Review: Crimson Gem Saga

CrimsonGemSaga.jpg It always heartens me to see folks who learn from their mistakes – even in the most superficial ways. So when I found out that Crimson Gem Saga was actually the game released in Japan and Korea as Astonishia Story 2, and that the publishers changed the name to avoid comparisons with the first game, I was somewhat pleased. I was pleased because the developers made it clear that what they were doing was not hiding the lineage in order to mislead consumers but rather to attempt to remove the stigma associated with the first game. And lets be honest – Astonishia Story is just too easily transformed into ‘Astonishingly Bad Story’ when the game is as stunningly mediocre as that one. My cynicism told me to temper my expectations, that despite the best of intentions they were unlikely to come from what they produced with the first game into a breathtakingly innovative and engaging sequel. Read on to see if I was right!

The game starts off in a very typical way – our hero is nearing graduation from Chevalier school, and is revealed to us as a rather brash and arrogant type … not overly likable at first, really. However, he assumes he is the class valedictorian – so when he learns he was beaten out by a classmate he is sorely disappointed. In fact, whenever he finds himself coming in second it is a huge issue for him. That is just the start of his troubles, as he soon finds himself beaten, robbed, and thrust into a terrible situation that completely changes all of his assumptions about the way things should go for him.

Crimson Gem Saga does a nice job of getting you engaged in the story by alternating some short gameplay segments with longer cutscenes that lay out the challenges before you. During the gameplay you learn about the controls and combat system, while the cutscenes bring in new characters and plot elements and give you more backstory about what has happened in the past and what is going on now. As you get into the first ‘Chapter’ the game transitions to predominantly interactive dialogue to move things along. It is a balance that feels perfect in terms of giving you more control over your own actions, and is very nicely done.

Indeed, very nicely done is an expression I’d use to describe much of Crimson Gem Saga. The game looks great, featuring a mix of 2D and 3D visuals, nicely varied monsters and environments and dungeon settings and loads of animations for all of the combat moves your party will learn along the way. The various areas are colorful and wonderfully detailed, adding to the atmosphere as you explore the lands and dungeons. Of course, color selection inside dungeons is pretty limited, but the level design and layout is done to differentiate one from the next. This also works very effectively – too often in these games you can’t remember which dungeon you are currently exploring without reading a description. Crimson Gem Saga has ones with lighting, caves, temples, and so on, each with a different look and feel.

As has become fairly standard in these types of games, the characters are represented by slide-in portraits during dialogue sequences. These are nicely drawn and large, but there is no variety – some games have a variety of portraits to allow the developers to convey some emotions during scenes. Given that the developers did a good job infusing the characters with distinct personalities, it feels like a waste to have a single representation of them during some moving or humorous dialogue. That is a minor complaint, but is the one thing that stood out to mar an otherwise wonderful visual presentation.

The game also has a solid audio presentation. The soundtrack is pleasant and fits well with the gameplay and various environments, even if it isn’t memorable enough that you’ll be looking to put the tracks on your MP3 player. There is a considerable amount of voice acting, which is a surprise, and it is almost all pretty well done. Localization is always a struggle for text-heavy RPG’s, so it was a surprise that not only did they do a solid job of translating all that text, but also added tons of voice acting that was actually effective. I had to remind myself that this is a translated game because it all felt very natural and the dialogue flowed nicely.

I mentioned that the game was engaging from the start, but after you beat the first boss and complete the first chapter, things start to drag a bit. Don’t mistake that for me saying it becomes bad, as that isn’t the case. It simply means that the twists and turns you find in the opening act devolve into repetition later in the game, dealing with the same issues and problems and attitudes and crises again and again. So while I played the first chapter nearly straight out, as I got into Chapter Two I started taking breaks and playing other stuff in between to keep it feeling more interesting. Given that Crimson Gem Saga is a fairly long game, taking breaks isn’t such a bad idea!

But ultimately the game isn’t focused on the story, artwork or occasional silliness, but on the nearly constant combat. Battles can occur anywhere but in towns, and unlike most jRPG’s you are not subjected to an endless stream of random encounters. Instead, when you enter an area you will find same-looking enemies wandering around. They have a limited field of view and apparently very bad hearing, allowing four potential outcomes: you surprise them, you enter combat on equal terms, they surprise you, or you manage to flee the area which sets them back to their original location.

It is a very nicely handled system that allows you to use some forethought in entering a new location and end up with a significant combat advantage. When you first enter, the enemies wander around, so if you make contact while not in their field of view then you ambush them. You will know that you have been spotted when an exclamation point pops up over their head. At this point they will chase after you, and you can choose to run away or enter combat with them. If you are in each other’s field of view then you enter on equal footing, but if they are not in your field of view (because you are running away) then they ambush you. Of course, you can always try to escape the area and try again … but since enemies move a bit faster than you this can be a challenge! An ambush can cause loads of damage and mean the difference between life and death in combat.

Once in combat you get into the real heart of the game. Crimson Gem Saga uses a fairly traditional but solidly implemented turn-based combat engine. The top of the screen shows an ordered list of characters based on attack order, which is in turn-based on speed and initiative. As your characters turns come up, you have several options – you can attack, use a special skill, use an inventory item, guard against attacks, or attempt to flee.

Winning a battle – which is never a given – rewards you with gold and skill points, and often with potions and special cards you can used to power-up certain things such as adding attack power to weapons or increasing ranks of skills. Skill points are critical as they allow your characters to pick up new skills … which in turn are critical to winning the ever increasingly difficult battles. Crimson Gem Saga is interesting in this way – it is not a game you would characterize as ‘hard’, but every battle – even against low-level opponents – is challenging, as most enemies can hobble you with multiple attacks or status ailments or other things. You will find yourself performing some form of healing during battles even in the first chapter, and often every round later on in the game.

The normal attack is based on the type of character, their primary weapon, and whatever added accessories they are wearing or any potions they have taken to augment their attack. As you gain levels you can get more than one attack per round, and can also gain bonus attacks for multiple critical hits per round, making your strength-based characters killing machines. Guard mode does what it implies – you take a defensive posture and can hold off most damage from incoming attacks at the price of not making any attack yourself. Attempts to flee can succeed or fail, and using items allows you to use anything from your inventory, including healing potions or offensive items like bombs.

Skills are where things get interesting. Each of your characters starts with one or two skills depending on their focus, which costs a certain amount of mana to use. For most characters the mana cost is high enough that you have to be careful about the use of skills as the drain is significant and you will struggle to have your skills ready for all battles. Mana, like health, does not regenerate, though it does fully replenish at each level-up – something you will anticipate eagerly! Because it gets expensive constantly buying new items and weapons and armor all the time, and you need every advantage to beat all of the enemies you will encounter.

Another key to success is choosing your allies well – you will meet up with more than the four characters you can bring into battle, so it is important to keep everyone armed and ready and make sure to know their strengths and weaknesses so that you can reconfigure for each new dungeon. Also, since only characters left standing at the end of battle gain experience, it is critical to use everyone and keep them alive.

As I mention in the Pros & Cons, I felt that the combat started to get somewhat repetitive and the story a bit stale after I got deeper into Chapter Two. But please don’t mistake that for me saying they are bad – it is always a challenge to keep the excitement and novelty level going in a game that lasts a few dozen hours. Crimson Gem Saga is a solid game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet has sound underpinnings in every area: it looks and sounds great, has a load of options for skills and weapons to customize your characters, and has a fun story and engaging combat system that will keep this one close to my PSP for quite a while.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Engaging story early on
+ Doesn’t take itself too seriously
+ Nice skill progression
+ Challenging combat
+ Lots of hidden goodies

Cons:
– After a point, the story gets a bit stale
– Combat gets repetitive during long stretches

Game Info:
Platform: PSP
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Matrix Software
Release Date: 5/26/09
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!