On Crimson Shroud

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When it came out last year, Crimson Shroud received a bit of attention in terms of professional reviews but remains naturally pretty niche. I decided to go ahead and get on the game for some Club Nintendo points. It’s also going to be $5 on the 3DS eShop until the end of May. Fans of Yasumi Matsuno’s games (Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story) who haven’t played it yet shouldn’t fear the game’s small size hampering the director’s usual strong suits.

I’ll go ahead and start by saying that I’ve never played a tabletop role-playing game, so I can only talk about Crimson Shroud from the perspective of video game RPGs. It may be evocative of tabletop games, but it still feels like a video game RPG.

What I understand about tabletop RPGs is that they are administered by a game master who controls what goes on in the story, and played cooperatively. Crimson Shroud’s “GM” is basically just a linear story written by Matsuno with English translation by the usual guy Alexander O. Smith, and it’s singleplayer. What’s left is a small scale Japanese RPG with some visual quirks and unique gameplay nuances, one of them being how it declines to hide the tabletop dice rolls that a CPU usually crunches behind the curtain.

From what I can tell that’s really the only tangible gameplay quirk in Crimson Shroud that comes directly from its tabletop inspiration. You could probably also count the fact that you don’t move your characters in real time, but select what rooms they travel to on a map. What really matters to me though is the core combat system, which manages to be a rather interesting way to handle experience, equipment, grinding, and mana.

Since you don’t level up at all in Crimson Shroud, you don’t grind for experience but instead for gear, which plays into the crafting system. Any duplicates of the same piece of equipment can be merged to make stronger equipment. It’s a simple system, but in my experience compelling enough to drive the game. The actual battle system relies a lot on buffs too, especially as you get towards the more difficult battles. That plus the presence of the ability called “mediate” that allows characters to roll to regain MP makes Crimson Shroud’s battles feel oddly tactical.

If you’ve read any mechanical criticisms on this game they’re likely of the main quest’s lack of directions at points. You may find a key or a switch to open a door, but the game won’t tell or remind you where that door is, possibly forcing you to wander around repeating fights. The second chapter (of four) in particular contains a section that you might never be able to figure out without outside help. You actually have to grind for an item drop needed to progress, but the enemy who might drop it won’t appear unless you conduct the battle in a particular way. The game doesn’t tell you any of this. Yeah, it can be baffling, but that’s really the only serious misstep I saw here.

As usual with Matsuno games, the storyline in Crimson Shroud has proven to be possibly its most interesting aspect. In terms of tone and scope the game comes off as a sort of miniaturized Vagrant Story: People searching ancient ruins, a political conspiracy involving religious establishment power plays, etc. The added framed narrative in this case helps make for a good suspense story for such a small game.

Crimson Shroud will probably take you less than 10 hours to finish, though it does have a new game+. The game in my opinion is a really good exercise in how much one can accomplish with a budget that was probably tiny. The visual quirk of all characters being represented as tabletop figures with zero animation is a cool example — the entire story being told essentially like a visual novel. Akihiko Yoshida’s art design ensures those characters remain appealing, and Hitoshi Sakimoto’s soundtrack adds just as much to this game as he has to any of Matsuno’s larger projects.

Basically, Crimson Shroud isn’t really a tabletop RPG turned into a video game RPG. It’s just a video game RPG, but in that context still manages to extol the strengths that Matsuno’s games are known for, despite its tiny size. Plus, it’s $5 for around the next six weeks.

BULLETS:

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