"Not only does [Crystar] waste a promising premise with poor writing that goes nowhere, but the game is saddled with some of the worst gameplay I've ever encountered."
For years, I have been asking for more video games that take women and other underrepresented groups seriously. JRPGs are especially guilty of only developing their male characters and relying on tropes to develop everyone else. So I was happy when I saw the trailers for Crystar — a game that seems to focus on the struggles of young women and take them seriously. Some stories coming out of Japan have been doing better about this over the last number of years, with truly outstanding anime like Puella Magi Madoka Magica
moving things forward. Unfortunately, Crystar is no Madoka
. Not only does it waste a promising premise with poor writing that goes nowhere, but the game is saddled with some of the worst gameplay I've ever encountered.
Crystar opens with Rei Hatada floating around in an unknown space, which she later discovers is Purgatory. She has to regain her lost memories as she floats through the area, and eventually she discovers that her sister, Mirai, is also there. With no idea how they've found themselves in this strange place, Rei and Mirai try to make their way out. Along the way, they are attacked by a corrupted soul who seems to have a history with Rei, though she doesn't remember it. Then, in a bout of confusion, Rei stabs Mirai, sending her spirit toward the Cogs of Renewal, where souls go to be reincarnated, thus losing their memories. Rei is then approached by the managers of Purgatory, Mephes and Pheles (could they get any more obvious?), and is offered a deal: in exchange for destroying the lost souls in Purgatory, known as Revenants, and gathering a substance called Idea, they will revive Mirai's soul and allow her to leave Purgatory. Rei agrees, of course. During her quest to revive her sister, she encounters three other young women who have different reasons for exploring Purgatory. Along the way, characters have to take on the emotional burden of the lost souls they destroy, and they even run into a few people they knew when they were alive.
The story of Crystar was written by Naoki Hisaya, best known for his work on the erotic visual novel Kanon. While I haven't played that game, it has a strong following. Crystar's story does not live up to that pedigree. Certainly, there are moments that work. We get a lot of insight into the party members, and flashback scenes are often heartbreaking and effective. I was especially interested in Sen, a party member whose strong sense of justice is tested throughout the game as she discovers more about her past and why she's in Purgatory. Unfortunately, the story doesn't do anything with these few bright moments, or with any of the girls' suffering. The game wants to make a big statement about friendship, family, and the ties that bind us. It wants to be dark and serious and important
, but even when presented with the opportunity to do so, the game fails to deliver over and over again. Crystar is also filled with allusions to Greek gods and philosophy, but it has nothing interesting to say about those big ideas. The conflicts between characters are contrived, and the characters themselves barely move beyond the tropes which inspired them. Worse still, the "twists" are poorly executed, and the game fails to plumb the consequences of those moments in a logical or satisfying way. Honestly, if I didn't know any better, I would think Crystar is meant to be a parody of other stories like this one. I found myself laughing at more than a few serious moments. Clearly, Hisaya meant to tell an ambitious story that was emotionally resonant. He just didn't deliver.
The story on its own might have been serviceable if it wasn't grounded by such horribly repetitive gameplay. Crystar is an action RPG. Each of the four characters in the party play slightly differently and have unique skills, but ultimately the game boils down to stringing light and heavy attacks together to create combos. Skill points build up as you attack an enemy, which allows you to utilize character skills pretty often. On top of that, as you deal and take damage, you build up a "Tear" meter that allows you to summon a superpowered Guardian to pulverize your foes.
In terms of combat...that's pretty much it. It could work if there were varied enemy patterns or even fun dungeon design, but Crystar fails on both fronts. Enemies are stunned very quickly, even with light attacks, and a lot of foes are reskins, so while they might hit harder and have more HP, they still have the same (very simple) patterns to learn. The truth is you don't even need to learn how enemies behave. When you need a healing item, it is used automatically; that's a nice feature, but because the enemies are so easy, I usually sat in front of everything, including bosses, and just hit them until they were dead. Despite the fact that many enemies took a while to go down, I didn't come close to dying even once. There's also far too much combat. Each level of a dungeon is a sequence of repetitive paths that lead to larger open areas, and each area is filled with enemies. I actually found myself avoiding enemies for the second portion of the game and just blitzed my way through dungeons. Even late in the game, there was no strategy or challenge — just the same repetitive, boring combat for hours and hours on end.
That leads me to the biggest sin Crystar commits: it is far, far too long. The game would have been a chore at 20 hours. Instead, it lasts for close to 40. That's because you have to run through the second portion of the game three
times. There are small story changes each time, and it all leads to something, but the dungeons are full of the same bland corridors, the same bland enemies, and the same atrocious combat. I don't have much patience for a game that is lazy enough to make me go through the same areas even when the combat or the story is good — in Crystar, it was painful.
There are a few gameplay mechanics that might have worked in a better game. Between each trip to Purgatory, Rei returns to her room. There, you have the opportunity to process the emotional burden of destroying so many souls by crying it out. By doing so, you create weapons and armor you can fuse with items you gain in dungeons to craft better equipment (don't ask too many questions; it doesn't make sense to me either). You can run optional dungeons from time to time to gain more materials for crafting as well. It's a fun and simple system. Unfortunately, there are a few missteps with it. First, I'm not crazy about the idea of women only gathering strength from taking on emotional pain. I know the title is Cry
star, but watching Rei cry over and over again seemed excessive after the tenth time. The other problem is that in order to have enough materials to create powerful items, you have to fight most of the enemies. With all the combat problems, I didn't have the patience for that, so I didn't get to craft much.
On a brighter note, the music is actually quite effective. The tone of the game is somber throughout, and the varied tracks (including dissonant strings and other pieces composed in a minor key) successfully communicate the melancholy of the game. I especially enjoyed the final boss theme. However, the voice acting ruins any good will the game builds with its soundtrack. One or two of the main characters are reasonably voiced, but outside of that, the melodrama of every single line of dialogue is downright laughable. When you combine this with the poor writing — one of the characters even uses a strange blend of backward Yoda-speak and Early Modern English — the sound presentation suffers badly.
Similarly, the graphics make a strong first impression but are let down by poor game design. If you look at the screens above, many of the character models are well designed, creative, and sometimes downright beautiful. But repetition rears its ugly head yet again. The dungeons are fine to look at for a moment, but then they drag on and on, and there's no variety. The enemies are a set of 10-15 different designs that get reskinned for the entirety of the game. Without a doubt, the developers gave thought and care to how this game looks. They just needed to add more variety.
Ultimately, Crystar is a case of "be careful what you wish for." What at first appears to be an excellent deal — a game with fast-paced action combat, stunning graphics, and a story that takes women and people of varied sexualities seriously — turns out to be deeply disappointing, with no variety, no challenge, and nothing interesting to say. I guess I forgot to wish for a good game. To be fair, this is developer Gemdrops's first foray into a fully fledged console game. Here's hoping they take some of the ideas that could have worked in Crystar and come up with something better next time.
Oh, and you do get to pet Rei's dog. That's something, right?
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.