RPGs are, by their nature, formulaic. At their core, the gameplay will amount to “You visit a town, then you visit a dungeon of some kind, then you repeat the process with a new town and a new dungeon”. Some of the best RPGs do an incredible job of hiding or tweaking this formula. Then there are the RPGs that just beat you across the head with the formula.
Released in 1990 by Sega, Sword of Vermilion doesn’t get off to the most original start. Eighteen years ago, the evil King Tsarkon of Cartahena burned the city of Excalabria to the ground, killing the good King Erik in the process. Erik, before he died, told his most trusted servant, Blade, to escape with the king’s son through a secret passage in the castle. That son, of course, is you, and now Blade is on his deathbed. It’s time for you to journey from the village of Wyclif to try and defeat Tsarkon.
To do this, you’ll visit a cave. Then you’ll walk to the next town. Then you’ll visit another cave. Then another town. Sometimes, to break up the formula, you’ll have to visit a cave multiple times, or go back and forth between two towns. For the most part, though, the game follows this Town-Cave-Town-Cave convention all the way through. It’s incredibly formulaic, and a bit tedious. A better RPG would have done a better job of camouflaging the formula. As an example, the first half of Final Fantasy VI is actually quite linear, outside of the Three Scenario portion. Yet no one ever complains about it, unlike with Final Fantasy X or XIII. Similarly, Final Fantasy IV is also pretty linear, but it breaks up the monotony by going from caves to mountains to towers to the moon in its dungeons.
Such variety of hostile locales is nowhere to be found in Sword of Vermilion. Everything is a cave. And as a result, everything has the same decor when you go into it. Instead of hiding the sameness, you’ll find that this design decision highlights the monotony. While the game does occasionally change the order of town-cave-town-cave (Think the original Halo, whose idea of DIVERSE LEVEL DESIGN was changing the order from “Outside of Halo-Inside of Halo” to “Inside of Halo-Outside of Halo”), and adds some twists in the last quarter or so of the game, it’s not enough to offset what comes before it.
Where the game isn’t tedious is in what style of RPG it actually is. One of the fascinating things about video games in the 80s and 90s is how violently they would mash together sub-genres. For instance, Ultima I is a pretty straightforward turn-based RPG…until late in the game, when suddenly it’s a first-person space simulator where you shoot down TIE Fighters. Contrast this to something like Borderlands, which is a first-person shooter with RPG elements more seamlessly blended into the experience. Sword of Vermilion lies between these two extremes in that, while it’s also an RPG of some sort, the kind of RPG it is changes constantly. You’ll start the game in a town typical of many JRPGs. You’ll then exit into the big bad world…where you’ll suddenly find yourself in a first-person perspective reminiscent of dungeon crawlers like Wizardry. After a few steps, you’ll get into a battle…which switches to a real-time system that can best be described as “Wave your sword in front of your face in a threatening fashion and hopefully the enemies won’t destroy you”. That’s right, Sword of Vermilion had a sword with no range two years before Lagoon made it cool. And just when you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer, boss battles are a whole other barrel of fish, where you’re thrown into a side-view against some monstrosity. In this view, you can duck, move back and forth, and swing your sword. And that’s about it. The combat controls in general are clunky for both enemies and bosses, and with the game’s encounter rate, you’ll be using them a lot–I hit the level cap several dungeons before the actual end of the game.
Combat isn’t the only place where the controls are clunky. Sword of Vermilion comes from the era where everything had a command a la the original Dragon Warrior. As such, besides menus being overly subdivided–to equip an item, you have to select the Equipment menu, then decide which subpiece of equipment you want to select (Sword, Shield, or Armor), and then finally the actual equipment you want to ready–getting a treasure chest involves two separate actions. First, you open the chest, then you take what’s inside. And if it’s a chest you got by beating a monster, but you forget to actually take the contents, too bad for you, as it’s gone forever once you leave the square. The default menu speed is also extremely slow–you’ll need to set it to “Fast” (By the way, you have to do this every time you turn on the power) to get it to be “barely tolerable”. Your walking speed in town is also best described as a leisurely jaunt. In all, the game is a casual experience in the speed department.
The game’s encounter rate can best be described as “through the roof”. While there’s a Repel-type spell you can purchase late in the game, it doesn’t last very long, and the time it takes to cast the spell means you’re better off fighting anyway most of the time. And by “through the roof”, I mean that there are times where I’ve won a battle, and immediately gotten into another battle before I could do anything. There were multiple times where I exclaimed “The encounter rate! So strong!” throughout my playthrough.
Sword of Vermilion is not a short game. I would estimate it took me 20 to 25 hours to get through. By the end of it, my usual patience for exploring every nook and cranny in a dungeon had been worn away, and once I got the key item in the second-to-last dungeon, I simply teleported out, wanting the game to just be done already.
In all, Sword of Vermilion would be classified as an interesting failure, and a reminder of how strange genre-mashing games could be in the 8/16-bit eras. The problem is that “interesting” doesn’t mean “fun” or “engaging”. The game tries to be a bunch of different RPGs at once, and while it’s not the worst RPG I’ve ever played, it’s also not as good as numerous other games that pick one subgenre and stick with it. If you insist on experiencing it for yourself, besides the original release, it’s also available on the Wii Virtual Console, as well as part of the Sega Genesis Collection for Playstation 2. The latter is the version you want to get, since it comes with a bunch of other, better games.