The PlayStation Portable has had a rough year or so, with a serious lack of titles and even fewer system exclusives. When Crimson Gem Saga was announced, I was excited about the prospect of an Atlus RPG giving me a reason to turn on my PSP again. From the very beginning, it was obvious that Crimson Gem Saga was inspired by more traditional role-playing games of the last two decades, with gems, sprites, and all of the turn-based fighting one would want in an RPG. As I delved deeper into the game, I found that it employed a lot of techniques that made it feel more unique, and though it wasn’t the most innovative RPG experience I’ve had, the story was engaging enough to continually keep me interested.
Crimson Gem Saga takes place in the world of Latein, where main character Killian von Rohcoff is about to graduate from the prestigious Green Hill Chevalier Academy. To his dismay, he finds out that he is the class salutorian, which apparently counts for nothing at Green Hill. Tired of coming in second place, Killian is left feeling directionless, and eventually finds a group of adventurers while getting caught up in a quest to remove the world of Wicked Stones. It seems like very typical RPG fare at first, but the story is actually very engaging and gets deeper as the game continues.
The battle system seems simple at first, but there are several subtle distinctions to the combat. First of all, enemies actually appear on-screen, so the fighting is not random; being able to spot enemies also gives you a chance to sneak up on them. In a gameplay mechanic similar to one found in Persona 3 and 4, you can sneak up on an enemy for a chance at a free shot at the opposing party, which usually depletes about 25% of foes’ HP. On the other hand, if an enemy party spots you and engages you after the exclamation point above his head disappears, it will be their turn to attack your group right away. Timing is everything, and trying to sneak past a foe adds the risk of that extra attack against you; however, if you are patient, you will be able to get in plenty of extra hits.
Within the actual battles, there are more opportunities to do extra damage while attacking. During some standard attacks, an “X” will flash at the bottom of the screen, signaling the player to hit that button and strike again. The window of opportunity for this is very small, so you must be on your toes if you wish to take advantage of this chance. Also, once the characters in your party start unlocking new abilities, they can acquire combination skills, which use two or more characters. The combo skills are similar to those in Chrono Trigger, while actually earning new powers is reminiscent of a number of RPGs, particularly some of the later Final Fantasy games. SP is earned in each battle, and these points can be used in a skill tree to reveal and acquire new abilities for each character. As I said, none of these features are entirely original, but it’s hard to complain when Crimson Gem Saga draws inspiration from such great source material.
One of the more unique features that I really liked was the use of an area map, which could be accessed simply by hitting the right shoulder button. Instead of having to go through a menu or look at a separate screen, the town or location appears as an overlay, with simple outlines and symbols making it easy to figure out where you are and where you want to go. It’s such a minimal touch, but so ingenious. Unfortunately, once you enter a dungeon, this tool is taken away from you completely, leaving you with no sense of direction. This is where Crimson Gem Saga can really get frustrating, because it’s very easy to get lost and turned around in dungeon areas. Even a reveal-as-you-go-along map, which countless role-playing games have used to add some mystery to dungeons, would have been fantastic, because without a lot of distinguishing features in these areas, it’s way too easy to backtrack. At one point, I had to make a pen-and-paper map old-school style, and while I was impressed at my own handiwork, there’s no reason that a game should make a player resort to that in this day and age.
Another nitpick I have with Crimsom Gem Saga is the overabundance of loading screens. Sure, I can deal with them between chapters or while moving to a new location, but there are also load times for every single battle or story event—even though most of them don’t even require cut scenes. Many times, I could hear and feel the PSP straining to load the battle screens, and though the game never once froze on me, there were times when I felt it was about to. Again, this isn’t a serious complaint, but it is definitely something noticeable.
The opening cut scene and accompanying soundtrack for Crimson Gem Saga are really impressive, and I really wish the game had used more cut scenes for dramatic story moments. For most of the game, characters are represented by sprites, which seems to be a staple of handheld RPGs. Crimson Gem Saga isn’t quite pushing the PSP to its limits graphically, but the design of both environments and characters is aesthetically pleasing. Another thing that stands out in this game is the dialogue, which is very well written, and makes the characters more interesting and relatable.
Crimson Gem Saga probably won’t win any awards for innovation, but it’s an enjoyable game from start to finish, and one I had trouble putting down. There are moments of frustration, like when you’re lost in a dungeon and find yourself wasting resources on the same enemies over and over again, but these annoyances are usually outweighed by the satisfaction of completing your current mission and continuing the narrative. Though not as long as most console RPGs, at 25-30 hours, it’s a good length for the system, and the ability to save at any time makes it an ideal PSP game. If you’ve been in the mood for a more traditional handheld RPG and don’t want another Final Fantasy remake, Crimson Gem Saga will definitely fill that void.