This might not come as a surprise to many of you, but I used to play a LOT of D&D. Back in High School, when I was one of the few kids without a Playstation or Nintendo 64, and only a rapidly aging NES, D&D was my only gaming outlet most of the time. It was cheaper than Magic the Gathering, required a lot of creativity and storytelling ability to pull off, and was a great way for a social misfit like myself to find friends to do things with on weekends. College changed a lot of that, but I will always have fond memories of those pre-”gaming” days…of 8 hour long game sessions.
I bring up this little bit of reminiscence because I recently played through Crimson Shroud, a little gem of a game by Level 5 and legendary director Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics). Part of the Guild 01 project that also includes Liberation Maiden, Crimson Shroud is a short but expansive game that borrows heavily from many aspects of tabletop RPGs, including stat management, “gear hoarding,” and most interestingly, dice rolls.
Sound untraditional for a video RPG? Well it certainly is. Crimson Shroud manages to incorporate “classic” RPG elements into a gameplay that is anything but, creating a game experience that can be both frustrating and incredibly addicting at the same time.
Crimson Shroud plays out over the course of a single “dungeon crawl.” A team of “chasers” (adventurers tasked with tracking down “gifts” of a bygone age, when magic ruled the world) consisting of stalwart Giaque, clever Lippi and mysterious Frea, delve deep under the ruins of an old castle, seeking a certain artifact for their patron. Expecting only minimal trouble from goblins living underneath the structure, they find themselves trapped between warring factions of undead, mystical traps and triggers, and a sense of despair as they discover there is more to their mission than previously believed: rather than hunting a missing text, they might actually be on a quest to unearth the mythical “Crimson Shroud,” the “gift” which brought magic into the world.
What allows for the game to stand out from its peers is the introduction of those previously mentioned unconventional gameplay elements. Crimson Shroud has no concept of leveling, no money, and a heavy reliance on rolling dice. During certain moments in the game, the player is often asked to “roll” a set of dice on the lower screen of the 3DS, be it to add damage, sneak past enemies, set/overcome negative status effects, or regain MP. A clever mechanic on its own, the player can eventually use the motion control of the game system to “steal” some of these same dice, adding them to his “inventory” for later use.
In place of levels, players accumulate and fuse gear dropped by foes to create stronger versions of their weapons and armor, which in turn can add to stats. “Grinding” in Crimson Shroud is less a process of beating down foes for experience, and more a strategic selection of (non-random) encounters developed to maximize gear drops while minimizing ambush events and party wipes. It is very possible to spend hours in-game fighting party after party of foes just seeking that one piece of armor, or that special weapon, that can be successfully melded to create something that will overbalance the game in your favor…at least until the next chapter begins.
It should be noted that Crimson Shroud is not an easy game. That becomes apparent during the first few encounters. Since grinding to overpower your foes is not an option, it requires players to think carefully about how they approach each encounter: do you set up a strong defense to lessen damage, or do you blitz your foes right out of the gate? Do you focus on one “powerful” enemy, or do you pick off his weaker friends first? Failure to recognize the basic tactical outlay of each encounter will result in a dead party, as some enemies hit hard and fast, and will make short work of your three heroes.
Thrown into this mix is a creative “combo” system: each skill and spell belongs to a different elemental force, and players must learn how to “chain” their skill strikes together to increase both damage, and earn more of those “bonus dice” for later use. Breaking combos is incredibly easy (sometimes as simple as rolling for MP), and players have to learn to manage both their attack order, and the order of enemies, to take advantage of the bonuses. Successful management will ensure a quick victory. Improper management will ensure a hasty death.
In many respects, this is a game for the RPG veteran, the person who has cleared out many-a-dungeon, and fought all manner of beast and monster: challenging, but not impossible, if approached correctly. One needs a keen eye for micro-management, and a sharp attention to detail, because everything matters during battles. The random element of luck represented by the dice can be your savior, or your tormentor, depending on the situation.
Aesthetically, Crimson Shroud is a very simple game. Despite being a 3DS exclusive, the 3D is minimalist, serving mostly to add depth to the screen, and lift the “text” off the “players.” I played most of the game with the 3D off, in fact, and noticed little difference. There are also no cutscenes: all the action is set against still images, and based around a set of “miniatures” representing both character and enemy, placed on a “game board.” A throwback to the days of tabletop gaming, and a fun little bit of nostalgia for those who remember grid maps and painted figurines.
While this might seem out of place in an era that increasingly values lush production and character design, Crimson Shroud manages to keep it successfully “retro,” and rewards the player with a deep story, played out like a dungeon master reading aloud an adventure. At times feeling like another trip to Ivalice, it manages to maintain it’s own voice throughout, courtesy of well written dialog, console quality music and a general aura of suspense, exactly what you’d expect from Matsuno and his often progressive take on the genre.
If Crimson Shroud has a fault, it would be the length: I finished the game in 9 hours. Other reviews have clocked in even less time to play through the chapters, some as few as 6 or7. It calls to mind the original Fable, which was another short, but ambitious game that challenged the RPG perception and left a mark on how storytelling can impact a game. Unlike Fable, which was a “lifetime,” Crimson Shroud is very much an “afternoon,” but one that will capture your attention and keep it there for however long you choose to remain (even with the…bittersweet ending). There is a “New Game +” option, for those of you who like harder replay value.
How would you react if one day your entire world was throw upside down? Would you pull yourself together and face this daunting new task, or would you run and hide and pray for it all to end? Would you be strong enough to protect your fiends, or would you be selfish and think only of yourself. Would you have the willpower to see your journey through to the very end, as scary and dismal as it might be, or would you just give up and fade into anonymity as the world around you descended into madness and anarchy?
Goggle "OP Single Hikari to Kage" and feel your heart melt.
These are the questions put forth in the manga “Magic Knights Rayearth,” one of the earlier works by development team CLAMP. While they might be better known for series like “Chobits,” “Cardcaptor Sakura” and the pivotal “X,” Rayearth is a lovely little title (and I do mean little: it’s only 3 volumes) that came and went in the late 1990s with little real fanfare, but which built up a rather sizable following here in the United States, mostly courtesy of Tokyopop.
Introducing Mokona. Yes, THAT Mokona.
Rayearth holds a special place in my heart, because it was one of the first manga I ever read. While nowadays getting manga is as easy as walking into a bookstore, library, or browsing the internet, way back in the late 90s, it was still a very limited, very niche market. While we see Shonen Jump and Yen Press monthly digests with regularity, back then there was pretty much just one magazine, if you could find it: MiXXzine, put out by one Stu Levy, who would eventually introduce manga to hordes of fans and then close shop, leaving a lot of them hanging.
MiXX contained four stories. In addition to Rayearth, there was an early translation of “Sailor Moon” (in which she was named “Bunny,” more accurate than Serena, but also not very serious for a hero), “Parasyte,” which was a violent, gritty story of alien invasions that I also still read and “Iceblade,” a story about an emotionless cop, which I haven’t seen since MiXX vanished. But of the four titles, it was Rayearth that I enjoyed the most, since it was a “MiXX” (hawhaw) of themes that I liked, right down to the JRPG feel of the quest, which appealed to the Final Fantasy/D&D dork inside. (The cute girls didn’t hurt either: I admit to having a huge crush on Hikaru. I was 16. Sue me.)
Can you blame me, she's cute.
So when I found a copy of the Omnibus for sale at this year’s Anime Mid-Atlantic, I had to get it, if only to take a brief trip down memory lane. (Also, I needed to finish the story. MiXX only published 1-2 chapters at a time, and I never got past the first volume of the story by the time the magazine vanished from my local stationery store.)
The story behind Rayearth is rather typical of a girl’s adventure manga. Three middle school students, Hikaru, Umi and Fuu, are pulled from the real world into the magical land of Cephiro by the Princess Emeraude, and tasked with rescuing her from her captor, the priest Zagato. You see, in Cephiro, everything is controlled by willpower, and it was the will of the Princess that kept it functioning orderly. But after her abduction, the world was thrown into disarray, with monsters appearing everywhere, and great heroes attempting to save her, with results almost uniformly in vain. Because the only ones who CAN save her are people summoned from another world- only then can they awaken the legendary gods of Cephiro, the Mashen, and stop the evil of Zagato.
One of these characters is Zagato. Can you guess which?
At least, that’s the story at the beginning. Over three volumes, the manga actually does begin to resemble a fantasy RPG (and for the record, one does exist, for the SNES, and you can find translated ROMs online for it. It’s short and mildly entertaining, moreso if you’re a fan of the source material), with the three main characters openly saying such. There are moments of “leveling up,” plenty of monsters to encounter and fight, and clearly defined “dungeons” and “bosses” to overcome. As the tale unfolds, the three girls must confront new allies, new enemies, and ultimately themselves if they wish to proceed, moving all the way to the battle with Zagato at story’s end. And, in case you’re wondering, there is a twist hidden in there as well, and the ending is somewhat unforseen. Vintage CLAMP, if you ask me, and very welcome.
Said "Uber Wizard Guru Clef." Think Yoda, with better hair.
The real issue at heart when looking at this series is pacing. Though I never noticed it when I was reading it digest-style, it moves too fast at times in omnibus form, and the story seems very rushed. Interesting allies appear only once, leave indelible marks on the main characters, and then vanish, only to be mentioned causally again later in the story, if at all. (Seriously, why make Guru Clef seem so uber-awesome, then forget he existed?) Progression from normal girls into Magic Knights also seemed to move too quickly, almost like the story was taking place in a single afternoon, rather than across days (though judging time in Cephiro is extremely difficult as well). While this is fine for something plainly geared at teenage girls, it inevitably leaves the manga feeling a bit forced at times, not quite inaccessible to adults, but also lacking that special something. Given the subject matter and the interesting nature of both Cephiro as a world governed by willpower, and the girls as outsiders forced to survive there, I felt that not enough time was given to exploration and discovery, and everything they needed to progress was plainly there when they needed it. The story was so linear, it almost handicapped it from reaching its full potential, and potential did it have!
However, Rayearth is not a bad manga by any stretch. While not as developed or possessing the same impact as later titles like “X” or “xXxholic,” it still offers a glimpse into how CLAMP progressed from doujinshi artists into the team they are today. Each of the girls serves as a blueprint for the protagonists in many of their future series (Hikaru and “Cardcaptor” Sakura are inherently the same at times), and it is easy to see where CLAMP started to build their roots as mangaka and storytellers.
While this series has been out of print for a while now, it’s well worth the time to track it down and give it a read. While not perfect, it is at its core entertaining and lighthearted, and a lovely diversion for a summer afternoon. There have also been two anime series devoted to the material, both of which allow for more time exploring the characters and the expanded story of Cephiro than the original manga did