studios and publisher Keybol Games are aware of the problems and have already released the first hotfixes.

The developers did not included many design elements that you could expect in such a game: For example, there is no loot, only money with which we can unlock new cards. Although our characters level up, we cannot adjust any character traits. There are also no exploration phases, for example, in which we wander through a city, collect information or do business. The core game mechanics are battles, card management and story.

Nevertheless, Grand Guilds has become an astonishingly extensive tactical RPG: the two dozen or so chapters of the main story take at least 20 hours, plus some nice side quests and an infinite number of generic battles that are only used for grinding. In the course of the story, we unlock nine different fighters and travel from quest to quest with our airship on the upper world of Irin. All of this is embedded in the above-mentioned story-line, which never goes beyond common JRPG cliches, but knows how to motivate towards the end: many of the characters are too like-able, one or the other twist surprising enough. However, gamers shouldn’t expect a literary masterpiece: The sparse conversations are too often lost in irrelevant quibbles, are often too long and occasionally stumble over questionable representations that we thought had finally been overcome in games. 

Ultimately, the size of Grand Guilds is probably his biggest weakness: the longer we play, the more we notice the weaknesses of the combat system and history. We notice that we always fight the same fights and once we have found a good group of three with a matching card deck, there is usually no reason to change. We would have liked less scope and more variety: in most situations “Eliminate all Enemies” is all we need to do. As is often the case with smaller indie productions, Grand Guilds ultimately fails because of its own expectations. With more eye for detail and a streamlined experience, it would have had what it takes to be a real tactic gem.

Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun with Grand Guilds – especially during the first ten hours of the game, when the downsides are not really felt. It should not be forgotten that this is largely a one-man project and in this light what has been achieved is extremely impressive. Drix Studios generally took the right approaches: the game mechanics work and motivate and the graphical framework is also convincing: the 3D graphics are quite poor in detail, but still conjure up beautiful and, above all, colorful environments on the screen. We also particularly liked the drawn character portraits. The soundtrack can also convince, but was still used too sparingly for our taste.

The makers should now watch to quickly fix all of the game’s key issues to prevent a bug debacle. Then Grand Guilds may become a little insider tip for tactics friends who can overlook minor weaknesses in gameplay and technology. In any case, we would be happy to see Eliza, Kadmus, Raze and their friends. again in a successor, because the heroes and heroines of Grand Guilds are really dear to our hearts.

Grand Guilds is available for PC on Steam and for Nintendo Switch. This review is based on a free review copy kindly provided by publisher Keybol Games.

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