All magic in the world stems from gifts delivered directly to mankind from the gods. That much, as far as Crimson Shroud is concerned, is fact. Or is it? As you lead your party through a treacherous dungeon in search of the original gift — the titular and mysterious Crimson Shroud — other possibilities present themselves. To discuss them here would be to spoil the intriguingly layered plot; suffice to say that by the time you'll start having second thoughts, there's no turning back.
The release of Crimson Shroud is a bittersweet one. On the one hand, it's the last of the three Guild01 games we're likely to receive in the west. But on the other hand it's the best of the batch, and we've unquestionably ended on a high note.
Crimson Shroud is essentially a table-top game brought to life as a digital RPG. And we don't just mean that it takes inspiration from table-top games...it lifts almost the entire experience wholesale. You'll be rolling dice, manipulating game pieces and even taking your cues from an omnipresent Dungeon Master. It's a lot like playing the game in person, with the obvious exception that successes and failures are calculated more quickly.
You control a party of three, though the game frequently refers to Giauque as the main character. Giauque is a Chaser, a money-driven mercenary that is hired to seek out and retrieve the Crimson Shroud. He serves as the bruiser of the group and is extremely handy with melee weapons. Along for the ride are Frea, a Qish-descended mage who can serve as your healer, and Lippi, a one-eyed, one-handed archer with an adventurous streak. The adventure begins in media res as your party is attacked upon entering the palace of Rahab and a fourth adventurer — your knowledgeable guide — is slain.
As you can imagine, Crimson Shroud wastes no time in throwing you into the action, and the first handful of battles serve as effective tutorials. At any point you can return to the first screen of the game to review anything you've learned, and that's extremely helpful because Crimson Shroud is a difficult game to get the hang of.
Everything from combat to inventory management is handled through menus, but there are enough options to navigate through that you're bound to get lost many times as you try to remember where to find the option you're looking for. On top of that there are plenty of optional things to do along the way — such as "melding" pieces of equipment together to create stronger items, or adding dice to an attack to increase its effectiveness — and they need to be done in a very precise manner, otherwise the game simply won't allow it.
Because of this, there's a steep learning curve with Crimson Shroud. It's nothing that's liable to get you killed — the turn-based combat prevents speed from being an issue at any point — but it can be frustrating to tap through menus for several minutes without finding what you need.
Fortunately, that's our only real complaint — other than that, it's an extremely satisfying adventure. The story has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged, and even the narrative sections manage to spice themselves up by offering branching choices and optional flashbacks along the way, as well as the option to revisit past areas in order to reveal new story elements. There's a lot of text in Crimson Shroud, but that's true to its professed table-top origins. You're in the hands of a Dungeon Master, and you must trust him to weave his tale as you proceed. If tapping through dialogue isn't your thing then you may find yourself periodically bored here, but if you're willing to follow along and surrender yourself to the dangerous world that's assembling itself around you, you'll find yourself enamoured by a moody and atmospheric experience like no other in the eShop.
Combat is handled by choosing options from a menu. You can attack, use an item, use a spell, use a skill, or perform some combination of the above. The more you attack the more MP you'll gain, but the less you do during your turn the more quickly you'll get to act again. This is just one Crimson Shroud's many opportunities for advanced strategising. You can come out guns blazing and beat the enemy to a pulp up front, but if they survive you'll be at their mercy until it's your turn to move again. Conversely, you can whittle them down with smaller — but more regular — attacks, preventing them from dominating the fight. You'll have to experiment to find out what works for you.
Your characters and any enemy you meet will be represented by a small, lovingly-crafted figurine. There are no animations apart from wobbling around when the characters take damage or turning to face things that capture their attention. When a character is defeated their figurine simply topples over, revealing an amusingly meta logo on their base that never loses its charm. If a character does die in battle, he or she will be reincarnated when it ends...as long as you win, of course.
The dice are used for many things throughout the game. For starters, they are used to decide outcomes, such as whether or not you can escape from an enemy before it spots you. Other times you can use dice to increase the effectiveness of one of your attacks or spells, and some moves have a roll of the dice hardwired into them in order to determine their effectiveness. You roll the dice by picking them up with the stylus and shaking them around by sliding back and forth on the touch screen. Release them and they go flying. Funnily enough, you can actually throw them hard enough that they fly up to the top screen and hit your characters on the head, at which point any rogue die is placed into your inventory for a later use at your own discretion.
There is no leveling up in the traditional sense. When you defeat enemies you can loot their bodies, but how much loot you can carry is contingent upon how well you did in battle. Dispatch of them quickly and easily and you can clean them out, but beat them by the skin of your teeth and you may have to leave rare and powerful items behind simply because you can't carry them. This means that the strength of each of your characters is tied to the weapons and items they equip, so smart inventory management is an absolute must.
Of course there's far more we could go into about how Crimson Shroud is played, but part of the fun is figuring that out for yourself. Delving into the depths of the game's mechanics is very much an adventure in itself; as your team moves deeper into the catacombs of the palace, you'll explore more deeply the potential of the battle system around you, discovering new and interesting ways to handle even the smallest tasks and situations.
Visually, the game looks lovely. There are some fairly lengthy load times, which is surprising considering how static the environments are, but it's nothing intolerable. The figurines look fantastic, and the game world has a pleasing diorama-like quality to it, making it feel like you might actually be playing in a small, table-top world constructed by a friend. The music is even better, with an alternately brooding and triumphant soundtrack that outdoes itself with every new song.
However when we say small world, we really do mean it. The main adventure itself can be finished in under 10 hours, and it's unlikely to take any longer than that even if you take your time. Fortunately, though, Crimson Shroud follows in the footsteps of its Guild01 brethren and strongly endorses replay. Liberation Maiden had its achievements, Aero Porter was endless to begin with, and now Crimson Shroud encourages multiple playthroughs by allowing you to restart the adventure with all of your gear intact, and even more powerful enemies to face.
It may seem like a small concession being made by what is essentially a short game, but the branching options and impressively layered storyline lend themselves very well to at least one more complete run through the game, and you'll find plenty of new weapons and spells to keep you experimenting in ways you wouldn't have been able to before.
If you're unlikely to want to replay the game, regardless of how much different and more demanding another playthrough can be, then Crimson Shroud is a brief experience...though even then it's worth noting that it's a very good one. If you are willing to stick with the game and work your way through an adventure you'll understand and appreciate even more the second time, then there's very little to complain about here.
As an RPG that digs into the table-top history of the genre, Crimson Shroud is both a great deal of fun and an artistic triumph. While there are issues — mainly a steep learning curve and an almost frustratingly brief campaign — they're easy to overlook in the face of such charming presentation, fantastic music, and near-endless replayability. Crimson Shroud isn't a game that does a lot of things, but rather a game that does a small number of things extremely well. Crimson Shroud is absolutely a dungeon worth crawling.