Home | News | Reviews | Previews | Hardware
Crimson Gem Saga
Score: 85%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: IronNos
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Crimson Gem Saga is the second game in two weeks to show that there's still a lot of life left in 2D, sprite-based visuals. While it doesn't hit all of the same high points as Super Robot Taisen (also an Atlus release), Crimson Gem Saga looks great. There's nothing worse than a pretty RPG world where you spend just as much time fumbling around trying to find an exit as you do questing and fighting. Backgrounds have a hand-painted, watercolor look that is both easy on the eyes and easy to navigate.

Keeping with the game's old-school RPG bend, characters have their own distinct look and traits. While by no means small, the details make it easy to quickly glance at a group of enemies and know what you're up against. For the most part, animation is flawless. Actions flow smoothly between actions and feature a few smaller details (including some bounce... just sayin'). The only disappointment is the lack of flashy attacks. Some attacks just sort of happen and lack impact. When a guy performs a powerful move with a giant hammer, I want it to feel like he's swinging a giant hammer, not hammering a nail into drywall.

The lack of impact carries over into the soundtrack. Every track in the game fits its particular situation, but some come off weak. In particular, the battle music has an appropriate feel, but I kept waiting for the tempo to pick up to match the battles. Voicework is a plus. Crimson Gem Saga isn't fully voiced, but in the key scenes where characters pipe up, voices match their respective characters.

Crimson Gem Saga aims to provide an "old school RPG experience," but also takes the time to add a few "new school" twists. The story follows Killain, a newly minted Chevalier (sort of knight) from Green Hill Academy. Like his fellow graduates, Killian wants to join one of the numerous militias in his world, but for Killian, only the best will do. Killain's dreams of grandeur are dashed when he graduates second in his class. The honor is still enough for Killain to join a top-rate militia, but in his mind, he's still first loser. While on his way to report to his new post, Killian meets a thief named Spinel and the two eventually become entangled in a mission to collect the Wicked Stones.

Gameplay follows the traditional RPG mold; receive a quest, venture into a dungeon, level up and fight some sort of boss. The system may feel a bit dated to some players, but it does its job admirably. There's a lot of room for exploration and the number of monsters roaming the overworld map ensures there is never a slow moment.

One of the numerous twists Crimson Gem Saga tosses into the mix is the Ambush system. There are no random encounters; you can see every enemy on the screen. If you're sneaky enough, you can circle around an enemy and catch them from behind, giving you an advantage in battle. Enemies can also capitalize on this advantage. If an enemy sees you, an exclamation point appears over its head. At this point, its best to charge the enemy headlong or put some sort of barrier between you both, otherwise the enemy will get the advantage. A free hit to each of your party members is nothing to take lightly. Enemies can deal a lot of damage and there were times where the extra hit was just enough to eject me to the "Game Over" screen.

For added bonus, items won in battle can enhance your weapons. This won't give you a massive edge over enemies, but offers enough added firepower to make it worth your time. While the system seems pointless considering the availability of stronger weapons at every shop you visit, they are also incredibly expensive (until you hit the jackpot).

While you can get the drop on enemies, they still get a bit of an advantage in battle. Enemies appear as blue goblins on the overworld screen and there's no way to tell exactly how many or what type of enemies you'll find yourself up against once battle starts. I like the element of surprise, but I'm always leery when games pull maneuvers like this. It always felt like the opposing party was perfectly set up to match, or outmatch, my party's current state. I won't call Crimson Gem Saga cheap, but battles are tough.

That said, expect to do a bit of level grinding around towns if you want to get far. Enemies are able to pile on the damage, so you want enough hit points to take the hits and the ability to deal a little more damage in return. Special skills and magic provide something of an equalizer, but also drain mana points earned through leveling. Grinding isn't as painful as other RPGs, but it is still a part of the game. As long as you keep track of what you can and can't handle, and make use of the Ambush system, Crimson Gem Saga is a tough but doable challenge.

Game Mechanics:
Battles are turn-based and menu-driven, but like everything else, come with a twist of modernization. During their turn, characters can perform a normal attack, use special attacks, guard or attempt to flee. Choosing to attack deals a little damage, but if you manage to score a critical hit, you'll earn the opportunity to punctuate it with an additional critical hit by timing your button-press with an on-screen "X".

Again, if you're hoping to do any significant damage to enemies, you'll have to use special skills. These, of course, drain lots of mana but are incredibly useful for getting you through your first few levels. You can also purchase mana-restoring items in towns. Early on, you have to really manage your finances, but like any RPG, you'll eventually get to the point where you have enough money to buy and sell entire stores.

Characters can team-up for attacks provided their turns are back-to-back, though like every other skill, you'll need to purchase them before you can use them. Crimson Gem Saga uses a skill unlock system similar to Diablo, but everything is hidden behind question marks. To reveal skills, you first need to dump Skill Points (SP, which are earned in battle alongside experience) into the locked skill block. The advantage to the system is that you can skip around the skill tree and only purchase certain skills, but when everyone in your party shares the same meager pool of SP, it is a hassle and a waste. I can see where the developers were trying to go with the system -- as you progress through the game, the hassle and frustration ease. But it also places unnecessary strain on what is already a tough opening act. The system would have had just as much impact if characters had their own SP pool rather than having to share.

Difficulty is the only major issue facing Crimson Gem Saga, and it is a somewhat subjective one at that. One player's challenge could be another's cakewalk. The one thing for certain is that Crimson Gem Saga is a strong entry into the PSP's line-up of RPGs. Players with more "modern tastes" may find it's old school sensibilities ancient for their tastes, but anyone in the market for a simple, fun RPG like you used to play on your SNES will want to pick up Crimson Gem Saga.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

This site best viewed in Internet Explorer 6 or higher or Firefox.