Twenty-one years ago, players stepped foot into the cloistered and depraved streets of Leá Monde for the first time. Vagrant Story has enjoyed two decades as a cult classic, one of the PlayStation’s final entries and a monumental achievement in role-playing game design. As Ashley Riot stalked through the halls of the crumbling city in search of the cult leader Sydney Losstarot and his nefarious dark magics, players enjoyed the unique and varied combat and the impressive feat of playing through an entire RPG that took place entirely in one city.
Rolling the Dice
Nine years ago, Crimson Shroud released on the Nintendo 3DS. Published by Level-5 as part of the short-lived Guild01 compilation, Yasumi Matsuno’s concise and creative title was an expression of full creative freedom and remains a tantamount example of faith in the auteur. With music composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Crimson Shroud truly felt like the unofficial sequel to Vagrant Story, a short story that comfortably fell in step with Matsuno’s breathtaking world of Ivalice.
It takes little goading to impress upon anyone why exactly Matsuno’s work is so heralded. There are few creators in gaming who can fully express their creative vision across the entirety of a development team, and like Hideo Kojima, Goichi Suda, Fumito Ueda or Hidetaka Miyazaki, Matsuno’s design is unparalleled. I have yet to come across a single world that is as expressive and recognizable as Matsuno’s Ivalice, and it is intensely impressive how the man is able to imprint his unique vision onto the tried and true biomes of deserts, forests, and ruins. Crimson Shroud is a game immediately recognizable to anyone who is a fan of Matsuno’s work, and the parallels to Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII are more than skin deep.
Yasumi Matsuno’s well-known fallout with Square Enix has (seemingly) since been amended, as signified by his impressive work on the Ivalice Alliance raids for Final Fantasy XIV. Instead of simply applying the recognizable characters from the various Ivalice games and transporting the settings into the functional world of Eorzea, the Ivalice raids of Final Fantasy XIV are exalted by their own life, impressive standalone segments that are buried in the MMORPG’s endgame.
Another Vagrant’s Story
Last year, Matsuno teased desperate fans by revealing the prologue of a “Vagrant Story 2” that would never come to pass, detailing its opening segments in agonizing detail. The prologue (translated by Stefan B.K.) showcased a mysterious youth named Jack (gender withheld) whose job it would be to acquire certain living targets in a manner similar to Vagrant Story’s Riskbreakers. Featuring a host of characters from the first game, it sounds like the sequel was meant to pick up not many years later and again be a localized effort starring a singular protagonist. Again, it would be a game of political intrigue, dark magics and horrifying undead, taking place in a metropolitan setting that featured a variety of unique biomes.
While Vagrant Story 2 may never come into existence, Crimson Shroud did, and it deserves more attention than it has ever garnished. In it, “Chaser” Giauque (Jack? Hmm), Lippi, and Frea explore the decrepit Palace of the Rahab, using their weapons and magics to dispatch enemies as they search for the titular Crimson Shroud. Chasers are a mercenary group tasked with finding and retrieving lost things (again, similar to Vagrant Story’s Riskbreakers). This particular contract involves more than a binary retrieval — a member of the political aristocracy has sent this trio to find a man who has attempted to unearth a unholy and forbidden manuscript, the “Defense of Heresy.”
Matsuno has long put his partial foreign policy degree to work, utilizing his impressive understanding of political history to design games with functionally similar plots that include notes of heresy, intrigue, and law. While not officially taking place in Ivalice, Crimson Shroud’s world is achingly familiar, one where magic was only recently introduced into the world and God’s church extends its ruling hand across the nation. As Crimson Shroud’s short but effective plot unfolds across only a handful of hours, we are treated to a game that is functionally a page out of the grander book of Ivalice, a short and sweet experience that is unabashedly Matsuno. The game also features an English translation by Alexander O. Smith, the celebrated translator that gave life to Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.
Although Crimson Shroud is an RPG, there is no experience and no leveling up across the adventure. Magic and combat abilities are attached to equipment, and stats are completely dependent upon the player’s loadout across the three party members. Combat is traditionally turn-based with the twist of a dice rolling mechanic which determines everything from skill checks to increased damage. The game itself is laid out like a dungeon master’s world from Dungeons & Dragons, and both characters and monsters look like game pieces complete with figure stands. It seems this time Matsuno was intent on making the political game literal, as playing through Crimson Shroud feels like a single player tabletop RPG.
A Celebration of Concept
Despite its short length, Crimson Shroud is surprisingly addictive and challenging. The unique dice rolling mechanic adds layers of beneficial and debilitating RNG to the gameplay, and a robust New Game Plus option (featuring the true final boss and good ending) add additional hours to the game. Every battle is a potential game-ending threat, and somehow Matsuno’s team was able to pack a crafting mechanic and a unique skill learning system into this game’s short agenda. Even with Matsuno’s unmistakable touches, Crimson Shroud feels like an indie darling, a gift of a game that never quite reached its intended audience. Although the game deserves to be praised in the same breath as Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy Tactics, it is often absent from these discussions.
Crimson Shroud is a special game. Somewhat hidden as a low-priced indie outing only available via the Nintendo 3DS eShop, it is a short and sweet RPG adventure that should scratch the itch for many gamers. If you’re a fan of RPGs, visual novels or board games, Crimson Shroud feels like an unparalleled gift, a fantastic and unique entry in the revered catalogue of role-playing games that deserves far more love than it has gotten. In a perfect world the entire Guild01 series of games would be fully remastered and released as one game on the Nintendo Switch, but for now if your Nintendo 3DS has been gathering dust, Crimson Shroud is more than worth a return to that wonderful handheld.
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