"What makes Crimson Shroud so special ... is the information withheld from the player."
Games like Crimson Shroud come as sudden, surprising blessings from the localization goddess. A low-budget RPG with inaccessible gameplay and experimental design doesn't appear in the Nintendo eShop every day, but the reputations of Level-5 and Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story) are evidently enough to warrant a North American release. In an era of riskless sequels and aging IPs, Crimson Shroud is a refreshing curiosity imported from the Bazaar of the Bizarre.
Once, RPGs were played only on tabletops with pens, paper, dice, and a fathomless well of imagination. A Dungeon or Game Master presided over the action and gently or malevolently guided and misguided his players through harrowing episodes of adventure. Although a few superstitious antiquaries keep these primitive forms of storytelling alive, there is now a much simpler and easier way to role-play. Even in the East, the first RPGs, including titles like Final Fantasy, were influenced by games like Dungeons and Dragons. Classic game designers have never forgotten their history and, instead of never repeating it, Yasumi Matsuno sought to replicate it.
Crimson Shroud attempts to emulate the classic tabletop, pen-and-paper RPG experience, and the result is a curiously enchanting and effective simulation, if a simplified and overly brief one. A nefarious Dungeon Master hides behind the upper screen of the 3DS to direct the action and provide the necessary story exposition and essential tutorials as well as a few kindly warnings. He mostly leaves you to your own devices, however, and — with a baleful grin — sets his traps and sends legions of monsters marching into the dungeon. You're free to explore, make mistakes, grind for items and equipment, and occasionally make decisions of relatively little import. You might choose to flee over fight, for example, and then fickle fortune rears her ugly head as you roll the dice to determine your fate. Moments like these define Crimson Shroud's unique identity as a virtual tabletop RPG.
Crimson Shroud renovates traditional turn-based combat by inserting a dice rolling mechanic and removing character levels. While not every attack requires a dice roll, some special abilities and other options prompt a roll of colorful polyhedral dice on the lower screen. Most of these abilities require a certain sum to succeed while others are more effective with higher dice totals. The three playable characters cannot gain levels, and so become more powerful by donning new equipment. Thus, grinding in Crimson Shroud means searching for magic rings, healing items, and superior arms and armor. A minor crafting system complicates matters a tad, and monsters drop an immensely wide variety of items, making each fight uniquely rewarding.
The slow, strategic, occasionally random combat won't please the impatient, but I was almost never frustrated or bored, and turn-based combat engines often have those effects on me. The element of luck never becomes obtrusive, although you can certainly feel out of control at times. By limiting the number of attacks governed by dice rolls, however, the developers avoided gameplay overly reliant on chance. Like a proper adventure, some battles require almost no effort, a few are intimidatingly difficult, and most are somewhere in between: the perfect challenge. Fighting the same battles while searching for the path ahead isn't always fun, but finding new items and discovering new abilities makes it worthwhile. A focus on status effects and stat-boosting and -lowering attacks makes combat even more idiosyncratic. What makes Crimson Shroud so special, however, is the information withheld from the player. The DM has charts, tables, and enemy statistics printed on the inside of his DM's screen, and the lack of transparency creates an atmosphere of magic and mystery. This arcane sort of gameplay, championed by games like Dark Souls, feels truly special. In the case of Crimson Shroud, it even extends to the story.
The narrative begins, most confusingly, in medias res
and details the origins of magic in a strange realm. As if you've already adventured in this world before, the DM skimps on setting exposition to deliver a character-based tale that requires quite a bit of imagination to comprehend, and the ending provides an odd brand of closure. Once again, Crimson Shroud refuses to handhold and waste time explaining things best inferred. The story isn't the most engaging aspect of the game, but it kept me interested, and the writing is, as to be expected of Level-5, exceptionally localized. This is one of the most maturely written JRPGs I've ever played.
The low-budget aesthetics are charming and elegant, although, like the rest of the game, not for everyone. The miniatures-on-a-grid visuals are instantly likeable for those with a history of tabletop role-playing, but, as static and technically unimpressive as they are, might not amuse everyone else. The maps, menus, and artwork are all more objectively excellent and undeniably classy. Hitoshi Sakimoto leads a small team of composers for the soundtrack, and together they create a very classic sound appropriate for a history lesson in RPGs. The soundtrack is impressively long for such a brief game, and the music should never fail to inspire further adventure. Voice acting is predictably absent, and sound effects are appropriately primitive.
Although the action occurs in a single multi-tiered dungeon, there are moments of aimless wandering. The visually pleasing map and small number of rooms mean you always know your location, but the lack of direction means you might be groping for progress in the inky darkness of a devilish DM's idea of difficulty. I largely enjoyed this freedom, but in one particularly nasty moment, the DM hides a key with a low drop rate on an elusive monster. I ran for the message boards lest I wander indefinitely. The tabletop simulation is also a bit simplistic at times, and I would have appreciated a few more traps and unique scenarios playing with the idea of player choice. Perhaps this is merely a result of Crimson Shroud's greatest fault: its length. Instead of a full campaign, this is but one adventure, a single episode of something I wish was much longer. There's a new game+ after the six to ten hour main game, but this is only partial compensation.
With the advent of virtual roleplaying, gamers might have seen a shriveling of the imagination, as pictures, sounds, voices, and swordplay were made tangible. Crimson Shroud brings dice rolling, miniatures, and an invisible DM to the screen, but it also resurrects the necessity for imagination. Without one, you'll be lost in the story, the visuals will seem hollow and dull, and the gameplay will appear impossibly opaque. If you don't enjoy experimental games or those that refuse to handhold, or if you simply have no interest in the tabletop roots of RPGs, forget about it. Crimson Shroud's unique concept and esoteric execution make it a perfect match for my RPG desires, however, and one of my favorites of 2012. If you're like me, Crimson Shroud will offer brief, but resounding pleasure and make you want to blow the dust off your dicebag.