If it wasn’t my job to review videogames, I wouldn’t be surprised to have a title like Crimson Gem Saga pass me by. The RPG genre is so crammed with contenders that it could easily be lost on the shelf. Titles attached to a series tend to get first picks, and anything new to the genre generally aims for an attention-grabbing gimmick or eye candy aesthetics to stand out. Crimson Gem Saga is being portrayed as a classically styled RPG and, while that may be true in one sense, it’s also a terribly generic term that really doesn’t tell gamers anything. After spending a considerable amount of time with the game, the classic appeal is the way in which the game doesn’t immediately grab the player. That might sound incredibly odd, but the game has a subtle quality that invites the player deeper, offering an expansive set of abilities as well as characters that represent classic roles while also revealing individual personalities more naturally as the narrative progresses.
Crimson Gem Saga also has a very peculiar visual appeal that is, again, more about subtlety. The character designs are seen during dialogue sequences where familiar portraits accompany dialogue. There’s an interesting conflict between the more grim environments allotted to battle sequences and the incredible amount of detail invested in giving the world map a more distinct, pastoral beauty. Dungeons share a certain level of familiarity for the most part. But outside of these, whether it’s a flock of birds in a town square, or the way flowers sway in the breeze, the world feels very alive and vibrant with a personality that rivals the actual characters.
Yet this doesn’t undermine the characters. While the game finds many ways to modernize the conventions of the genre, it is bound within the term “classic” in the way that an attachment to its world strengthens with each return visit. This is at all times prevalent with the character relationships. With the exception of Spinel, characters join the player’s party with little fanfare. In earnest, they don’t immediately warrant an attachment. Subtle nuances allow them to take real shape, aided greatly by the type of humour that has been prevalent with many of Atlus’ releases this year. Voiceover segments prove capable of not only breaking up the tedious reading of text – which the game never plagues the player with too severely – but also using the voice-work to add a greater dimension of personality to the characters. In other words, it is not simply a matter of hearing voices, but a skillful use and understanding of how voice is an important element during the instances it is used. Should Henson fall in battle, he’ll exclaim that “this is Killian’s fault,” for instance. This is a great example of building character attachment with the tools available, rather that a cliché moment of character identity that infects many RPGs today. The added level of humanity that flavours these characters is the way in which they are strangers at first, both to the player and each other, but experience small moments that are often awkward to become more familiar.
It’s worth mentioning that while the humour can’t resist touching upon the fourth wall so many games do, it thankfully decides to have more fun. I’m certain the best example of this is when fairies save the party. Gelts, the obligatory cranky warrior, asks if they’d be getting special outfits only to have Spinel throw back, “I bet you’d like to see me in a special outfit you dirty old man.”
There where times where the game seemed to have fun with the genre by yanking my chain, eager to reminisce about the RPGs of old while taking some elements to the extreme. There’s a great example of this rather early on that genuinely poked fun at the idea of side quests. In searching for the “wicked stone,” my party arrived at a monastery only to be quickly sent off to track down a missing monk. The monk was hiding in a nearby town, but just as quickly informed me that I needed to visit him at night. Would you believe my party went to the local Inn only to discover that the elderly Innkeeper was sick and in need of holy water from another location? Then, might you believe that taking care of that and finally visiting the monk at night revealed invisible monsters that required my party to find a special mirror in order to see them? Of course to make the mirror, they needed a rare stone from an ogre-infested mountain, and well, you get the idea. It was absolutely ludicrous and exhausting, and yet so ridiculously humorous that I hurriedly tried to accomplish the tasks only to find the game raising the challenge of new enemy encounters to pace the events.
But beyond the narrative, the strongest feature of the game is the sheer amount of control it gives back to the player. As I mentioned in our earlier preview of the game, random encounters have been replaced by blue goblins that infest the overworld and dungeons to act as sentries and trigger battles. Bumping into one of them triggers the battle screen, offering up various combinations of enemies depending on the location. The goal is to sneak up and touch them without being spotted, since this grants a first strike bonus to the party. Should the ogre spot the player first, they have until an exclamation mark over its head vanishes before the creature charges after them and takes the advantage for itself. It’s an interesting mix of active and passive gameplay, changing the overworld into a stealth scenario where the player can often determine the amount of battles they engage in. At times it caused for tense situations as I attempted to sneak around these sentries to limp my way back to the nearest town.
There’s an assigned order to battle, with turns allotted to both the party members and the monsters in order. Again, this leads to a measure of choice between the use of traditional weapons versus skills, with skills essentially acting as magic abilities. The skill tree for characters is immensely expansive, allowing for a great deal of personal choice in the way battles will play out. The player specifically assigns points to the skills they wish characters to learn at any time. These range from healing powers and elemental attacks to devastating combination strikes that use two characters to inflict greater degrees of damage – so long as both characters have learned the skill and are placed in a back-to-back attack order formation. But as I eventually learned, relying solely on skills is not always enough.
The weapons are fairly simple in the sense that they follow the genre standard: each new town generally has the next most powerful weapon for each character. But other specific weapons are discovered in dungeons and caves along the way. Boosts and elemental abilities can be added to weapons with bonuses earned in battle as well. What makes traditional attacks essential in many battles is the random additional attack factor. During a straight attack on a monster, a prompt will sometimes appear allowing the player to quickly hit a button to initiate a second attack and then potentially another after that. Again, it’s a subtle feature but it breaks the naturally passive state of battles and offers a decidedly strong alternative to relying too heavily on skills (which I was certainly guilty of).
These elements of choice are what kept me invested. While there have been some daunting encounters, the game exhibits a learning curve that should help a wider audience embrace it. When combined with the depth of visual details and outright labour of love sensation that surrounds the title, the most refreshing quality of Crimson Gem Saga is the long-term value it offers players. It’s always a gamble deciding how to balance the idea of time investment in an RPG – the point at which I argue that it’s worth grinding a path through the game based on the later rewards – but Crimson Gem Saga is almost a vacation from that stress, and I have no problem confessing that reviewing RPGs is stressful for that very reason. Fortunately it shouldn’t take very long for any player to discover the myriad of qualities that make this title a potentially understated but nevertheless rewarding experience.