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Crimson Gem Saga: Back to Basics
Company: Atlus

Crimson Gem Saga is billed as a "return to essential RPG fun," and, based on the preview copy, that's exactly what it delivers. Rather than focus on deep, world-view changing stories, ultra-complex combat systems and other "unique" trappings found in current RPGs, Crimson Gem Saga takes the genre back to basics. Don't confuse "basics" with a lack of depth or difficulty, because Crimson Gem Saga delivers that too.

The plot focuses on Killian, a recent graduate of the Green Hills Academy. While most graduates would do anything to graduate second in their class, Killian considers the feat a failure. Despite his disappointment, Killian is able to parlay the honor into a position with Excelsior Force, a renowned peace-keeping force. While on his way to the Force's headquarters, Killain "rescues" Spinel, a young elf who rewards Killain's help by stealing his coin purse. Little do the two know that their chance encounter would lead them into a much larger quest.

The mention of "old school RPG" was enough to send my mind into a panic of the prospect of random encounters. Thankfully, Crimson Gem Saga leaves that relic of RPG-past where it belongs, opting for a more elegant and player-friendly encounter system. Enemies patrol the field and are always visible. Running into an enemy jumps your group into an encounter. A common enemy is used on the map, leaving some surprise as to type and number of your enemies.

The scheme allows for three different battle starts. Approaching an enemy before they see you (indicated by a red exclamation point) giving you the upper hand, a free attack. The exact opposite happens if the enemy is able to catch you from behind. Getting the jump on enemies is mostly about pattern recognition, though once an enemy catches sight of you, it is hard to shake them off. It's usually a better idea to face an enemy head-on once they begin their charge, otherwise you'll probably find yourself in a tough spot.

Combat uses the familiar turn-based, menu-driven system found in most RPGs. While not necessarily a "throwback" idea, the system is fluid and, best of all, fast. A bar at the top of the screen indicates attack turns. Similar to the encounter system, enemies share a common image on the time bar, adding another layer of surprise to encounters. Battle order also matters when it comes to team-up attacks with your party. If two members of your party have similarly-leveled special attacks and consecutive turns, they can use combination attacks.

A side effect of the "basic" approach is that Crimson Gem Saga has a cruel way of lulling you into believing that the game isn't that hard. Your first few encounters are a bit of a pushover, but then you delve into the meat of the quest and find a completely different game. It isn't impossible, but failure to master the game's subtle strategic elements will lead to a long, hard quest.

The combat system is only one part of the equation. Crimson Gem Saga handles skill development a little differently than other games. Battles earn SP, which is then spent on a branching skill system. All characters share the same pool of points and skills aren't cheap, so you have to carefully pick and choose what type of role you want each of your party members to play. The system has its flaws (you have to pay to unlock a skill before purchasing it, which costs additional points), but finds balance with the gameplay.

It may sound scary, but for all its complexities, Crimson Gem Saga is still easy to pick up and play. Crimson Gem Saga launches later this month.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker
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