Whenever a joint-venture between well known development studios or video-game designers gets announced, it's only normal that fans get all excited at the prospect of seeing new crossovers, opening all new possibilities for their favourite franchises. That was not to be with Guild01 though, a collaborative effort between big names of the Japanese video-game industry that comes in the form of a collection of four smaller independent projects instead of a crossover, all crammed onto one Nintendo 3DS cartridge and released by Level-5 at retail in its home turf. The rather unusual and unconventional nature of these led to the decision that they stood a better chance on the Western market as individual digital downloads on the eShop. Crimson Shroud, the last of the three games that were given the green light for a localisation (the fourth one being doomed to remain in obscurity to us Westerners), is an RPG by Yasumi Matsuno, the mastermind behind such classics as Ogre Battle, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII. This alone should have caught your attention, so stick with Cubed3 for the rest of this review to find out about it.
An RPG wouldn't be one without a story. From the outset, Crimson Shroud appears to be heavy in text, giving a lot of details about characters, environments and events, using an unusually rich vocabulary and stylish writing style that feels quite out of place in a Japanese developed game. The unaware player might even think that the introduction of this game goes on forever. However, the whole experience quickly turns out to base its narrative more on textual descriptions rather than detailed cut-scenes with the characters moving on the screen, as would normally be expected from a console role playing experience. Actually, there are very little animations or camera movements at all, which does feel unsettling at first and might sound like a complete joke to some. Sticking with it, though, reveals that the narrative turns out all the more involving as a result, since the 3D environments and inanimate characters present on-screen force the player to complete the experience with imagination, as a heroic-fantasy book would do.
The excellent and unusually detailed writing then makes all the sense in the world when following the story of a trio of Chasers named Giauque, Lippi and Frea as they venture into a place called the Ruins of Rahab, in search of a magical artefact called the Crimson Shroud, which is said to be the source of magic in the World. The story is initially presented from the perspective of a gravely injured Frea being interrogated by an enemy leader after being captured. This means in advance it is known that the exploration can't have gone all too well, or so it can be imagined. However, there is no idea how it went wrong, and as the game progresses and the atmosphere grows more and more tense it leaves the player wondering what will happen next, or when fate will roll its dice, bringing an excellent dose of suspense to the plot that is quite unusual for an RPG.
There's a justification behind the uncanny design: the game is presented like an interactive, digital table-top Role Playing Game. For characters and enemies, the game uses what looks like miniature figures from the aforementioned real-life experiences such as Dungeons & Dragons. Characters move between rooms in the Ruins of Rahab by selecting them on a map displayed on the bottom touch screen. Occasionally, they are given decisions to make, whether it is to avoid battle with enemies that haven't noticed your presence yet, open a chest or not, or pull a lever. For some of these choices, dice need to be rolled to decide whether there will be success or not in the attempt, altering the subsequent plot ever so slightly. This heavy text-based experience, with little presentation and choices to make reminds heavily of Radical Dreamers for the Super Famicom Broadcast Satellaview download service, which people might know as the first sequel released to Chrono Trigger, which also relied on a sometimes downright oppressive atmosphere and a mostly text-based system, although here there's actually more to see with the characters' stats being visible, and there are obviously more RPG elements.
Indeed, there is the chance to interact in turn-based battles against local opponents. The main characters are then still represented as miniature figures, and so are the enemies, as their rigid models move just a little, attached to their pedestals like tiny soldiers being flung around by an invisible hand. The battle system feels fresh enough, putting a lot of emphasis on status and statistical alterations and giving plenty of ways to alter personal ones, as well as the enemy's. A lot of actions require the use of dice to determine either the amount HP or MP restored, or the success of certain actions. In addition to this, dice can be won by performing combos in chaining actions involving different elements (like fire, water, light, shadow, lightning, and so on). These dice can then be wagered by adding them to the total expected damage count for an attack, or even its accuracy.
Then there is the chance to throw these obtained dice to determine the damage or accuracy bonus that will be added to the action set to be performed. Dice may also be obtained from regular throws if they are tossed too hard, making one exit the lower touch screen and hitting an enemy on the head with it on the upper 3D screen.
Most important still is the total absence of an experience and level system in this RPG! Instead, characters grow stronger from getting better equipment. This in turn is done by opening the chests in the game, or gathering as much loot as possible from slain enemies. After each battle, players are rewarded with barter points, the amount of which is based on their performance in battle. Each piece of enemy loot costs a set amount of barter points, meaning that to pick up all the loot after the battle, one has to finish it as fast as possible, while avoiding getting hit too much. Remaining barter points aren't carried over between battles. However, aforementioned bonus dice are carried over and can be exchanged for bonus barter points.
Crimson Shroud also lets the party meld equipment. They can meld two pieces of the same gear together to get a better one, as well as imbue one piece of kit with a magic spell, so that it can be used in battle. Indeed, in this game, magic isn't tied to a character, but to the equipment, meaning that exchanging an older piece of armour for a better new one will in turn mean changing the magic that this character can use in battle.
In addition to magic, characters can also use other special techniques in battle, called "skills," which also consume MP. Some of these skills are also tied to the equipment, most often weapons, while most of them are effectively learned by the characters themselves as they keep fighting enemies.
Progressing through the game involves some light puzzle solving as well, where the party has to look for certain items or keys in order to open new areas or treasure containing chests. Most of this shows the characters thinking things over between themselves, sometimes bringing up old memories of their past adventures that players may choose to reminisce on or not. The solution to these puzzles is usually somewhere nearby, so it doesn't provide any huge challenge. However, there was one occurrence in the game when the solution to advance the story was particularly cryptic, since it involved repeatedly fighting a certain group of enemies in a certain way, in order for the group to spawn a certain type of enemy, which in turn may or may not randomly drop the needed item. This can be hard to overcome without previous knowledge or using the help of other people on message boards online. Once the solution is known, you realise what one of the characters said previously might have been a hint, which we can only imagine, is how the solution was meant to be found, but this particular riddle is strangely harder than all the rest of the game.
Visually, Crimson Shroud isn't a very pretty game. The graphics are very basic, with low resolution textures and no camera movements at all. Obviously it's not where the interest of the game lies, making this shortcoming a bit more acceptable, but the 3DS being capable of far prettier games than this, complaints can at least be made that the character models aren't done better. Thankfully, the aural experience is a totally different affair. It's quite the opposite of graphics, with the fully orchestrated soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto (think the Ivalice Alliance Final Fantasy games and Vagrant Story) being one of the most epic and dark at the same time in recent memory. That it should be found in such a small project is all the more impressive. The music, coupled with the brilliant writing, are what make the experience of Crimson Shroud truly gripping.
What it may lack in terms of presentation, Crimson Shroud more than makes up for in the narrative department, soundtrack, and the originality of its battle system (at least for a video-game RPG). It's definitely not a replacement for a true tabletop RPG experience, simply because the video-game medium isn't quite suited to reproduce the experience of a group of people gathering around a table to play an epic adventure, so Crimson Shroud should not be considered as one. It's rather an interesting blend of a (short) digital heroic-fantasy novel that succeeds at avoiding most known JRPG clichés, table top RPG gameplay elements, light riddles to solve and the interactivity that only video-games allow. For that alone, Crimson Shroud is one of the most original RPG experiences in recent memory, managing to cram an impressively captivating adventure into what was meant from the start to be a smaller project from a big name of the industry. Add on top of all that one of the most epic orchestrated soundtracks ever composed, and you get an absolutely delightful eShop package. Sadly, some will still disregard it for its unusual lack of animation and relatively poor visuals overall, as your servitor here almost did. If not one to stop at such trivial considerations, then please don't skip on this game.
Yeah, it's weird that he would choose to leave when Level 5 apparently let him do whatever he wanted (Seeing how Crimson Shroud appears to be going in a totally different direction from pretty much everything mainstream in the genre, I should think that this is the case).
Anyway... Been putting 13 hours in this one, already. I'm having fun, just farming certain groups of enemies to make them drop weapons for me to meld. That alone is made super enjoyable thanks to the grandiose soundtrack
Now, where's my Unchained Blades on the eShop???
I can't believe this was part of a collection of "mini games". I've played this and it is well worth a full release of its own. Great that Nintendo put this as it own game on eShop.
Rudy, you've made me want to get hold of the entire soundtrack - that gives me such strong vibes from games like FFT and Vagrant Story!
Link - I think that this was probably the most anticipated game amongst the lot in terms of the Internet audience. I know L5 hyped up Suda-san's because of his recent Lollipop Chainsaw hit, but Matsuno-san has a strong presence and I agree it definitely deserved to standalone from the collection
Crimson Shroud is a fantastic little game. Wish it was longer of course, but for what you pay it's a sweeping tale and I'd love to see more of this saga. Graphics are a non issue as the figures are designed to look like table top figurines.
I would've paid full price for this. The gameplay is fantastic and the "figurine" models are charming, at least for someone who spent a lot of time with Games Workshop and other miniatures games.