Sometimes a videogame can make itself less of a worthwhile experience by making its existence as a videogame too obvious. This may seem initially to be a contradiction in terms, but what about a movie that's constantly reminding the viewer that it's a movie? When a child plays pretend, do they constantly tell themselves that they aren't driving that fire engine, it's just their imagination? Like other forms of art and other forms of play, videogames rely on creating a world that the player can envision as complete and consistent. When a game was low-res pixels jumping around, it was fairly easy for the player to turn that abstract situation into a coherent imaginary world. For example, most videogames had art on the box that attempted a more realistic depiction of the abstract situations presented within the game. That simple act of translation becomes harder and harder as more games approach the appearance of realism, especially with high-fidelity games like Koei's latest Xbox exclusive, Crimson Sea.
Crimson Sea is a serious diversion from Koei's usual motif. Most of Koei's past titles have centered on real-world historical eras, specifically feudal Japan and medieval China (in or around the time of 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms'). This makes Crimson Sea a particularly interesting detour because the game takes place in a futuristic setting, although it does have certain aesthetic qualities that tie it to Koei's previous offerings.
The gameplay of Crimson Sea should be familiar to Koei buffs, as it's a rough approximation of Dynasty Warriors. For those unfamiliar with that system, the game revolves around using a third-person view to navigate your character through large levels as you kill massive groups of enemies. The main differences here are that the characters can use guns as well as melee weapons, and that the mission structures are impressively varied in terms of goals and how they must be reached.
The weapons actually make up much of the replay value of the game. There is a fairly wide assortment of guns, with the added bonus that you can swap parts in and out. Also, your melee weapon is actually your gun, which undergoes a transformation process when you switch to hand-to-hand combat. By switching around parts, you can better customize your weapon to your particular gameplay style, both in terms of distance and melee combat.
The other major departure from Dynasty Warriors is the treatment of allies. Sure, there were allies in Dynasty Warriors, but they weren't used in the same strategic way that they are in Crimson Sea. The player can control the placement and the facing of allies by arranging them around the main character in a strategic subscreen. This means it becomes easier to select certain allies to protect the rear, while others cover the flanks. Each different ally also has a selection of preferred positions, so it becomes important to utilize allies both in terms of tactical positions and how efficient they will be at their specific task.
Allies and guns aside, mission variety is what really separates Crimson Sea from other paint-by-numbers brawlers, including the Dynasty Warriors series. Sure, there's a fair amount of 'destroy this' gameplay, but most of the time the designers have gone out of their way to give the player a variety of tasks. Some of the requirements are to escort civilians, run through a factory collecting items, discover aliens masquerading as citizens without disturbing the peace and protect a ship while it's being repaired. Unlike most of the recent 'multi-genre' games, Crimson Sea goes the intelligent route of maintaining the same interface throughout the missions and not attempting to tie together many varying experiences.
The problem with Crimson Sea is that the gameplay cannot match the strength of the design. Both the camera and the control system are choppy and at times unresponsive, adding an unnecessary degree of difficulty to the game. Switching your targeting between enemies can become quite a chaotic experience, with the player never really sure which enemy they are currently firing at. There is the option to enter a 'free aim' mode, but since the player remains stationary in this mode and is instantly jolted out of it when damaged, this becomes more frustrating than helpful. Because the controls and camera are fairly unorthodox, it can take a while to become used to moving your character around, and even when that become second-nature, it can become far too easy to get disoriented or turned in the wrong direction.
Additionally, as varied and interesting as the goals are, the levels and monsters suffer from a remarkable amount of 'videogame logic'. 'Videogame logic' refers to actions taking place in games that have no logical explanation to them, but have become such an entrenched part of videogames that their presence is taken for granted. For example, in Crimson Sea, enemies will materialize out of nowhere, energy fields will force you down a certain path, your companions will abandon you at the drop of a hat in order to let the main character take on a boss soloalthough each of these decisions is given some superficial reason, the veil is too thin. Coming back to the example of a movie, a work can indeed reference its nature and still be successful if the work is both self-aware and has something to say, but neither can be applied to Crimson Sea. The artifice of the game is too readily visible to the player, and as such, it becomes hard to become invested in the game.
That investment is not helped by the typically brutal localization. The voice acting, although not the bottom of the barrel, is pretty twinge-inducing. The plot is typical sci-fi, and the major 'twist' of the game is resoundingly obvious even with only a portion of the game revealed. The characters themselves are depressingly stereotypical, and anybody familiar with the usual game/anime archetypes will recognize them all within seconds of the characters being introduced. With such a mediocre attempt at livening up the story, the fairly interesting worlds and society acting as a backdrop are largely wasted, which is a real shame.
The aesthetic qualities of the game are fairly well done, although the writing for the dialogue is predictably horrible. Graphics maintain a certain quality and consistency without ever once being truly outstanding. The only notably bad effects are the various particle and light effects used for the bosses, which often seem to be little other than half-done tech demos. The costumes for each character are notable because they often bear more than a passing resemblance to the ornate Chinese costumes used in other Koei titles. One exception is one of the main NPCs, Live-G, who rivals Final Fantasy X's Lulu in terms of incredibly revealing, yet non-functional clothing. The music varies between cinematic pseudo-classical, rock and classical Chinese themes, generally doing a fairly good job setting a mood for the various levels, with only a few tunes becoming downright annoying.
Even with its sometimes-clumsy interface, Crimson Sea has many outstanding elements, especially its mission design. But as good as the level goals and designs are, they are presented in a too obvious, too transparent way. The obvious incoherence of many of the design decisions allows the player to see past the realistic graphics and to observe the unrealistic logic that underlies the game. This is not a good thing because the logic is too stiff, too arbitrary, reminding the player that the game world is a far simpler universe than the one that they inhabit. This is more of a problem than it used to be because games are more and more offering themselves as simulations, rather than abstractions. Still, many modern games are able to take the necessarily simpler game logic and still present the illusion of a more complex, and thus more compelling, world. As the pixel count rises, so does the expectation for realistic internal logic to match the graphics. Crimson Sea is a solid reminder that as other areas of games progress, so must the coherency of design.