Quite a storied history lies behind this surprise August addition to the iPhone’s growing RPG library. Its lineage as an intellectual property traces all the way back to 1994, when developer IronNos/Sonnori released Astonishia Story, essentially the Korean peninsula’s answer to hefty strategy RPGs like Shining Force. Reincarnated on multiple platforms over time, Astonishia Story finally found its way to English-speaking shores on the PlayStation Portable in 2006 — and by then the writing was on the wall that the aged workhorse just wasn’t cutting the mustard anymore. Therefore IronNos/Sonnori went back to the drawing board for a brand new effort geared more toward fans of Final Fantasy-style RPGs, upping the ante by pumping in generous production values. Apparently desiring a clean break from the memory of Astonishia Story‘s poor reception on the PSP, IronNos/Sonnori’s English publisher, Atlus, released Astonishia Story 2 as Crimson Gem Saga on the very same platform circa 2009. Like its predecessor, Crimson Gem Saga seems destined for reincarnation, and so it is that we have Nate Games to thank for its appearance on the iPhone.
At first blush a straight port of a game with production values this high would seem to be a major coup for the company that scored the contract to port it, but it’s truly a double edged sword; a straight port will carry the original’s flaws in addition to any imperfections introduced during the porting process. This was definitely the case with Crimson Gem Saga‘s initial iPhone release on August 3, which featured such niceties as a bug that broke the skill upgrade system – Bronze Medallions, we’re looking at you! – and generally spotty submenu controls. Thankfully iFanzine can report that as of the August 18 upgrade, Nate Games has squashed the most nefarious issues and the game’s controls feel much snappier. The unsynced voice acting issue during some dialogue segments still remains, but here’s to hoping that gets fixed in future updates.
Crimson Gem Saga follows the misadventures of one Killian von Rohcoff, a recent graduate from a premier medieval military academy trying to find his way in the world. Killian’s disappointment with his second-in-class standing and his concerns about landing a job in his homeland’s tough economic climate promise an insightful and timely tale concerning the nature of success, but unfortunately Crimson Gem Saga’s scenario becomes its weakest link as Killian and the band of misfits he falls in with spend most of the game pursuing various MacGuffins, their character development limited to trading jabs at one another while revealing precious little about their own feelings and motivations. Killian’s adversaries are likewise eager to express their bravado during confrontations but frustratingly tight-lipped about what, exactly, fuels their ambitions.
I would trace weaknesses in the game’s story presentation to two overriding issues. First, the fact that the plot revolves around Killian’s search for a series of ancient magical relics lends it to segmented, vignette-style storytelling: each relic is predictably guarded by a minor villain little connected to the main antagonist, with the result that adversaries and their histories are repeatedly introduced and then wiped while depriving Killian’s more meaningful opponents the screen time they so richly deserve. There appears to be a subtext about greed that tenuously links these vignettes within a thematic context, but each episode in Killian’s journey is quickly forgotten as his troupe focuses on the logistics of finding the next item on their laundry list.
Secondly, Crimson Gem Saga‘s core plot draws heavily from events in the first Astonishia Story, and yet the game’s scenarists preferred to keep the history of Killian’s homeland at arm’s length rather than steep the environment within that history. The results are information dumps in the game’s final dungeons that tie the plot together at the last possible opportunity and late introductions of Astonishia Story characters that feel more confusing than revealing.
Thankfully Crimson Gem Saga‘s story breaks even due to Atlus’ heroic localization effort for the PSP release, which the iPhone port has inherited. I found the game’s textual quality brilliantly devoid of errors with the exception of some text wrapping issues in equipment descriptions. While Killian and his friends are lightweights in terms of development, their dialogue is consistently packed with good humor and genuinely fun to read. The same can be said of everyone Killian & co. encounter. Generally superior voice acting spices up the most important conversations, although the iPhone port added a hiccup here in the form of voice samples that are not synced to dialogue at times. Crimson Gem Saga‘s scenarists also find their stride during the game’s final playable moments, pulling off one of the most daring plot twists in RPG history — it’s a shocking triple whammy that has to be seen to be believed. If only I had grown to care deeply about the characters during their journey I would have found this turn of events so much more affecting!
The reason why I harp on Crimson Gem Saga‘s story is that its flaws are frustrating in the context of how solidly executed every other aspect of this game is. At heart it plays like a traditional RPG in the Final Fantasy vein but offers an impressive level of depth that genre fans will no doubt appreciate. As with most games in its genre, Crimson Gem Saga‘s gameplay can be conceptually divided into exploration, battling, and character micromanagement.
Moving Killian around towns, dungeons, and fields connecting these locations (no old-school “overworld,” sadly) relies on a virtual directional pad — my great nemesis as an avid proponent of Tap and Go travel. Nate Games does afford the option of using a stationary virtual D-pad or a roving D-pad, wherein the virtual controls pop up wherever you put your finger. Since the latter option allows the player much more control over making sure the directional pad doesn’t interfere with the environments visually, I found myself sticking with that over the long haul. While I would still prefer Tap and Go systems in this genre, I found to my delight that I could easily fudge a “Drag and Go” with the roving D-Pad option by tapping on Killian and then dragging in the direction I wanted to go for accurate navigation.
Crimson Gem Saga incentivizes exploring every nook and cranny of its lushly drawn environments by tucking cash and useful items throughout towns and dungeons. Killian can interact not only with treasure chests but also with mailboxes, barrels, and other environmental objects that might seem unassuming at first — a nostalgia-invoking detail certain to make veteran RPG fans giddy with excitement. Dungeons contain simple switch-pressing and key-fetching puzzles but unfortunately little in the way of more thought provoking conundrums. Killian’s party members often chime in to let the player know a dungeon’s puzzle has been solved.
Saving can be conducted at any time and a very useful map function helps the player navigate towns and outdoors environments, but unfortunately the map can’t be called upon inside dungeons. A “Quests” list available on the party menu screen jogs the player’s memory regarding where to go next after an extended break from the game. This list also keeps track of optional sidequests the player can activate by seeking out specific characters and accessing hidden locations.