Crimson Sea. Could be about anything, that. The most important thing though, surely, is that it has nothing to do with Blood Wake. In fact, this one's from Koei, masters of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", and drags the developer's trademark thousand-unit battles into a sci-fi, anime-inspired setting, with ludicrous cleavage, bright spiky hair and wacky translations - with wacky voice acting no less.
The game tells the story of Sho, a fairly conventional anime hero with the aforementioned prickly red crown, a mysterious past and a thirst for adventure. Along with his distressingly young lady friend Yangqin (it's platonic, honest), Sho traipses around the galaxy knocking seven bells out of aliens and tickling the underbelly of society for a few loose coins.
That is until we meet him, and he picks up a peculiar job from a voluptuous tartlet in a very revealing dress for a disproportionate wodge of cash. Fishy though it seems, Sho and Yangqin hop to it, scouring some gunmetal grey back alleys and fighting off hordes of Mutons - water-based enemies (get it?) of the dragonfly, bug, spider and liquid blob variety - with pistol and sword. At the end of a few fairly boring rooms, Sho faces off with a fairly generic screen-filling liquid blob boss, easily defeated with a bit of evasion and button-bashing.
The game is pretty good at easing you into the whole story, starting off with a montage of scenes and fight sequences in and out of the game engine, allowing you to meet the characters, get to grips with the control system, and work out how to fight with blade and blast attacks of the locked on and manual varieties. Each level or sequence introduces you to something new, and by the end of the first three levels (about 45 minutes work) you'll be well and truly ready for action.
Possessed by Evil
But before we get onto that, let's deal with the basics. What we have here is a fairly common or garden third person action game with some borrowed quirks and very pretty graphics. The player controls Sho from above and behind using the left analogue stick. Forward moves forward, back shuffles you backwards, and left or right turns you. But, infuriatingly, it's a Resident Evil take-off, meaning that you can't change direction and move at the same time. The only means for doing this is a dash command activated by holding B firmly and prodding a direction, and the only means for a hasty retreat is to tap B to perform a 180. Imagine how annoying it gets when the game mistakes your tap for a press, and so on.
Fortunately, the camera is locked dead on behind you, and when you get too close to a wall or caught in a cramped room, your character (and accomplices) become transparent, allowing you to keep an eye on your target. For what it's worth, you can also wiggle the camera around manually with the right stick, but it always returns to the centre when you let go - giving you the optimum view of your often very pretty surroundings. Levels are packed with detail, to be sure, although we quickly grew tired of the grey textures, but the sight of a thousand bugs swarming over crisply detailed anime-esque characters is very impressive. Think Starship Troopers.
Back to the gameplay though, and mercifully the Evil control scheme is diluted by the trigger functions; left for strafe (sorry, "shuffle") and right for lock-on. With the left trigger depressed, you can strafe left and right whilst moving as you like, allowing you to scarper pretty hastily without having to stop and adjust your direction around obstacles all the time. And with the right, you can keep your sights honed on a particular target and circle-strafe it. On the whole, the triggers save you from the most annoying quirks of this bog standard control template, but there are still problems: in boss fights, for example, you frequently want to target the main creature but can't, because the targeting reticule hops from the boss to its various underlings like a hyperactive flea; and for a game which demands quick reactions and lots of blood-letting, having to pause to turn your character at any point is a stupid design decision, let alone in the face of a deviously patterned boss.
Right, with that out of the way…
Crimson Sea may be a third person action title, but it wants to be an action RPG. Your health bar sits along the bottom of the screen along with the magic meter; you gain experience from using spells; you have party dynamics to worry about; you can upgrade your weapons and construct new ones from various elements; and between levels you retire to a Pioneer 2/PSO-inspired concourse with vending and save game robots, a crew of sci-fi clichés to talk to and various new mission briefings to pick from.
As it turns out, Sho is the only Vipa in his home system of Theophilus, and this means along with a sword and a gun, he can channel magical power via "Neo-Psionics". As the game goes on, Sho picks up new abilities, and he can equip these to the white button on the Xbox pad, allowing him quick and easy access in the midst of battle (and its neighbour the black button isn't bound to 'reset console' or anything daft like that for once).
With plenty of options, combat can be quite varied. Enemies turn up in huge numbers, but often take only a few hits each to dispatch. At a distance, you can pop them with your gun (X), but it's more fun to wait for them to swarm and instead employ your multi-swipe blade attacks (Y). Each swipe of the sword can cut through multiple enemies, and whether they're in front or behind you, they'll take a hit if the sword lashes them - and you'll quickly rack up big-numbered combos, which equate to a points reward at the end of the level and more money to spend back at base. With all these methods of destruction and the often-radial last ditch "slaughter 'em all" Neo-Psionic attacks, you're rarely short of ways to kill your prey, but even at that you're not alone.
As quickly becomes obvious, you shouldn't just ignore the little band of CPU characters wandering around at your heel - you can organise them into formation using a mid-battle menu screen, and they'll more than earn their spurs if you stick with them. Otherwise, they take quite a pounding and quickly use up all those medical kits you bought back on the ship. Having a rag tag assortment of colourful but petulant sci-fi clichés to keep track of might not sound fun, but they help raise the combat - very much the mainstay of the game - above a lot of similar titles.
Dead in the water?
But having said that, we still didn't find Crimson Sea any more exciting than a hundred and one other action titles. This is partly because the control system is a bitch, partly because the storyline is fairly boring and partly because there isn't much innovation. OK, you can hunt around for different weapon parts, and having, say, a long barrel on a heavy weapon makes for a sort of BFG 9000 meets lightsaber combo, but the game doesn't combine RPG elements with third person action as nicely as, say, Devil May Cry, and it doesn't have the overall integrity of games like that either.
The characters, for example, are pretty one-dimensional and stereotypical - the women bitch about one another and show more flesh than they hide, and the blokes are generally broody, camp or downright cowardly. And the script is truly cringeworthy at times, seemingly penned in places by people who do not speak to other humans. Meanwhile, level design is based around old standards like shepherding a stupid NPC through an alien swarm, eliminating all the enemies in an area to unlock the next, "rescuing" compatriots and then teaming up to make it to safety, and so on, and the challenges you face generally comprise overwhelming force and, ahem, moving walls. What's more, the prize boss fights are like an assault of first-generation GeForce tech demos. "Why are we fighting a big floating blob which envelopes us occasionally?" we mused, as we tried to get our character facing in the right direction for the seventieth time.
If we had to liken Crimson Sea to another game, we'd probably opt for Unreal 2. It's better than that, sure, but despite melding various elements of risible action games together with RPG mechanics, without so much as a seam showing (glorious 60fps, too), the game doesn't take a single step forward. If a historian looks back in 100 years and wants a good example of the third person action title, this one has everything in abundance - but they'd have trouble working out where the genre went next. There are no clues here.