Released in 1991 in North America and Europe, Sword of Vermilion is an RPG with similarities to other, more famous titles, while remaining a beast all of its own. The first console game to be designed by Yu Suzuki, the man behind other titles like After Burner, Daytona USA and Shenmue, it could be considered the ‘rise’ of the brainchild behind most of Sega’s top hitters right up to the Dreamcast era.
The storyline is unremarkable. You are the son of Erik, king of Excalabria (wow), who loses his kingdom after it is burned to the ground by the evil Tsarkon. You escape as a babe by being rescued by the king’s most trusted man, Blade, and for most of your life he raises you as his own. On his death bed, Blade tells you of your history, and sends you off with enough gold for a sword and shield, to exact revenge. On your way you seek out various items, such as the Ring of Wisdom and titular sword, to help you on your quest. It should be noted that this is by no means a short game, and ‘quest’ has perhaps never been so apt a word to describe the endeavour ahead.
With a storyline as mundane and uninteresting as that, Sword of Vermilion needs at least some interesting gameplay to give it any sort of influence in the RPG world at all. And that is where the game comes into its own. It borrows the classic top-down view for wandering around town areas and talking to NPCs, as one might expect from an RPG of this time, akin to the town areas in Shining Force or the like. The ‘dungeon’ perspective when exploring is however more akin to something like Might and Magic IV, or Phantasy Star, in that it’s shot from the first person angle. You proceed through the dungeon, and are able to turn left and right to navigate your way, finding maps and other items to help make sense of this new perspective. As you walk along, you might hit a ‘random encounter’, which will gradually fade infront of you with an alerting piece of music.
Then, the game switches to a battle mode, which returns you to the top down view of your character, now with his weapons at the ready, in a sort of arena environment. A random number of foes also appear around you and proceed to attack, and it is your job to either hack and slash your way through them all to gain experience and Kims (money), or to simply run to the side of the arena and escape. Magic can also be purchased and used, which can be invaluable in more clustered assaults from all angles, when just a sword will not suffice.
Bosses are fought in an entirely different manner, taking on a sort of side-on view much like Street Fighter of all things. You can approach and back away from the boss, swing your sword, duck and block, and all magic is rendered unusable. Really it’s a simple matter of mastering patterns, as with most boss fights of the era, but the constant shifts in perspective and play style help to keep the game interesting and at least worth a look for all of its interesting quirks.
Graphically, Sword of Vermilion is as one might expect for a Mega Drive game. Plenty of dark colours and big blue text boxes, there is little to write home about. Your character is a fairly bland and generic looking knight, with long (blue) hair and grey armour, and the environments he visits consist largely of masses of grey or orange brick, which after your hundredth random encounter in any one area can start to give serious eye strain. However, what is worth noting is that this is one of few actual RPG games on the console, and it stands out for that alone. Shining Force and Phantasy Star are known and prolific, but Sword of Vermilion is oft understated.
Musically, the game is decent, and the Elias theme is a particularly toe-tapping, jaunty little piece of town music. The sound is distinctly Mega Drive, in that it’s metallic and raw. This lends itself well to some of the moodier areas, like the starting village, which is I believe supposed to be dark and depressing. After all, this is where you visit your foster-father on his death bed and begin your quest. However, the random encounter battles are incredibly frequent sometimes, and the constant shift in music from exploration, to encounter, to battle, time and time again can start to grate on your ears.
The battles themselves leave fairly little in the way of thought. Simply press C over and over again to swing your sword until everything is dead. There is minor strategy in using and equipping different magic, such as the fire magic which is particularly helpful early on, sending an orbiting ball of fire around yourself. Beyond this though, each encounter just makes you want to run away, if only to hurry along with the story, which as we’ve established, is none too great in itself. Of course, you need to complete encounters to level up and acquire money, so it suffers in that regard. Nothing gets more frustrating than taking just a few steps forward in a dungeon and bumping into another horde of bats for the four-hundred-billionth time.
However, despite these criticisms, Sword of Vermilion is a game worth playing if only for its rich heritage. The first console game from Sega’s answer to Shigeru Miyamoto, it stood pretty quietly in the background while Phantasy Star and Shining Force took all of the Sega RPG glory (as well they might), and that is a pity. Its battle system suffers from the same sort of flaws as Phantasy Star, certainly, and very few can match Shining Force in terms of RPG reverence. But for simply taking so many different ideas on board all at once and not drastically failing in any, there is alot of character to Sword of Vermilion which you are unlikely to experience in an RPG again.