The RPG genre has not been kind to Sony’s portable powerhouse. The UMD format has butchered more than its fair share of games with loading issues, and a lot of the ports that make their way to the PSP feel half-cocked when compared to the DS. Atlus is hoping to remedy that with their latest offering Crimson Gem Saga. Developed by new developed IronNos and Sonnori of the Astonishia Story series, CGS is a breath of fresh air that reminds me a lot of Blue Dragon in its simple approach to game design. Instead of forcing brand new tactics and unique ways to play the game, Gem Saga just delivers a classic RPG tale with great character growth, and a simplistic battle system. CGS is about as close as you can get to having a brand new 16-bit style title developed for the new generation, and it is exactly what the PSP needed.
The story revolves around Killian, a recent graduate of the Green Hill Academy, who always seems to end up just short of being number one. The game begins with Killian waking up late after a late night drinking session, and nearly missing his graduation ceremony. He continues to fall just shy of greatness consistently, and is always dragging himself down because of it. In typical JRPG fashion on his way to his first out-of-school job he meets up with a perky female that eventually becomes a party member, and ultimately begins a journey to uncover an ancient relic.
The beauty of the story is that Atlus’ translation is very comical, and even pokes fun at itself for being a game. The characters all have a charm that keeps you interested, and the voice acting isn’t half bad. On the surface, this is strictly a by-the-book JRPG storyline, but as it unfolds the familiarity of the storytelling is one of its most endearing qualities. By the end I was truly engaged with all of my characters, and I really felt like I had grown with them, which is something that a lot of newer titles tend to overlook.
The battle system is about as by-the-numbers as you can get for an old-school RPG. Everything is turn-based, and level grinding is definitely a must if you want to succeed. One strong note though, make sure you save, and save often. It is easy to move about without remembering to take the time to save, and the game does not automatically do it for you. Nothing is more frustrating than gaining a few levels and finding some sweet armor, just to have it erased when losing in a tough battle. Characters all have special attacks, use magic, and can attempt to escape battle as per every RPG ever conceived. It is amazing to hear myself praising these archetypal elements, but that is what makes CGS such a stand out. Sometimes it is better to master the fundamentals, instead of half-assing innovation.
Battles earn you both XP and SP; the latter can be used to upgrade your characters via a skill tree, much like Blizzard’s hugely popular Diablo. This is where the grinding comes into play. You will have various paths that each character can take, and making these decisions is crucial to taking down some of the tougher enemies. The SP is also pooled into one pot for all characters to use, so even if you decide to make one character a healer, it won’t detract from being able to upgrade their abilities. The system is simple and addictive, much like the classic grinding titles found on SNES and to a lesser extent the PSOne. Thankfully all the encounters are enjoyable, and not drawn out, making level grinding more rewarding without being exasperating.
One area where Crimson Gem Saga really shines though is the visuals. The game sports a 2D motif with gorgeously animated characters and some simple and colorful environments. The animations are absolutely amazing, almost to the quality of some of the newer 2DHD titles we have seen popping up recently. The color palette shines brightly and the menus are crisp and easy to navigate. There really is a lot to be said about how powerful the PSP truly is when a developer takes the time to utilize it well. The load times are also minimal, which is a bonus for most PSP owners. RPGs usually put the most strain on the UMD-based handheld, but with CGS; this is certainly not the case. If you have a chance you really have to check out and appreciate the work that went into the visuals in this game.
The audio doesn’t stand out as well as the visuals, but that is only because they excel so much. The music is pretty standard and the sound effects feel ripped from the library of RPG-ness. The voice acting is well done for the most part, but it is a shame that not every line of dialogue is spoken. Yes I know I am being picky, but it really does make you want it when you play the game. The rest of the presentation is brilliant in its simplicity, making Crimson Gem Saga the definitive RPG experience on the PSP, right next to Jeanne d’Arc.
A lot of people really thought the PSP would become the dominant home for handheld RPGs, and sadly this has not been the case. Crimson Gem Saga is truly an amazing experience that I urge all PSP RPG fans to check out. Atlus has done an amazing job of translating the game into English, and the dialogue, story, characters and battle system really takes you back to the glory days of simple turn-based glory. There is really no reason to pass on this gem if you can find it in stores. This is the RPG that PSP fans have been clamoring for since the system launched.