reviews\ May 25, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Crimson Gem Saga - PSP - Review

Deep in Dead Man’s Spire, a cave with various twists and turns, with monsters around almost every bend. Ahead you see a wizard embroiled in a fight, and – being a good guy – you lend a hand to the effort. The wizard scoffs and says that he could have handled them himself, but thanks anyway and as your reward, he will join you in the adventure.

Another corner, more monsters and suddenly you realize – you are out of mana with no potions to heal it and no tent to camp and recover. Oh-oh, looks like someone forgot a primary rule for dungeon crawling – go with ample supplies and be prepared for any eventuality.

This is an early bit of exploring in Crimson Gem Saga, a PSP release from Atlus, but it is one of the foundation principles for the game. On its surface, CGS (abbreviated for the sake of quick referencing) looks like your typical Japanese RPG, with cutesy characters and a so-so storyline. You may almost feel, upon first launching the game, that you are playing a title intended for the younger role-playing gamers. Go into it with that mindset and the game will whip you in the blink of an eye. Oh, and should your principle character die, it’s Game Over (hint: save often to avoid losing loot, experience and having to start from the beginning).

Certainly the game is a bit linear and the story and dialogue falters along the way. But given half a chance and you will find a game with a lot of charm, a great deal of challenge and solidly entertaining.

The game centers on Killian, a young chevalier freshly graduated from the Greenhills Academy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He was ranked second in his graduating class, a feat that might be an honor for some, but for Killian it is a major disappointment – almost to the extent that it’s a failure. But the principal of the academy from which Killian is graduating sees great potential in the lad and recommends him for the renowned Excelsior Force, which is headquartered a fair distance from the town the academy resides in. En route to present his letter of recommendation, Killian helps ‘rescue’ (it’s not really clear she really needs that much help, but she plays the role – at least initially) Spinel, a comely, elven-eared maiden. They exchange a few pleasantries, Spinel leaves (with Killian’s coin purse; she calls herself a treasure hunter, but she seems more of a rogue class – if you are looking to fit the characters into the traditional RPG niches) and Killian moves on. Soon he is en route north to meet up with the Excelsior Force. No sooner does he arrive outside the Dead Man’s Spire than he learns the Force is entering the dungeon in search of the “Wicked Stone.”

But there is a hiccup in these plans. A mage, accompanied by a vicious beast minion, taunts and then destroys the Excelsior Force. Fortunately, for the story, Killian is the only surviving member, and is found by Spinel. They eventually team up, and Killian agrees to help Spinel find the Wicked Stone.

And that is merely the prologue to the game. After that, you jump into the first chapter and the game really starts to ramp up the difficulty.

Crimson Gem will allow players to form a group of up to four party members. The leveling system is a bit different in that for all the kills, you get SP and you can use the SP in skill trees, but not all skills can be identified immediately. Once you get into the third tier, you have to spend SP to identify the skill, and then fill in the bar of the skill (again with SP) in order to add that skill to your repertoire. And where the combat is concerned, there is your basic mana bar that determines the type of skill you can use (they all cost mana to launch), plus when it’s each character’s turn, you have the option of using an item (healing potion or mana potion), a trained skill or your basic attack. You can also just go into a defensive stance.

In addition to the exploration factor that will have you traveling around the map, you can visit towns where you can sell gear, replenish supplies and health and find your quests. Once you embark on a mission, the world has some load times, but they are not too long.

While the game does track along some of the familiar routes taken by Japanese RPGs, the game is deceptive in that it does sport a strong tactical element.

Crimson Gem is a vibrant visual treat that should have a broad appeal to different age groups. It is easy to pick up and play, can be saved at any point (so playing in small time doses is possible), and has a nice flow to it. The storyline is alternatively driven by pop-in static character portraits that typically have text dialogue you will have to scroll through. And yes, you do get that stock screen where the dialogue consists only of (quite literally) “ …” That is silly and needs to be dropped from a developers’ repertoire. Deliver the story and leave the superfluous silliness on the dev room floor.

The rest of the game’s sound is minimalistic.

Crimson Gem Saga is indeed a ‘gem;’ it is a portable JRPG that should delight players from the newcomer to the genre to the veteran looking for a game to take along on travels.

Review Scoring Details for Crimson Gem Saga

Gameplay: 8.5
It looks simple on the surface, is easy to pick up and play, but the game has tactical depth that will have you thinking in advance of your forays into the field.

Graphics: 7.0
The character portraits are solid, and the live action is reminiscent of the old sprite-driven games. No pop-up monsters, though – you can see them and avoid several if you are quick enough. The effects are handled nicely.

Sound: 4.0
Minimal sound effects and text-driven storylines give no real reason to increase the volume on your PSP.

Difficulty: Medium

Concept: 8.8
Give the development team a lot of credit for creating a game that is easy to jump into and play, and yet has some solid strategic layering.

Overall: 8.5
An enjoyable adventure for the PSP, Crimson Gem Saga does have flaws in its storyline and dialogue moments, but the game does a great job of delivering a thought-provoking adventure. Killian is a bit arrogant to start with, and you may not initially care for his “always second-best” attitude that drives him (in the storylines), but while the characters are not always that sympathetic, it is the gameplay that truly shines here. This is an entertaining and challenging portable RPG.


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