Crimson Gem Saga's origins are rough, to say the least. The game is the sequel to Astonishia Story, which received almost unanimously negative reviews from the gaming press as a whole. This caused the sequel to get renamed everywhere outside of South Korea (which kept the original name) and a new developer to be given reigns to the series. Despite what this might indicate, Crimson Gem Saga is far above the lackluster game Astonishia Story was, even though it has its own minor flaws.
Crimson Gem Saga takes players back to the 16-bit era, where battle mechanics and character interaction were more important than flashy graphics or melodramatic storylines. The game starts off with a young male named Killian who has just graduated from a military academy. Following his graduation, he attempts to join one of the elite militia groups, but through a series of events, he joins up with some somewhat shady characters and ends up as a fugitive, tasked with recovering magical items called the Wicked Stones.
This sounds like a pretty generic RPG storyline, and it is - however, more emphasis is put into interacting with Crimson Gem Saga's world. Thanks to a very impressive localization effort by Atlus, exploring the towns never causes a dull moment. Most JRPGs have items strewn across the towns for the player to collect, but Crimson Gem Saga makes fun of this trope by hiding items such as bombs in places like the inns, where Killian comments about how such dangerous items are right there in plain day. Townspeople often have a witty comment or two that give the player a laugh, and even some characters from previous Atlus games (such as Yggdra from Yggdra Union) are hidden away for the most meticulous players to find. The playable characters also have the same sense of liveliness, interacting and bickering with one another throughout the game. The North American version features much more voice acting than the original version - thankfully the voice actors picked for this game do a very good job, with none of them detracting from the overall experience.
No JRPG would be complete without a battle system, although Crimson Gem Saga's iteration is somewhat average in presentation. It uses a turn-based system which includes the standard choices (attack, defend, items, etc.). However, each character has their own skills that can be learned through gaining SP (Skill Points) from defeating monsters in battle. Like most games in the 16-bit era, SP must be used unlock new skills. The first few skills are unlocked, but after that, a certain amount of SP must be used before the skill is revealed. SP must then be used two or three more times to unlock the skill permanently. Considering each character shares the same SP, it can take quite a while to amass the SP to unlock everyone's skills. It would have been better to let the player see the skill tree initially, so they could plan out the development of their characters without having to experiment to find where the abilities are located. Grinding is to be expected for these types of games, but forcing the player to go through trial and error in a system that could have easily eliminated that issue seems a bit odd.
As bad as this might seem, it isn't that much of an issue - for two reasons. Firstly, the game can be saved anywhere (even in dungeons), so the it can easily be picked up for thirty minutes or so of grinding during the day. This is great, as players don't need to invest hours into grinding and going back to the overworld to save their progress. Secondly, the game loads a quick clip (three seconds at the most on average, even on the original PSP), which has plagued many JRPGs on the handheld. This way, more time can be spent playing the game, as opposed to waiting for it to load.
The game is actually quite impressive to look at. The backgrounds have a hand-painted look to them, and the sprites have multiple animations that make them seem less static and more realistic. Even the maps have that hand-drawn look to them and it makes them much easier to look at than a generic line-based map that most handheld RPGs have used in the past, although sadly they aren't available in the game's dungeons. Reliving the days where more effort was placed on developing the game's world first, not last as an afterthought.
For those gamers who loved 16-bit JRPGs that had a solid battle system, great character development, and skill system that had a great deal of control over developing a character, Crimson Gem Saga is one heck of a throwback to the good ol' days. For those who missed that era, this is an excellent way to see what games were like back in the day. Even with its minor issues and lack of doing anything new for the genre, this is one of the best JRPGs on the PlayStation Portable. Sometimes pleasant surprises can come in small packages, or in this case, a UMD disc.