Nintendo’s former president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, once famously claimed the following about RPGs and the players drawn to them, “People who play RPGs are depressed gamers who like to sit alone in their dark rooms and play slow games,” They’re also, he said, quite “silly and boring.”
This coming from a man who prided himself on never actually playing a videogame, yet here I write this, agreeing with him entirely. For I have sadly become that depressed gamer, sitting alone in my darkened room, playing the silly, slow and boring Crimson Gem Saga. Crimson Gem Saga is an RPG which vindicates Yamauchi’s hatred and that I am pathetic, and Yamauchi’s insight into game culture seems far more credible than most forum posters plaguing the internet.
Crimson Gem Saga commits all the crimes of the RPG genre. Billed as a sequel to the equally tedious Astonishia Story rather than try to build on the narrative of its predecessor, Crimson Gem Saga adopts all of the clichés of RPG storytelling. A typical young, brutish, yet highly intelligent man (who is looking for direction in life) meets a busty, feisty, manipulative, maybe too naked woman meets a sarcastic, whiny, obnoxious magician meets a grumpy, doting, womanizing old man. All of these characters just happen to conveniently bump into each other and decide to go on a treasure hunt for the mysterious sounding Wicked Stones. Cue: politics, moral issues, love, hatred, conspiracy, mystical jazz, and some annoying anime voice overs.
The only saving grace of the game is the odd but legitimately humorous line from the protagonist. These occasionally self-referential lines here raise the odd chuckle, but truthfully, it’s mediocrity like this which only deepens the perception that many have of anime and videogames (that they are often immature, stupid, perverse, and derivative). But it isn’t just the plotting that adds further demonstrates Yamauchi’s claims.
Exploring the over world should be a straightforward affair, but it’s not. Though there is a map, calling it up obscures the entire screen. There is no radar, so you have to plough on to your next destination with an obtrusive, white translucent map hampering your view. Considering that the game is fairly open and its locales are grand in scope, the feeling of being overwhelmed by space emerges far too early on. Upon entering the dungeons, the map disappears entirely, which is too bad because each room looks exactly like the one before and is further complicated by multiple paths, many of which lead to dead ends. Soon you’ll find yourself going around in circles, getting disorientated as you solve the simple switch puzzles necessary to progress. However, most of these switches are spread throughout the dungeon, meaning that you have no choice but to explore every nook and cranny. Not only is it time consuming, confusing, and unnecessary, it’s also just plain dull.
Furthering difficulty in navigation is that each area, be it the over world map or the dungeons, is divided into sections that require loading screens. There are a lot of sections, and, yes, a lot of loading screens. And I mean a lot. The PSP is a powerful machine; is a seamless game world too much to ask for in 2009?
Once you’ve left a section and re-entered it, that section resets itself so that all the monsters that you had just battered down re-appear. Mercifully, encounters aren’t random, and you can see the enemies beforehand. The downside, though, is that avoiding them isn’t so forgiving. As soon as the bastards get a whiff of you, they chase you relentlessly. Considering how high the encounter rate is, the battles may as well be random.
One of the games biggest selling points is the ambush system, which basically boils down to getting the jump on the monsters on the over world map. In doing so, they will suffer a pre-emptive strike from your entire team while the reverse happens if the enemy manages to jump you. Again, this is 2009, the ambush idea has been around for a few years, most notably in Atlus’ other more worthy RPG series, Persona.
So clearly, fighting is the main emphasis here. But to call it unspectacular would be the understatement of the millennium. The game uses simple turn-based mechanic with the option to use items and generate standard attacks as well as magical ones (the usual affair: fire, ice, lighting, poison etc.). The complexity comes in the individual character customisation. By earning SP in battle you can then use these points to upgrade your mob and teach them new skills in a manner similar to the licence board seen Final Fantasy XII.
The problem here though is that the game isn’t that generous with the SP it dishes out. To elongate the game further, you have to spend a fair amount of SP on first revealing the skill and then acquiring it. So if you just spent loads of SP to reveal a skill you didn’t want, well tough shit. Also get used to the idea of using the same skills over and over again, as the game progresses unlocking newer abilities becomes a rarer and rarer occurrence. There is also the option via cards and medallions to upgrade character, spell, and weapon stats, but when changing weapons, you’ll lose all added attributes, which seems like a pointless waste of an interesting idea. A weapon fusion option could have been implemented. At least that way, I would have been bothered to use those bloody cards.
The most frustrating element of the game, though, is the ridiculous amount of levelling up required; even by RPG standards, this is a lot of grinding. It’s not just SP points that the developers have been stingy with, experience points are held back as is money. The weapons that you use are more important than your actual stats, so to dish out heavy damage having the right tools is key. To get these new weapons, armor, or just items in general you’ll need a lot of the gold stuff. This means, yes, more grinding.
The sad thing is there are a few bits that CGS does right. The ability to save anywhere, anytime, the appropriate length of the cutscenes, the generous amount of items dealt after each battle, and, last but not least, the gorgeous graphics and art direction. The seeds of a modern RPG have been planted here, but the problem is that they sprouted weeds. All the shortcomings that one would expect are present but seem to be exaggerated as if IronNos wanted to parody the genre.