Review: Crimson Gem Saga (Sony PSP)

Crimson Gem Saga
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: IRONNOS
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 05/26/2009

I know, this is a little late, but no one agreed to do this review and I picked this up in my spare time when I had free moments between my normal workload here at DHGF.

Crimson Gem Saga is the third name this game has gone under, debuting as Astonisha Story 2 in Korea and Garnet Chronicle in Japan. It gained the name CrimsonGem Saga(no space) in Asia and it’s the eventual name Atlus went with. It also has nothing to do with the original Astonisha Story, and it’s by completely different developers with utterly different gameplay. No idea why Korea named it as such, or why Sega didn’t bring it stateside since they published it across the Pacific.

Crimson Gem Saga is a South Korean RPG by a company I’ve never heard of, IRONNOS software. In checking out their website they appear to have done only two other games, both for cell phones: Darkside Story M which is like Final Fight and 시프리는 괴로워, which is a first person fighting game. Weird. As their first RPG and first foray into the US, I was interested in seeing how this cell phone fighting game company would make the transition into full on turn-based RPG gaming for the PSP. So was Crimson Gem Saga a wonderful diamond in the rough we almost overlooked here at Diehard GameFAN, or was it a game best left buried with a lot of other crap that has come out this year?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Crimson Gem Saga boasts one of the best stories I’ve ever encountered in gaming. It feel familair but yet there’s nothing I can say truly like it. The closest i can come to is Grandia 2. The writing is masterful, the characters memorable and this is easily the best game I have ever encountered on the PSP, at least in terms of plot.

Enter one Killian von Rohcoff. It’s his graduation day so you think he’d be all smiles with his life ahead of him. Especially as he is Salutatorian of his graduating class. Alas no, Killian has no idea what he wants to do with his life or any prospects. He’s also ticked that his rival Herbert von Guterrian is the Validictorian. Killian is sick of being second best, and his short fuse doesn’t really help him to get that number one spot. Although despondent about what to do with his life, the headmaster of the academy gives Killian a recommendation to a well-respected group of warriors. Now Killian has a goal – to rise through the ranks of this organization and become a true warrior.

However things don’t go as planned, but do they ever in an RPG? Sure Killian gets to join the militia, but all of them save himself are horribly wiped out by an evil duo. Then Killian is revived by a cute but manipulative Elven Thief he rescued a little bit earlier in the game. Together the two set off on a quest to retrieve a stone of pure evil – the same stone Killian’s crew was wiped out trying to get. After getting the stone and making two new friends including an anti-social mage and an aging gruff cleric, the group are arrested for possessing the stone by a holy order of warrior who are so self-righteous you pretty much expect them to be secretly evil. In order to save themselves from a lifetime in dungeons, the foursome has to set out and collect all six evil gems so they can be brought together and “destroyed.”

All this that I’ve just told you is simply the first four to five hours of the game and it gets better with each passing chapter. I really loved seeing all the twists and turns in the story and the characters are so well defined you really grow to know them and thus care about their individual fates. The game feels really familiar because it takes its trappings and storytelling style from the golden era of 16-Bit gaming. Titles like Shining Force, Final Fantasy VI, Eye of the Beholder and so many more. Every moment spent with this game was a flashback to the when storytelling in RPG’s was probably at its best as there was no padding or a need for a game to be 40-80 hours with a lot of padding and extra battles to make the game longer than it really was. Here every scene, dialogue piece and battle counts for something, which is quite rare these days.

Crimson Gem Saga‘s tale is not only an instant classic, but one that should be experienced by all long-time RPG gamers. It’s brilliant, beautiful, charming and sometimes hilarious. This is easily one of, if not the best, told game this year.

Story Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

I really enjoyed the character portraits for each character, even if they only had one apiece. They really stand out with an artistic style of their own, but also have some of the trappings from the Ogre Tactics series. Honestly, everyone from the game save Spinel (No elves) could be pulled directly from Quest’s SRPG series based on the character portraits. Very nice here.

I really enjoyed the monster designs too. Again, IRONNOS managed to take familiar creatures and give them their own twist so that they stand out. I was actually impressed with their take on the wererat, which is usually AD&D cannon fodder.

The game’s battles are beautifully animated. You won’t suffer from any slowdown and both the frame rate and colour radiance really make the game a lot of fun to watch, even if each section of the game has a very limited stock of monsters.

Everything including backgrounds, town layouts, dungeon levels, monsters, characters and whatever else you can think of look rather snazzy and CGS boasts some of the best 2-D RPG’s I’ve seen on the PSP.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound

The aural aspect of Crimson Gem Saga is easily one of, if not THE, best bit of the game. The soundtrack consists of a dynamic classical score full of energy and passion. Each track helps to make the game come alive, whether you are walking through a town, navigating a field filled with monsters, or against one of the many bosses in the game.

The voice acting is top notch. I utterly love the cast of this game and really hope we’ll see them reunite for a second CGS, if it ever gets made. Killian and Spinel have amazing chemistry together, even though they most likely recorded their lines separately. My favourite character is the first extra character you get in the game, a sociopathic mage whose death line is, “This is all Killian’s fault.” I love how it’s delivered and it always makes me laugh even when it means I’m a man down.

With an excellent score and some top notch voice acting, Crimson Gem Saga is one of those games I’m shocked didn’t get a soundtrack with it as Atlus USA has been giving out with their games as of late. I admit I am curious to see what the Korean or even the Japanese voice acting would have been like but there’s no way it could have topped the US team. Atlus needs to use these guys more often.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

CGS is a fairly straight forward turn-based RPG. In fact it reminds me a lot of Lunar: The Silver Star. There are no random battles. Instead there are monsters on the screen that you can avoid completely if you want to. If you ram the opponent from behind, each of your characters gets a free shot to start the battle. If the monster sees you, a red exclamation mark will go over its head. If you touch it during this time period, you end up with normal combat where order goes by each character’s individual agility rating. If you still don’t engage in combat after this then you need to run. Once the exclamation goes away the monster goes into aggression mode. It will be faster than normal and will not give up pursuit. If it touches you now it will be the bad guys that get a free attack on you.

There are a couple neat elements here. If you score a critical hit, you have a split second chance to hit the X button and get in another hit or two. Simple but nice mechanic. The position of a character on your team also determines how much damage they give and take. The farther back in the formation they are the higher their defense, but the lower the damage they give out. Escaping from combat is a bit different too. There is a wheel with six spots on it. Two or three are yellow and you have to stop the wheel on a yellow spot if you want to escape. You do don’t land on a yellow spot, your team can’t escape.

You have a skill tree much like in several other RPG’s. You earn SP from winning battles similar to XP, but SP are like gold in that it is one communal pot. You have to spend skill points to reveal a skill and then more skill points to unlock it for a particular character. This might be a bit frustrating that you can’t just use a power once you buy it, but the nice thing about this system is that once you reveal a power to can bypass it and go after something higher on the chart. Powers can be anything from attacks, magic spells, permanent stat gains or combination attacks where two (or more) characters combine their powers for specific effects.

Everything else is pretty cut and dry. You buy and sell equipment and items, you pick up quests and sub-quests and generally progress through the story in the same way you would during the 16 bit era of gaming. Although everything here has been done before in terms of gameplay and how you proceed through the adventure, Crimson gem Saga does it with both style and substance. The only real downside I can think of involves an odd bug in the game. You know how you can turn your PSP off at any time and turn it back on to start exactly where you left off? Well oddly enough fi you do it here, the internal game clock keeps ticking. So if you play for an hour, turn the game off in this fashion and come back four hours later, you’ll be clocked at having played for five hours rather than one. Odd and minor, but still something weird. Other than that, you’ve gold a rock solid game without any other bugs or issues. This is classic Turn Based RPG’ing at its best.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic

5. Replayability

You’ll get a decent sized set of characters to work with as you progress through the game, but as you can only have four character in an active team at one time, you can easily play this game several times in a row with different results. As well, since every character on your team is completely customizable, you can pick and choose different abilities on your skill chart to build your characters in entirely different ways. This ensures that the game will never feel exactly the same each time you play it, while still retaining the awesome characterization and story.

With a great cast, a fun story and a lot of customization options, Crimson gem Saga is the type of RPG you can come back to year after year and find something new to experience.

Replayability Rating: Good

6. Balance

When I first started playing the game I was shocked at how quickly I leveled up. By the end of Chapter I, my team was all in their early 20’s level wise and the final boss was crazy easy. Then came Chapter 2 and I was a bit shocked at how much the difficulty had been ramped up between the connecting story bits. I went down a well and BAM! My characters were facing things that could one hit kill me. At first I thought that I had accidentally gone someplace I shouldn’t, but no, I was near the Monastery I needed to be. This meant in order to get to my goal, I NEEDED to level grind. Grinding for levels, money for better weapons and items, and for skill points. There are generally two things I hate in RPG’s – the need to grind and random battles. This is why I tend to prefer Action RPG’s and SRPG’s. At the same, I appreciated the challenge and the need to decide who would get the best weapons and armor available to me at the time. For me Level Grinding is annoying because it feels like padded time but into the game to artificially length playtime. Here though, you really COULD get through the game without it, but you’d have to stock up on a ton of healing items rather than your best weapons and armour available to you.

As well, there are two other things that shape balance in CGS. The first is the skill points tree. If you choose to open everything up and see what is available to you, then you have less powers that your team ia actually using. If you just take every power in order, you’ll have a ton of powers, but all of which are basically weak. It’s a matter of trying to guess what lies ahead on the skill chart and what is worth taking. Playing the chart really affects the difficulty of the game, as it should. The other helpful bit is that when you level up, and as I have said you do this frequently, you get all your health and magic points back, which is a nice bonus. This really helps keep your team alive.

Overall, the game is nicely balanced even if I do have a personal bias against level grinding. The game’s battles from Chapter II on will give your team a nice challenge and although there isn’t a lot of variety to the battles you’ll enter into, how you build your character dramatically affects them.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

Crimson Gem Saga doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. In fact, it sticks pretty close to the basic trappings of Turn Based RPG’s. The gameplay, battle sequences and skill tree have all been done countless times before, but never with this precision by a first time development team. The fact that this is the first RPG for IRONOS and that their previous two games were cell phone beat ’em up’s makes CGS all the more impressive.

The story and characters is where the game really manages to stand out. These characters are some of the best I’ve encountered not just during this generation of gaming, but in all of RPG gaming. Killian, Spinel and the crew have really become a cast I want to see more of, even if it means replaying this game for years to come. Yes the game feels like a throwback to the time when Camelot, Game Arts and the like were churning out the best RPG’s in the history of gaming one right after another, but that’s a good thing, especially compared to a lot of the over the top emo angst crap with a lot of padding we get these days. In going back to basics, IRONNOS has given us a game that stands out by putting story and solid gameplay before graphics and padding. That’s pretty outside the box for the 00’s.

originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

I had a really hard time putting this game down. The characterization alone had me hooked. There’s this one moment in Chapter II where I went up to a vase and pressed X to see if anything was inside as we are all wont to do in these types of games. Instead I got a hilarious dialogue between Spinel who wanted to steal the Vase and Killian who explained that it’s wrong to take things from other people’s homes. Spinel then brings up that for hours Killian has been taking things out of people’s homes that he found and opening their Treasure Chests and calling him a big stupid hypocrite. Although there were many other moments before this that really showed the wit of the writing and depth of the characters, this little breaking the fourth wall exchange made me fall in love with the game big time.

The skill tree is also a big part of what kept me glued to the game. I was always curious as to what could be next. I’d be pretty happy if I unlocked a really cool power and a bit disappointed if I got something pants. This would keep me level grinding, even though I abhor it, simply because I wanted to know what else could be available to my characters.

Between this and Devil Survivor my consoles haven’t been on in weeks. It’s been all handheld gaming baby. Crimson Gem Saga is a wonderful reminder of when RPG’s were quality, not quantity and I found it nigh impossible to put down.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor

If you’re looking for a solid RPG experience, it’s hard to think of a better choice to recommend on the PSP than Crimson Gem Saga. Anyone can figure out the gameplay in a matter of seconds, and newcomers or the inexperienced don’t have to learn tactical grid maps, button mashing, or anything like that. CGS is easily accessible to all gamers and in return you get one of the best stories I’ve seen in a Turn based RPG since the 16 and 32 bit eras. Even people that don’t like RPG’s will be charmed by the story. This is a must have for anyone with a PSP who really cares about quality storytelling and solid gameplay.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

10. Miscellaneous

As the first ever RPG by a Korean development team, CGS is pretty impressive. The fact a company that used to make cell phone beat ’em ups has made one of the best RPG’s on the PSP, especially one with games like Disgaea, J’eanne D’Arc and Dungeon and Dragons Tactics makes CGS even more so. I absolutely adored this game and can’t wait to see what else IRONNOS has in store for us. Crimson Gem Saga really has left a lot of room for a sequel and I really hope we get it. This game was more akin to the first two Lunars than Magical School or Dragon Song. It’s definitely one of those games worth tracking down simply for the experience and a return to the high quality games of yesteryear. Awesome job Korea – let’s see what else you have for us.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story/Modes: Unparalleled
Graphics: Good
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
Crimson Gem Saga is a reminder of the golden age of RPG’s. Throughout your play time you’ll recall classic games like Lunar, Shining Force, Knight and Baby, Vay, Phantasy Star and your SNES Final Fantasies. Although the game doesn’t reinvent the wheel and sticks to the tride and true trappings of Turn Based RPG’ing, it does give us one of the best stories and cast of characters this decade, and that alone is worth experiencing the game for. Coupled with a solid and easily accessible engine, Crimson Gem Saga is a game no PSP owner should do without.

3 Comments
  1. Alex Lucard

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