Nihon Falcom is one of the oldest, most prolific JRPG developers out there. Their output can easily stand next to Enix, Square, Atlus, and SEGA in terms of quantity and quality. Falcom’s reputation mainly lies in their two biggest series: Ys, the action-RPG series, and The Legend of Heroes, the turn-based, massivly-long RPG series of games. Both have received countless sequels or remakes or ports. But every now and then Falcom dabbles with a game outside these two series, games like Popful Mail or Brandish or Zwei or Nayuta no Kiseki (technically it’s a Kiseki game, which is a sub-series of The Legend Of Heroes. Falcom has a history of confusing sub-series hierarchies that are pretty hard to make out. But as far as Nayuta goes, it may as well be a brand new IP).
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure is one such game. Released on Windows in 2004, then ported to PSP in 2006 and localized in North America/Europe in 2007, Gurumin stars a young girl named Parin, who is visiting her grandfather at a far-off mining town while her parents are away on their own adventurous travels. There, she discovers friendly invisible monsters that are only visible to young children. These monsters live at a nearby monster village. And have been living there for centuries (living as in literally being alive for centuries). Once Parin has met all the villagers and befriended them, a mysterious group called phantoms attack the village, kidnapping the monsters and destroying the village completely. It’s then that Parin departs on her quest to save the monsters and rebuild the village with the help of a legendary drill weapon once used in older times by a legendary hero.
The game itself can be described as an action-RPG. But unlike Falcom’s Ys, Gurumin plays at a much slower pace. The RPG-elements are also significantly simpler and more streamlined. There are no XP and no leveling up. You only have one weapon, the drill, throughout the whole game. But you can imbue the drill with different elements like fire, lighting, and ice. There’s only one slot for equipping items (headwear in this case). You can buy new attacks from this creepy guy in the human town who tries to hit on you. You can extend your lifebar with life gems, which works pretty much like Zelda’s heart containers. You can change into several super-cute costumes, but they are all purely cosmetic. It’s a pretty lean game in terms of RPG mechanics, with very little fluff added then what it needs.
But the combat itself has a bit more depth compared to Ys (even the later ones like Ys Seven). You can dodge. And if you press attack while dodging, you can do a head butt. You can do a series of aerial homing attacks (in the same manner as in the 3D Sonics or Nightshade/Kunoichi on PS2). You can do long-range magic attacks using directional command moves. There’s a drill meter that increases and decreases based on your performance. The higher the drill-meter level, the more damage you do and the more your magic attacks improve, gaining extra range and damage. You can do a launcher attack to juggle enemies. Holding attack charges up the drill, which is particularly useful since it can destroy objects indestructible by standard attacks. The charge attack also strips enemies of their armor, allowing you to collect their dropped equipment as junk-currency in addition to decreasing the enemy’s defense. Very handy stuff, especially against bosses. Sure, the combat is no Bayonetta. But it does add a layer beyond running at the enemy and mashing attack. You can even run on walls. It may have no particular use at all. But it sure looks cool. And I just could not stop doing it whenever I can.
I also like the way Parin’s character is written. She is actually quite sarcastic, with a bit of self-awareness. But it never goes too far into cringe-worthy territory. For example, Parin remarks to one of her new friends that if she didn’t go on this “monstrous adventure” to save the villagers, she’d probably be bored doing nothing at her grandpa’s home, which is true. Her facial expression and animation are pretty funny and cute too. I mean she does homing flying drop-kicks. How cool is that? And there’re more humorous moments throughout the game whole. Serious is not an adjective that I would used to describe Gurumin.
I do have a few issues with Gurumin though. The first few levels were quite boxy and flat, composed of a lot of same-looking square rooms connected together with same-looking square corridors. It can get easy to get lost because of how similar a lot of places look. Levels do get more interesting later on, even ending up with full-on 3D platformer areas, with pitfalls, moving platforms, tight-ledges and so on. I wish this 3D platformer design would have trickled in earlier since I feel Gurumin has solid platforming controls. I guess Falcom weren’t confident enough in them.
Gurumin also has plenty of puzzles within each stage. There’re quite a few block-pushing ones, which I’m mostly indifferent about. But I do like the word puzzles. Some require you to literally spell out an answer. Others expect you to respond to a query by doing a specific action or dressing-up in a certain way or going to talk to a particular person. Most of them are pretty easy. In some, if you cannot figure them out, you can pay a small sum to get a hint, or a bigger sum to bypass the whole thing (I had to once pay to bypass even AFTER paying for the hint. I just could not figure out that puzzle at all). Gurumin even has a couple of fun little minigames.
Overall, I loved playing Gurumin. It was a pleasantly breezy, super-charming, and whole-out joyful experience. And it goes without saying that it has really good Falcom music (that gets amazing Falcom Arrangements). It only took me 10 hours to finish the main story, but there seems to be a lot more content to uncover, with a lot more stages that I need to unlock. To me, Gurumin is the sunday drive next to the high-speed race of Ys or the 20 hour road-trip of The Legend Of Heroes. It seems that every RPG these days is trying to outdo something, trying to either be the flashiest game or the hardest or the most immersive. But compared to those, Gurumin’s modesty in scope and its overall casualness in tone and mechanics come out as a welcome surprise. It’s just honest, good old simple fun. And I am totally down with that sentiment.