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.