Crimson Shroud owes its existence to Level 5’s “Guild” initiative; an unusual idea to give three famous game developers and one comedian a modest budget and then let them create whatever they wished for the 3DS in any theme and in any style, the end result a joyously unpredictable collection bundled together as Guild 01, bursting with creativity.
This sharp focus, slight encouragement of professional competitiveness (nobody wants to make the worst game in the set), and clearly finite pool of resources bleeds into every facet of Crimson Shroud, improving the game in all the ways we’re told these limitations shouldn’t. For arguably the first time ever it feels like you’re playing a Matsuno-driven title that isn’t riddled with major plot threads left unfinished (I should note here that unfinished plot threads are a completely different kettle of fish to “not spelling every single thing out to the player”) or that you’re exploring the remains of an innovative idea the development team ran out of time to pursue to its fullest; Crimson Shroud is a title that views its restrictions as a chance to explore new possibilities rather than straining against them in a futile quest to make a “real” game. There is a temptation here to point out how “short” this adventure is as a sort of warning to any prospective customers – it took me a little over six hours to clear on my first attempt (an New Game+ mode is unlocked after the ending’s run its course, complete with its own alternative conclusion as well as a few new extras) – but that is, I feel, to miss the point. Raw length has nothing to do with the “value” or the quality of the entertainment on offer in this or any other game, and as the credits rolled I only felt that the content within had been perfectly judged, enough to tell the story it wanted to tell without rushing anything that deserved dwelling on – there’s still plenty of time for talk of forgotten kings and family ties, for reminiscing about old adventures and revenge a cursed lifetime in the making – Crimson Shroud “simply” used six hours of gameplay to tell six hours of story. More games in all genres would benefit from being just enough of whatever they needed to be rather than spreading their content too thinly until they cover whatever they “should”. Which brings me onto another point: If we want to enjoy the many varied fruits a more adventurous and less focus-tested industry could bring then we have to allow for the existence of (and, where finances allow, buy) games that fall into categories other than “AAA” and “indie”. A good RPG doesn’t need to be sixty-plus hours long and have motion captured cutscenes backed up by a dozen CDs worth of orchestral soundtrack, a good RPG needs to tell an entertaining story, to offer meaningful chances to actually play a role, to engage players with its satisfying battle system, or do whatever else it decides it needs to do to adequately tackle the genre.
A good RPG needs to be an RPG/adventure/board game hybrid like Crimson Shroud.
The real world equivalents of Crimson Shroud’s game design get a lot of play in my house; they’re a sort of halfway house between traditional pen and paper RPGs and board games, just as capable of taking players on multi-scenario campaigns through trap-filled dusty tombs as they are making small teams fight giant fire-breathing dragons or creepy liches, and all without the need for anyone to worry about learning how to convincingly play the part of a halfling mage who burned all their hair off with a critical fail fireball spell roll two months back. They’re full of equipment cards, dice, surprisingly well made figures, and delicious snippets of flavour text – just like Crimson Shroud.
So you don’t get to wander as a specific avatar through deadly polygonal ruins here, you don’t get to clamber over ancient crates or put keys in locks, instead you tap the touch screen to walk to the evocatively-named “Walk In Reverie” or “Cross Of Atonement”, little footsteps on the map tracing your three person party’s path through sodden passageways, corpse dumping grounds, and all sorts of other tainted places long abandoned to the Dark. When you arrive at your destination you’re presented with that area’s little story snippet – maybe Giauque and company swelter in the heat, shout after ghostly laughter, or duck behind a pillar and weigh up their chances of catching a monster unawares. Whatever they do they’ll be represented by stiff figures within a diorama-like environment, always close enough to what’s being described for that bloodstain, that sigil, that door in the corner to mean something, always ephemeral enough to direct your imagination without dictating your reality for you. Battles use this 3D space just as well; you may find character figures placed on a higher ledge, or larger enemies looming over your team as they stand on top of a 2×2 base embossed with the game’s logo. In keeping with the board game-ish theme new abilities and greater durability come more through the loot you find in the dungeon than from hording experience points or spending time mastering skills, battles often won through superior strategy over raw numbers.
And then there’s the dice. More than a simple visual representation of a random number generator, Crimson Shroud treats them as physical objects and at a few points even directly references them as part of the story, your characters occupying a slightly meta space where luck is acknowledged and dice might be found on the floor. You have to roll them yourself around the touch screen (or use the circle pad), whatever they land on deciding how effective a healing item will be or whether a status effect takes hold. It’s even possible to “tilt” dice, throwing them so hard a rogue d10 (or any other die) might break free of the lower screen and end up in your battle dice pool, granting bonus points to attack and accuracy rolls. This “realism”, this weight and presence given to these odd geometric stones, makes every lucky throw a personal success and death-bringing fail feel painful but fair – it’s just the way the dice landed, after all.
It’s very easy to see threads of everything you’d expect from a Matsuno-directed game in here; there’s the small core cast with far more to all of them than may first appear, there’s the beautifully written and translated text weaving a world or myths and legend, there’s the magical artifact that may be elevated as the divine or shunned as the demonic depending on who you ask. This welcome familiarity feels at times as though the cast are chasing the ghosts of Ivalice games past, gone to explore what remains after Ashley, Balthier, or Ramza have picked the place clean and sealed away the demons centuries before, but for all you could say was similar there’s no sense of this being a retread of older games or a “bootleg” version of his own series (in the way Vestaria Saga is of Fire Emblem); the absolute separation between this and past work enhancing not only the tomb-like melancholy pervading the dilapidated architecture but also perhaps an ageing fan’s sense of loss. Just as you know you’ll never be able to see these halls when they were the shining palace of a wise and noble king, you’re also keenly aware that no matter how hard you try you’ll never uncover a precious memento acknowledging your own fading memories of happy adventures long ago either.