Developer: Matrix Software
Release Date: May 26, 2009
It's hard to find an old-school JRPG these days that doesn't manage to annoy or offend in some manner. It's doubly difficult to track down such a game on the PSP, given the handheld's dearth of quality role-playing titles. Add onto that the idea of an IP made exclusively for the PSP, and it's basically mission impossible — or at least it would have been before Crimson Gem Saga came along, as this game will roar into your UMD drive and refuse to come out for a long time.
The game places you in the shoes of Killian, salutatorian of the latest class of Green Hill Academy Chevaliers. Never content to be second best, our hero sets out to find his own adventure and, as is the custom in these sorts of games, soon finds himself in way over his head. The story and character archetypes don't break any new ground here, but at the same time, all of the characters are injected with enough personality that it doesn't really matter. This is mostly due to solid localization and a stellar voice-acting crew that manages to color each character's personality just right. Gone is the overwrought emotion and haughty dialogue found in most games of this type, replaced instead with a more conversational script and enough jokes and fourth-wall-breaking jabs to make it fun throughout.
Complementing the game's retro yet fresh narrative is a battle system that doesn't rewrite the rules in any way but manages to be interesting and complex enough to keep you entertained. Enemies are visible on the overworld map, so all you have to do is walk up to one in order to initiate combat. Approach from the back, and you'll be able to ambush the baddies and get in a free attack; wait too long after you've been spotted, and it'll likely be you who is on the wrong end of a free slap to the face. The one major issue with the initiation of combat is that all enemy types are represented by the same sprite on-screen, so it's impossible to know what you'll be fighting until you actually get into combat. This will, in turn, lead to some retreats due to the fact that you stumbled into a fight for which you weren't ready. It's still better than the horrors of random encounters, but it's not up to snuff with other games that give you a visual representation of what sorts of foes you're about to take on.
The fights are turn-based and contain familiar menu-based commands such as attacking, using a skill, popping an item or running away like a coward. The skill system is where the game shines, as it allows you a great deal of customization and creativity. After every battle, you earn a small amount of SP, which is in turn pooled among all your characters. By going into the skill screen, you can dump accumulated SP into revealing and learning new skills and tailoring your characters to fight just the way you want. For instance, Killian can take the bruiser route and learn punishing attacks that deplete his MP gauge quickly, or he can learn support skills and magic that will allow him to protect fellow party members and chip away at enemy health bars when the opportunity arises. Options like these are available for all characters, and the pooling of resources forces players to be judicious and thoughtful in their approach to distributing points. Sure, you can focus on earning enough points to master that super-powerful ability, but then all the other members of your team will be forced to go without any sort of upgrades for a while. It's truly a balancing act.
Further improving the skill system is the inclusion of partner or group skills, where if certain members of the team learn the same ability, they can join together for an even mightier incantation. It's just one of those extra wrinkles that add a considerable amount of depth to a title that seems shallow on the surface.
The combat system isn't perfect, though, as there are a few RPG conventions that come back to haunt us in a game that should really know better. Basically all the issues directly relate to the game difficulty, which is the sort of thing the folks at Atlus prides themselves on for whatever reason. First off is the fact that any characters not in the party don't earn any experience points whatsoever. That means if you take one person out for an entire segment in favor of a team composed a certain way, that same character is now several levels behind everyone else and will likely have a hard time catching up. Sadly, this forces you to saddle your party with dead weight from time to time in an effort to keep the entire squad at a functional level.
The other considerable drawback is a sudden uptick in difficulty in Chapter II that may irritate some players. For the first of couple acts, things move along nicely and most enemies and bosses are fairly easy to dispatch. Starting in Chapter II, though, there are several objectives to be completed all around one central hub area, and therefore the enemies in this region must be strong enough to challenge you throughout your stay. That means that the foes you'll encounter early on are likely at a higher level than you, and without considerable grinding, you might find even standard encounters to be rather challenging. Things even out once you've fought a bit and gained some levels, but the fact still remains that life's pretty tough on the overworld map, and it sure doesn't get any easier once you head into the dungeons. Just when I thought Atlus was beginning to show a little heart and dial back the difficulty, they crush me once more and send me out to level-grind like always; that'll teach me to get my hopes up.
Still, it's hard to be mad at anything in the title because it's absolutely gorgeous. The detailed character sprites and hand-painted backgrounds are simply breathtaking and highly reminiscent of the Disgaea franchise. Rather than getting dumbed-down PS2 graphics, the developers clearly worked hard to push the PSP to its limits, and the results really show. The opening cinematic exists specifically to blow you away, and the rest of the game isn't much of a letdown from there.
While many Atlus games tend to only appeal to niche audience of hardcore RPG gamers, Crimson Gem Saga is one of those approachable, fun and rewarding games that will appeal to hardcore players and more casual RPG fans alike. If you have friends who you've wanted to get into the genre, then this is one of those great starter titles that they will likely enjoy. As an added bonus, you'll probably love it too. An old-school, JRPG game for the PSP that also happens to be really, really good? What reason could you possibly have not to buy it?
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