Crystal Key II: The Far Realm Download (2004 Adventure Game)

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The Crystal Key 2 tells the story of a cursed land called Evany, where an evil power has taken control of everyone's soul. Players must escape through a mysterious star portal and travel around a galaxy of worlds looking for help. Environments include a planet of robots, an ancient civilization of sea people, and a mysterious desert land that's largely deserted. Players will explore over 47 locations, ten different settings, and three worlds. Gameplay also incorporates an original soundtrack and puzzle solving.

I sort of liked the original Crystal Key. It'll never rank among my favorites, but had I been the reviewer I would've probably given it the thumb up, same as Orb. It was a B game that was fun to play. It was also, and continues to be, wildly (and unaccountably) successful in terms of sales. Hoping to birth and capitalize on a shiny new franchise, Dreamcatcher commissioned a followup. I don't know where from the developer Kheops arose; most of the personnel in the closing credits are still listed under "Earthlight," developers of the original; I have a sneaking suspicion that Kheops is the landing place of some of now-defunct Cryo's ex-employees.

The original Crystal Key held together a lot better - all of its parts were in the right place, there was sufficient clueage for the puzzles, and the graphics were nice, for their time, anyway. Not so with the sequel. Mostly it's like trying to swim through a mud bath - you can't see where you're going.

Maybe the mud bath is not the best analogy. You can see where you're going ... over and over again. Most of your gaming time will be spent traveling from location to location. Probably three-quarters of the game screens have absolutely nothing to do or see in them. Ever. And the way the game's laid out, you start out with one hub that serves as the launchpad to three or four other locations that in turn serve as the jumping-off point for another set of locations, etc. And getting from one hub to another involves three or four screens of travel each, plus one or more traveling cutscenes, long ones, too. One of these hub areas in particular is extremely dark and confusingly mazelike, and I rued every time that I had to go back in there again. Luckily, you can skip the cutscenes with a tap of the spacebar, but unfortunately you can't bypass any of the repetitive trekking. This could have been better handled by forcing you to find each location once but then making it available ever after via a single map-click (with no attendant cutscene).

Where the mud bath analogy does apply is to the puzzles. The designers did a great job in placing the puzzles within the events and environment such that they don't seem at all out of context; however, the solutions to some of these puzzles are as clear as ... mud! For example, one puzzle requires you to make note of hard-to-spot symbols in three different, completely unrelated, locations and then use them appropriately in yet another completely unrelated location that's twenty-five screens away from any of the three clues. To be fair, when you see the puzzles to which the symbols are the clue, you immediately understand what to do. But if you missed any of the clues the first time around, good luck! At least one of them is nearly impossible to find unless, at exactly the right node, you happen to fall out of your chair while holding the mouse, thereby setting the scenery to spinning wildly, and then the mouse stops over the hint as you right yourself and say, "Hey! I might need to know that later!"

And other of the puzzles either have no clues at all or require the type of logical leaping that's simply not possible unless you're able to drill a psychic tap into the minds of the designers and see those synapses at work. You are left with the choice between revisiting every one of the multitudinous and hard-to-reach locations in the game and trying every inventory item on every hotspot and at the same time hoping you already have the item you need so you don't have to do this all over again in fifteen minutes when you get a new item and all the while closely inspecting your surroundings in the hope of uncovering a heretofore overlooked hint (whew!), or frequent use of a walkthrough. The first option is frustrating; the second, unsatisfying. Either way, you, the player, are the loser in the gaming-good-time lottery.

I'm not even going to talk about the story here. I'm not sure what it was. Here's what little I was able to glean: The events of the sequel take place some 20 years after the end of the original game; you play in the first-person as a youth named Call, son of the hero of The Crystal Key. While the interplanetary-megalomaniacal Ozgar had been defeated in the first game, his war machine lives on. The Balial, as the bad guys are called, have unleashed some kind of biological warfare that turns people into worker zombies who will build and amass weapons to sate the invaders' appetite for destruction, unless you can find a way to stop them in time. You are one of a very few left standing, and only you can save the universe. Creative premise, huh?

One thing the designers did right in Crystal Key 2 is ditching the tired ol' conventional conversation tree. Branching dialogues are typically included in games even when you have to select every option anyway and your choices have no bearing on the outcome - "illusory interactivity," I like to call it. Well, I was never tricked, and I have often wished these types of conversations would play out automatically without my having to click-propel them. Crystal Key 2 does it that way, and I appreciate it.

The graphics are positively crapalicious. There are gigantic compression artifacts all over the place, and there is some kind of weird wavy distortion, like watching traffic through a thick antique window, when mousing around certain areas. Many of the screens are aesthetically pleasing, if rather run of the mill, but others are too dark. I can't tell if they're 3D or not; at times they look prerendered but then every once in a while a 3D-style incomplete-render seam will pop up, or the painting-on-a-sheet-of-glass dimensionlessness that sometimes occurs in old-school 3D games is visible. In any event, movement and panning are inside-a-sphere node-based, so those aspects at least do not take advantage of any 3D-ness there might be.

I solved most of the puzzles on my own while making liberal use of a walkthrough for those continual where-do-I-go-next pickles. The game lasted about six hours. I am an experienced adventure game player. I can envision an inexperienced player (or one who is not willing to cheat) getting 30 or more hours out of the game.


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