|Developer:||IronNos, SK Telecom|
|Official Site:||English Site|
Here is my two word review for Crimson Gem Saga after spending 25 hours across the first three chapters with it: Apology accepted.
Apology for what, you may ask? Allow me to break it down for you. Crimson Gem Saga (Garnet Chronicle in Japan) is another name for the Korean developed RPG Astonishia Story 2: Fate to Unhorse One. The words "Astonishia Story" make me cringe, because the first Astonishia Story game on the PSP was a complete and utter failure in all areas. Although Crimson Gem Saga is not an A+ title and has some flaws, it is still an indescribably massive/epic improvement over its predecessor.
It is best to think about Crimson Gem Saga as its own entity and forget about its connection to Astonishia Story altogether. Crimson Gem Saga is a standalone title completely independent of the first Astonishia Story game, so there is no need to torture yourselves with that steaming pile of manure. Just like every main Final Fantasy installment is its own independent entity, so it is here. Seriously, it's no accident that the game was given a brand new name and identity in Japan to wipe clean any traces of its sordid lineage.
A tale of woe
When it rains, it pours for poor Killian von Rohcoff. First, he oversleeps, nearly missing his graduation from a prestigious military academy. To add insult to injury, he loses the coveted valedictorian title to an arrogant bully. Killian hopes that his life will be peachy once he leaves town to find a real job, but Murphy's Law has other plans. As soon as he hears the words "you're hired" from the head of an elite group of soldiers on a mission, a silver-haired villain and his beastly companion mercilessly slaughter the squadron. A barely alive Killian, the sole survivor, is found by Spinel, a sharp and resourceful treasure hunter who is not above using sex appeal and manipulation to get her way. Spinel suckers Killian into doing a mission with her, only to have herself, Killian, and two other adventurers they pick up along the way run afoul of an evil witch, be doublecrossed by Spinel's "friend," and get thrown in prison by the despotic church. All of this happens within the first four hours of the game before it becomes a "find the sacred hidden artifacts" quest with a few twists and subplots along the way. There is nothing macabre or pretentiously philosophical here. It's just a good ol' fashioned save-the-world adventure that does not take itself too seriously.
Crimson Gem Saga makes no apologies about using the character archetypes RPG fans know so well and love, despite pointing and laughing at them on Internet forums. We have the hot headed yet insecure hero, his arrogant rival, the sarcastic know-it-all, the scantily clad elf girl, the hard drinking womanizer, the quiet badass with a mysterious past, all of them and more. There are also plenty of interesting NPCs (non-player characters) who figure into the game's many subplots. The characters have plenty of personality and every player will find a favorite. My favorite character shall be revealed later on in this review.
Atlus enjoys a reputation for offering some of the best localizations in the industry and Crimson Gem Saga is no exception. The excellent writing is free of any technical errors and is loaded with wit and personality. The interactions between characters are wonderful and the dialogue flows smoothly without ever appearing stilted or awkward.
The only major downside to the story is that the pacing is sometimes uneven. There are moments when a series of intriguing plot points is followed by a lengthy lull. I felt the same way about Final Fantasy XII and Magna Carta: Tears of Blood. In those two examples and Crimson Gem Saga, there is a solid plot to follow, but patience is definitely a virtue when going through the doldrums to get to the good stuff.
Candy for the eyes
The 2D isometric visuals feature detailed, high resolution sprites atop smooth environments. The sprites integrate very well with the environments and sport extensive animations. The best sprite animations are reserved for battle, especially when a hero character dies. When a hero character dies, he or she falls melodramatically and his/her weapon hits the ground with a "clang" sound. Enemy sprites, which are often palette-swapped, also look and animate well but simply disappear when they die. Character portraits seen in the menus and during dialogue have a more hand painted look than a glossy anime sheen and their designs are aesthetically pleasing.
The environments, particularly the towns, have a clean, storybook-styled look to them, and aspects such as smoke billowing out of chimneys gives life to the towns. Unfortunately, the dungeons are not quite as full of life. They look very clean, but there isn't a wide variety of textures or designs of the walls, making them monotonous to look at for long periods of time. In addition to this, the lack of effective landmarks makes dungeons too easy to get lost in.
In general, Crimson Gem Saga is a pretty game and its action-packed anime introduction is a nice cherry on top.
Sound is excellent in Crimson Gem Saga. The soundtrack consists of multi-layered orchestral music with some tracks, like the Lauritzen dungeon theme, using modern instrumentation. The music fits all situations well and is quite good. The sound effects are excellent as well. It is very rare that I pay attention to sound effects in video games, but I certainly paid attention here. They sound genuine and ring loud and clear, especially the various slashes and clangs during battle. The sound quality for everything is excellent, whether through the PSP's speakers, headphones, or my HDTV.
Crimson Gem Saga also sports above-average voice acting during major cutscenes. Some actors are hammier than others, but all play their parts as one would expect them to. A special note needs to be made about Spinel's voice actress. Her performance was absolutely brilliant; whoever did this performance left everyone else in the dust. She delivered her lines with aplomb and breathed amazing new life into a fairly standard character archetype, making it fresher and sexier than ever. This voice actress thoroughly impressed me and is a major reason why Spinel is my favorite character. I now want a Crimson Gem Saga sequel/spinoff that's all about Spinel.
The Nuts & Bolts
The gameplay follows the basic town-field-dungeon formula of classic RPGs. Towns contain plenty of people to talk to and shops to purchase essentials at. In towns and on the field, a map can be brought up to show your location. There is no map in dungeons, which tend to be lengthy and maze-like. Along with the main quest, there are many sidequests to be found, including an extensive optional dungeon called Ziggurat. I would say the difficulty of the game is akin to that of most 16-bit RPGs. It can be difficult at times, but it's not so punishing that it puts me off. Some grinding is necessary, though, since equipment upgrades can be expensive.
On the field and in dungeons, enemy encounters can be seen beforehand. If a player catches the enemy's attention, an exclamation mark will appear above its head and if not touched soon, will give chase and land a nice preemptive strike if it tags you from behind. Enemies move about twice as fast as you do so be careful about running away from them. Touching the enemy from behind gives the player a nice preemptive strike, so it is prudent to tag enemies before they tag you.
Battles are traditional turn-based battles with turn order displayed on the top of the screen. The usual commands such as attack (with timed button press combo chaser), item, special skill, etc. are all present and are represented by icons. Depending on the characters' skill sets and whether they have consecutive turns, multi-character combination actions can be unleashed. Escape from battle is handled slightly differently from many RPGs. When the escape command is selected, a wheel akin to Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring appears and if you time the button press right, you can escape. Turn-based RPGs are rare these days, but are still my favorite kind of RPG. In Crimson Gem Saga, the execution of this turn-based combat is smooth.
Post-battle rewards include experience, money, items, HP/MP recovery after a level up, and SP (Skill Points). Skill Points are pooled and are used to unlock and learn skills in each character's Skill Tree. The skill trees in Crimson Gem Saga resemble the kind of character-specific skill trees found in games such as Xenosaga. Skill points can be allocated to reveal what an anonymous skill is and additional skill points can be allocated to learn that skill. An aspect that sets Crimson Gem Saga's skill trees apart is that a skill need only be revealed, not learned, before allocating points to an adjoining skill. This offers some flexibility in how players wish to build their characters.
The game has extensive menus, and they're not complicated to navigate; but some tasks, like changing a character's equipment, are slightly more clunky than need be. In addition, when purchasing items, there is no indicator saying how many you already have in your inventory, so be sure to check it beforehand. There is also no way to sort items as you wish, so sifting through them can be cluttery. Most importantly, though, saving is easy to do and the game allows players to save anywhere and any time they want to, outside of battle.
The aspect of the gameplay that tried my patience the most was the fetch quests. Not only does Crimson Gem Saga have fetch quests, but it has occasional chained fetch quests as well. When I say chained fetch quest, I mean something like this: You need to take a ship to go to your next destination, but the captain won't take you there unless you find his lost dog in the mine. You go to the mine, but the mine workers won't let you in to search for the dog unless you fetch them some coffee. So you go to the barrista, but she can't give you coffee unless you fetch some special coffee beans for her from the top of Mount Imadoofus. Once you get to the top of Mount Imadoofus, you have to fight a yeti for the coffee beans, but the yeti is too powerful and imprisons you. So now, in a bargain for your life, the yeti agrees to let you go if you fetch him seven ice fish... yeah, you get the idea. Chained fetch quests are a drag.
To sum it all up...
Crimson Gem Saga is the kind of RPG I like. It has clean visuals, solid music, turn based battling, unobtrusive load times, and a sweeping fantasy tale with cool characters like Spinel. It is also a lengthy RPG; after 25 hours, I've only completed three chapters and there is still more to tell. There are some negative points, such as the fetch quests, but they are not showstoppers for me. As my scores indicate, I rather like this game. PSP owners who want a solid, fun, long-lasting, no-nonsense, traditional turn-based RPG will be served quite well with Crimson Gem Saga.