Like a red cloth to a bull, I was entranced by Level-5's latest.
That Level-5, purveyors of such quality products as Professor Layton and the Dark Cloud series, and legendary Final Fantasy Tactics designer Yasumi Matsuno were teaming up to produce an RPG was, to put it mildly, information that piqued my interest. Crimson Shroud was originally part of a four-game compilation in Japan spearheaded by four very diverse talents in what amounts to a company-funded game jam project, but only three games have been released on the eShop separately overseas. Its siblings, Liberation Maiden and Aero Porter, each have their own respective pedigrees. However, Crimson Shroud was the one game from the compilation I was chomping at the bit to try out.
But then I was not prepared for what type of game it turned out to be. Crimson Shroud is a turn-based RPG from all appearances: Characters find equipment, learn new spells, fight monsters in a turn order dictated by their individual speed stats and fight the occasional boss to cap a story chapter. But the manner in which the game presents itself is in a very deliberate homage to pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. The characters, rather than moving and emoting with the full breadth of 3D animation, are static miniatures moved around a board of sorts that comprises the singular dungeon of the game - the Sun-Gilt Palace of Rahab. Rather, the story is directed entirely by text that pops up over each of these figurine dioramas; a tale as lavishly told and lovingly detailed as any verbose fantasy novel. Each room has its own little history; each encounter its own flavor text. Occasionally, the player will be given the option to reminisce about how the trio of party members met, and the overarching narrative of the game as a whole is imparted to an NPC by one of the three playable characters in media res.
I've said previously that the game felt like the natural video game evolution of Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy novels: A half-game, half-book that engages players with its strategic combat while simultaneously engaging readers with its rich prose. Which might sound perhaps a tad unexciting until you consider that this is Matsuno we're talking about. Both Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, though still excellent games on a purely mechanical basis, are ever more enhanced by the wealth of narrative detail that Matsuno brought to the world of Ivalice and its stories. As with those games, his themes of corrupt clergies and supercilious aristocrats, of ancient religious martyrdom, of gothic architectural remnants of a once great civilization brought to ruin by its hubris and injustice, of heroes that excel by grit and grace as often as their prodigious talents and may still fall regardless of these virtues. If you've been looking to fill that hole left behind by FFT and Vagrant Story after they had concluded and been tossed aside, and were mildly dismayed that Matsuno's departure from Final Fantasy XII turned an erstwhile promising epic into a mere shadow of what might have been as its new lead designer hurriedly filled what gaps in the narrative remained from the Big Book of Final Fantasy Tropes, then Crimson Shroud will not disappoint you.
As a game, it is just as confidently competent though a bit more limited. With the exception of a few obfuscating puzzles very reminiscent of the pen-and-paper style D&D adventure the game lovingly evokes, the entire gameplay is based around its combat encounters. The three characters: Giauque, a legendary but reckless Chaser; Lippi, his sardonic ex-bandit partner and expert marksman; and Frea, an intense and aloof young woman of a mystical nomadic race, are all diverse in their personalities and strengths. Essentially, for every battle you have a front-line fighter, an archer and a magic-user. Strategies generally amount to wearing down the enemies while keeping the party buffed and healed. But here's where the deeper mechanics set in, often making the combat as densely strategic as the story is densely narrated.
On each turn a character can use one of their skills (in D&D parlance, you could consider this a "free action") and also either an attack, a spell or an item from the party's collective inventory. These skills are commonly buffs: Generally single-target spells that increase the caster's attack, magic, defense and so on. Spells, attacks and items are the meat of the character's offensive repertoire (though this also includes healing spells and items). Most skills require magic points, which are earned after receiving and giving damage, though there are a few buffs that manually recharge magic as well. Then we come to the elements and dice: Almost every skill and special attack has an inherent element, which when stacked against elements of a different type (provided they don't directly clash, like light and dark) will create chains. These chains provide additional "bonus dice" when they reach a certain length, and these dice can be applied to a character action to enhance its damage, its effects or its chance to hit an enemy. Many of the game's mechanics require a dice roll, both in- and outside of combat, and this is where the game's D&D influence is at its most overt. As the dice in question can be rolled by the player via their stylus it creates a tactile sense of being in control of the characters' destinies - even more so than directing their actions from a menu. If you were going to make a game based on D&D pen-and-paper RPGs, you couldn't really excise the manual dice-rolling aspect from that experience and still make it work.
Though the game is relatively short - a mere smattering of chapters and areas to explore, though the geography is expanded considerably with the new game plus option - it's a quality title for the standard low price of an eShop game. It's an odd turnabout that Nintendo's downloadable service, after years of derision and ironic podcasts about trains, is really starting to come into its own with games like Pullblox, Mighty Switch Force and, indeed, the excellent Crimson Shroud.