Once upon a time, there was a funny little fighting game on PlayStation called Ehrgeiz.
Ehrgeiz was noteworthy for a number of reasons: its high-resolution graphics; its beautifully slick framerate; its inclusion of Final Fantasy VII characters in its roster… and the bizarre inclusion of a full-on dungeon-delving action RPG mode.
If you have fond memories of that particular aspect of Ehrgeiz, then you’re most certainly going to want to check out Crimson Tears, since it’s by the same developer (DreamFactory) and expands that concept into its own distinct experience. And, given the apparently enduring popularity of games with roguelike elements, it’s a game that remains impressively relevant even today.
In Crimson Tears you take on the role of three questionably dubbed but beautifully cel-shaded “Mutanoids”, bioengineered living weapons sent in as a last resort when the shit really hits the fan. And it seems that in the Tokyo of 2049, the shit has really hit the fan, what with the friendly local weapons manufacturer having “accidentally” turned the place into a dimensional maze with constantly shifting layouts. Oops.
While much more powerful than your average normal person, the three Mutanoids, Amber, Tokio and Kadie, have all maintained plenty of “humanity” about them, and have their own motivations for delving into the dimensional labyrinths beyond simply kicking seven shades of snot out of the local slobbering bioweapon population. Specifically, they’re trying to find out a bit more about who they are, why they were created and what’s really going on.
Okay, it’s a pretty cliched setup, and the dub-only voice acting really doesn’t help the dodgy Saturday morning cartoon feel… but the game itself is seriously juicy.
Split into a number of discrete stages, each concluding with a boss fight the first time you reach the end, Crimson Tears is essentially a combination of brawler and roguelike dungeon crawler. It’s fully real-time, features three characters who play markedly differently to one another, and is an absolute bitch to get through if you don’t take a great deal of care over what you’re doing.
Each stage is further subdivided into several levels, and on each level you simply need to find a key to unlock the transporter to the next. There are, of course, lots of enemies standing between you and this key in most cases, so you’re going to have to fight your way through.
Enemy encounters are divided up by room, so if you find yourself in over your head you can often duck out of a nearby door to catch your breath. This doesn’t always work, mind you, as beginning some encounters causes all the doors to close until you defeat all your foes!
Each of the three playable characters can equip a number of different weapons, with particular specialisms for each. Amber, for example, can wield two identical weapons, Tokio specialises in ranged gun attacks and Kadie is good at speedy knife swings. You don’t have to stick to their specialisms, however; there are a number of different skill trees you can unlock over the course of the game, so if you prefer using Tokio to fight with his fists, for example, you can pump up his unarmed skills to unleash longer, more devastating combos.
Combat is fairly simplistic for the most part, but a bit of depth is added by a few elements. For example, if you can attack an enemy from behind before they are aware of your presence, you can generally kill them instantly. This is a godsend when dealing with heavily armoured enemies that you’d otherwise have to wait for an opening to damage.
Different enemies also have distinctive attack patterns, often with accompanying visual and sound cues to let you know what’s happening. Understanding how your enemies attack — and prioritising the order in which to attack them — is essential to clearing out rooms once you get into the later stages.
On top of all this, you have to manage a mechanic called Overheating. As you perform any actions in the dungeons, a bar fills up, and when this reaches its maximum your vision blurs, your health slowly drains and your defense is halved… but your attack power is doubled. There are various items throughout the levels that allow you to manage this gauge, but there are times when the increased attack power is desirable — just take care not to get hit!
And as if that wasn’t enough to worry about, you also have weapon durability to take into account. Interestingly, weapon durability declines much more quickly when you get hit rather than when you simply use the weapon — although continuing to use a damaged weapon will mean it eventually breaks, too. It’s difficult to repair weapons in the dungeons and if you break it, you lose it completely — a fact made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that the more you use a particular weapon, the more it levels up and becomes more powerful. Thankfully, your weapon automatically repairs itself when it levels up — much like you heal yourself when you level up — and you’re also able to repair and upgrade damaged equipment in town between excursions.
There are a few other interesting twists on the genre along the way, too. You can only take one of the three characters into the dungeon at a time, but if you get knocked out, you can send one of the other two to attempt to rescue them, guided by voice prompts. If you rescue your comrade before the time limit expires, you’ll get an experience point reward, but if you fail, both of those characters will be out of action for a period of time, requiring you to make use of the third character. In this way, playing all three of the characters rather than sticking with one is encouraged, because there’s nothing worse than getting stuck with the one you haven’t levelled much!
Crimson Tears is a lot of fun. Sure, its plot is about as hackneyed as it gets, the English voice acting is atrocious and it’s very repetitive — as expected of the genre — but the whole thing is carried of with a marvellous sense of style and accomplishment. It’s a PlayStation 2 game that still looks great nearly fifteen years after its original release and, so long as you have the patience to deal with its idiosyncracies, immensely rewarding and satisfying to play.
It does kinda make me want a Senran Kagura dungeon crawler though…
More about Crimson Tears
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