Friday, September 9, 2011

A Forgotten Gem.

This past Christmas, I managed to finish Crimson Gem Saga for the PSP.  I've been intending to write about it for some time, but I just never got around to it.  The usual elements of work and life got in the way, but let's face it:  I've written about plenty of games since December, with many of them coming after Crimson Gem Saga.  So what was the hold up?

David's previous post references a problem Breath of Fire III had:  It was released at a time when there were plenty of RPGs coming out on the Playstation, thus it was really unable to distinguish itself.  In some ways, Crimson Gem Saga is similar for me -- the other games I've posted about here were just better games.  However, while Breath of Fire III was an above average game that was overshadowed by other mammoths such as Xenogears and Final Fantasy VII, Crimson Gem Saga manages to be a decent game, just not exceptionally stellar.

Thus, until now, I struggled to really come up with anything to say about it, other than "Yeah, it was a decent enough game".  Crimson Gem Saga is a game that, when released, remedied (to an extent) the lack of quality RPGs on the Playstation Portable.  Yet as the PSP's library has expanded, it's become easier to forget, and the flaws of game balance and an unfinished narrative prevent it from being more than a mere blip on the radar.


After ignoring the console for quite some time, I picked up a PSP about two years ago.  Much to my delight, by the time I acquired one, it had an impressive number of RPGs and SRPGs in its library:  Furthermore, since they'd been out for some time, many of them had dropped to the $20 range.  Unfortunately, many of them just. . weren't that great.  Games like Generations of Chaos and Dragoneer's Aria, while certainly impressive graphically, failed to hold my attention, and were promptly returned.

After that point, I became a little more cautious about buying PSP RPGs, which helped me avoid games like Blade Dancer and the first 3 entries of the Legend of the Heroes saga.  However, I kept hearing about Crimson Gem Saga:  A game that, while not groundbreaking in its presentation, was tolerable enough to play through, had a solid translation, and had great character interaction as well as humor.  Furthermore, it was a sequel to another PSP RPG which I'd avoided:  Astonishia Story.  Since my PSP library (and subsequently, my backlog for that system) was smaller back then, I went ahead and purchased it.

And much like any other game, waited a few months before actually deciding to put it in.

It Sucks To Be Killian

Crimson Gem Saga follows the misadventures of Killian, a Chevalier and graduate from the prestigious Green Hill Academy.  The plot, at least for the first part of the game, can be summed up easily with five words:  It sucks to be Killian.  Seriously, let me break down the first part of the game for you.

The story begins with Killian oversleeping after a wild party and nearly missing his own graduation.  Now in hearing this, you might think this is the usual story of a slacker turned hero, but not quite:  Killian is quite talented.  In fact, he's widely recognized as one of the most skilled candidates at the Academy.

As well as a master of the obvious.

Unfortunately, Killian's only good enough to be the salutatorian.  Throughout his entire days in the academy, he's frequently upstaged by one Herbert Von Guterrian:  A guy who's smarter, stronger, faster, richer, and generally better than him in every way.

And a charming personality, to boot.
 Now you might think that's not too big of a deal, right?  I mean, think back to the valedictorian and salutatorian in your graduating class.  Perhaps only a few hundreths of a point separated their GPAs.  In the end it really didn't matter, because both of them went on to prestigious schools after college.  Both of them were likely very successful people, or at least put on the path to such.

Well, this isn't quite the case in the world of Crimson Gem Saga.  While Herbert's top scores, performance, and presumably family influence allow him to enter the prestigious ranks of the renowned Order of Light, Killian's talents, while commendable, land him in the Excelsior Force.  It's definitely not a bad gig for a recent graduate, and who can argue with immediate job placement?  Still, the Excelsior Force is hardly the Order of Light.  Basically, Herbert was the first round draft pick for the Packers.  Killian on the other hand. . .

Excelsior Force Logo.
But, being the scrappy guy he is, Killian manages to make the best of his situation.  He reports in to Excelsior Force headquarters, where he's met with a warm welcome from his new commanding officer, and promptly assigned to his first task, it's a fitting battle for the new recruit.  And unfortunately, one where his entire force is slaughtered by some mysterious stranger.

Fortunately, he bounces back from this, and along the way, meets up with Spinel, a treasure-hunting elf, Henson, a smart-mouthed mage, and Gelts, an alcoholic ex-Monk.  He's swept up in an epic adventure to collect the mysterious Wicked Stones, but just when things seem to be progressing, he runs afoul of the Order of Light, is branded a criminal, then forced to look for the stones on their behalf as a means of serving a sentence.  To add insult to injury?  Herbert's there to laugh it up in his moment of shame.

Really, it sucks to be Killian.

Good, but Forgettable?

Really, Crimson Gem Saga has a few things going for it which kept me playing.  While it didn't do anything new in terms of battle, the game made use of skill trees for the characters, which made unlocking and discovering what new abilities they had a bit of fun, as well as leveling old skills to watch them increase in power.  While some argued that battles can be unbalanced, I found it a relief at times that I wasn't breezing through everything.

But perhaps one of the most lauded points of the game is its humor.  I'll be frank:  The game's pretty hilarious at times without trying too hard to beat you over the head with it, and even breaks the fourth wall at times with comedic effect:

As well as make fun of its own cliches

 It manages to have a nice balance of not taking itself seriously at times, yet knowing when to increase the tension in the plot.  As I've stated earlier, it's not a bad game at all.  In fact, I enjoyed it for the most part.  So why did I struggle in taking so long to write this post, over eight months after the fact?  In the grand scheme of things, the game is just.. forgettable overall.  A big part of this is attributed to the plot:  While it's not a constant edge of your seat thriller, it's interesting enough for much of the game, there are enough mysteries going on to keep you playing to unravel them, and the dialogue's witty enough to warrant your attention.

The problem is that just as things start to build to a significant point, the game. . just kind of ends.  I won't give away specific spoilers here, but the point at which the big reveal happens at the end of the game isn't the point that you think the game is going to actually end.  The Enabler once commented that Tales of the Abyss does a good job of attempting to trick you into thinking you're at the end of the game, only to turn around and show there was an even bigger issue to pursue (though admittedly, any veteran RPG player should see this coming).

Crimson Gem Saga doesn't attempt to fool you into thinking you're at the end.  You have a sense that the plot is reaching its climax, but the way it actually happens throws you off guard:  Too many plot points are left open.  On one hand, it seems like a great set up for a sequel.  On the other hand, it ends up being quite frustrating, but only after it sinks in, during the credit roll, that "..Wait, I just beat the game".

Closing Thoughts

Even as I close out this post, I'm still struggling.  There's a part of me that wants to encourage my fellow RPG gamers on the PSP to go ahead and purchase this game, and assert that they'll have a great time playing it.  And you know what?  You just might.  On the other hand, I feel like I'd be remiss by not telling you that while Crimson Gem Saga was a decent enough experience for me, and a nice way to kill time over the holidays while I was snowed in back east. . your mileage will slightly vary.

Sadly, this is quite a shame.  Almost everything I heard about the game's predecessor, Astonishia Story has been awful.  Everything about it suggest the game did nothing to deserve a sequel, yet Crimson Gem Saga came along and, if the comparisons and reviews are accurate, surpasses its predecessor in every possible way.  Perhaps the developers figured that, if Astonishia Story, for all its flaws, allowed them to create a sequel, then leaving an infinitely better game open-ended with a clear set up for a sequel would produce similar results.

Unfortunately, it's doubtful if we'll ever see a sequel to Crimson Gem Saga, which is a shame in some ways, but perhaps ultimately for the best.  If you see this game for cheap, it might be worth your while to pick it up.  If it's already in your backlog?  You might as well go ahead and finish it:  The game will go quickly.  As for going out of your way to find it?  This is a gem that is perhaps best left unearthed.

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