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.
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.
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.
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.
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.