Guild01 seemed like an absolutely brilliant idea to me. Let some of the best talent in Japan develop their own small games and bundle them up into a nice package. It's a shame that the games would be too niche to release stateside, or so I thought, until Liberation Maiden showed up on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. After that I was even more surprised to see Crimson Shroud show up. Designed by Yasumi Matsuno who also designed the PS1 classic, Vagrant Story, Crimson Shroud is a love letter to role-playing gamers who grew up on stuff like Dungeons & Dragons and Nintendo-era RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. It's also a surprisingly deep experience for something that can be over in as little as five hours. But it's some of the best stat-wrangling, monster-slaying, story-delving five hours that Japan has come up with.
The "gift" of magic has recently fallen into the hands of mankind, and with that comes the struggle of power between the Conclave who found the original gift, the Senate who controls the military, and the Chasers who work for both in secret. As Giauque, a Chaser and fierce warrior sent on this wild goose chase of a mission, players will explore a dilapidated castle with Giauque's partner Lippi, a skilled bowman, and Frea, a young sorceress with a sharp tongue to match her powerful magics. These three allies are looking for the Crimson Shroud, thought to be the source of all magic given to mankind. The game takes place in Frea's memory. As she explains to her captor, Flint, how the search went and why Giauque and Lippi are currently missing. The short story and campaign still manages to feel like an epic quest, and across the four chapters players will encounter a variety of menacing creatures and denizens of the dark.
The bulk of the game takes place in the Palace of Rahab, ruins of a bygone era that are believed to house the Crimson Shroud. Players move from area to area on the map, with the possibility of getting into a fight against all manner of enemies, ranging from goblins to minotaurs, liches to dragons. Players have the option to avoid battle but they must roll dice to do so. This is where the D&D wrinkle comes in, and players must meet a minimum roll with a small handful of dice to succeed. The dice rolls are also used to determine the success of a buff or debuff, how many turns a penalty or advantage will last, and the dice can even be earned in battle and traded in for extra damage, accuracy on an attack or health recovered by a spell. Unused dice at the end of a battle can be added to the prize pool to allow players to take some extra loot, so nothing goes to waste.
For such a short game there is definitely plenty of loot, and it has a touch of Vagrant Story, allowing players to improve items by melding them with spell scrolls and other weapons to give them stronger stats against specific enemies. Yes the stats of weapons are so granular that you can build a weapon that is specifically strong against goblins, zombies or dragons. Armor goes the same way and can be strong against certain elements or enemies. This makes every item useful, and melding is a necessary tactic on subsequent playthroughs as enemies become stronger and loot becomes better. Skills are also bound to weapons and armor, so it's worth the effort to get as many skills as possible onto a piece of equipment.
Combat is a simplistic but enjoyable affair. Players take their turns with the ability to attack, cast spells or use items. Separate from that, they can use skills which allow characters to perform personal buffs, restore MP or even make a second attack. The enemies have the same abilities and can hit quite hard. The first hour of the game is surprisingly challenging and I almost wanted to drop the game after my first minotaur fight. I got absolutely slaughtered, and went back and did a little bit of grinding for better equipment and earned some new skills to improve my attack and defensive power. After some new armor that boosted my hit points I was ready to try again. The second time around went a lot better, and from that point on the game was a consistent challenge, but never felt like it was impossible for me to win a fight. Anyone looking for a challenge would be satisfied by Crimson Shroud.
Visually this game looks like it got hit with the Vagrant Story stick, and I mean that in a good way. The art direction is great and the characters look really cool. The characters don't have much of a range of movement because they're designed to be like miniatures from D&D or Warhammer, with their legs firmly attached to a base, so they just kind of wobble around when attacking, watching friends and foes alike topple over when they die is kind of humorous. This simple aesthetic feels surprisingly unique and whenever they announce these characters as figures I'll be one of the first in line to get my hands on them. The visuals look great whether they're viewed in 2D or 3D, with detailed characters and enemies. The crumbling palace looks kind of plain, but at least the visuals aren't recycled in combat, with each place looking different. The Basiscape soundtrack feels like it's some of the best work from Hitoshi Sakimoto and his group. The music fits great and maintains that level of quality that gamers are used to from Sakimoto.
After finishing Crimson Shroud I was ready to go in for more. I hope there's a future full-fledged game in the works because the five-hour campaign is over before you know it, but not without a great ending. It's kind of surprising to see such a feature-complete endeavor that's better than some full-priced games, and at such a cheap price point there really is no reason not to nab Crimson Shroud from the eShop right this instant. With the release of Crimson Shroud I hope this means that more games from Guild01 or even the upcoming Guild02 are considered for release here in the States, because at this level of quality it'd be a shame if gamers in the US had to miss out on any of them.