Crimson Gem Saga (PSP) review
"Crimson Gem Saga is a game that has all the traditional elements, but is self-aware to make fun of them."
Lately, a number of RPGs have come out that use twists (or sometimes outright contortions) on the traditional formulae to set themselves apart. I've enjoyed a number of these games, but sometimes, it's nice to go back to the roots of the genre, and remember how the traditions got started. Crimson Gem Saga is enjoyably reminiscent of the things I enjoy in traditional RPGs, while lacking a number of the more irritating features of older games like endless level-grinding.
Crimson Gem Saga starts out in a manner instantly recognizable to fans of the genre: the hero, Killian, has overslept, and is late for an event. The game introduces you to the quest feature, which flashes on-screen each time you accept a main quest or side quest, and off you go to graduate from the Green Hills Hero Academy. Killian's personal nemesis is introduced, and the plot moves along by sending you off to apply to an order of warriors in a town to the east. The story remains similarly traditional throughout, without many surprises.
What did surprise me about this game was the cast of characters. Although you have the usual set of job classes--including an elemental mage, a thief, a cleric, some knights, and a monk--the game doesn't stick to the traditional gender roles of an RPG. The mage and the cleric are both men, and the awesomely powerful knight is a woman. It's refreshing to find a game that, despite its traditional style, doesn't automatically adhere to the gender stereotypes of the genre.
One thing I found disappointing about the game was the lack of in-depth backstory to the characters. Most of them have little or no stated motivation for joining the party, and while the byplay between the characters is amusing, I've grown accustomed to newer RPGs taking time and effort to explore character personalities and motivations.
I mentioned above the amusing byplay between the characters. The localization on the game is quite good, with no "Engrish" errors or nonsensical phrases. However, there are a few definite flubs or bugs, which I find very surprising given Atlus's track record and my experience with their other games (both in-house and localized/published.) One in particular that caught my eye is a robe that claims that, when equipped, "skills don't require mana." I was very excited about this and promptly equipped it to my mage so that he could more easily rain flaming death on everything, only to find that I was using just as many magic points as before. There were also a few pieces of dialogue where I think something got a little bit lost in translation. However, the game does maintain the quirky, clever feel of many Atlus localizations.
Gameplay in Crimson Gem Saga is simple and straightforward. When on the map, enemies are visible. You initiate combat by walking up to them. Those who have played the most recent installments of the Persona series, or the first Valkyrie Profile game, will find this familiar. Enemies who notice you approaching get a red exclamation point over their heads to indicate this fact. If you can sneak up on an enemy before he notices you, the party gets a pre-emptive attack that causes a fair bit of damage to all enemies. If you fail to sneak up on the enemy, battle begins as normal.
However, if the enemy notices you and you do not engage by the time the exclamation mark fades, it will begin to chase you. Enemies double or triple their speed when pursuing you, and if they catch you at this point, the enemy gets the battle advantage. This becomes frustrating when you are just trying to cut through a corner of a map. You end up doing a lot of that, because the large number of fetch quests involved in the main story cause you to crisscross the same field six times (fighting along the way) on the way to pick up the latest magical widget.
Combat is the usual turn-based system: characters act in order depending on their agility rating, and can choose from a standard attack, a skill, or a combo skill. Standard attacks and some skills depend on a character's place in the battle formation (which resembles a cross): the character in front does full damage, but also takes full damage from enemy attacks, while the character in the back does significantly less damage but also gets hurt a lot less (this is the ideal place for your mage, who should never be using his weapon anyway.) The two characters in between both give and take an intermediate amount of damage. When using a standard weapon attack, a character may score a critical hit, and these can be chained by pressing the X button at the right moment; an icon flashes on screen to indicate the correct moment. Button-mashing results in either missing the next critical, or having your overall critical rate lowered for a short time, so you do really have to pay attention if you want to score those critical chains.
Skills and combination attacks are both learned in the skill screen. After each battle, the party gains a number of Skill Points that are shared among the party, rather than divided between active party members. You can then go into the skill screen and choose which skills to unlock. Each skill must be "revealed," which costs a certain number of skill points. You can then choose whether to learn the skill, or to move on and reveal the next skill, which I found very useful. Combination skills must be learned by each character involved, and then can only be used in battle when those characters' turns are immediately next to each other. This makes using some combination skills frustrating or impossible without having the speedier character spend an action defending in order to get him lined up with the slower character.
Overall, the difficulty in Crimson Gem Saga is low--normal battles are challenging but certainly manageable, and the enemy drops are both plentiful and useful, usually consisting of healing items so that you can go all-out with skills in even ordinary battles. It was rare for me to become frustrated with the game in battle, but puzzles were another matter altogether. Many dungeon puzzles provided no hints whatsoever as to their resolution, and having to run around, constantly fighting battles, in an effort to find some random combination of switches got very old very quickly. Money is also a problem, particularly toward the end, when equipment costs upward of 300,000 gold apiece and battles yield only 6,000 gold if you are lucky. My other gripe is that loading times could sometimes become annoying, particularly in the battle transitions and moving between maps. None of these challenges are entirely game-breaking (although I did have to resort to FAQs for some of the dungeon puzzles), but they do detract from the overall experience.
Crimson Gem Saga's graphics and music both get the job done, but neither are particularly exceptional one way or the other (though I did notice that the female thief's anatomy received a rather undue amount of attention with regard to bouncing.) The voice acting--consisting both of voiced dialogue during plot sequences, and battle cries--is neither particularly good nor particularly bad, though the battle cries do become quite repetitive over the course of the game.
Crimson Gem Saga is a game that has all the traditional elements, but is self-aware to make fun of them. One example is that, when a dungeon begins to collapse after the defeat of the boss, one of the characters jokes that it must have been a load-bearing boss. It's definitely worthwhile if you like traditional RPGs and don't mind a bit of action mixed in with your turn-based RPG.
Freelance review by Lassarina Aoibhell (July 24, 2009)
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