Developers: Level-5, Nex Entertainment / Publisher: Level-5 / Played on: Nintendo 3DS / Price: $7.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
There are few artists in movies and music, let alone gaming, whose style is so unique that games could be recommended based on that alone. Yasumi Matsuno’s name has become permanently tied to classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, and fans of those games will love to know that composer Hitoshi Sakimoto and artist Hideo Minaba have also returned to reform “the dream team.” The question remaining is… do they still “have it?”
They do, and Crimson Shroud is every bit the Matsuno game you’d expect. Even more than that, it manages to combine the dense narrative and number-heavy combat systems with a surprisingly charming reverence of tabletop RPGs. This game is not for everyone, but it will completely enthrall its target audience.
Matsuno’s name usually implies a high word count when it comes to story, and that’s still true with The Crimson Shroud. For a one-off downloadable title, shocking effort has been invested in creating this world and the characters in it. Magic exists in this world courtesy of the “gifts,” relics of mysterious origin that exude magical power. In the game, you take control of Giauque, a member of a mercenary guild known as the Chasers that locate lost items or people in exchange for money. At the game’s outset, you and two of your Chaser companions are contracted by a low-level government official to track down a memento of a recently deceased monk who died under mysterious circumstances, naturally.
In typical Matsuno fashion, the game mixes the existence of magic with political scheming and government conspiracies. The density of the story stretches through nearly every level of the narrative: Giauque and his friends, the motivations of your employer, the reasons for the monk’s death, what that monk was doing until his disappearance, and even the existence of the gifts and their role are all incredibly meaty topics. If you love a good dark fantasy yarn, The Crimson Shroud delivers like few other games can. The converse is also true — if you’re not much of a reader, there won’t be much for you here.
In JRPG fashion, story and gameplay comes in alternating waves and both are as thick as a brick. Volumes could be written about the complexity of The Crimson Shroud’s gameplay, so I’ll try to just hit the high points. The broad strokes of the combat mechanics are deceptively familiar — both your party members and monsters take turns attacking based on the weight of their equipment. However, this game regresses even further toward its tabletop heritage with die rolls. I don’t mean in the electronic sense that’s eponymous with RPGs but literal dice.
Dice can be added to nearly any combat action to increase accuracy or damage. These dice come from a pool that is replenished through elemental “combos.” Most spells and skills have an element attached, and by executing them in a certain sequence, you’ll earn dice to spend as bonuses on your moves. The longer the combo, the more-sided die you earn. This may sound like a cutesy gimmick, but combat in The Crimson Shroud is difficult enough to necessitate it. Some encounters can take thirty minutes or more, and I’ve even run into monsters that I couldn’t substantially damage without adding a handful of dice to the roll.
The difficulty requires you to utilize every tool you can: buffs, debuffs, and die rolls must all be stacked efficiently to beat some of the game’s harder encounters. Buffs and debuffs carry the aforementioned elements that must be combo’ed, so you can start to get a sense of how complicated planning your order of actions can be. This also puts a lot of tension on individual moves. Sometimes you need, need, this debuff to land or the next six turns are shot. This recreates that tense moment when you toss the dice and shake your 3DS in fury when the total is one point short of a success.
The difficulty can’t be circumvented with grinding out levels either; there are none. Your party’s performance depends entirely on their gear, which can be improved through an equally complex but enjoyable crafting system. If you’re getting Vagrant Story flashbacks, you’re not far from the mark. The Crimson Shroud ranks up with some of the most mechanically complicated JRPGs of the PSX era, which means some less-than-enjoyable aspects have come along for the ride.
Often I’d get a key or an item and have absolutely no idea what to do with it, resorting to visiting every room until a cutscene triggered. Given the length of combat, a mid-battle quick save would’ve been a lifesaver as well. A combat system this dense is not without a rocky learning curve, too.’ Decent introductory tutorials will get you up and running but before long you’ll see status effects you’ve never heard of with only a nebulously updated tutorial hub to teach you.
VISUALS AND SOUND
The Crimson Shroud’s visuals erase any doubt that this game is a big, gooey love letter to tabletop RPGs. All the characters are unmoving miniatures, complete with a raised square base bound to their feet. On top of that, all the game’s environments are built from short walls with no ceilings or roofs. The whole game looks like someone managed to drop a microscopic camera into an opulent tabletop RPG setup.
This visual package also means that the game is completely without frills. The characters don’t move at all aside from a little wiggle back and forth in cutscenes and combat. Additionally, the magic fireworks and combat effects common in RPGs are just simple flashes. Still, it works so harmoniously with its overall RPG theme that visual frills are not missed, and it’s hard to argue given the price of the game and the depth of the combat systems.
The game’s music is absolutely phenomenal too. Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score completely lives up to his previous work, although it’s almost too similar for my taste. The music is reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics. Full orchestral melodies and great use of percussion create music that is both marvelous and ominous.
Simply saying “Yo dawg Matsuno’s back” will be enough to send many gamers to The Crimson Shroud, especially at its surprisingly low price. Even still, there’s an extra spark in this game that will rub a lot of gamers the right way. The Crimson Shroud is a game that’s completely comfortable to be exactly what it is: an extremely hard, dense celebration of what makes tabletop RPGs so fun. There are gameplay issues that will aggravate some, but any gamer who’s spent a Friday night rolling dice will be more than willing to forgive them.
+ Rich, difficult combat
+ Enjoyable story and tabletop RPG stylings
– Some hiccups in difficulty curve
8.5 / 10