Crimson Gray and its sequel, Crimson Gray: Dusk and Dawn are wonderful visual novels. I had a fantastic time going through them and despite both of their short lengths, they quickly became some of my favorite visual novels as I read them back to back. Surprisingly, the two games have a lot of differences, despite the second game being a direct sequel to the first. It’s enough that I can confidently say that the two games excel at different things. That being said, I’d say that I enjoyed both games equally, so maybe the title would have better been “Great Stories with Different Appeals,” or something (Also I doubt you could really enjoy the second game without playing the first).
The first game has you play as its protagonist John, a clinically depressed high schooler. That… sounds awful and generic, but the game’s approach to portraying depression is actually pretty decent. John’s monologue about simply not feeling much or his sudden drops in mood is uncommon in visual novels, especially to this extent, helping it feel real and giving him some actual depth and likability. The story doesn’t push it though, and his monologues or moments don’t ever feel like they linger on for too long.
His depression is also portrayed visually, with the game’s backgrounds, text boxes, and font all being in black and white. When John begins to feel better, some of the color in the game’s backgrounds actually show. It’s not the most subtle and it isn’t the most original idea, but it’s nevertheless effective and gets the job done. It also sort of camouflages the poor quality of the game’s background art, too. They’re all stock drawings that look generic and boring, and so by them being so desaturated and blurred, the game manages to make them complement and add to the game’s atmosphere and character instead of standing out like sore thumbs like in most indie visual novels.
That being said, I think the primary appeal of Crimson Gray is its heroine, Lizzie. Especially so in the first game, which in some ways I think is a sort of ‘waifu game.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that— if I’m being honest that’s sort of the only reason I played it in the first place. The game delivers fully on its yandere appeal with Lizzie, who’s brilliantly violent, impulsive, insane, adorable, and madly in love. Despite some hiccups that the game makes with trying to show Lizzie as being crazy, particularly its usage of repeating one word or phrase or removing the highlights in her eyes, the game is definitely successful in creating a character that a fan of the trope would like.
Though I greatly enjoyed the game, it definitely isn’t perfect. And in my eyes the biggest problem with it is its dialogue choices. Not the choices themselves— there’s actually quite a lot of variation in the story depending on your choices— but rather the way that the game’s endings are reached by the choices, particularly the happy/true ending. Putting aside obvious choices, the way that you reach the ending is by avoiding having sex with Lizzie and by occasionally avoiding some of her advances. This allows John to make decisions in the climax of the story that he wouldn’t otherwise that involve a more deeper bond and trust in Lizzie. I think what the game intended is for those earlier choices to be John being able to trust Lizzie enough to be willing to show what he is and isn’t comfortable with or willing to do. That in it of itself is fine, but the problem is that it’s not communicated whatsoever to the player.
Like here— the dialogue choices you’re given is “Agree” and “Disagree.” The correct decision is to disagree, presumably because it shows a willingness to be honest with Lizzie while agreeing implies that you’re just lying to make her happy… which is bullshit. Because the game doesn’t make that clear. The option of “Agree” could just as well be John genuinely believing that Lizzie would not hurt him, and yet the game doesn’t consider that as a possibility on the player’s perspective. Hell, the dialogue following the option “Agree” doesn’t even make it clear what its implications are. Anyone with the wrong interpretation of a one-word option is basically fucked when looking for where they went wrong.
The other, lesser but nonetheless problem in the first Crimson Gray is some of its plot. Unlike most stories that take a yandere-type personality as granted, Crimson Gray takes its shot at giving an explanation for it, providing Lizzie with backstory and the visual novel with an overarching plot. To summarize, there’s a conspiracy with a large pharmaceutical company that conduct(s/ed) unethical drug trials on people, one of which was Lizzie’s mother who was secretly pregnant with Lizzie at the time, making her the wonder that she is. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was boring. It has its own moments, but I don’t think it’s as enjoyable as the rest of the story. I’m mostly including this as a prelude so that I can get into a point later in this review though, so I’ll move on.
I’ve already said it, but the second game, Dusk and Dawn, has quite a few differences to the first. The biggest of which is Lizzie being the protagonist rather than John. This switch in perspective makes for quite a different experience despite the story being a direct continuation. And because of it, I think that in a broad sense, the second game is better written than the first. Whereas the first game had a sort of waifu appeal with lots of the game being your protagonist interacting with Lizzie, the second game has you experiencing Lizzie’s thought process and feelings first-hand, instead offering a unique and interesting character study. For that reason, I think that more people would find themselves enjoying the second game much more as it relies much less on liking Lizzie as a character.
Narration and monologues take the forefront, getting even more attention than it already had in the first game. Although the first game did a good job of capturing John’s depression, it’s ultimately much less interesting and more common compared to Lizzie’s insane, serial killer-like thought process. Because of that, the narration in this game generally makes for a much more enjoyable read. The game also pulls some cool tricks in dialogue options, automatically moving your cursor towards certain dialogue options such as “Kill the track team just to be safe,” or dialogue options changing when your mouse hovers over them. Like the monochrome backgrounds in the first game, these aren’t the most original ideas, but they’re still effective and I personally always find them to be neat.
Speaking of monochrome backgrounds, they’re nowhere to be found in Dusk and Dawn, but thankfully to make up for it, the background art in this game is much more visually appealing and interesting than the bland ones in the first(which fit the game, that wasn’t a weakness there).
John is also a much more interesting character in the second game. In between the first and second game, he goes through some changes in personality and behavior that the audience doesn’t see. Although he still is depressed, unlike before, he’s far more receptive to Lizzie, and lacks any remote sense of fear of her. It’s a really interesting yet somehow natural transition from his previous character, and seeing the dynamic between Lizzie and John in their dialogue is very enjoyable.
There are also some subtle touches like Lizzie’s narration slowly capitalizing the “h” in John’s pronouns after being asked by him to stop.
Surprisingly, the issue that I have with the branching choices in the first game is nowhere to be seen in Dusk and Dawn. Although I still had some trouble finding the true ending, the choices that lead up to it and the choices that don’t actually make sense, and is explained in the dialogue following the dialogue options. The greatest example I think is when you have the option to quietly support John or to talk to him about your issues. On the surface, the latter option seems much better— it presumably brings the two of you closer together and promotes honesty and openness in the relationship, something that seems crucial to Lizzie given her constant paranoia. The game sort of leads you to picking this, too, as lots of other choices have similar options, and in most cases it is the correct option. In my first playthrough, that’s the option I picked, and the reason for the lack of a true ending was due to John being too stressed out. Picking the first option allows Lizzie to spoil him for the day, relieving some of John’s exhaustion and stress, which is what is missing in their relationship otherwise.
Unfortunately, the Dusk and Dawn isn’t all smooth sailing. The major flaw in this game is the return of the conspiracy crap that was in the first. Whereas in the first game, it was just not as good as the rest of the story, in Dusk and Dawn, it feels entirely unnecessary. At least in the first game, it was a sort of overarching narrative that led to the story’s climax. And more importantly, there was meaningful involvement of the characters to the conspiracy involving some action scenes and bad endings involving the death of one or both main characters. This isn’t the case for Dusk and Dawn, however.
In the beginning parts of the second game, the author manages to strike a good balance by incorporating the conspiracy plot into the daily lives of Lizzie and John by having them join a group that prepares for a guest speaker to come to their university that is related to the conspiracy. With that as a backdrop, the game explores Lizzie’s character and her dynamic with John through their interactions and conversations.
But when the game is fully focused on this as the entire story, it gets much worse. Near the end of the game, Lizzie and John see on television news pertaining to the conspiracy. They aren’t involved in what shows up on the news whatsoever. In fact, if it weren’t for the two’s interest in it, there would be literally no connection between it and the two of them. So, what kind of massive effects does this have on the two characters?
Well, nothing. Besides being a potential source of stress for John, nothing happens. Excluding the easily avoidable bad endings, there are essentially two endings to Dusk and Dawn. Lizzie and John get married, or they don’t. That is it. It’s not that in the latter case, one of them dies or they break up. All that happens is that they are not married. In fact, although it does end abruptly, even if they don’t get married, it isn’t really a bad ending. The two continue on as a couple. And if they do get married, there isn’t any extra involvement or elaboration on the conspiracy in the story. Not a shred of the story changes besides the two getting married happily. And so although the true end is happy and satisfying, it also leaves you with a feeling of, “That was it? What was the point of any of that?” And I can’t help but feel like a better source of conflict could have been used for a better end to this series.
With all this said, the two games are not entirely different. One of the greatest things about both Crimson Gray games is their unique slice of life atmosphere. Although a lot of the things that happen are not actually that eventful, because of how unique both John and Lizzie are with their depression and insanity, there is often always a feeling of anxiety or unnerve in the background that makes the story unique in its SOL-ness that I’m not even sure it’s an accurate label.
The music is also the same in both stories, with every single song being composed by Kevin Macleod. Most of the time I hate hearing his music as BGM, but I found no problem with them in Crimson Gray. Partially because the game mostly uses his horror songs which aren’t overused, but also because it fits the narrative. Whether it’s in John or Lizzie’s perspective, the game’s usage of the same songs on repeat fits with John being tired of his mundane, monochrome life, and it fits Lizzie’s singleminded obsessiveness. I also really appreciate the choice to not constantly switch between music whenever Lizzie’s mood changes. I can easily imagine a much inferior version of the game where the music would change every 10 lines of dialogue.
One thing that bothered me throughout both games though was the constant changes in expression. That inherently isn’t bad, but the changes in character sprites are so unbelievably minimal in Crimson Gray that it’s hard to tell when there is actually a change or not. In most visual novels, when you click to the next line of dialogue and there’s a change in expression of a displayed character, it’s very easy to notice. Sometimes the sprite changes positions entirely, or maybe the sprite itself would move around a little. Even if it’s minor changes in the character sprite, it is often much more visible than the tiny change that is in Crimson Gray, which frequently made it a little awkward when reading.
Writing this post was pretty refreshing, not just because it’s been like a year but because I don’t really go on about things I like and only rave on what I hate, so doing both for a work that I really enjoyed was lots of fun. This game is like 5 years old and pretty obscure so if you’re reading this clearly a miracle happened. Thanks for reading 🙂
There’s a detail about the game that I’m 99% sure isn’t intentional but was still cool enough anyway for me to want to talk about. In the first game, if you open the save menu while you’re in conversation with just Lizzie (which is like 80% of the game) then the “SAVE” text coincides with the eyes of her sprite in the background, which on the wrong scene is terrifying as hell lol. Even if it’s unintentional, it’s great.