Kind of odd that my comeback blog is about a 1990 Sega JRPG for the Genesis, though there is totally a reason behind this. That, or I’m just convincing myself that there is. My original plan was to look at a topic I’ve had on the back burner for a few years now – comparing the contrasts in design between Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Instead of looking at two revolutionary NES JRPGs, I’m now writing about a Sega one, minus the revolutionary part that is.
My reasoning is pretty simple, and by that I mean, I don’t have one. However, around the start of July, it has become tradition over the years for me to pick up a brand new game I have not played yet, and just play through it to completion. My ability to actually complete games instead of putting them on-hold, is abysmal. My backlog hurts to look at sometimes. For one reason or another, Sword of Vermilion was recently in my conversations, and I happen to own it as a Sega Classic on Steam. So why not?
This blog isn’t a review, but merely my experience with this 15 hour JRPG. So yeah, spoilers will be a thing. Though I would be stressed to actually find anyone getting angry at Sword of Vermilion spoilers. Let’s dive in.
A game that initially released in 1989, and later on overseas. My expectations going in were low. All I knew prior was that overworld exploration was done entirely in a first-person perspective, and battles are action-based taking place on a tilted battle screen box (more on that later). Not to mention towns sporting the usual RPG overhead view. They really tried blending a mix of styles, didn’t they? Anyways, really early on in the game, my first reaction was “this is literally Dragon Quest!” Followed by “This is pretty much Zelda!” Back to “THIS IS LITERALLY DRAGON QUEST” Finally stopping at “Easily comparable to Soul Blazer, but not as good.” For those who may not have heard of it, Soul Blazer was a JRPG for the SNES, developed by Quintet and published by Enix. It’s part of one of my personal favourite game trilogies, the Gaia trilogy. You know, doing a Gaia trilogy retrospective is also on the back burner. I’ll get to it some day. As for me reacting twice for Dragon Quest, I have “LITERALLY DQ” written down on my notes two different times.
The reason behind my initial reaction in relating it to Dragon Quest was because of a few things. Firstly, you are a lone warrior, much like in the first Dragon Quest, going through the world to accomplish a goal. Secondly, SoV uses the same stat level up system as DQ, where the character’s base stats are incremented by an x amount every new level. That and both games have a pretty similar level cap. Finally, both games use the tried and true, command menu system. Though all of this should be expected, as DQ kick started the JRPG genre, and laid out most of its conventions. Until Final Fantasy hit the scene, but that’s a different blog for a different time. This is where the similarities stop though. Initial reaction-wise, I would have called it unfortunate, but my thoughts have changed post-endgame.
The journey starts off at the character’s hometown of Wycliff. The music is kinda creepy, which threw me off at first. Usually the hometowns in JRPGs have a nice somber, slightly calm vibe, but not this one. One of the weird things I noticed was that upon entering a building, unless it is a shop or church, is that the track will reset. The same goes for exiting a building. This added even more creepiness, since the beginning few notes, which set a creepy vibe, are heard over and over. Not happy times, in a literal sense. The reason for the reset in my guess, is that it’s supposed to play an indoor theme automatically. That’s just how the game is built. They did this, because all the special buildings have their own background music. But with some of the buildings in the first town, they just use the town theme, but since it is indoors, it plays it again as that building’s theme. Pretty interesting way of saving space by not having to make house music for only a few buildings. If it was a cartridge space issue, that is. Also the Church theme was kinda dull for me in the beginning, but I got used to it. It had the right style, but just really didn’t go anywhere. Much the same could be said about the overall soundtrack, unfortunately. At least the Inn music is pretty jamming.
Buying equipment in Sword of Vermilion is done the old school way. As in, they don’t display weapon stats of any kind. So I gotta do it the old fashion way of looking at my stats screen, equip the item, then look back at the stats screen for improvements. At least they kinda help by pricing better equipment more expensively. Though that should be a standard. Actually now that I’m thinking about it, nothing, in any type of shop, contains any sort of item description. Not even viewing the item in your own inventory presents such an option. You have no idea how many times I see an item/spell and have no idea what the hell it even is. Besides the ones that have obvious names, the functionality of the others has to be discovered by use. Or you could totally just look at descriptions online. I’m guessing most, if not all, of this information was provided in the guide book that came with every copy back then. Seriously though, that would make me wanna put this game on-par with NES RPGs released before, or around the time of this game. Except NES RPGs were way more advanced than that. Heck, Dragon Quest II, a game that came out way before SoV, still displayed weapon stat info, and on a 8-bit machine no less! Even crazier was that Dragon Quest 3, the game that changed Japan, and Final Fantasy were released before this one. So let’s not even start with how advance the genre was becoming at this point. I dealt with this frustration for a good portion of my playthrough of this game. Plus add in the “Sega Genesis does what Nintendon’t” marketing this game got back then into the equation… Like, were they really trying to outdo NES RPGs with SoV? Were people going to be impressed with the game’s visuals alone, and how awesome the first person 3D exploration looked? Yeah, they probably were. Graphics were the fastest way to a consumer’s home, true even today. It made me think how much must have been sacrificed to get that really nice looking, and surprisingly smooth, first person 3D perspective. Eventually my thoughts do change a bit, and I come to a very different conclusion by endgame. However, that will be saved for later.
At the very beginning, another point of contention for me was button layout. As C was used as the primary button. Now hear me out, it isn’t a issue of what letter, but rather button placement. I played this game first on a keyboard to test it out, then immediately a PS3 controller for the entirety of my playthrough. Button layout was just weird, and did not make any sense to me. I’m just glad button mapping is a thing on Sega Classics. Midst my confusion, a friend, who has way more Genesis experience than I ever could possibly wish for, clarified that the C button on a Genesis controller is located at the edge, where the A button on a Nintendo controller would be. Since I actually have never touched a Genesis game on actual Genesis hardware, I never really thought of it that way. It makes a lot of sense. So thanks, friend.
Now we’re moving outside of the town, and to the overworld, which is first person. One of the things you will first experience, and quite frequently I might add, are random encounters. Just for the record, I’m a lover of classic turn-based RPGs, so high random encounter rate is something I actually like. Weird, I know. Sword of Vermilion does not contain a turn-based combat system, but instead an action-based one. Also for the record, I do not like action-JRPGs (well except for the Gaia trilogy). It still transitions to a battle screen, where the screen is tilted and looking down at an almost isometric view. Random amount of the respective enemy will appear on screen. And now this is where things get pretty bad to right-down terrible. Combat is clunky, like really clunky. Half the time I can’t even tell what I’m hitting, like almost zero indication. Even worse is when I’m hit there’s also practically zero indication besides the grunt my character makes. Sometimes I’ll see a strike line appear on a monster when I strike, other times only the sound effect. Enemies don’t flash when hit, and neither do I. We’re just kinda running into each other, quite literally, since monsters don’t have an attack animation. Just touching them takes away hit points. Really, really bad. While we’re at it, let me tell you about the character’s animations. The swing animation is terrible, like garbage terrible. He swings upwards in a little swipe animation. What is that even supposed to be? The hitbox for the attack isn’t much, but ridiculous at the same time. The damage box remains as long as the animation is still happening. Which means the short swing upwards, then back to rest position. If you can get your timing right with this, taking down enemies becomes a cinch. Even better is that the character can be moved while attacking. So when going against a group in close proximity, hitting the enemy, then pivoting the character around will cause damage to any monster who touches you. It’s pretty great. Sort of like Soul Blazer, where the character’s normal sword strike has an almost 360 degree attack radius. To add another positive thing, exiting a fight is amazingly easy. Just exit the battle screen to either the left and right. I love this, since dealing with enemies who automatically poison you suck. Better to just run away from those encounters. Going back to group encounters, they at first can be a nightmare since you just lose hit points left and right. But as the game went on, I begun getting a hold of the game feel, things became easier… some of the time. Who am I kidding, it often stayed pretty terrible. At this point I started speculating that with this style of combat, maybe they wanted to compete against Zelda? Early group encounters reminded me a lot of being locked in a dungeon room in Zelda 1, full of Iron Knuckles or something. Hmm, I suppose it’s something to think about.
The overworld seemed pretty neat at first, but when I discovered NPCs just gave maps of every area, the first person view became a waste in my eyes. Most of, if not all of the time, I would simply just stare at the map screen when navigating. There was almost no reason for me to look at the main first-person screen. Frankly, I was not a fan. Though to be honest, I guess they did need to show off those 16-bit graphics, and how much better their games looked compared to the Nintendo. Look at this 3D like world exploration! Anyways, onto a few things that caught my attention. I Found it interesting that turning in place on the overworld counts as a step for random encounters. The fact that I have to click two commands from the menu to open a chest, then take the item, can be annoying at times. There were a good few times I opened a chest and then simply walked away without actually taking the item. Same goes for opening locked doors in caves, pretty tedious. 1989 guys, 1989. For the longest time, I had no idea if I even had a defence stat. After equipping and checking my stats screen a few times in a row, I noticed my ACC stat changed. Guess that’s my defence in this game? During battle, some enemies will run back when attacked, then try their luck again. I thought that was pretty clever way of making sure monsters aren’t just running into my sword. The death penalty in this game is the type I like in JRPGs. Return back to the last chruch, with half my money gone as punishment without resetting my progress. Just like in DQ! Guess this is where the second “THIS IS LITERALLY DQ” comes from.
I really do enjoy the sprite work in the game, even if it does get repetitive to look at, as they reuse assets consistently (like how most buildings only have 2 different kind each). The sprites are large with great detail which I do enjoy. With the NES being Sega’s target, this game really does stand out in that regard as mentioned before. What surprised me at first was even if the towns all look the same, with only 2 distinctive styles to pick between (village, and city), at least each one has a lot of personality. I really enjoyed how each town had its own story that had to be dealt with before achieving that one step closer to the overall end goal. For today, yeah. it’s very cliche, but I did enjoy what SoV had to offer town-stories wise.
Now, Sword of Vermilion is a very linear game (I’m okay with this), it boils down to 3 paths:
- Path 1 is the path that leads to the previous area.
- The second path usually leads to the cave for this section.
- And finally path 3 is the route to the next destination.
Every now and again, an alternative path might show up, which most of the time lead to an optional cave, but that’s about all. The towns themselves have a 3 step process. First talk to the NPCs, then the king. After talking with the king, talk to the NPCs again to get directions/map to the objective. And when all is said and done, talk to the NPCs for a third time for the direction to the next area/map. It never really deviated from this, which made me think this game would pretty much carry this pattern all the way to the end. And I was pretty happy with that, but surprisingly, about half way through the game becomes much more involved (got my first side quest). This made me enjoy Sword of Vermilion more. Guess I shouldn’t underestimate the game too much, eh?
One thing I really do like is the sense of progression the game has, which is in part due to its linearity. There is progression felt every time I finish the town’s objective, and get ready to move to the next one. Each time I get a ring, and other more minuscule ways. For example, when exploring caves, a candle has to be used, but only stays active for a very short time. Then lanterns are introduced, which light the cave for the entire duration, and then later magic that can do the same thing. Or how an item has to be used to warp back to the village as a means of fast travel at first, but only to the last village visited. Soon after you learn a spell that can warp you to any previously visited town. And of course, the most obvious sense of progression, leveling up. Though, the leveling up system is kind of weird in my experience. The gap between the amount of exp needed between levels early on grows hugely apart, but stat increments are also pretty significant. However, later on in the game, leveling up becomes rather fast (after level 15). Not sure if exp gap becomes smaller. or enemies start dropping much more exp. Either way, it’s a weird balance. Reaching the cap of level 31 by the last cave seems like a normal things that is supposed to happen. Unless you run away from a lot of battles I suppose. But this is also a good thing, because besides the early game grind (which I enjoyed), there isn’t really a need to grind at all. Though, even with the lack of need to grind and the easy level ups in the later half, enemies continue to take away a stupid amount of HP. Even with the best equipment on! This is mostly a problem I see on the overworld, as I found encounters in the caves to not feel as bad.
Time to tackle boss battles, oh boy. Boss battles take place on a 2D plane, with really great sprite quality I might add, but they’re really bad. Bosses might look cool, but are beaten after only a few hits. Enemies for the most part just hang around at one end, while the character has to move from the opposite end to attack. Pretty simple, eh? However, since boss battles are easy, they balanced it in a different way. Boss projectiles will continuously push you back to your side. By that, I mean projectiles don’t disappear upon contact, they only disappear once range limit is met. So the character continues taking damage as he is forced backwards. Which is honestly, one of the most annoying things I’ve gone through in this game. Also touching the boss, like normal enemies, takes away stupid amount of HP. It’s not uncommon to see the HP meter go from full to zero by only just touching the boss for a few seconds. There is nothing fun about it, it is super dull. I’m just glad the battles end rather quickly.
From here on out, I will be covering the mid to endgame. At the halfway point, I reached the city of Malaga. After conversing with the castle, it seems I’m supposed to become the future King of this place once my quest ends. Pretty sweet! Except the shopkeeper… he stole my sword because I refused to buy his overpriced vase… What? HE ALSO STOLE MY MONEY!! Pretty sure before this point I was close to 100k. Screw this guy… DOESN’T HE KNOW I’M GONNA BE THE FUTURE KING OF MALAGA?! I’ll shut his shop down faster than cartridge loading times. I was shocked, and kinda frustrated that I needed to thus grind for 25k to buy new equipment with. I tried everything, there was literally no way of getting my stuff back… wow. Oh well, moving on to the next area. Around this time the sidequest cave for this area had 3 floors! Every cave until that point only had 2. But a random cave off from the main path had 3! It was crazy, and I fully expected soon after this for dungeons to get even crazier. And I guess they sorta did in a way. Also around the midway point, area maps stopped becoming easily accessible. Instead, I needed to venture into the unknown territory and find the map for that area. And later, the end area gets rid of maps altogether… sorta. I personally thought it was an interesting development. Exploration in the dark to get the maps wasn’t too bad either. It was a nice way of shacking up the formula a bit. You could almost say it was a dungeon before the actual dungeon! Like Skyward Sword or something, except not at all like Skyward Sword.
Near the endgame, the story started to catch me off guard. I suppose I just got really used to the repetitive pattern, but them shacking things up for the end made me appreciate the game a little bit more. Basically, the King of Swaffham gave me a fake ring after making me go on an errand trip for him. I didn’t find out about the fake ring until I reached the next town. So it was time to fly back to Swaffham and confront the old cheap bastard about it, but when I got there… it was in ruins! I was pretty much caught off guard, mainly because I didn’t expect the game to break off from it’s established pattern. Nice one, SoV!
Now we’re at the last town, Hastings. It is the clam before the storm, since the next destination is the end area. A few optional sidequests open up for me, and half of them are actually worth doing in my opinion! One is to get the mirror, which is so, so useful! And the other is to retrieve the… Sword of Vermilion? Ooooh hey, the title sword which I completely forgot about, is actually a thing! This is like pulling the Master Sword from its eternal resting place. This is like… a few other analogies like that one, which I’m having a hard time coming up with for some reason. It’s gonna be epic. It’s gonna be just like the epic title screen! Oh man, this is gonna be hype! Haha…ha… except not at all… THE SHOPKEEPER WHO TOOK MY STUFF JUST GIVES ME THE SWORD LIKE IT WAS NOTHING. “Hey I took your sword and money to craft the strongest weapon in the game like it was nothing!” So anticlimactic… I don’t know, this just feels dumb. Good going scenario writers. I mean, all of these sidequests can just be skipped. Meh, whatever. Also I’m pretty sure the “seek” command was only used for like 2 endgame sidequests. Good job, game. Well at the very least, I find the hidden house in Barrow to be a pretty cool thing. It’s a small thing, but I feel like it adds a lot to the world. Too bad they never really have context for it, or why the old man was there/wiling to sell me the pass to the main bad guy’s city. So many questions…
So to skip right to the last cave, we’re at the final boss! They build this guy up like crazy… and he offers the most anticlimactic final boss fight ever. Like, ever. His first form is just him throwing common everyday cave monsters at me. His second form could have been great… well I mean, as great as boss battles get in this game, which they don’t. The second form was designed to take advantage of the space to get cheap shots at the player. The form has two heads, and starts pretty close to the player’s end of the screen. As I walk forward, the head reacts by shooting the ground. There is literally no way for me to damage it without going hit by his projectiles, because he only fires when I get close. Might seem super unfair, but here’s the kicker, he barely does any damage at all. As you “cut off” his heads, he’ll move back and regenerate them, but each head will be closer to his body from the last time. No seriously, my HP was around 1004 going into the fight, and I came out of battle with my HP in the 800s. I defeat the boss, and before he dies apparently, he tells me to go back to his city. Cool, except the game requires me to exit the dungeon myself, which is super pointless. There are no more monsters, but I gotta go through multiple commands to open locked doors and stairs to get to the exit. Kind pointless, they could have just ended the game there and just have a cutscene or something. Trivial stuff.
Play time: 16:17:44 according to the Sega Classics launcher.
In conclusion I really liked how well the game felt structure-wise. There was always a clear direction of where to go, and I never felt lost. I knew exactly what each path was and where it lead to. For the first half all dead ends lead to a chest, which I was super into. Of course as time went on that stopped being the case. Pretty certain one of the dungeons had zero chests in it besides the floor map. I believe the word I’m looking for is convenient, as in I’m glad the game had conveniences. Like what I mentioned above about always knowing the direction, it was convenient. Not wasting an item if it fails upon use is convenient. Level ups automatically restoring HP/MP is super convenient, as many JRPGs do not do this. It’s almost exploitable sometimes, especially when level ups become much more frequent by the late game. And other such things. Story-wise, it’s not about what they tell (well it is to an extant), but how it’s told. World building, and lore telling is all done through NPCs. Like, I was shocked when I was hit with the realization that a person could skip most NPCs and never find out about the lore/story. NPCs serve 3 purposes in this game: 1) status of the town 2) status of the next town 3) building on the already established lore. It is crucial to talk to NPCs at least twice to get the important details. I have a fond appreciating for this method of world building and storytelling. No exposition dumps or nothing… well that’s a bit unfair, since SoV’s story is as basic as it gets.
To reiterate, the combat is clunky, and the first person view is pointless. Sword of Vermilion overall felt inferior to much more complex NES RPGs out at the time. Even the stories they tell are much more complex, and that of a larger scale. This raised my question I stated earlier in this blog – what is the point to this game? Why does it feel inferior to games that came out well before it? I was wondering who they were trying to compete against. It couldn’t be NES RPGs, could it? Well actually, maybe a little. The key player in this is Phantasy Star II, which had released just months prior. Now PSII was the real competitor when it came to NES RPGs. It has everything. So where does that place SoV? In my opinion, and mine alone, I feel as though it was a weird combination of DQ1 and Zelda, but also trying to stand out in its own way. The action oriented combat system, the first person 3D overworld perspective, and so on. It borrow’d aspects from those two games, but also gave a unique experience. And about half way through after getting used to the game feel of SoV, I accepted it as it is. It’s like a Soul Blazer type of game, except not as good. However, they were able to create something that’s still charming in a way. I suppose my expectations really got in the way here, however in the long run, I can clearly say that I accept the game for what it is. A clunky, linear, action JRPG stuck in the past for even then, with no memorable music/characters/villian/anything really, only great visuals. No wonder this game never got a sequel. I mean…
Well that’s my takeaway from Sword of Vermilion. The blog ended up being much longer than I anticipated, and might feel like I rambled on for far too long. But that was the point of this blog, to ramble. It was my ramblings of a 16-bit Sega RPG. So what’s for next time you ask? I bet you actually didn’t ask that, but anyways… Will it be my DQvFF blog? Fire Emblem analysis? Gaia Trilogy blog? Nope, nope, and nope. Instead it’s gonna be a top ten Zelda games list thing. It kinda came up, so I’m rolling with it!
Thank you for reading what is essentially my comeback blog. Until next year when I finally post my next post. Bye for now!