It is hard to easily express in which ways Grancrest War is bad; it is, in my opinion, such a combination of failed attempts to be interesting it ends up a singular kind of ridiculously uninspiring. Even trying to consider it from within its genre, a teen-focused power fantasy series, it feels alienatingly stupid. When writing about anime it is often easy to forget that much of it is written as mass entertainment for young people, and that approaching it with the expectations of an adult fandom is rarely fruitful. So anything that seems alienating and other may simply be something that an older audience are out of touch with, a reflection of, ultimately, a foreign country’s trends in youth culture. That is as maybe; I maintain Record of Grancrest War is still not very good.
I can enjoy things that are not very good in many ways. Indeed, I frequently do because I enjoy a lot of very disposable mass culture, often for its formulaic nature. If something gives the expected, familiar thrill of something I generally enjoy – if it has the usual stock footage of robot fights, if it has dramatic music or well-worn jokes that hit home, I will probably get enjoyment out of it and set aside my reservations enough to continue watching. So, when I bounce completely off something, I generally begin thinking about whether it’s simply not for me, or whether there is something I consider more deeply unsatisfying about it. A lot of anime I watch is fine enough, but does not keep my interest, so I do not go out of my way to vent about its badness, I simply do not watch it. But Grancrest War did make me consider what it specifically did wrong, because the description and initial setup looked very much like something I would like.
The premise offered an idealistic minor noble trying to bring down an unfair state of affairs with the help of some heroic allies; stock fantasy stuff but exactly the sort of stock fantasy stuff that I am all about. Stories of revolution and reform and people defying social expectations are great heroism stories – dealing with internal evil is often more interesting than fighting an outside force, and characters who use some power to subvert that society and profit by it are often fascinating. Steerpike, Lelouch, Reinhard von Lohengramm, etcetera (to use examples from popular genre fiction I have generally enjoyed) are extremely fun antiheroes in their various ways – they often do not wholly prosper, but their pursuit of a personal view of virtue is highly entertaining. Grancrest begins with a powerful, newly-qualified wizard setting out to her contracted employment with a lecherous nobleman and subsequently joining forces with someone idealistic, to try and do something about the state of affairs that means wizardry is indentured magical servitude. So, they defeat a minor nobleman with only three people, and then use his modest army to fight a less minor nobleman, and the setup for the series seems to be established. The combination of the powerful, sexy warrior woman, the feisty wizard and the dumb but idealistic nobleman, along with a bunch of copy-and-pasted generic troops, will liberate territories, recruit new heroes and build up a power base based on doing the right thing.
That description is intentional in its phrasing. The hero is idealistic, because he says he is. And Siluca, his beautiful contracted mage, says he has beautiful ideals. So he’s a good, heroic hero who is going to do the right thing and save the small villages and so on. This is, in fact, quite boring characterisation, and not all that great an initial impression. Two episodes in, and the hero, who has the force of personality to assemble a powerful army, has very little memorable characterisation beyond an amiable desire to be a decent guy. Now, amiable decent guys surrounded by more interesting characterisation can be good heroes; Trails of Cold Steel is a game about the most wallpaper-y of amiable nice guys trying to get by being the most powerful kid in his empire, with magic powers, a sealed evil super mode, a giant robot, a lustful princess on his personal airship borrowed off a member of the royal family, and more. And I love it, because while Rean Schwarzer has every advantage a hero could possibly have, first off he’s hilariously oblivious to everything social, and secondly he loses and keeps losing. Two games into a four-game series and he has, with his powerful friends, achieved very little. Theo in Grancrest War, on the other hand, wins and keeps winning. In two episodes he has captured two castles and recruited two allies, expanding his forces from three heroes to a larger army. And he does this being extremely bland, without much of a strong supporting cast around him. Consider the memetic noble reformer of modern anime, Lelouch Vi Britannia. He is memorable right from the start, because his first act of rebellion is to test his psychic powers by killing a whole unit of soldiers, and escalates the madness from there. He leaps full beans into megalomania and master plans, and out-hams his supporting cast to the point where – and this becomes the focus of the series – you are already wondering if he’s actually a good guy.
Now, hold on, you may say. What is all this about recruiting troops and so on? Well, the whole thing of Grancrest War are crests, magical contracts that bind people in alliances via a flashy animation of a red and a blue emblem intertwining. Once a crest is given, that’s it, an alliance exists. And thus Theo can now call upon new units in his ongoing war. And this is the alienating thing about Grancrest War; it is of the genre of fantasy anime that is not just drawing on the aesthetics of games, but their mechanics. Magical alliances, very regimented approaches to war where a single skirmish of, say, ten men against fifty can lead to two countries forming a treaty. Even the choreography of the “large” battle feels disjointed and gamist; a melee hero deals with grunt troops, two wizards have a duel, and two other heroes fight. Everything seems to boil down to punch and counterpunch, trading abilities in quite a static fashion, which does not end up feeling very much like a battle. For a setpiece that, ultimately, is showing how this conflict has escalated, it feels quite inconsequential and rushed.
This adoption of game mechanics in non-interactive narratives, notwithstanding the quite sizeable genre of “people inside games” as a fantasy fiction concept that is growing, is something I have noticed in a number of anime and some Japanese young-adult fiction I have encountered. I can see, I think, why it is popular; it is a direct structual touchstone for readers or viewers, it codifies the world and often (I believe it is fair to say) provides a scope for a hero who clearly wins because of system mastery. This is, I think one could say, a quite accessible kind of power fantasy – the hero is winning because he has mastered systems of the world, because he understands the mechanics of games the audience would be familiar with. Personally, as a gamer, and a slightly older, probably more grognard-y one at that, I don’t like it. I have fairly established views on ludonarrative dissonance – the decoupling of game mechanics from narrative – and accept that a lot of games, particularly strategy games and RPGs, specifically abstract things in the interests of creating an engaging game.
This holds true outside of computer games; consider concepts of ground and figure scale in tabletop wargaming. One man on the table might represent five or ten. A six-inch starship model may only functionally interact with game rules as a 1/8” flight peg. As a gamer of the experiences I have had, acceptance that what you specifically do in the game is not a 1:1 representation of what you are imagining is happening – be it as simple as recognising that enemies do not wait for you to have a turn, or as in-depth as accepting that the timescales of in-game day and night cycles are out of alignment with the “time constraints” described in the narrative – is vital to suspension of disbelief. Thus fiction that takes those abstractions – codified magic systems, gathering of alliances and expansion of territory taken from strategy games, even, in some cases, levelling up as a physical concept – and turns it into a fundamental narrative choice alienates me. It completely subverts my expectations of game-related fiction and turns the whole affair, via my own cultural experience touchstones, into a very different experience. Genre fiction plus obvious game mechanics reminds me first and foremost of reading White Dwarf magazine as a child and enjoying the Warhammer game reports, where flavour text would be added to the results of a game to stop it turning into one of Rimmer’s Risk stories from Red Dwarf. That was fun, as an enthusiast of wargaming, because it combined my love of the flavour and setting with an insight into how other people played the game. But it was, also, a product of a small specialist publication purely written for enthusiasts.
Thus I find its genericisation – from my perspective – jarring. This is not a specific register to add interest to the results of a tabletop game, this is a body of fiction that is such a product of the ubiquity of games that ludonarrative dissonance has dissolved. And I think Grancrest War does not even do much of interest with that idea. The fact that this is a fictional movement, of a sort, is enough to convince me that the initial feeling of alienation is absolutely a product of my cultural experience being incompatible with the target audience of this wider subgenre. That is fine. Not all fiction is for me. But even so, I am always prepared to give things a fair shake, if they seem to have some aspect that would attract me.
And it is not specifically the gamism of Grancrest War that puts me off, but that its setpiece and plot progression – perhaps as a product of how it, specifically, uses that subgenre’s topoi – feel unsatisfying. The system of Crests and contracted mages, giving it the “level” structure, feels after only two episodes constraining. I think a system of indentured mages and magically-binding contracts could, gamism or not, be an interesting framework for fantasy fiction and indeed a story of internal reform – but it would need a much stronger setup and cast than on offer here.