Crimson Shroud


Crimson Shroud is a small scale 3DS game developed by Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics) during his brief stint at Level-5. Sadly his stint was so brief that all they managed to churn out was this high concept ‘table top’ RPG. It’s also pretty good.  The game takes place on the map of a palace, navigating locations you select with a pointer, moving your character ‘pieces’ as you progress.  Some locations simply offer narrative advancements, while most of them engage you in a fairly standard turn-based battle.

the map of the palace

Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII all set a thematic precedent for what you can expect in Crimson Shroud. Like all of these games Shroud is saturated with complex ideas and familiar themes.  While the scope is clearly much smaller I still think they managed to create an abridged version of the amazing RPGs these creators are known for.  I really enjoyed it and I think it’s safe to say if you’re familiar with the previous works mentioned then Crimson Shroud will make you feel right at home.

Did the gambits from Final Fantasy XII confuse you?  How about the multitudes of unclear stats/abilities/systems from Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together?  The weapon melding from Vagrant Story??  If so, avoid Crimson Shroud.  No-one seemed to think it was appropriate to minimize the complexity to match the miniature size of the game.  It’s saturated with ideas that feel disproportionately complicated compared to the 6-8 hours your’re gonna spend with it.  But this is exactly my thing, and why I keep coming back to it all.  The game within the game.

Since there are no actual character levels, Crimson Shroud forces you to place an unhealthy level of importance on the weapon and item drops you get from the few battles you’ll face.  Take into account that said drops are reliant upon how well you perform in said battles and you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must be paying attention to every single thing you do.  Accidentally not choose the key item that’s required to advance in chapter-2 from the performance based loot screen after a specific battle?  Well, fight that battle again.  And that’s if you EVEN KNEW WHAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE, which you won’t because the game never tells you.  All you really get is an extremely vague hint about what you’re looking for and are required at this point in the game to understand the obscure rules to the battling and loot drop systems in the game.  I personally replayed a couple battles simple because I didn’t understand that I was looking for an item to unlock a door, and when the item did drop I didn’t even know what it was.  Looking around for other opinions online I ran into more than a few others sharing a similar experience.  Not a game-breaker by any means, more of a minor complaint.  Trial and error, RNG and a devious GM can all be enjoyable parts of a table top experience.  I chalk a few of these decisions up to the game concept and I find that to be incredibly compelling, if not skillfully implemented.

Giauque – still don’t know how to pronounce this shit

Many Matsuno’isms are healthily intact in Crimson Shroud.  Here’s what to expect:
– Hundreds of different pieces of equipment, items and spell scrolls (character-specific and general) that drop at different rates from different battles.  Similar pieces of equipment can be melded together infinitely to create a stronger versions of that specific item (Falchion + Falchion = Falchion +1, etc.)  You can also meld equipment with spell scrolls, which upon equipping to a character will allow them to use the spell.
– Rare drops that unlock certain chests, doors, areas that are both required and extra.  Methodology for acquiring rare drops usually involves killing specific enemies that may or may not appear during a battle depending on what order you kill your enemies in.
– A robust character stat system that contains all the variety and ambiguity you could ever ask for.  I still don’t know what exactly affects what when it comes to: ATK, DEF, STR, VIT, DEX, AVO, INT, RES.  How to assign your gear and what stats to focus on for each character is a mini-game in and of itself.  You’ll have to work at it, analyze it and through trial and error find what works best (and even then you may not even know exactly what you did to get the results you ended up with).
– Characters have specific skills that you obtain after certain numbers of battles.  This is the closest thing to traditional leveling up in the game.  You will get the chance to choose a new skill after most major battles and after reaching certain numbers of battles.  After two play-throughs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the end of the skills.
– The order at which you progress the game from area to area can alter your experience.  For instance, if you go to one area before another, you may find that things are slightly different that in you were to do them in the opposite order.  There aren’t many opportunities for this in the game, and even when there are it’s subtle.  In chapter-1 if you go to a certain area first there’s a harder battle than if you were to go somewhere else first and there second.
– A New Game+ that’s damn near a whole new game.  No one should really only play this game once.  The second game contains new and stronger items in the chests, new fights and boss fights, new areas, stronger enemies and a real ending to the story.

All of this amounts to a level of complexity and content that you wouldn’t (and kinda shouldn’t) expect from an $8 downloadable mini-game that’s one fourth of a collection.

I would actually argue that the story and characters here are some of the most interesting to come out of a Yasumi Matsuno game.  Not having any true Ivalice material made Crimson a bit more fresh for me.  I mean, there’s no huge distinction between this and anything else that took place in Ivalice (artistically or thematically) but it’s impressive that they went about crafting an entire world and parts of a greater mythology just for the sake of presenting a more complete story.

deepest lore

The trio of Giauque, Lippi and Frea are compelling antagonists in a story that’s clearly much bigger than the events in Crimson Shroud.  While they do generally fulfill standard heroic archetypes, our main characters are still fleshed out enough to not feel stale.  The dynamic between them as they progress further into this unknown castle just feels genuine somehow.

Much of this is due to the sheer volume and quality of the text and writing.  Alex O. Smith’s localization achieves the typical high standard, effortlessly weaving fantasy elements into realistic intrigue.  The narration takes the form of an overseeing entity, a GM type, who goes to appreciated lengths making sure every detail is dramatically fleshed out.  This goes a long way to help the player visualize the events, as the game engine itself only presents motionless game board pieces for the characters.  This aesthetic (which at first seems like a bummer) is brilliantly presented.  The models didn’t feel lifeless to me.  The character interactions and subtle battle effects did wonders, filling them with life.  In the end it all feels just how I imagine they envisioned it to feel (like a board game), and that’s most definitely a victory for them considering the assets they were working with.

Without the artistic brilliance, depth of storytelling and quality of writing all of this could’ve easily been a boring hack-job of an idea.  Thankfully it comes off more like reading a well-written fantasy novel where you always feel like there’s a wealth of mythology waiting around every corner.  I’ll stay away from spoiling anything story-wise because I think the first ending is more interesting, but I feel confident saying that playing through a second time is a requirement considering it provides a slightly more enhanced version of what is actually transpiring in The Palace of the Rahab.

Based on everything I’ve described here it would be a safe guess to assume this game will can only be enjoyed by a pretty specific crowd with particular tastes.  But I’d actually say Crimson Shroud can reach more than the RPG family.  Since visual novels have exploded in popularity and board games retain their niche, I think a hybrid like this still has a place in a lot of gamers libraries.  The package itself is polished (the music and art are design are both un-fucking-believable), has AAA developer pedigree and the story is well worth hearing.  If YOU’RE ALREADY an RPG fan who hasn’t checked this one out yet, literally no reason not to.  Your time and money are well-rewarded by this secretly cool little experience made by a guy who might not ever freely make a game again.

-LIST UPDATE: CRIMSON SHROUD-

1. Vagrant Story

2. Chrono Cross

3. Xenogears

4. Final Fantasy XII

5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

6. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

7. Resident Evil 4

8. Final Fantasy XI

9. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

10. Mass Effect

11. Dead Rising 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

13. Dynasty Warriors 7

14. Brutal Legend

15. Paper Mario

16. Radiata Stories

17. Crimson Shroud
Maybe I am the biggest Matsuno fanboy out there but the miniature size of this game just can’t elevate it into the realm of competition with other, full-sized games…much less big RPGs like Radiata Stories.  It IS better than the worst Zelda game though.

18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

19. Kingdom Hearts

20. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

21. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

22. Final Fantasy XIII

23. Final Fantasy XV

24. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2

-NEXT BLAST-


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Remembering Lord Rasler

Playing Xenoblade, while incredible, has had the added effect of reminding me a lot of Final Fantasy XII.  This is no bad thing.  I have already reviewed the game on this blog but as with many of my creative endeavors I find that over time I want to add or revise things I once considered ‘complete’.

In regards to FFXII, I may have written a bit more about Lord Rasler Heios Nabradia.  He, for lack of a better description, was the character that never was.  His duties included marrying our main character and dying…all within the span of the opening cutscene.  What I find extremely interesting about him (besides from how ridiculously BAD ASS he looks) is just how damn important he is to the story.

How the hell is this character, who is in so little of this game, as memorable or effective as he is?

Well I’ve come up with a couple reasons that I think are pretty important to discuss that should also help further support why I think this game is incredible.

|Setting a tone|
I don’t know if I can name a game that sets its tone better than Final Fantasy XII.  The god damn OPENING CUTSCENE depicts an assumed main character easily struck down in battle.  Just before, we saw this same guy marrying our main character.  The intro ends with the Empire’s airships advancing over a bloody battlefield where crows are picking away at dead bodies.

I won’t bother to equate Rasler’s death to something like Aerith’s but having this event take place at the beginning of our tale serves to set pieces in motion in a very interesting way.  It’s the backdrop for our story, and having something this dramatic depicted before we actually take control changes the atmosphere of the entire experience.  Here I’m introduced to a gallant and handsome knight who’s taking freedom upon his back, riding out to meet his would be conquerors.  Instead of returning home to present his bride with victory, Lord Rasler is struck down in the chaos by what appears to be a random enemy and the battle is lost.

The implication of this event is that the player really understands the seriousness of the world, or the reality of it.  Few other games would take this step to engross the audience.  The expectation and understanding from this point on is that no one is safe.  Young and strong heroes with everything at stake do not necessarily guarantee victory in this particular universe.

|His relationship with Ashe|
Ashe could be called the main character of Final Fantasy XII.  Her motivations and personal plot are as closely related to the main narrative as anyone, and her love for Lord Rasler is an integral part of it.  He was her husband and true love, but also heir to the neighboring state of Nabradia.  Their coupling was, in addition to it’s sincerity, a political union providing a unified front geographically centered between two aggressive nations.

After Rasler’s death Ashe not only continues to legitimately mourn him but goes as far as to wear her wedding ring up until and throughout the game itself.  The ring is of major importance to her, but from a storytelling standpoint it’s critical.  In the one scene depicting Ashe reminiscing about her lost love to Balthier she clutches her wedding ring thoughtfully.  This subtle moment relays a feeling that Ashe just can’t really let it all go, that her stake in the struggle is much more personal and perhaps vengeful.  Without a scene like this and an actual face to her passion you could easily accept that Ashe rebelled for simpler reasons: freedom, justice and the like.  Instead the more powerful and overriding emotion is love and the pain of losing Him.  Balthier seizes this moment brilliantly and demands that he be allowed to carry the ring, this thing that’s much heavier than its actual weight.  In realizing its importance to her and promising to return it when all is said and done he’s doing his best to guarantee that they all succeed…knowing her connection to the physical item (and by association her memory of Lord Rasler) will push her even harder to persevere.  This is incredible storytelling, yet some reviewers had the audacity to declare that Final Fantasy XII was somehow lacking in character development.

I suppose the worst of it is that I just really fucking wanted Rasler to be a playable character.  Instead, his existence is dangled in front of my face like an unobtainable carrot.  There’s even a message in that, I believe.  In allowing us to only witness a snippet of this young man’s heroics we are put in a position to appreciate the characters we do have.  If Yasumi Matsuno is willing to kill off the coolest looking character before the damn game even starts then I know I’m in for way more than the standard RPG fare.  And I do believe the rest of the game followed suit.  So here’s a salute to Lord Rasler Heios Nabradia, arguably the most meaningful ‘character that never was’ death in the history of video games.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Lately I’m finding myself less and less excited for almost everything that’s announced in the video game universe.  As “cool” as it is to go against popular trends, that’s not really my intent.  I just happen to really dislike first person shooters, hyper violent action games and sandbox titles.  It doesn’t help that more emphasis has been placed on sequels or remakes as of late…so it’s nice to witness a company doing something right with an existing property.  Or just one in particular, Tactics Ogre.  And that’s saying quite a bit considering the company at hand here is Square Enix.  They have made it their fucking business lately to whore out every single property they currently own, much to my dismay and their monetary benefit.  There was once a time when I loved SquareSoft, a consistent provider of RPG works of the highest quality.  They used to employ an abundance of creative game designers that lead the industry in not only genre sales but progressive ideas.

Such days are gone of course, and many of the masterpieces of which I speak were the offspring of a single development team.  Yasumi Matsuno and Co. were steady providers of the most rich RPG experiences: Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story…Final Fantasy XII.  After Mr. Matsuno’s seemingly bitter exit from Square’s employee roster I was worried that I may never see further works of one of this industries most brilliant designers.  I was wrong, in a way.  Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP is an inspired and thoughtful re-release of the original game of the same name.  At the helm, none other than its original team…Yasumi Matsuno and friends.  As to the how and why Square finally decided to revive this long dead Quest franchise…I have no clue.  What’s important here is that it happened, and it happened in the right way.  No embarrassing half-assed spin offs or shitty sequels made by new blood.  This is Tactics Ogre to its core.  And that’s entirely because of the decision to bring the team proper back.  If only every franchise resurrection were handled so delicately.  Of course, the source material was already a Matsuno game (work of fine art), but that’s besides the point.  Matsuno, Minagawa, Yoshida and Sakimoto were back to work and that’s a good thing.

If you’re feeling a positive vibe, that maybe I like this game a lot…your impression is valid.  Tactics Ogre is special.  My expectations were no less than perfection and the team already responsible for 2 of my top 5 games of all time delivered.  I never actually made my way around to the original version, so this remake was something I highly anticipated.  It’s hard to draw a comparison that equals a level that this new version brings with it.  Imagine if David Lynch were to come out of hiding and somehow be given full control over a Twin Peaks remake or continuation, with every single cast member in place.  That’s what Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is to me.

Hey Mid-Boss, check out what a real strategy game looks like

But the game itself is more than just a nostalgic look back at ‘the good old days’ or a reminder that Yasumi Matsuno still exists.  It is legitimately superb and brings with it some game design philosophies that shouldn’t be ignored.  But what Matsuno game doesn’t?  Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is more than just a study on how to make a great video game, it’s a post doctorate level education on the past, present and should be future on the fundamental concept of creating a video game.  I will not shy away from proclaiming that every single developer in the gaming industry has at least something to learn from TO, and that’s just as much a compliment to its development team as it is a shot at everyone else out there.  Including Nintendo and Valve or any other company you believe to be top tier.  I have long stood atop my soap box preaching about the brilliance of Yasumi Matsuno’s various visions and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together gives me another reason to never step down.

Instead of delving into specifics about the battling or strategy like many fans of this genre are want to do, it makes more sense in my mind to explain just what sets Tactics Ogre apart from every other tactical RPG.  Let’s face it, I could probably shit out a tactical RPG that was no different from anything else we’ve seen a hundred times.  You take turns, you move over squares…people die (usually permanently) and it’s all just filled to the brim with “strategy”.  No, I don’t give a shit about Disgaea.  Couldn’t care less for Saiyuki: Journey West or ANY OF THAT.  If the RPG genre is stale then the Tactical RPG genre is fucking 100 year old Ritz crackers.  In fact…I wouldn’t even call myself a strategy RPG fan.  I’ve tried them all to some extent and have come away wholly unimpressed.  Final Fantasy Tactics and now Tactics Ogre are the only ones that have resonated with me in some way.

And that’s because Matsuno games do almost everything better than other similar games.  There are always strong, deep and sympathetic characters.  Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant.  Complexity is always a focal point.  Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen.  The team’s superb writing and translation efforts, of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated, create exceptional storytelling.  The visuals are consistently top-notch.  You can apply these statements to all of his works and easily justify them, which is why these games stand above and beyond their genre peers.  Despite being completely different in almost every aspect gameplay-wise, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII and the two Tactics are without a doubt the absolute best games in their specific categories because of the consistent design philosophy.

Which side of Vyce will you see?

-Strong, deep and sympathetic characters-
Let Us Cling Together might be the best example of this statement out of every Matsuno designed game.  Denam is an interesting hero and not necessarily because of the choices he makes in the game or the way he acts, but because of the world he was born into.  In fact, it’s impossible to nail this character down to specifics because you as a player make all the hard choices from beginning to end.  He could either be a stalwart believer in the law and carry on with his assigned duties, or a chaotic hero whose choices shape the world to his own vision.  What’s interesting about him and the way his progression is handled is that no matter where you end up taking him every player starts in the same place and ends, more or less, in the same place.  He knows he wants to fight in the war.  He believes in the decisions he makes, good or bad (are there even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this game?..not really).  He is strong-willed, competent and driven to a goal.  Almost every single one of these statements is in stark contrast to the RPG genres typical “hero”.  He doesn’t waver on decisions, he makes them and takes action.  He doesn’t have spikey hair or a huge sword.  There’s no “I don’t want to fight.  Oh shit, someone close to me just died.  OK I’ll fight now!” that permeates JRPGs like a sickness.  Denam’s motivation comes long before the first screen of game you ever see, and that’s an interesting device that drives the plot and our main character forward in a realistic way.  He has an established personality and orientation in the world before you even take control of him…and that’s a good thing.  I’m getting really tired of witnessing every teenagers maturation moment in the middle of a video game.  It’s extremely unrealistic for me to connect, for instance, to a character like Cloud Strife that in the span of one day of soul-searching completely reshapes his ideals and suddenly becomes motivated.  People just don’t change that drastically.  And that’s why I love Denam.  He’s the same basic guy on the last day of his journey that he was when he took his first step into battle, yet hardened and slowly molded into your champion by what he’s seen.  Does any non-Matsuno game employ anything near this level character integrity?  Did anyone get the sense that Cloud Strife was subtly shaped by the events that he endured?  That he grew in not-completely obvious ways at any point from A to Z?  No.  He was emo and indecisive/reluctant, then suddenly The World’s Greatest Hero after a single pivotal moment.  And maybe that’s not the mark that Final Fantasy VII was aiming to hit.  Perhaps the idea was precisely to show without a shadow of doubt that THIS CHARACTER HAS CHANGED IN IMPORTANT WAYS.  An approach that is directed at young people, to be sure.  Thankfully, Matsuno and crew create games for mature adults than can read into the suggestive and not just the obvious.

And all that for just one character.  To be honest, the other story and party characters might be even more developed and interesting than Denam.  Vyce is the complicated Delita’esque best friend whose path splits off from yours depending on an early decision you make.  Catiua’s (Denam’s sister) tale and relationship to her brother are both wrought with tragedy and filled with hope depending on the current situation.  There are just too many amazing examples to even continue this sad attempt at explaining the depth of Tactics Ogre’s characterization.  The bottom line is Matsuno games have a way of gripping you with its characters and that’s not at all by accident.

-Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant-
These two guys have dual-composed some of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time and certainly not by accident.  Sakimoto has earned himself a level of musical pedigree that is mostly unchallenged by most of the industries musicians.  I don’t think it would be inappropriate to mention him in the same breath as Yasunori Mitsuda or Nobuo Uematsu.  I would probably put Mitsuda atop the list with Sakimoto’s works coming in second.

But about Tactics Ogre.  If there are two things I feel Sakimoto’s music is consistently really good at, it’s a sense of the large scale (powerful or epic), and atmospheric or emotional music that plays into the feeling of whatever is happening on the screen.  Vagrant Story, FFT and FFXII all have plenty of specific examples that could illustrate this idea, but Tactics Ogre as a game seems to almost be built with these concepts in mind.  Which shouldn’t really be a shock because of the way all of Sakimoto’s work flows through the games he composes for.  If you are fighting a large scale battle the music represents that almost too faithfully, filling you the player with an added layer of intensity.  Quiet and emotional moments are supplemented by affecting melodies.  The music box moments with Lancelot come to the forefront of my mind here.  Just as poignant are the darker themes that accompany scenes filled with treachery and crooked plotting.  While you could classify music as characterization at times, what with all of the character specific themes most games have, Tactics Ogre’s seems more like a significant piece of the design of the game itself.

And that’s really no surprise either.  Something I’ve always appreciated about Matsuno and Sakimoto’s approach towards game music is that they DO consider it a pivotal part of the design.  I won’t sit here and pretend that I know a single thing about how they make their games but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.  I can’t think of a single moment in any Matsuno game where the music and game itself feel separated, like many games to me often do.  My assessment is supported by the neat little descriptions of each track in the music section of the menu in Tactics Ogre.  A common theme in those statements is one of trying to reflect mood in the music itself.  They really do their best to supplement what’s happening on screen, not overpower it with overbearing “themes” that almost hit you over the head with their bluntness.  Another classic OST.

1. Get out your Ph.D 2. Try to explain what's happening here

-Complexity is always a focal point-
I guess some might argue that simplicity has more potential to make a game fun.  And games are supposed to be fun, right?  It’s difficult for me to associate the word “fun” with Yasumi Matsuno’s games, probably because of how complex they are…so I won’t present it as such.  Spending almost as much time in a party menu as you would in a battle might not seem like a good time to everyone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’ve always been more apt to bust out Risk than Sorry or even Monopoly.  Tactics Ogre presents you with the idea that you need to spend a significant amount of time preparing your characters throughout the entire game, and it’s far from straightforward.

Setting aside the simplest decision of which job to assign your characters to (we all know and love the classic formula of tank, damage dealer, healer) you’re left with more variables than one person should ever be expected to keep track of.  Here’s a starter list of the things you can be expected to manage:

– Each job class has a unique list of abilities to choose from as your earn ability points.  Some of them can be used by other classes, though.  Oh yeah…you only get 10 ability slots total, forcing you to prioritize precisely what your character’s strengths will be.  My Denam Ninja could be drastically different than yours, for instance.

– New characters added through the story will not necessarily start at level 1 (like FFT) but if they bring a new job with them that you want to use…it will be at 1.  Getting that character up to speed, especially later in the game, is definitely a task.  And you will want to use those new jobs because they’re cool and strong.

– There are what seems like a twazbillion characters.  And they, again, are all COOL and STRONG.  Choosing who to boot out of your current party to make room is heart wrenching.  You’ll never use more than 12 people in a fight, which might seem like a lot, but considering just how many characters there are to recruit…it’s still a difficult decision.

– There are many types of magic, all with strengths/weaknesses and unique spell sets.  If you don’t care to asses the nuances of each you may just blindly pick an element or two to have your mage specialize in, but the nuances are still there to figure out if you wish.  Giving one mage a bunch of different elements would be an option were it not for the 10 ability slot limitation.

– Equipment and stats are a doozy.  There are many factors to consider.  Elemental and physical defense and attack.  And then every other stat you’ve ever seen before.  There’s a wonderful optimize system (optimize defense, optimize attack… etc) but if you’re anything like me you’ll want to equip most items manually to see the affected stats individually…which takes time.

– Rare item drops.  Get your masters, bro.

And this isn’t even touching on the battling, storyline decisions to make (and their ramifications), the World Tarot, allegiances, recruitment…hopefully you’re starting to get the point.  What this all means is that Tactics Ogre is a game more ready to bend towards the players will, and that’s unique considering the strength of its narrative.  I understand that this mentality may not resonate with all players and sometimes I just want to play Dynasty Warriors and kill 1,000 guys by pressing one button over and over, but it is no bad thing to challenge yourself mentally.  I applaud Matsuno’s games for giving me the chance to put more thought into a video game than anyone really seems to want to.

The most broken job class in the game: Archer

-Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen-
I won’t spend too much time here wasting my breath trying to explain just how much fucking content Tactics Ogre has.  There are probably more rare drop items total than what you can buy in the item shop total.  There’s the Palace of the Dead.  The fucking strategy guide doesn’t even have the locations of all of the rare drops for fuck’s sake.  It reminds me of the mention in the FFXII guide where the developers admitted that they weren’t 100% sure of everything that was actually in that game.  Fucking psycho shit.  The World Tarot allows you to travel back in time and replay any battle in the game, choose a different path and follow it to the end without sacrificing anything to recruit the boatload of secret characters.  It’s all cumulative.  Talk about the ultimate New Game+.

-The team’s superb writing and translation efforts (of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated) create exceptional storytelling-
I guess I won’t say too much here either.  If you’re reading this you’ve probably been through my Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII reviews, which detail at length the kind of storytelling you can expect in TO.  The translation (or re-translation for the new version) is probably one of the best I have ever seen period.  There are subtleties everywhere, nuanced character distinctions in their speech and animations…the list goes on.  And the story is itself is spectacular, touching on all the similar themes you’ve come to know and love from Matsuno’s previous works.

-The visuals are consistently top-notch-
I suppose I might have to argue this one a bit considering all 14 year olds think about graphics is how shiny and brown they are.  Yes, TO is a SNES game.  No, the graphics haven’t really be revamped in any significant way, but that’s why I used the term “visuals” in this category title…not “graphics”.  If you just started playing video games post PlayStation 2/Xbox then much of what I’m about to say will be lost on you.  Then again, if you’re one of those people there’s literally zero chance that you’d ever play or appreciate Tactics Ogre.  Oh well!

Yoshida's artwork is absolutely stunning...and sexy

Sprite work is a funny thing.  In many occasions I find sprites and 2d models to be more attractive than 3d models.  I think Super Mario World has better graphics than Mass Effect, for instance.  If you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down then you won’t have a problem with me saying I also think Tactics Ogre has better visuals than Gears of War 3.  It’s the implementation, artistic styling and cohesive design of the graphics that affect how a game looks…not how many polygons or what resolution a game runs at!  For fuck’s sake man.

Every weapon in Tactics Ogre is individually rendered.  Every character has little visual quirks to them even though most of them are the EXACT SAME MODEL.  Every battleground is ridiculously varied.  The sprite work in Tactics Ogre is so superbly filled with character that it makes me want to vomit rainbows.  Matsuno’s team has this weird ability to endear us as players to these little nothing sprites as if they were family members, and it’s hard for me to put my finger on precisely how.  Final Fantasy Tactics is the same way.

Because of this I would say that Tactics Ogre for the PSP is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve ever seen.  The game world really comes to life through smart use of a world map, perfect sprite animations and subtle character design differences (as subtle as the color of a shirt being different yet that character “feeling” utterly different).

I know of at least one person who bought a PSP just to play Tactics Ogre without having played a single second of it beforehand.  That’s a good way to describe how I feel about a new Matsuno property.  If he announces that his next game as a newly crowned developer for Level-5 is on the 3DS (which he did) I will go buy one for that game alone.  If playing Tactics Ogre has done anything for me it has proved that Yasumi Matsuno is THE elite designer in the industry.  He has simply never made a game anything less than absolutely amazing.  As hard as I tried to describe at length how good Let Us Cling Together is, the only real way for you to understand what I’m talking about is to go play it yourself.  Please do.

Click here to see where Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together ranks in my Master List

Vagrant Story

I can honestly say that Vagrant Story is and forever will be the best video game I have ever played, comfortably unchallenged until the internet comes crashing down in the Robot Wars of 2098.  Vagrant Story is the reason I made this fucking blog in the first place.  It is the exact definition of everything I wish video games were.  I’m not personally setting it above the rest in some arbitrary listing, it did that itself.  And not just a little bit.  Vagrant Story is so far ahead of every other game that it’s not even a speck on the horizon for every single other game to wish it could see.  My personal experience with it was nothing short of life-changing.  When the credits rolled, I was different.  You may scoff at these statements and wonder how a video game can change someone’s life.  I assure you that the only reason you can’t grasp the gravity of what I’m saying is that you haven’t played Vagrant Story.  Not completely your fault I guess…not many people played this masterpiece.

So what makes this game so spectacular?  Did I mention that this is a Yasumi Matsuno game?  That’s a good start…but this review needs some structure before I go on a stream of consciousness rant of adoration and embarrass myself.  Most games can be adequately summed up by examining a standard list of criteria:

Gameplay
Music
Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation
Graphics/Presentation

There are then, I feel, more subtle categories that aren’t game-breakers but can either elevate or subdue the experience in general:

Tightness of controls
Camera
Pacing
Atmosphere/Art Direction
Complexity

It seems to me that most games can hit home runs in some of these areas whilst leaving the others to just get by.  Gears of War: great graphics, stupid story.  ICO and Shadow of the Colossus: great story and atmosphere, bad controls and camera.  There are exceptions to the rule and these examples usually typify what we think of as ‘classics’.  Half-life, for instance, excels in every category.  Zelda would be another.  The main basis for my argument on why Vagrant Story is just that damn good is not only does it drop a nuke on my little theory, it redefines many (if not all) of these categories in the process.  Beyond that, it’s thematically many echelons above other games.  The ideas are realized with such class that it refuses to degrade itself in a pathetic attempt to garner a wider audiences appeal.  I figure the best way to get you to understand is to just go through each category and point shit out.

|Gameplay|
Vagrant Story is an action RPG, but please take any sort of conventional labeling lightly.  As Ashley Riot you’re sent to explore the now crumbling (but once flourishing) city of Lea Monde.  You wander around (fully rendered in 3D, fully rotating camera) and fight enemies that inhabit the environment.  When you press the action button you pull out your weapon.  Press it again and you’ll freeze time and project a green sphere out from your body.  If there are any enemies within your attack sphere you have the ability to engage them.  What’s interesting (and awesome) about this is that depending on what weapon type you are currently wielding the sphere will change in size.  Pole arm? OK the sphere is twice as big as a regular sword’s.  Crossbow?  Bigger than the pole arm’s.  Functionally…not 100% necessary, but nonetheless it’s a logical layer of detail.  Now let’s say you’ve got your sphere out and a skeleton guy is inside it.  At this point a little menu will pop up next to the skeleton allowing you to choose an area of his body to attack.  If you have his full body in range you have the choice of attacking:

How do I shot web?

Head
Body
R. Arm
L. Arm
Legs

Attacking a specific area will yield damage and sometimes an area-specific result.  If you attack his weapon arm, his ability to damage you will decrease.  If you attack his legs his movement will decrease, etc.  Alongside each available region is a hit percentage and damage estimate based on how far away you are and what type of armor he’s wearing compared to your aptitude with your current weapon (a very Matsuno thing…that I love).  You will notice differences in soldiers if they are wearing a helmet compared to ones that are not, for instance.  Their damage and hit percentage both will be higher if they aren’t wearing one, indicating more vulnerable areas.  You’ll then immediately swing on your segment of choice when you confirm the attack.  If you hit another button at the point of contact you’ll swing again.  You can attach all sorts of status attacks to the face buttons and once you become more accustomed to the combo system you can achieve strings of up to thirty or more.  I also want to point out that each of the weapon classes that Ashley can use have a different attack animation and timing.  As far as a combat system goes, this one does amazing things in the ways of being accessible at first but growing into something monstrous as the game progresses.  The tactics you will have to employ to best some of the game’s meaner bosses will have you sweating.  Ashley also learns magic and Break Arts, which are more or less special weapon skills that you’ll acquire as you become more learned with a specific weapon type.  Each weapon ends up having three or four total.  The basic combat system in Vagrant Story works incredibly well and as a foundation for future games it would’ve been the beginning of something spectacular.  Can you imagine what a system like this could achieve were it utilized in the current generation of gaming?  Unfortunately this is one trend that didn’t catch on…probably because it’s smart and makes sense.

There is a weapon creation system in this game that is completely out of control.  You can break every single weapon down into two pieces (blade and hilt) and combine any of them together to create a new weapon, which you can then name whatever the hell you want.  There are endless possibilities that I don’t want to waste time discussing because it’s just too complex for most people to appreciate.  If you play it you’ll understand…you’ll also experience the music that plays in the work shops, a thing that I promise will change who you are as a person.

The other aspect of the gameplay would be the exploration.  It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to wander this vacant magical city filled with secrets, branching pathways and mystical enemies.  The size of the game itself is mind-blowing, all things considered, and exploring it is a delight.  Chests are in areas that make sense, like backrooms and storage areas.  You’ll never find a fucking chest sitting out in a street somewhere.  On the contrary, you’ll find stat boosting wines in cellars filled with wood barrels and armor/weapons next to metal workshops.  You’d think that a passing observation but when you look at other games that attempt this level of immersion you can really notice how a small detail like item placement can pull you in or knock you out of said world.    Being that Lea Monde is your typical medieval city you wouldn’t think there would be a huge variety of places to go either, but there is.  You wander down into (previously mentioned) wine cellars and mines dug beneath the city.  You find a city underground that’s moody and filled with ghastly things.  There’s a forest, a cathedral and an endless variety of city streets.  It’s all very real feeling, like it was an actual city at some point in history.  You never stumble into a place that feels like it doesn’t belong, which all goes back to attention to detail and intelligent design.  The layout of the city itself was crafted in such a subtle way that it encourages your mindful wandering but somehow always points you in the right direction.  You’re literally chasing someone through an open city who’s locking doors as they go, and that mechanic is perfectly implemented as an interesting way to progress through the game…never letting you get completely lost or too far off track.  When you meet a door that’s locked with a sigil you don’t have, it’s common sense that you must find another route.

On the technical side, both the controls and the camera work beautifully considering the limitations.  The timing required to continue a combo is a precise science that would just simply not work if the controls weren’t exact.  You will always know that if you missed the timing it’s because you fucked up, not the game.  Vagrant Story just won’t cheat you in that way ever.  How you do and whether or not you succeed is entirely dependent on your skill as a player and your ability to figure out the system presented to you (your success on the final boss is absolutely reliant on you mastering this timing mechanic).  The camera can be rotated 360 degrees with the shoulder buttons and is pulled out just enough so you can see your character and everything you need to see in the environment.  This wouldn’t be worth mentioning but seeing as how this was an original PlayStation game, it’s a big fucking deal.  The next notable Square game to implement anything close to this was Kingdom Hearts (to much less success) on the next generation console.  Hey guys…they had this 3D camera shit figured out in the year 2000.

Music

Ah, yes.  The Music.  There are songs from this game that if they came up on random while I was typing this out, I would probably come close to tearing up.  In an instant I would be transported back to Lea Monde, the scenes from Ashley’s past replaying in clarity.  It’s impossible to write a convincing argument about how good certain music is because people are moved in different ways by it.  The most important thing in video game music, however, is how well it’s sewn into the game itself.  The application of the music in Vagrant Story alone shows the flaw in that statement itself.  It isn’t applied at all.  It’s just there.  It would seem like an insult to say that you don’t even notice the music, but that’s kind of how I feel about it.  Do you notice every blade of grass that’s rendered…or every structural detail carved into the stone walls?  Of course not.  It just exists as a natural piece of the whole.  That is not to say that the music is not exceptionally beautiful or complex…because it is.  So is every rendered blade of grass and stone wall detail.  It is as much or as little as everything else at any given time and supplements every other aspect of the game magically.  Just like certain pieces of dialogue or a beautiful vista, the music will move you in different ways at different times.  The OST is a great listen for this exact reason.  Songs from this game will not only inspire emotion but the feeling of the game in general.  It’ll cause you to remember what the graphics looked like and what characters were saying, because all of these things are related in Vagrant Story.  You won’t just remember a song for being a song, and that’s important to me.  All said and done, Hitoshi Sakimoto created a masterpiece with this score and I would have a hard time naming anything else that was as beautifully implemented or evoked as much emotion as this one does.

Graphics/Presentation

PS1

I guess I would have to say that Vagrant Story has possibly the most impressive graphics on the PlayStation.  A lot of it has to do with the art direction of but the sheer quality and quantity of the presentation as a whole is stifling.  I don’t know half a shit about polygon counts and disc data storage but I usually know what I’m looking at.  Vagrant Story released when 3D gaming was still largely in it’s infancy, and it was doing things that games hadn’t yet accepted as possible.  Of course Mario 64 had blown the fucking lid off the whole damn world with it’s incredible 3D prowess, but in 2000 an entirely 3D game that looked great with a fully functioning camera on the PlayStation just wasn’t commonplace.  Vagrant Story is widely known among people who know as the game that more or less took the PS to it’s limit.  Hell, they’re hesitant today to even try to remake it for the PSP under the Ivalice Alliance tag because of how technically hard it would be.  Are you joking?  They are porting PS2 games to the PSP and doing a damn fine job of it, too.  This game is so fucking enormous and complex that Square has been hesitant to remake a PlayStation game to the PSP, ten years and countless technological advances later.  They instead smartly opted to release it as a PSN title that can be saved onto your PSP directly, and the game is honestly no better for it.  Anyone seen that quote from David Lynch talking about watching films on your cell phone?  Excuse me, on your FUCKING telephone?  I feel somewhat similar about Vagrant Story on the PSP.  GET REAL!

Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation

*I want to premise this whole section of my review by saying that you can more or less read what I wrote in my FFXII review to understand the sort of subtle storytelling Vagrant Story employs.  It utilizes the same mature style of presentation that doesn’t hold your hand or explain everything to you.  It’s a game made for adults by adults that requires you to have the ability to interpret concepts and emotion on your own.  So yeah, no point in going over all that again.*

Vagrant Story shines brightly in all four titles of this category and today should stand as shining examples of how to tell a story in a game.  The dialogue itself was translated from Japanese into Old English thanks to Alexander O. Smith.  His work on Vagrant Story was described as “unparalleled“ and “unprecedented” by his peers and it’s true.  At a time where other much higher budget SquareSoft games were committing atrocious translation errors like “this guy are sick”, Vagrant Story weaved beautiful language together with emotion to flesh out characters the like of which had rarely been seen before or again after.

Commander Grissom: Where did he go?
Jan Rosencrantz: Through the wood, he says. You will follow him?
Commander Grissom: I must avenge the foul murder of my brother, Duane.
Jan Rosencrantz: Of course you must. But be wary, your foe is strong.
Commander Grissom: God is stronger.

FUCKING BOOM.


The story itself covers themes of history, magic, religion, politics, family, war, memories and redemption, but somehow manages to entwine them together so thoughtfully that the lines that separate them are blurred.  I would absolutely love to simply describe what this game is about.  It’s a journey that takes you many places but stays realistically within the boundaries of itself.  It never preaches at you, it’s not some sort of contrived commentary on the real world like it so easily could have been based on the subject matter.  It poses real philosophical questions and puts the characters into dark situations that invoke deeper personal inquiry.  Our antagonists aren’t ‘evil’ and our heroes certainly are not saints.  Our man Ashley is on a revealing road of discovery that has a purpose…a true purpose, and when and how he gets there is the entrancing tale us players take with him.  I will absolutely never forget the moments leading up to and the ending of this game.  Because of the excellent pacing and storytelling you could just feel yourself getting closer to the end.  The events were increasing in potency, as were the boss fights.  When you find Sydney lying bloody in the candle-lit room at the top of the cathedral, you just know.  You know everything, and you can feel it.  This story was coming to and end and you knew it.  The two-stage final boss fight is separated by one of the most effective cutscenes in a video game.  Top it off with a superb ending and credit sequence that embodies everything about the game, music…characters, story and you are left pondering the bomb that just went off in your life.

In concept and execution Vagrant Story is unmatched.  It should have been the pillar with which to build a new day for gaming.  We look at Gears of War and Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto as games are ‘hardcore’ and ‘mature’ but in reality these games are just simply made to cater to what the fourteen year-olds that comprise the majority of Xbox Live think is ‘cool‘.  In one magical moment sometime in the year 2000 a little known, somewhat obscure team from the RPG powerhouse of the world were able to create their dream project without the shackles of popular ideas.  Long before Bioshock “invented” atmosphere and plot in video games and years before every single fucking game in every single genre adopted RPG elements, there stood Vagrant Story.  Before the concept of DLC and trilogies destroyed ‘complete’ games on the day of release (why put it in there NOW when we can just release it later FOR MORE MONEY) Vagrant Story was an encapsulated experience that offered what now would be ten games worth of content…and an ending that didn’t leave shamelessly leave itself open to a sequel.  It was released and then almost immediately lost forever into obscurity.  Sure it was critically acclaimed.  Sure it eventually became a greatest hits, but so does every fucking Square game.  Thinking on what it could have taught us about how to make games is almost a depressing idea.  Most of the progressive ideas about it were not really shunned, but not credited as the advances they really were.  We can only dream of what ’mature’ today would’ve meant had the lessons shown to us by Vagrant Story were accepted as ideal.  Imagine a video game world where adult themes meant real philosophical dilemma and not naked girls, mindless murder or reiterating junior high sociology class.  Sadly, its greatest achievements are also its biggest downfall, there was no real way to market it and the weaker-willed player would just accept it as some harsh, cold and distant concept which wasn’t worth the pain of enduring.  Too obscure…or too hard.  Vagrant Story is the exact definition of what the term ‘ahead of its time’ means.

Ashley spends his entire journey traveling through Lea Monde only to find that at the middle stands a beautiful cathedral towering above the rest.  It was the centerpiece, the spirit of the city.  Its purpose and luster was now lost to time and wear, but deep within it still held the secrets and the splendor of the past.  Under a coat of dust lay something more stunning, more radiant than all that surrounds it.  Sad and old, cold and dark.  Forgotten, but full of mystery and magic.  He must explore this place and he must explore himself.  At the top of the cathedral he would find the end of his story… but more importantly, answers.
Click here to see where Vagrant Story placed in my Master List!