Platform: 3DS (eShop: £7.19)
Developer: Yasumi Matsuno
Level-5's trio of collaborative eShop titles has drawn to a close. We've enjoyed 3D mech shooting courtesy of Suda51, an airport baggage-handling simulator from the creator of Seaman and and finally an RPG directed by none other than Yasumi Matsuno. The third and final outing in GUILD-01 is easily the most anticipated, seeing as Matsuno's CV contains such standout gems as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, while the 3DS is still in desperate need of quality roleplaying titles.
However, you'll only need a few minutes with Crimson Shroud to realise that Matsuno hasn't drawn upon his past glories for his major inspiration. Instead, this inexpensive download is a love letter to pen & paper tabletop RPGs; to dice, character sheets, miniatures and dungeon masters. As such it's an odd, occasionally clunky and thoroughly unique little proposition that will delight some and leave others cold.
More to the point, its ambition to be both a videogame and a tabletop roleplaying experience ends up presenting players with the best and worst of both worlds.
Crimson Shroud hits players with its pretensions right from the beginning, as you read through a text-heavy introduction that might as well have been ripped straight from the first page of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module (if you're terrified by that term, you might be better off with the much more palatable Denpa Men: They Came By Wave). Your three fantasy heroes are represented by board game miniatures, thrown into an isometric grid-based world of labyrinthine dungeons to explore for equippable loot, keys and switches to progress. In a jarring departure from JRPG convention, you're also addressed directly by the game itself, making you feel like you're sat opposite an inscrutable dungeon master.
Matsuno's pedigree when it comes to designing deep combat systems hasn't been wasted here, and is thoroughly leveraged to create a selection of involving battles. Using your three heroes to advantage - a familiar trio of warrior, archer and spellslinger - takes real skill, both when it comes to positioning and deciding on which buffs to use before pressing the attack. Battles can take upwards of twenty minutes to complete, and you'll come away from each engagement feeling pleasingly taxed.
Dice dictate everything in Crimson Shroud, from combat initiative to regaining MP between turns, and are actively displayed in the 3DS' lower screen. The fact that you can add dice to any ability or attack to increase its damage and accuracy adds a nifty element of chance to the proceedings, not to mention nail-biting tension when health and MP runs low. Using the circle pad or stylus to shake and throw the die is always great fun, and your heart will frequently get stuck in your throat as critical attacks hinge on the results of a roll. It's also a blast to watch the inanimate miniatures fall over or wobble depending on your attacks (and gawp at some of the larger figures!), especially if you've any experience with Dungeons & Dragons or its ilk.
Basically, if you're a fan of getting together with a few friends, some D20s and character sheets, you'll be in for a treat.
Unfortunately, Crimson Shroud runs into a few divisive issues with presentation and pacing. Backtracking can lead to some highly repetitious encounters against exactly the same enemy formations, with the feeling of over-familiarity exacerbated by the bare-bones storytelling, lack of character levelling and lengthy battles. The relatively primitive presentation might fail to resonate with some players, as might Matsuno's determination to make the raw mechanics the star of the show rather than hiding them behind the scenes.
Having extensive experience with tabletop roleplaying and dungeon mastering (if that's indeed the correct term) in my youth, I'm also disappointed to report that Crimson Shroud commits what I'd consider to be a cardinal DM sin: casting players loose with absolutely no direction whatsoever. At several points throughout the campaign, you'll simply have no idea how to progress the storyline and end up wasting an hour or two backtracking in an attempt to work out what you're supposed to be doing. In traditional tabletop roleplaying sessions, several players can bounce ideas off of each other or the DM can opt to drop in a story hook on the fly, but here most players will be forced to resort to forums and FAQs for the answer. In fairness, classic RPGs like the original Final Fantasy had plenty of these moments that required us to spend our lunch hour looking for the one person in the playground who knew how to complete a certain section, but this feels archaic and poorly paced in 2012.
Though I found Crimson Shroud to be a refreshingly honest and authentic experience, I personally feel that Matsuno didn't quite see his inspiration through to its logical conclusion. The joy of tabletop RPGs is interacting with other players, but Crimson Shroud can feel like a lonely affair. The lack of voice acting is odd considering that the DM would usually read out story details and descriptions, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure why Matsuno didn't use the singleplayer-focused Fighting Fantasy 'choose your own adventure' books as a foundation for a solo RPG.
Going forward, I'd posit that the Wii U would be an exciting new platform for role-playing sessions, perhaps arming the DM with campaign creation tools on the Gamepad peripheral while other players can access character sheets on linked 3DS consoles, as the exploration and combat plays out on the television. Get on this, Wizards Of The Coast.
The exceptionally strong combat system, cohesive art design and manage to mitigate most of these problems, but only if you're already a fan of tabletop roleplaying or fancy something a bit different to play. Be aware that Crimson Shroud will be an utter delight for many players... but for others, it's only going to tide us over until the next Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance hits the system. I daresay that you already know where you stand.
- Deep and involving combat system
- Neat dice-rolling mechanic adds compelling risk vs reward elements
- Cohesive tabletop RPG presentation makes it totally unique
- Some pacing, backtracking and repetition issues
- Obnoxiously directionless in parts
- Bare-bones presentation and storyline delivery might alienate some players
The Short Version: Crimson Shroud largely succeeds in its quest to bring traditional tabletop RPG combat to the 3DS, and will delight fans of pen & paper roleplaying despite a few issues with pacing and presentation.