Let’s go back to the glorious days of 16-bit gaming when 3D hadn’t really become the norm and Final Fantasy VII hadn’t changed the face of the RPG landscape. We had really great RPG’s like Final Fantasy 3 (FFVI for you purists), Chrono Trigger, and Lunar just to name a few. All of them featured top down world exploration and 2D fighting engines. It was a wonderful era for RPG gaming.
Atlus is attempting to recapture that magic on the PSP with the release of Crimson Gem Saga. The PSP is a system that has several traditional Japanese RPGs but none of them have really been that good or left any sort of impression. So can Crimson Gem Saga fill that void and give the PSP its first original Japanese RPG that is actually worth playing?
The first thing gamers will notice about Crimson Gem Saga is that the graphics are truly impressive for a hand held system. Sticking with the game’s 16-bit inspiration, the over world and towns are all explored in a semi-top down view with no 3D effects to speak of. The fights are all carried out on a 2D plane with the bad guys on one side and the good guys on the other. What sets Crimson Gem Saga apart is that the entire world is hand drawn and animated, giving it a very vibrant look. The environments themselves are all highly detailed; you will notice birds and butterflies flitting around, frogs jumping into ponds, and bugs swarming. The buildings and landscapes all look impressive as well.
The characters are also all very detailed and players will have no trouble telling the various characters apart. Perhaps what’s most impressive about the characters and the entire game engine is the animation. In battle your team will all move around and attack fluidly. Even the details on their costumes are animated. What’s even more impressive is that the developers found some way to realistically animate the cleavage of one of the 2D characters while she moves around in battle. I don’t know who worked on this aspect of the game but they deserve some sort of medal.
The biggest compliment I can give this game’s visuals is that while I was playing Crimson Gem Saga I was also playing Cross Edge on the PS3, and I can honestly say that Crimson Gem Saga on the PSP looks superior in every way when compared to Cross Edge on the PS3. This is really telling considering that both games use the same overall 2D viewing layout.
The story in Crimson Gem Saga doesn’t consist of your typical farm boy discovering an overpowering evil and then going on a journey to destroy it, but it’s not exactly ground breaking either. The game starts out with the main character graduating from a military academy (while hung over) and being hand-delivered his first job. Before long all of his co-workers are killed on his very first assignment and from there we are taken on an adventure that deals in large part with the evils of a corrupt religious organization. Kind of like Scientology, but without the couch jumping and evil aliens. To be honest, the story line in Crimson Gem Saga leaves a lot to be desired. The true villains aren’t really revealed until late in the game and most of the time we are left scratching our heads as to where the story is going. Still, the storyline is not complete drubish and is servicable.
Crimson Gem Saga’s gameplay does deliver though, especially for fans of classic 16-bit RPGs. In an attempt to modernize the old formula, there are no random battles, instead the enemies are all visible on the overhead map and can be avoided if you so choose. Once in battle it is a classic turn based affair. Players can choose whether they want to attack, use a skill or magic, use an item, defend or flee. The battle party is made up of four characters of your choosing, but you never have a large overall party, so it’s not hard to choose which ones to use.
Adding an update to the old formula is the ability to pull off chain attacks. These can be done when a character achieves a critical hit. For a brief second afterwards the player can hit the x button which will activate another attack. It’s possible to get two critical hits in a row and if the player is successful in hitting the x button on time they will pull off massive damage to the enemy. In addition, characters have the ability to unlock combination attacks with other characters. These attacks or spells tend to be very powerful and add to the strategy of which characters to use in battle.
In the past Atlus has been accused of bringing very difficult RPGs over to the North American market. I would say that Crimson Gem Saga is no exception to that label, but at the same time it’s not overwhelmingly hard either. I found that as long as I didn’t avoid monsters and fought my way through dungeons I was normally able to take down the bosses with no problem. The game can be merciless at times and your party can be wiped out with little warning of what’s to come. However, the game can be saved anywhere as long as you are not in battle. Constant saves are a must in this game if you don’t want to lose a lot of progress.
One of the biggest disappointments I have with the game is that new levels don’t unlock new powers. Instead, your entire team has one pool of skill points that need to be divvied up between the entire party. What’s worse is that skills are unlocked per each character with a branching path system, but in order to see what power will be unlocked next on any given branch you have to spend a bunch of skill points, then you have to spend additional skill points to make the power available. So what can happen is you spend 100 skill points just to see what the power is, only to find out that it is a power that you don’t want. The end result is a wasted 100 skill points. This is a minor complaint though since a simple reload can replace any wasted skill points. That doesn’t stop it from being a poorly designed upgrade system though.
The sound in Crimson Gem Saga is another impressive aspect of this game. Each character is voiced by a competent voice actor whose voice fits the overall design of their character. Throughout the battles they will yell various catch phrases, some of which are amusing and none of which seem to get old. Key storyline scenes are also carried out with fully voiced lines. Adding to the already impressive environmental graphics are environmental sounds like birds chirping and frogs croaking. All together the sound in Crimson Gem Saga received a lot of time and care and it’s obvious that Atlus didn’t do a rushed port job in this department.
Crimson Gem Saga offers up a fairly lengthy and very enjoyable traditional RPG on a system that is starved for real quality games in this genre. If you are a fan of the classic 16-bit era of RPGs then you should definitely buy Crimson Gem Saga. Players will find a beautiful game with solid gameplay that’s challenging but not controller throwing levels of difficult. I definitely recommend this one. One word of warning though, the game is hard to find so I wouldn’t wait too long to pick this one up.