Legendary game designer Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Tactics Ogre, FF Tactics, FF12) returns on the 3DS with his latest project, a short and sweet dungeon crawler / tabletop RPG homage released back in 2012 while he was still working with Level 5. Here are my thoughts on it after two full playthroughs.
Crimson Shroud was originally released as one of the games included in the collection Guild 01, but is now available as a separate eShop download. The story, in a nutshell, concerns three adventurers-for-hire: the warrior Giauque, the rogue Lippi and the young sorceress Frea (serving as your permanent three-member party for the entire game), who are hired to enter an old, decaying ruin to search for an ancient tome that might be connected to the legendary “Crimson Shroud”, one of the oldest magical artifacts (so-called “gifts”) left in the world.
Crimson Shroud -the game, I mean- is basically supposed to be an homage to tabletop roleplaying games, most notably Dungeons and Dragons — all characters appear as little figurines (meaning they don’t actually move in cutscenes or battle, but rather awkwardly wobble around) progressing on the labyrinthine map with a blueprint straight out of any DnD campaign worth its salt, while the story itself is told via carefully phrased narration aimed to simulate what it would be like to sit at a table and listen to a game master ramble in eloquent prose. The game was localized by veteran Matsuno translator Alexander O. Smith, so if you liked the fancy archaic dialogue of, say, Final Fantasy 12 (another previous translation work of Smith), you’ll feel right at home in this game as well.
Speaking of Matsuno and his inseparable companions, the soundtrack -much like in various other Matsuno titles- was once again provided by Hitoshi Sakimoto, a renowned composer with a large array of video game/anime soundtracks under his belt — Final Fantasy 12, Vagrant Story, Romeo x Juliet (anime), the entire Valkyria Chronicles series — the list could go on and on. He’s one of those “love it or hate it” type of composers, and if you heard some of his previous works, you probably won’t come across anything remarkably new in here, either, nor will Crimson Shroud change your mind about him. I do greatly enjoy his style, but that’s just me — from this soundtrack, I would recommend listening to the first minute of the track “Sinner’s Requiem”, that one happens to be my personal favorite. In a nutshell, Crimson Shroud oozes the classic Matsuno style in terms of visuals, music and narrative — as such, you can expect a fairly serious tale with a unique, dark fantasy vibe.
Gameplay-wise, Crimson Shroud is a simple affair: you move from room to room, looting chests and vanquishing foes as the story unfolds in short cutscenes and narration. It does need to be mentioned, though, that the game doesn’t *really* play like a tabletop RPG: there is no elaborate rule system and not much actual choice in terms of the storyline — instead, it merely attempts to give back the general atmosphere associated with such games. Even dice rolls only really have an effect in combat.
Oh yeah, the dice rolls. Get used to waggling your stylus (or analog stick) around, because dice rolls constitute one of the more important aspects of combat, whether its determining the success of a buff or the possibility of lifting the Fog of War during a combat encounter, and so on. Combat itself is at the core of Crimson Shroud, since this is pretty much what you’ll spend most of your relatively short playthrough doing. It’s basically a classic turn-based affair with a number of fairly interesting twists, such as the ability to form chain combos by casting spells of different elements one after the other (but making sure that the two neighboring elements in the chain don’t cancel out each other), as well as the possibility to improve your accuracy and/or damage output by assigning dice to them: for example, if your chance to hit a foe is at the value of, say, 65% and you assign a d10 to it, it becomes 75%. Simple enough, but it can make a difference. Of course, you don’t have an unlimited supply of dice, either; you earn them by performing the chain combos mentioned above. Other situation-dependent aspects may also complicate battles, such as close quarter combat (giving a penalty to ranged attacks for a few turns), Fog of War (reduces accuracy), ambushes (you’re unable to act for a few turns until you get your bearings), and so on.
One final thing to mention is that unlike in a variety of other JRPGs, your spells and skills are mostly (with a few exceptions) bound not to characters, but to pieces of gear — in other words, equipping a certain kind of sword or helmet will give you a certain ability, and once you remove it, the ability is also gone. The way to circumvent this is via the crafting (melding) system, allowing you to fuse spellbooks to equipment in order to fit them out with the spells of your choosing. Of course, spellbooks are dropped by enemies as loot or found in chests, so you don’t have an infinite repertoire of them, either. Unless you grind, which is something we’ll come back to later.
All in all, as far as turn-based battle systems are concerned, Crimson Shroud boasts of a pretty solid one, all things considered.
Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, and as such, I have a few complaints. The first one would be the relative lack of any real challenge during the game’s first playthrough. If you take care to equip and/or craft decent gear and use a healthy amount of common sense in battles (abusing buffs and debuffs to strengthen yourself while crippling your foes, things like that), you shouldn’t have any major problems with Crimson Shroud, maybe with the exception of one specific battle in the final chapter that is, for lack of a more fitting expression, a complete bitch on your first try, and easily one of the most brutally tough battles in the entire game once the difficulty level is raised in New Game+.
Indeed, there is a New Game+ feature — while one playthrough will last you roughly 8 hours, you can start your game anew at a noticeably harder difficulty, gaining access to extra locations not available on your first run, as well as an alternate ending (Edit: And a commenter has reminded me that I spoke very little about the characters and the story… mostly because there is not much to say. Look to the comments section to see what my thoughts were on the plot.) Despite skipping all the previously seen cutscenes, my New Game+ run still lasted me another 8 or so hours (due to the increased difficulty, longer/tougher battles and a bit of grinding thrown in there), which means a total of 16 hours for two playthroughs, and that’s if you follow a walkthrough to know where to go and when. With that said, I do strongly recommend completing the game twice if you wish to savor the full experience. For one, you get the extra scenes + different ending. But more importantly, you also get a somewhat increased difficulty level, offering a decent amount of challenge (well, at least towards the end) compared to the relative walk in the park that was the first playthrough.
Basically, if you haven’t played New Game+, you haven’t *really* played Crimson Shroud. The final few encounters of NG+ seriously put my skills to a test (for those of you that have played the game: it’s the battle against the three Witch Kings in Chapter 4), and I actually had to make sure to have the most optimal gear/spell combinations as well as the necessary buffs and debuffs for the job, and it still took me a few tries. And there’s one subsequent battle after this which almost lasted an entire hour. So yeah. Good times. Bottom line: for those looking for a bit of extra challenge and a taste of how intense the combat system can really become when you’re fighting for dear life and praying for that accursed Zombie Dragon not to decimate you with its AoE breath attack… well, in that case, definitely give NG+ a shot.
Unfortunately, this brings me to my second grumble, which is the grinding. Since the only way to improve your equipment is to combine it with an identical one (for ex. Composite Bow + Composite Bow = Composite Bow +1, etc.), and post-battle loot drops are kinda random in my experience, you might find yourself going back to previous, repeatable battles in order to grind out the necessary gear and/or spellbooks. Of course, this hardly becomes a problem on your first run, but NG+ requires you to have pretty good equipment by the end. There’s even one point in the story where such grinding is *mandatory*, since the key item you need in order to advance the story is a random drop from a regular enemy. I believe I spent a good hour trying to get it. It was basically a very silly moment in an otherwise really solid and enjoyable game… I’m not entirely sure why it was thought this would be a good idea, but it didn’t particularly sour the experience for me, so in retrospect it’s not a huge deal.
All in all, I very much enjoyed Crimson Shroud and can only recommend it — it offered two full playthroughs, a genuine Matsuno-esque atmosphere, really fun turn-based battles and a decent amount of content. If you have a 3DS and are into RPGs, there is little reason not to pick this up.