Saturday, June 9, 2012

Crimson Shroud hands-on

Level5's (for me) long-awaited 3DS project Guild 01 finally hit the shelves last week, so I am now able to give you some thoughts on the one game that wasn't playable at Level 5 World: Matsuno Yasumi's Crimson Shroud. (see my post on the event for my thoughts on the other games)

I am currently about 7 hours into the game, and am in the third "chapter," I do not know how many there are all in all, but judging from the story it feels like there is quite a bit still ahead. There's also a lot of rooms I cannot enter so far, so I definitely expect some second/third go through extras. I'm biased towards this game by being a long–time Matsuno fan, so proceed with caution.

Matsuno has described Crimson Shroud as his attempt at delivering a game experience akin to traditional table-talk roleplaying games. The game stays very true to this idea: after a short introduction into its world, the game's narrative directly addresses the player, just as a game master would in a session of Dungeons & Dragons. 

In the Weekly Famitsu interview I have translated earlier, Matsuno admitted to having made "drastic" sacrifices when it comes to the game's graphical presentation. This is certainly apparent to the player: The characters are presented as miniatures just like the ones you can purchase for any number of tabletop RPGs — including the fact that they are completely static, and there is no movement aside from the occasional wobble in response to an action taken or damage suffered. Similarly, the environments are disjointed "rooms" with a floor and walls, but no ceiling, offering a spartan backdrop to the action. One thing the game does offer is an equipment change affecting the appearance of the character.

The narrative of Crimson Shroud puts the player in control of Giauque (read "Gee–oak"), an experienced and cool-tempered "chaser," who tracks down persons or objects for a fee. With him are Frea (pronounced similar to "flow"), a versatile mage, and Lippi (Like "Hippie" with an L), a wisecracking former thief wielding a bow.
On a mission to search for a lost monk, they travel into the ruins of the fabled golden palace of Rahab, where they encounter a wide range of traditional fantasy enemies, such as Goblins, Minotaurs, and undead Skeleton Knights. A lot of the monster miniatures look great, I'd love to have these as pieces in a real life game... Fun fact, the underside of the in-game miniatures actually says "Level5," which you only see when they topple over upon defeat!

The story unfolds in the form of long blocks of texts, filling up several screens at a time. The lower screen displays a map of the palace ruins, and the player taps on a room to proceed. Each move brings up an "event," such as a description of the room, some lines of dialogue, and sometimes a flashback narration or battle.

From time to time, the player is given a choice of how to proceed: open a chest or leave it, engage an enemy or try to avoid them, and so on.

Not every battle is optional, however, and gamers who are familiar with Matsuno's previous games will feel right at home with the combat mechanics: A turn–based system with command input for skills, magic, direct weapon attacks, and items. Each turn, the character can execute two commands, one of which must be a skill (ranging from "buffs" for stat bonuses, all the way to magic attacks).

For many of the skills, especially ones negatively affecting the enemy's stats, the game employs another Tabletop RPG stalwart: dice throws with multi–faceted dice, ranging from 4– to 20–sides. Dice throws are also employed to determine factors such as battle-inhibiting fog, darkness, the ability to avoid a battle altogether, additional damage to attacks, and so on. Matsuno has said that dice-throws, executed through dragging on the touchscreen, were originally planned for every action, but partly scrapped for timing purposes. In my eyes, they managed to strike a good balance here: The dice throws are fun, and a failure sometimes frustrating, but the they have yet to get old for me.
The player gets the chance to earn additional dice by racking up an unbroken chain of different-typed magic, awarding a more faceted die for every turn the chain continues (4 sides for 3 turns, 6 for 4, etc... also counting enemy turns!)

As opposed to the majority of RPGs, character stats are not determined by character level, but rather through the equipment used. As anyone who has ever played Matsuno's Tactics games will likely imagine, there is an abundance of different weapons to be found, via enemy drops or in chests to be found every once in a while. The same goes for skills and magic spells, the latter of which are bound to equipment as well. A perk of collecting multiple instances of the same item is that you can then merge them to create a new, more powerful one.

What I like:
  • Classic Matsuno atmosphere and story, characters with a history and familiar, engaging enemies.
  • Challenging gameplay that doesn't serve every clue on a platter: You need to actively search around, circle back, and act counter–intuitively at times — such as fighting battles that you would rather, and are allowed to, avoid — in order to advance. Hitting a dead end, and then finally finding the path onward by chance and exploration, makes for a rewarding experience.
  • Familiar and challenging combat with tons of spells and skills — again with very few hints as to which will be effective, and of course the frustrating inability to change mismatched equipment on the fly. A lot of the enemies are rather tough, and winning a seemingly lost battle on your last standing character, by gambling on a dice throw with your last dice, is incredibly rewarding.
  • Great music by Sakimoto Hitoshi and Basiscape, very reminiscent of Vagrant Story, though just a little lighter in tone.
What I don't:
  • The graphic presentation is extremely limited, with literally no movement from characters or enemies, and no free-roaming in the environments. The battle screen, as seen in the preview images, is hopelessly cluttered with character names and HP/MP gauges. The graphics themselves are pretty enough, and sometimes even give the illusion of movement through clever camera work, but is evident there was a lot sacrificed here, likely a jarring experience for younger gamers who are used to high-definition games of recent years.
  • Long blocks of text without voice overlay or any movement give the game a feel like an illustrated novel, with very little interaction aside from the occasional multiple choice junction. That said, the story itself lives up to expectations, delivering a rich narrative with characters and setting only slowly coming into focus within the limitations of the game.
Overall, I'm enjoying Crimson Shroud, but it's definitely a game that chooses its player... The long narrative sequences (admittedly made even longer by my slower reading speed in Japanese)  make the game feel like an illustrated choose–your–own–adventure novel, and will probably disappoint players looking for a more action–oriented game. Long–time fans will appreciate the narrative, overall mood and battle system, all of which have a distinctively Matsuno feel. (Which, after all, was what Level5 demanded of Matsuno for Guild01)

It feels like although there were severe compromises made presentation-wise, there is enough meat to the story to last me a while, and it'd probably take me forever to try out all the equipment and skill combinations. There's a plethora of battle-influencing factors like surprise battle, skirmish, fog, darkness, what have you, to keep it fresh. I would recommend this game to anyone who likes dark-ish fantasy worlds, and anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to play a round of D&D with Matsuno Yasumi.

In closing, there is a petition page on Facebook to bring Guild01 to US/European markets, and I urge everyone even remotely interested in this game to support it:

1 comment: