Expectation, or rather the weight of it, can be a terrible thing. Given the height of the pedestal on which I've placed Vagrant Story, I was expecting Crimson Shroud to sweep me off my feet almost immediately. Despite art direction that looks like a direct lift from his previous effort, this is a completely different animal.
For starters, while both are RPGs, Crimson Shroud harks back to the genre's origins where you'll find that the success of certain combat actions will be determined by the roll of the dice. Further to that, every scenario is perfectly punctuated by the the lofty prose of the Dungeon Master. This is probably the closest I'll get to playing a tabletop RPG.
There's also the switch from solo, arguably turn-based action to party combat with an explicit turn order to differentiate the old from the new. Battling goblins, minotaurs and other devious creatures here isn't that different to any other party-based affair except for the aforementioned use of dice for specific attacks and abilities. There are certain situations -- like an "Ambush" for example -- that inflict turn or damage penalties that prove an annoyance early on, and just plain deadly for a New Game Plus playthrough. It's also worth noting that characters don't level up, rather any increase in stats is determined by the items you equip. This isn't your mother's (or older brother/sister's) Matsuno dungeon crawl.
Some truly terrible level design mars what was -- at least initially -- a palatable take on tabletop action. There are several times where players are required to backtrack to happen across switches, key items and even battles, to progress the story. This wouldn't be a problem if the Dungeon Master (or anyone, for that matter) would intervene to tell you where it is you needed to go, or what it was would you should be looking for. Instead, three hours of a six hour playthrough were spent farming for a key item. Half of the time (!) that it took me to complete the game was spent repeating the same battle; something I only thought to do after consulting Google in desperation.
To make matters worse, this abominable design choice takes place within what should be your first hour of play. Most will understandably not make it past this ridiculous hurdle. I even consoled veteran writer, Brad Gallaway (of GameCritics) as he encountered this seemingly-futile scenario.
Again, in terms of presentation, Crimson Shroud feels like an extension of Vagrant Story. There is a key difference, however: battles and (most) story sequences are presented using figurines. Charming, cute as all hell, tabletop game pieces that I would pay a boatload of money for. Nothing matches the satisfaction of seeing a large, boss piece toppled. The near-static presentation method was a little off-putting at first, but it ended up being one of the key reasons I persisted with my quest.
It's far from perfect, but Crimson Shroud is well worth the paltry cost of admission. It calls upon the RPG's grandest, though oft-forgotten traditions to deliver a charming tabletop romp. You may need to search (for hours) for direction, but once you get your bearings, it proves a welcome lesson in RPG conventions.