Crimson Tactics: The Rise of the White Banner is a strategy RPG inspired by politically driven epics like Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Although it pulls much from its influences, Crimson Tactics also touts unique elements, such as a Dynamic difficulty option that scales up and down depending on your performance and mounts (from horses to dragons) that characters can ride into battle. Unfortunately, Crimson Tactics‘ ambitions fall flat, leaving a half-baked final product.
Crimson Tactics drags agonizingly in all regards. The story is a slow burn that feels like an artificially extended prologue during its 20ish-hour duration. Cutscenes exacerbate this feeling because even the fastest text speed isn’t instantaneous, and characters plod along when they should be moving with more urgency. Battles play out slowly at the default speed and even the fastest speed had me groaning, “Ugh, get on with it!”
Crimson Tactics places us in the midst of a civil war where rival dukes fight over who will sit the open throne of a recently murdered king with no heirs. Meanwhile, the downtrodden commoners form a rebellion. Our protagonist is a young knight named Arlys Frink who abandons the knighthood in favor of the rebellion after witnessing his commanding officer’s corruption. It’s a poor imitation of a story we’ve seen several superior versions of.
Dialogue was painful to read thanks to a combination of pompous word choice, convoluted word order, and roundabout tenses that don’t follow the rules of English syntax. Noble characters sound more obtuse than uppity. Peasant characters, who should have more casual speech mannerisms, also have obtusely flowery dialogue with overly scholarly vocabulary. Characters say a lot without saying anything at all, leaving everyone with dull personalities and zero wit. Font size in both dialogue and menu text is extremely small and there is no option to increase it. There is plenty of room to make fonts and text boxes bigger without blocking the scenery or other parts of the UI, so why make them so small and illegible?
To add insult to injury, Crimson Tactics abruptly ends before it even begins. The marketing touts this as a full game, but it’s only the first episode! Nowhere on the Black March Studios site or the Crimson Tactics Steam page does it mention that this game is only the first episode of an in-progress work. I wish Black March Studios had been more forthright about this because I feel like I received a bait-and-switch.
If you’ve played SRPGs like Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, then you know what to expect with Crimson Tactics. One feature I like is that when it’s your turn to move, you can either move to a blue square and engage an action or move to an orange square further away without engaging an action. The option for a little extra movement is nice. Be careful where you move your troops, though, because area attacks affect everyone, be they friend or foe. I am not a fan of this practice.
The touted Dynamic difficulty option scales based on how you perform in each battle. This is fine in theory but clunky in execution. The option to manually set the difficulty among five selections from Story to Nightmare is far smoother. Difficulty can only be set when beginning a new game and cannot be changed on the fly. If you’re playing Dynamic and want to switch mid-game to Story, you cannot. Enemy AI is either head-scratchingly incompetent or annoyingly cheap, making battles largely unsatisfying in any mode.
The game’s other touted system involves characters riding mounts ranging from horses to dragons. Unfortunately, the mounts are borderline useless. They take up too many deployable character slots, move incredibly slowly, and have limited actions. Mounts are supposed to help, not hinder. I found no good reason to utilize them during my playthrough.
Battles often run long, yet there is no way to save mid-battle. Generic recruits (meaning those that aren’t plot-relevant) perma-die if they’re not revived after three turns, and plot-relevant characters can perma-die after a particular plot point. I’m not a fan of perma-death in my SRPGs, but I know many genre fans seek it out. There is no perma-death in Story mode.
Battlefields allow camera panning, but obstacles still occasionally obstruct desirable views of the battlefield no matter where the camera is. There is a bird’s eye view option, but it’s impossible to tell who’s who and what’s what when using it. Character sprites look stubby on the battlefield, and it’s not easy to tell friend from foe because generic troops all use the exact same sprites and character portraits, outfit colors and all. The locations look decent, though.
Control using keyboard and mouse is preferable to using a gamepad (where the cursor feels like a mouse pointer wading through quicksand) but is still subpar. Given that Crimson Tactics‘ influences were console games, I’m surprised gamepad support is so poor. Unfortunately, the key/button mapping for the keyboard and mouse interface is so unintuitive and poorly laid out, it feels like I’m flicking a switch in the first-floor kitchen to turn on the lights in the upstairs bedroom. And, no, the controls cannot be remapped.
The overall menu interface is fiddly to use. Deploying troops at the start of battle is more cumbersome than need be. When performing actions during battle, I often hit the incorrect key thanks to the unintuitive layout and shouted, “No! I didn’t want to do that!” And when shopping for equipment, I accidentally sold off new weapons I had already equipped! It’s 2023. When selling equipment, games should know not to sell gear characters are wearing. The battle and shop menus also neglect to tell you how many of each consumable item (e.g. potions, revives) you already have. Why is such basic information absent when it’s most necessary? Oh, and when I wanted to use items in battle, character portraits covered up portions of the item list. Why doesn’t the list expand horizontally after a certain point?
Crimson Tactics‘ orchestral fantasy music feels cinematically epic. The compositions aren’t the most memorable, but they have complex melodies and layered harmonies with varied instrumentation. The music is easily Crimson Tactics‘ best aspect and the only thing I liked about this game.
Crimson Tactics wants to be a sweeping epic but is instead a cumbersome slog. Even the most patient and forgiving gamers who can look past slow pacing, terribly written dialogue, and myriad other issues will not see much potential. Crimson Tactics is an unbearably dull, poorly designed, and unfinished game that fails to deliver on any of its promises. I’m glad to be done with this game and have no intention of looking at its sequels, DLC, or any subsequent content.