My favourite Dungeons & Dragons setting has always been Ravenloft, where heroes get trapped within pockets of gothic nightmares, and need to figure out the mystery behind the “domain” in order to escape it. Crimson Spires is like that. Just with romance. Dark, sexy, dangerous romance. It’s also one of the finest indie visual novels you’ll ever play.
In Crimson Spires you play as former FBI agent turned small-town sheriff, Erika. Erika’s career change wasn’t her own decision. See, she was tracking a serial killer to the little mining town of Bataille (a reference to the philosopher, Georges, perhaps, though the game isn’t anywhere near as transgressive as a Georges Bataille story would be), and then, just as she apprehends him, great crimson spires emerge from the ground to circle the town. Anyone that tries to leave is decapitated. The local police tried to destroy the pillars, and they too were killed, leaving law and order within the entire town in the hands of Erika alone.
The story starts with Erika trying to track down two lost young teenagers, but it doesn’t take her long to be drawn into a web of mystery and intrigue. Erika needs to rely on the serial killer himself and make friends with a horde of vampires. She’s stuck with an assistant that does some… wildly suspicious things, and has to deal with a church that has decided to rename Jesus Christ, as Lucius Christ (and is now preaching wealth and selfishness as a virtue – Ayn Rand eat your heart out). This is just a small sample of the weird goings-on in town, and it all keeps Erika very much on her toes. The interesting thing about this game’s narrative is as sinister as it all seems to be (and can be), there’s also a strong streak of romance that runs through it, with four possible love interests for Erika, all with interesting narrative arcs in their own right. There is a powerful sense of danger about Crimson Spires, and it feels most closely aligned to the True Blood approach to storytelling.
There are so many ways this game could have gone wrong, but it avoids all of them. In far too many otome games, the central protagonist is really little more than a person swept along for the ride, and it’s the story of the harem of pretty boys that accumulate around her. That wouldn’t work when the protagonist is meant to be the central authority figure in town, and while Erika doesn’t get it all her own way (the town is about as law-abiding as you would expect a wild west village that has been overrun by vampires to be), there is a strength to her character that makes her believable (and likable) as a protagonist.
Similarly, the vampires could have fallen into the same standard tropes of YA fiction, but thankfully there’s no Twilight here. The serial killer could have been a poor knock-off of Hannibal Lecter’s blend of crazy, but as it turns out he’s actually one of the best-written of the bunch. And he has the best voice actor as a bonus. It sounds like someone is channelling Grimoire Weiss from NieR. Overall, every character and event in Crimson Spires is written with a deftness that defies expectations, and the twists and turns that it offers makes it one of the most invigorating and surprising visual novels in recent memory.
There’s also a more deliberate pacing to Crimson Spires than I was expecting. Most indie visual novels cut corners from a lack of experience and resources, and fail to deliver the depth that the genre requires. This one takes its time to get places, and frequently pauses for little philosophical asides that don’t directly push the narrative forward, but help deepen the character in question (“I know the only truth is that there is no Truth. Therefore I know nothing. But knowing nothing allows me to know a great deal more than you”). You’re allowed to get a sense of the location and people of Bataille, and clearly this is a game that has been carefully thought through rather than simply written. In the same vein as Dry Drowning and Cross the Moon, we’re starting to see more of these indie visual novels that are out there really saying something rather than just being a simple fun read with some kind of payoff at the end. Thanks to these games, this genre is truly the flourishing end of the arthouse side of video games.
While Crimson Spires might be independent, it’s anything but cheap. The character portraits are gorgeous and the overall aesthetic does a wonderful job of setting the tone. What’s more… this VN has gameplay. Gameplay! What an innovative concept! Every so often you’ll be given control of Erika in first person to walk around a space and personally conduct investigations. There’s not too much to these scenes, and I’m not a fan of the low-fi 3D art when the 2D stuff is just so pristine, but I think the developer’s goal here was to get you more invested in the story by manually placing you in it. It does work, in a way. A little like Danganronpa, when you’re given “free control” you’re really just following the breadcrumbs that the game wants you to, but just like Danganronpa, it does help contextualise the situation in a way that still background images couldn’t.
Altogether, Crimson Spires was a surprise. “Otome VN with vampires” is – and I say this with all the love in the world for both otome and the gothic – something so utterly trope-y that I had no interest in playing it. Even after reading Matt C’s review on this very website, I had no interest in it. Given that (other Matt) is the only person on Metacritic with a review of it, I suspect that many other people were put off with how blandly common the elevator pitch is. But then you start playing it and it really gets its teeth into you (sorry, I almost got to the end of the review, but I just couldn’t resist a pun). Superb characterisation, a richly woven tapestry of mystery and the smouldering sexiness of it all combine to make Crimson Spires noteworthy. There’s even a reason to buy it on Switch if you owned the PC release, since this version includes a new game plus mode with even more content to bite down on.
Okay I’ll stop with the vampire jokes now. Just play this. It’s exquisite.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb