Video games owe a lot to Gary Gygax. Though Dungeons and Dragons certainly wasn’t the first tabletop game, it definitely helped to popularize the concept, and a lot of early games bore signs of this influence, with text adventures and dungeon-crawling RPGs littering consoles and PCs for years. Even unlikely titles such as Quake and Daikatana originally began as concepts from an epic game of DnD that id Software used to play together. Ties to these early systems have certainly faded in a lot of modern games, but sometimes, you need a stat-heavy, loot-driven, dungeon-exploring turn-based RPG to really scratch that nostalgia itch—and that’s why games like Crimson Shroud exist.
Crimson Shroud does nothing to hide its influences. On the contrary, it wears them proudly, going so far as to give your characters little bases to stand on and having you roll dice for certain hits. Bases! With little “Level 5” logos on the bottom of them! Even the actual look of the levels seem as though they’re designed to be like dioramas, the kind your friend would make out of Styrofoam in his garage for your tabletop adventures. I think this Penny Arcade says it best; if these little touches and presentational tweaks speak to you, the game is in the eShop and waiting.
The game itself is set up in a similar way. Instead of actually moving characters around in a room, you’re moving them from room to room as a narrator, a sort of unseen Dungeon Master, describes the rooms and the actions your characters take. This stuff is actually pretty well written and, at times, so pulpy you can chew on it, and even manages to fill in a pretty interesting backstory for the universe. It did feel a little rushed and heavy on long info dumps in parts, but by the time it wrapped up, it had told a well contained and decent little tale, though it ended on such a downer note that I was pretty bummed to see the credits roll. However, despite pressing the “Reminisce” button (which you’re prompted to do multiple times), it’s hard to get a good feel for your characters past such things as “brash” and “young” that you can use to describe any RPG character since always, but they fill their rolls well enough and are generally inoffensive.
As you explore said rooms, in search of the eponymous magical Maguffin, you’ll come across the usual cadre of fantasy creatures: goblins, skeletons, zombies, etc. Battling is, for the most part, a usual turn-based affair, with minor and major actions, magick (with a k, so you know it’s serious) and items to use. The most interesting part is the inclusion of a combo system, wherein you can link your magick types together to earn you dice that can be applied as bonuses to attack and accuracy rolls. There are even spells that give you better dice with your combos, and this system actually wound up changing the way I play these sorts of games. I’m always more of a “BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE” kind of guy, but trying to link the combos together and earn more bonuses was interesting enough that I started to do things normally foreign to me—buffing my characters, nullifying effects—and it actually made the game much more fun to play.
Also, the dice rolling I mentioned is very literal: you actually reach down, touch the screen, and fling the dice around to roll them. It may seem a little silly (and you can just use the circle pad if you’re not a fan of awesome things), but I got a huge kick out of doing it, and the joy of getting a good roll was better than it had any right to be.
The dice can also be used when looting enemies to increase the amount of loot you can actually take. The items are a little limited, but you’ll want to pick up the repeats because Crimson Shroud doesn’t actually level your characters—it levels your gear, which is done by combining two of the same items together. You can also add spells to them in this way, allowing you to further broaden your characters skillsets and make them much more deadly.
For as important as comparing items is in Crimson Shroud, you’d think they’d have had a good system in place, but instead, you’re left with a screen that just shows you one item, and whether the stats are higher or lower. This sounds OK, but it doesn’t actually show you how MUCH higher or lower they are, and there are so many stats to deal with that you need to actually see that to make value judgements and trade-offs in areas. For example, if an item increases strength but decreases dexterity, you’d want to find out how much it does it for those to make sure that it’s a fair trade off, not increasing one of them by 1 and decreasing the other by 10. It’s annoyingly obfuscate, and it would have helped a lot to surface the information you need in a better way.
Which brings us to the worst part of the game: the curse. There’s a moment where you find yourself stuck underground and, with only the vaguest of hints, are tasked with figuring out what to do next. Turns out that what you need is a random drop from a random enemy in a random encounter that shows up only when you kill the first enemies that show up in a specific order.
It’s bad. Fans of my Twitter feed will remember me spending FIVE HOURS trying to find this stupid thing, and even when you do, it doesn’t tell you that you found it. If I hadn’t had a FAQ to turn to, I’d have given up on this game; games just aren’t made like this anymore, and for a good reason: it totally sucks. The time I spent battling the same enemies over and over until I got this item was a huge annoyance in an otherwise enjoyable game.
Aside from that, Crimson Shroud is a very good RPG on the go. It’s not the longest game, but it tells a decent yarn and has a pretty good hook to the combat. Sure, there’s a chance that you, too, might spend five (FIVE!) hours searching for a stupid item, but aside from that and some niggly presentational bits, it’s definitely an enjoyable game.