Guild01, Level-5's compilation of games by guest directors, was an experiment in ideas with niche appeal. There was the air-to-ground shooter about the teenage president of New Japan in a mech, Liberation Maiden, Yoot Saito's luggage-sorting puzzler, Aero Porter, and a rhythm action game set in a stereotypical RPG blacksmith's shop that couldn't even be translated for the western market.
It seems almost inconceivable that the final western eShop entry, Yasumi Matsuno's Crimson Shroud, could top that particular cauldron of crazy. At first glance, it doesn't. As you might expect from the creator of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, this is traditional RPG fare, a tale of three adventurers equipped with impractical haircuts searching a goblin-infested ruin for an ancient prize. Then you play it.
The main thrust of the game is a story within a story: three Chasers - a job pitched somewhere between mercenary and private detective - hunt for clues to the titular Shroud, an item that brought magic into their world, while one of them recounts that story to the man who subsequently captured her in his hunt for the same treasure. It's all told in time-honoured visual novel style - every area you enter on the beautifully drawn map triggers a description or a snippet of backstory-filled conversation between characters, enough to tell the player what's around, what's going on and whether you might have a fight on your hands.
That's all wrapped up in a tabletop game, in both the visual (every character is a static model, plastic base and all) and interactive sense. The narrator might say that you've had an arrow shot at you and ask you if you want to dodge or parry. Upon choosing, a set of dice will appear on your touchscreen and you'll have to roll to see if you're successful, with the consequences carrying into your next battle. Suddenly, it's not a narrator you're dealing with, it's a Dungeon Master.
Then there are the battles, which in their turn-based, stats-focused approach could seem straightforward, too. That is until you realise that the dice pop up here as well. Certain spells only work when a specific score is rolled, opening rolls help hinder damage, accuracy or efficacy in specific battle situations (fighting at range, being ambushed etc) and you can even earn extra dice through elemental combos and use them to augment your damage, healing or accuracy for a single turn.
That's not to mention the wider oddities, either. Each character's turn - friend or enemy - is made up of two actions, using a skill (usually a non-damaging buff or debuff) and then the usual attacks, magic or item use. The three characters never level up, meaning stats and magic are determined completely by what equipment you find and use (the better you perform in a battle, the more you're able to loot at the end of it). Walking between areas drains MP you've earned previously, meaning you can be at an early disadvantage after a long walk and, considering that even the easiest battles often run for many minutes at a time, this can be a huge problem.
Red Rag To A Bull
Each idea is only a small tweak to the expected style but the sum of all those parts is the first RPG in a long time that we've felt like we've had (and wanted) to learn from the ground up to succeed. In fact, the only true problem comes when the game attempts to add one more idea to the mix: puzzles. Most of these follow the dull 'earn key, open locked area' mode, but one puzzle (in the Gerseym Waterway) is so badly signposted that I'd rather you contacted me via Twitter for the answer than fall out with the game. It's a shame, as almost everything else the game attempts is perfectly executed. Well-implemented 3D, multiple control methods, visuals more evocative than a load of fantasy mannequins have any right to be, a rich, engaging storyline (with a jaw-dropping ending), a New Game+ mode that adds new areas to explore and a changed storyline to the initial eight-hour quest, as well as all the interwoven genre elements.
This is the perfect send-off to Guild01, a game that experiments and succeeds in brilliant fashion, managing to engage us more than games twice as long and five times as expensive. The lucky upshot of creating your own niche is that you can appeal to anyone who likes what you're borrowing from. With that in mind, buy this if you like RPGs or visual novels. Buy this if you want to see more experiments like it in the future. Just buy this. Buy it.