Level 5 - Tested on the 3DS in 2020 by Kaoru
Level 5 struck gold on Nintendo’s handhelds. Between Professor Layton, Inazuma Eleven and Yo-Kai Watch, they had three big earners running on them. Thus, it is admirable that they also decided to go for the smaller auteur project of the Guild series. It would entail different pocket-sized games; all helmed by different known Japanese game designers. Released as a collection of several of them (Japan only) and individually as cheaper stand-alone eShop games.
There’s one RPG in the mix of seven Guild games. None other than Yasumi Mitsuno, who’s well known for the Ogre and Ivalice games, is the name behind Crimson Shroud. Hitoshi Sakimoto once again joined him for the OST. Meanwhile Alexander O. Smith is back to lend his expertise to the English localization.
Albeit Mitsuno isn’t just known for good games. He is known for complicated games and complex narratives. One might assume with a bite-sized RPG that’s going to last only 6 to 8 hours, ambitions would be stifled. This isn’t the case. Mitsuno packed as much into Crimson Shroud as it could possibly carry.
The most interesting and eye-catching thing about the game is that it is entirely designed to look like a table top round. Which certainly is beneficial to the smaller budget. Characters and monsters are represented as stiff figurines placed in diorama-like rooms with no backgrounds.
There are dramatic camera angles, sure, but most of the atmosphere comes from the plentiful text and sound design. Like a virtual DM, the game will rely a description of each room, what the characters see, and how they feel about the current situation every time a new one is entered. With the text plastered across the whole screen and the sounds playing for further stage setting, Crimson Shroud sometimes gives out heavy Sound Novel vibes.
The tale follows the trio of Giauque, Lippi and Frea. They are mercenaries on contract to find a monk who disappeared in a palace ruin. Supposedly, he was searching for a manuscript called Defence of Heresy, which could turn the world’s believe system upside down. There are also rumours that the ruins hold the First Gift, a powerful artefact that brought magic to the world.
Actually, the tale we are told is a story within a story. Crimson Shroud does open with a bandaged, bed-ridden Frea being interrogated about the groups delve into the ruins. Clearly, something went wrong, but we won’t know what exactly until the game’s conclusion is reached.
It is a dense and atmospheric tale, delivering a surprising amount of world lore, political motivations and character relations during Cimson Shroud’s short play time. That’s because most of the time is taken up by reading text. The four chapters offer only about a dozen combats combined.
Which does not mean that they are simple. To the contrary, there might even be a bit too many systems at work for how few fights there are. Characters can act twice per round, throwing a skill on top of the usual actions of attack, magic and item usage. Everything is categorized into elements, and having a streak of different ones lined up dishes out combo damage. The enemies’ actions count towards that streak, making them able to break it or build combos on their own. Buffing and debuffing plays a way bigger role than in many RPGs, yet their success is literally determined by the player throwing a pair of dice on the touch screen. Similarly with certain environmental advantages and disadvantages.
The characters do not earn EXP in this game. All their advancements are made by equipping better gear. Which comes with skills on top of the skills the characters acquire naturally due to winning a number of battles. Getting better gear isn’t that easy, though. The pool of possible drops by an enemy is large and it can be very random how many and which items are available to pick at the end of battle. Furthermore, those have to be “bought” with barter points, which the player gets more or less of depending on how well the battle went. Should one get several of the same pieces, equipment can be melded to a version up to +9. These bonus numbers actually make a big difference on how hard and long later combats will be, yet with how unreliable the drop rate is and how little combats there are, an uninformed player might never know just how big a difference it could make.
That’s really one of the main drawbacks of the game. Even if one likes the complexity of the systems, using the melding efficiently will lead to a lot of grinding for doubles. Not using it doesn’t make the game impossible by any means, but later battles can get quite frustrating. In addition, there is an instance in the game where you do need a rare drop of a monster to get further in the game. Thus grinding is a must unless one gets really lucky by getting it quickly. Another odd idea is to lock away areas of this short game and a better ending behind going through the whole game a second time on an even higher difficulty level.