Once in a while, I'll fire up a new RPG and find something exciting, innovative, or almost dangerous. Something that changes the way I look at the genre, gives me great new gameplay, or does something to tweak my usual game experience.
Crimson Gem Saga does none of these things. Nor does it try to.
Before I go any further, let me get this out of the way: Crimson Gem Saga is a solid game, especially if you are a fan of old-school SNES turn-based JRPGs. But this Korean-developed game is as traditional and generic as it gets. Seriously, it checks all of the boxes on the boilerplate RPG checklist. At the same time, if I had picked up this game for the SNES fifteen years ago, I'd have been awfully happy, and would assuredly have spent a good thirty-five hours or more sitting in my basement trying to figure out the intricacies of this world and mapping out dungeons on graph paper. If you went a step further and told me that one day I would be able to play this game on a portable system half the thickness of a deck of cards, I probably would've passed out. And that's the big draw, at least to me, of Crimson Gem Saga. Yeah, it's a game with a few flaws, and it certainly has aspects that I would change, but for ten bucks and the ability to play on your phone... it actually turns out to be a pretty terrific deal.
Crimson Gem Saga opens on protagonist Killian, second-best student at the Green Hill Academy for Chevaliers, and maybe a little bit of a jerk. Seriously, this guy wields his inferiority complex about as deftly as his sword near the beginning of the game. But to be fair, it's kind of endearing – I mean, how many protagonists open their story waking up after being blackout drunk? Of course, once he goes off to get a job after graduation, things go a bit awry, and he's sucked into a larger adventure, with requisite companions (such as Spinel, the upbeat thief girl, and Henson, the angry mage), enemies, and mysterious figures.
Although it is not a straight parody of the genre, there are a few moments that really make me think that this game is more than a little self-aware. It realizes its limitations, and never takes itself too seriously. This is terrific – the tone keeps the game from dragging into melodramatic territory. The story moves forward briskly between bouts of dungeon-delving and overworld adventures. Sure, there are a few dramatic beats in terms of the plot, but everything seems to happen all at once, which can be a little off-putting at times. It's almost as if the developers wrote a great, involved script, and then cut out the middle parts of some of the scenes. There's an event... and it's resolved! On to the next fetch quest!
But beyond the relatively plain (and again, boilerplate) story and quests, Crimson Gem Saga succeeds with its characters. While not perfect, the localization is really solid, and the character personalities tend to be rather fun. Sure, most of the characters fit neatly into JRPG archetypes (Killian is a driven swordsman! Gelts is a dirty old man!), but they're more recognizable than they are cliché. None of them had me tearing out my hair, and some of them were worth a few chuckles.
In truth, most of the issues I had with this game were gameplay-driven, and many could very well be artifacts of the port to iOS. I played this game on an iPhone 4, which means that I was at the mercy of tiny touchscreen controls for the entirety of the game. I imagine that playing this game on a PSP would get rid of a couple of the problems with control in the overworld and navigating the menus. And because there's no real tutorial or instruction provided, the process of dealing with these issues took a bit longer than it should have.
These major issues that I mention here are twofold. First, the gameplay revolves around dungeon and overworld exploration, and there are no random encounters per se. Like many of the Gust games, enemies are visible in the overworld. Sneak up behind them, and you strike first for massive damage. If the enemies spot you, however, you have to run into them as quickly as you can, or they come to hunt you down. And they're faster than you. If they hit you, chances are that they'll strike first, and for massive damage. The system is fair (at least in a weird karmic sense), but unless you're good and over-leveled, you'll find that when they strike first, they tend to instant-kill your party, and that's not very much fun. Given the fact that the touch controls are not exactly responsive or tight, you can be as careful as you want, but sometimes Killian is simply not going to walk where you need him to walk to avoid getting spotted or getting into a fight. And you may get worked over by some Galorins because of it.
The other big touchscreen-related issue is that of navigating the menus. Whether it's in battle with the action menu or in towns and shops, navigating menus tends to be a real chore. You have to move scroll up or down, item by item, in every menu, and the controls are not nearly as responsive as they could be. A great deal of the in-game menus require you to scroll left and right as well, but very rarely will that streamline a menu that gets progressively longer as the game goes on. Furthermore, by the end of the game, your item menu can get to be 100-125 items long, making it a long process if you want to improve a weapon or to use a Red Bean Bun to heal HP. It'd be a chore even on the PSP's D-Pad, but using a touchscreen with no margin for error, where you'll often be kicked out of the menu to start over... well, it can be a time-consuming pain in the neck.
Combat is simple and turn-based, with the magic/attack/item/defend options you find in nearly any turn-based RPG. The one action component to battle is a critical-hit system, which... um... sucks. As you strike your opponent for a critical hit, a button pops up in the center of the screen for you to hit. The button is small and exceedingly fast. At first, I thought it was a screen error. But no, if you're fleet of finger you can tap it (twice, if you're successful the first time), to deal considerably higher damage. It's one of those things that probably would've worked fine on a console or handheld, but is a real disaster on the touchscreen.
Difficulty-wise, there are the expected jumps in difficulty that will sneak up on you. I didn't feel like I had to do any grinding, and the difficulty petered out quite a bit at the end of the game, but there was one thing that I felt contributed to what difficulty the game does possess: dungeon layout. Some of the dungeons took me way too much time to traverse, simply due to similar-looking (or repeating) rooms or unclear lever puzzles. While I love being able to explore, I didn't love some of the dungeons making me feel like I was running in place for what became hours. And no, there are no maps in the dungeons, so be prepared to make notes or to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Aside from the aforementioned menu navigation issues, the customization of party, weapons, and skills is pretty robust. Each character develops along a skill tree as you spend points to first identify, then learn skills. There are items that change elemental affinity or allow you to level up your skills, and lots of equipment to use. Occasionally, you come across skills that are nearly useless (such as almost all of the combination skills), but that's par for the course with most traditional RPGs. At least you've got more than a few options.
Graphically, the game is no great shakes in terms of current console RPGs, but I'd put it in the top 10% of games available for the iOS. The graphics wouldn't look out of place at all on your DS, and the sprites are very well designed. There are at least one or two character portraits used in dialogue or special moves for each of the main characters and major NPCs, and the character designs are great. In addition, the animated opening scene is well done, although it is barely related to the game's story. Again, a minor quibble: at times, the backgrounds seem to get segmented into squares, especially on things like a boat on moving water. Certainly not a major issue, but it is something that catches the eye.
The sound in this game is quite good. The score hits all the right notes, changing from amp-you-up battle pieces to moody cave tracks. This may be due to iOS limitations, but the audio pieces are very short, and they loop continuously. Sometimes it gets to be a bit repetitive. The game's voice acting... wait, let's stop for a second. This is an iOS game, with voice acting. Right there, we should be giving this game major points. And guess what? The voice acting is pretty good. No distressingly irritating voices! Enough variation to not make you want to throw up! Success! If there's a minor complaint to be had, it's that occasionally, the voice acting starts on a piece of dialogue that isn't what the voice actor is saying. If you continue to scroll through the dialogue, you'll eventually get to what the voice is saying, but it's kind of a backwards way to go about things, and it tends to pull you out of the game a little and keep you from enjoying the voice work.
If you're looking for a reasonable JRPG with a fun, light tone – and you're looking for something you can take with you on the go without carting around your DS or PSP, then this could very well be right up your alley. Even at $10, the price point is more than fair. You'll just need to have some patience with the controls and the gameplay. Once you get familiarized with Crimson Gem Saga's few idiosyncrasies, you'll find that you've got a fun little game on (in?) your hands.