Crimson Shroud

You sit at your desk, mouse in hand, browsing the internet. Unnatural light spills out from the screen and illuminates your glorious locks (unless you have f.lux, in which case the light is probably warmer in tone). You see a link to a review for Crimson Shroud, a 3DS downloadable RPG that came out at the tail end of 2012. Hardly timely, you scoff, but you’re a little curious as to why the writer thought that a meta-narrative in the style of the game’s inspirations would be a good way to start the review. You hold 1d6, noting to yourself that a) you didn’t have any dice a moment ago, and that b) dice rolls are a core element of tabletop RPGs. You don’t know why you noted that second bit, as you haven’t read the review yet.

Roll a 4 or higher to read the review. Roll a 3 or lower to dismiss the review as hopelessly pretentious for using this concept to begin with.

They see me rolling

You enter the review. A man stands facing you. You exchange no words, but you know that this is the writer. Or rather, this is the mouthpiece for the writer. An author insertion. A construct created by the yearnings of the writer’s psyche. This means he shares some passing resemblance (if you encountered the writer and his author insertion about town, you’d think they were… I dunno, maybe cousins?) but is generally thinner and fitter than the writer actually is, with better posture and more friends. He is also disturbingly well endowed. Unbidden, the man starts to talk.

While all videogame RPGs have essentially grown out of Dungeons and Dragons, Crimson Shroud presents a more direct transcription of that ancestral inspiration than its peers. Dice rolls accompany many of the actions you’ll undertake. Every character is represented by a static die-cast statuette and every environment is a half-constructed diorama, more like a theatrical set than an actual location. The sound is deliciously physical, the clangs and trills of combat contrasting with the sheafing of paper and clicking whirring gears accompanying your movement through the menus. The game’s art design as a whole speaks of dog-eared journals and handwritten notes.

The story is one of flashbacks, your small team of adventurers entering a ruined palace in search of information on the titular Crimson Shroud, the first of many gifts in the world supposedly handed down by the gods that bestow magical abilities to the bearer. Gameplay presents you with a map on the bottom screen which you can use to select the area you want to move to. Arriving in a new location triggers “dungeon master” style descriptions along with plot points, world building, and character dialogue as appropriate.

The man scuttles towards you, pulling a smartphone from his pocket. He shows you a picture to illustrate; it appears to be a photo taken of a screen. You assume the device pictured has no adequate or unified method to capture pictures directly from its own screens (and you’d be correct), hence why you’re being subjected to such poor photography.

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Mmm, that writing

It’s worth taking time at this point to make something very clear; there’s a lot of writing to get through in this game. Down to the most insignificant item, everything is detailed. It’s all of a very high standard (barring a few scuffs here and there, which seem to originate in the translation from Japanese to English) and an RPG having a lot of text is hardly anything surprising, but it needs to be highlighted in Crimson Shroud. As I said, environments are like theatrical sets. In a similar theatrical fashion, the game wants you to use your imagination to bring life to the still scenarios, and the writing provides you with the tools you need; vibrant descriptions and vivid histories, lively dialogue, myriad motivations.

There’s so much here to sink your teeth into. While the main storyline includes a huge amount of lore for the world, there’s also a lot of optional material; dialogue that fills in the backstories of the characters, extra descriptions for revisiting rooms. Not to mention that every item has a description of its own, some of them astoundingly lengthy. Every word is worth digging out, as they form more supports to the rich and absorbing latticework of the sumptuously deep universe that Crimson Shroud creates. That the game does this over a relatively short timespan (for the RPG genre) is even more impressive.

My first playthrough ran nine hours, with most of the optional text read. A chunk of that time was spent backtracking through the second area of the game. It’s the only time I was uncertain of how to progress, due to a lack of signposting.

Daphne!

See that Obsidian Daphne? That’s a key item, required to move the game along. It’s a random drop from an unimportant battle. Aside from the irritating necessity of having to grind in order to obtain a critical item, the game offers no indication that this is how to advance the story.

Without that particular buggering about though, you’re probably looking at closer to seven or eight hours. While the game does encourage a new game plus run (with the temptation of a different ending), that looks to be even briefer as much of the text is unchanged. This brevity is more disappointing than anything else, leaving me wanting longer to spend exploring the game’s world.

While the atmosphere of Crimson Shroud is superb, there are a few flaws that appear in the gameplay. Comparing the pros and cons of two different pieces of equipment involves too much faff, especially given how important this process is. In fact, the various menus you’ll use most, to select examine and equip your items and gear, are clunkier to navigate than they should be. The art style of the game is lovely, but in technical terms it’s not super. Character models sit somewhere around the Dreamcast and PS2 level in their quality, disappointing given that they’re never required to animate.

Speaking of, the only animation in the game engine is of burning torches and little hops the statuettes of characters give in battle while attacking and being hit. Despite this, the game still exhibits bouts of slowdown, particularly when magic is used (the effect of which is simply flashing a translucent colour over the screen). And as the game eschews the idea of levelling up your characters, instead binding abilities and magic to whatever the character has equipped, it means that general encounters such as these are somewhat pointless.

To battle!

The battle system itself is fun with a good depth and tactical possibility. It’s here you’ll see most of the dice rolling. Most actions you can make don’t require it, but you can roll to beef up damage dealt or improve hit chances. Your collection of die can be restocked by pulling off combos with elementally themed moves.

Looking back, I can forgive these little niggles. Crimson Shroud is a well crafted game, if not necessarily as well polished as it could be. Its direct rendition of tabletop RPG tropes lend it a distinct identity, while the excellent writing and pleasantly deep systems at play in combat ensure that the game stands up beyond that initial eye-catching design. This isn’t the lengthy experience you might expect from this genre, but immersing yourself in its wonderfully drawn world is a delight entirely worthy of your time.

The man finishes his lengthy speech and stands silently in front of you, eyes locked unblinkingly on yours. You are slightly creeped out. You cast a glance around the rest of the site; two film reviews, one of a Liam Neeson vehicle. Noting to yourself the disparity between game and film discussion, you mentally file the site away as another one of those blogs and exit the review by closing the tab.

The author insertion blinks a few times in rapid succession, before looking around himself questioningly. Finding no-one to tell his tale to, he cricks his neck and leaves the review to go and get wrecked with Jordan Belfort over in the Wolf of Wall Street piece.

Non-Stop, briefly

Non-Stop is better than it appears to be. Nowhere near as good as that other film starring Liam Neeson that is way better than you’d expect, but put it this way; I entered the theatre braced for diverting brain rot and nothing more. I left pleasantly surprised.

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Non-Stop is for around 60-or-70% of its run time a very enjoyable thriller. Liam Neeson is an air marshall who starts receiving anonymous texts on his supposedly encrypted phone (that incidentally looks like a Chinese knock off of an iPhone crossed with one of those early Android phones with slide out keyboards) threatening to kill passengers on board the flight if he doesn’t arrange the wiring of $150 million dollars to an account, an account that happens to bear Neeson’s name. Cue lots of rushing around, muttered conversations, and ever escalating paranoia as our grumbling Irishman tries to figure out what the hell is going on, while everything he does only indicts him further in the eyes of the plane’s passengers and the world at large.

The film expertly wrings a huge amount of tension out of this. From its opening scene, Non-Stop establishes something isn’t right. There’s a queasiness that runs through the film, with the enclosed nature of the plane and the frantic yet powerless Neeson digging a pit of unease in your stomach. The film takes pleasure in constantly wrong-footing you on who the anonymous threat could be, and how they’ll enact their plans. Only in the second half does the film really pull the trigger on more typical action. Up until that point it’s a relatively low-key affair of quietly tense discussions and accusations, and the few action scenes present are, like violence in real life, all the more unsettling because of their unexpected explosiveness.

Sadly, the tightly-coiled spring the film had been winding snaps as the threat is revealed, leading into generic bad guy speechifying and big but rote set-piece confrontations, the plot nosediving into deus ex machina convenience. After the promise the film had shown, this is unsatisfying to say the least.

The damp squib of the ending is emblematic of a bigger problem – it’s not very well written. Dialogue is a big sticking point, swimming in stock character cliches and heavily expositional. There’s a particular speech that Neeson gives where he basically reads out his character’s spec sheet, and from then on it’s completely impossible to ignore the hackneyed tropes at play in every layer of the film.

There’s something good here, semi-realised. The direction is solid if perhaps uninspiring, the acting of a good standard (Neeson’s impotence here is a welcome spin on a character type he’s played many times before, the supporting cast do a nice job portraying real people despite their underwritten roles). And of course there’s that delicious tension. With a limp second half and universally poor dialogue though, Non-Stop is merely decent.

The Wolf of Wall Street, briefly

The Wolf of Wall Street is a long film about self-centered people getting fucked up, fucked over, or just plain fucked.

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It’s a film all about the glory of excess, the kind of consequence-free decadence that a big bank balance can bring. We follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s likeably dislikeable stock trader Jordan Belfort as he rises from the ashes of the 1987 stock market crash, working his way back to the high life of neon extravagance and insincerity.

Adapted from the memoir of the real life Jordan Belfort, apparently without too much embellishment, the main feeling I left the film with was “that would’ve worked better as a miniseries”. It covers a solid ten year or so period. In pulling events from Belfort’s life to construct a tighter narrative arc of the rise and fall, it ends up feeling somewhat disjointed.

Not that any of the film is actually bad. This is well written, stylish, frequently very funny stuff, and the huge cast (full of “oh it’s him/her!” faces) is incredibly game. DiCaprio as Belfort is superb fun – a riches-stunted adolescent who preens and pouts his way across the screen, devouring scenery like a foppish black hole, with just enough realism sprinkled through the performance that his smaller realer moments in the fall part of the story don’t feel unearned or even unexpected.

Generally as big and bold as its subject matter, direction is also strong, my favourite touch being the use of music; 80s tunes designating success, 90s songs hinting at change.

Again though, I can’t help but feel the tale would have been better told over a six hour, six part miniseries. The film does have a kinetic hyperactivity that would certainly have been lost stretching the story out, but it would have benefited from more time to develop some characters and scenes (in particular, the collapse of Belfort’s second marriage feels like a largely untapped seam). The film sits a shade under three hours, jam-packed as it is with myriad characters and stories all coming and going. If you catch it at the cinema, get a big bag of popcorn; this is a bum-numbing undertaking.

The Wolf of Wall Street is garish, aggressively sexual, hugely hedonistic, pretty funny, and certainly worth a watch. Whether you’ll want to return for a second viewing is another matter entirely.