Review: Dreamcatcher's "The Crystal Key 2: The Far Realm" (2004)

Matt Barton's picture

The Crystal Key 2: The Far Realm, is as unlike its first game as to almost make the term "sequel" a misnomer. While the two games certainly have some elements in common, the gameplay has changed, and there is much more emphasis on characters and puzzle solving. These changes make the second game much more playable and enjoyable than the first, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in adventure games. Let's talk then about what makes the second game so much better, and hopefully provide some insights along the way to give new GAG developers some assistance in making better games. After all, it's just as important for a critic to point out why something is good as well as why something it's bad, though the latter is always much easier to do. To this end, I've setup the review like a tip sheet and filled it full of the wisdom that comes from many, many an hour playing GAGs. Even if you have no intention of ever playing this game, I'd like you to read my review.

Story: Don't be Too Generic!
Let's get the story out of the way first. The first game floundered in this department by simply being too vague about what the player was to accomplish and why he (she?) should bother. So many things were left undefined in a misguided attempt to provide a generic, "everyman" type of experience that supposedly any player (male, female, white, black, etc.) could identify with. Unfortunately, generic characters are some of the most hideously boring characters in all of literature. Imagine, for instance, reading a novel like Robinson Crusoe, in which instead of Crusoe, we were introduced to an "Everyperson" character whose sex, nationality, race, and so on were never identified. Furthermore, we had no real clue why he should want to escape the island, since we knew nothing about where he/she came from. I hope you're starting to get the idea here!

In Crystal Key 2 (henceforth "CK2"), however, you're told immediately that you will be playing a male character named "Call," and offered a narrative about your homeworld and the terrible problems there (excepting your family, the whole population has become enslaved by some kind of mass mind-control or hypnosis). Then you're put on the homeworld and allowed to explore a bit, all to the beat of some eerie music. Finally, you meet a desperate character named Athera, who tries to warn you about something, but is immediately seized by a rather fearful looking alien and whipped into a portal. Thankfully, she drops her diary, and you are able to learn quite a bit upfront about what's ahead. You know what to do--you've got to go after this woman, find out about the portals and the aliens, and ultimately find a way to free your people.

Now, some would say the game would have been much better if the main character was "literally YOU" or some such nonsense, and that allowing your avatar to speak (with a male voice) and so on ruins the game for female players. I say, and you will forgive me the expression, codswallop. It doesn't matter one whit whether the avatar is male, female, black, white, etc. I've played games that put me in all of these roles and had a great time. The only thing that ultimately matters is that the avatar have some defining characteristics and a personality. Of course, a boring character is a boring character no matter what, but I daresay a good GAG developer could make playing a 90 year old grandmother as exciting and riveting for the player as any 20-something Luke Skywalker type.

Anyway, back to CK2. Like any good GAG, the details of the story continue to unravel as you progress through the game. Information comes mostly by talking to the characters in the game (yes, there is actually dialog!). A good decision here was to avoid the whole dialog tree nonsense and just make each "conversation" a set piece. You can't control what your avatar is saying, and dialog is kept brief and to-the-point. True, the characters you meet aren't exactly grist for a Shakespeare production, but at least you don't get bored talking to them. Even better, your interactions are limited enough that you don't have that problem that goes something like this--"Ugh, I'm stuck. What am I supposed to do next? Oh, that's right, talk to EVERYONE in the game world to find out if doing so will trigger an event." Though there are a few spots where you must counter-intuitively show a character an object in your inventory, these are kept to a minimum.

At any rate, once you find out what's really going on, you're more than engaged in the storyline and have a genuine desire to see it through. That's a high compliment to pay to a GAG.

Interface: Gamers and Developers Learning Together
It's really amazing how much difference 5 years can make in terms of game development. Although I was relieved not to have to worry again about backwards compatibility, it's always nice to have a more intuitive and user-friendly interface. I could point out many exceptions, but usually the later you go in the game-time continuum, the better the interface. There are many reasons for this fact, some the developer's fault and some the player's. When the first Crystal Key appeared in 1999, for instance, GAG developers were still experimenting with better ways to handle point-and-click, first-person perspective navigation in a simulated 3-D environment. As you can tell from all the jargon I just uttered, we're still not quite there yet! Nevertheless, five years is plenty of time for developers to learn from mistakes and imitate successful examples, but also time for gamers to adapt to the new interfaces and learn the "new language," if you will. You can follow a definite continuum in the Myst series, for instance, noting the differences among Myst, Riven, Uru, Revelation, and so on. It's tempting to always think that the most recent game must have the best interface, but that's not always true. However, it is true that a game developer working in 2007 has "better" gamers to work for--gamers who will already know the conventions of the 3-D interface and not have to be treated like small children using mice for the first time. This gives modern developers a tremendous advantage, though not all of them use it--and there will always, of course, be new gamers who are experimenting with games for the first time (and possibly with a computer, too, though I'd like to think that most parents nowadays give their kids as much experience with computers as possible from a very early age).

At any rate, the setup here is an improvement on the first. You're still clicking on "hotspots" to move to the next location, from which you can pan around in all directions. The effect is rather like moving among full-rotation panoramas, though the panoramas are wrapped around you. However, your mouse pointer is big enough to minimize pixel-hunting, and useful objects or clues are featured prominently enough to attract your attention. I can only think of one spot where a vital piece of info was hidden in an unlikely spot (the code inside the fishbot, if you must know). One nice touch was to let you control how the camera moved with your mouse. If you click the right mouse button, the camera locks onto your pointer, or free it by clicking again (this way, the camera only moves if you attempt to move the pointer beyond the screen). This setup is quite intuitive and fun to use.

Ambiance: Or, Why Crappy Sound Ruins the Graphics
Lately, I've taken to talking about graphics, sound, music, animation, and so forth into one category called "ambiance." What I'm trying to get at here is that with most games, the sum of all these things is much greater than the individual parts. For instance, a game horrible, repetitive music doesn't just "suck" in terms of music. It ruins the entire "feel" of the game, and even if the graphics are superb, with that annoying racket going on, you are hardly in a position to enjoy them. True--you can always turn off your speakers or play yoru own music--but then you're not playing the game as the developer intended. That's fine for your own personal or "subversive" use, but if you're trying to properly assess the work on its own terms, you should really try to get as close to the developer's ideal as possible. Otherwise, you're assessing your choices, not the developer's!

Talking to a MedBot: Character interaction comes in many forms...! Note that code on the robot's chest.Talking to a MedBot: Character interaction comes in many forms...! Note that code on the robot's chest.CK2 holds up marvelously well in all categories, and thus has exceptional ambiance. The music is varied nicely and lends itself to a number of moods, such as a sort of happy, island beat at Dr. Jakar's, and a foreboding, menacing sound on the prison planet. I love a game that can put me in different moods and doesn't stick to one the whole way through.

The graphics are excellent, but in more ways than just simple realism. The locations you see are actually places you'd like to visit. Everyone has looked up at a construction site and wanted to jump up there and play on those beams. If you've ever been inside a house as it's being built, you know what I mean. Likewise, it's fun to visit ruins and museums. Though not all of the locations in CK2 are profound, again we're given enough variety to keep us from getting bored.

Likewise, the voice acting is good and contributes to the game considerably. The only exception was a little boy that sounded suspiciously like a woman trying to sound like a little boy. Hm. Did that make sense?

Gameplay: Fun vs. Work
Most of the gameplay in CK2 was quite fun, and I generally always had a pretty good idea of what to do when I found a new object or encountered a new puzzle, even if I couldn't do it immediately. There are plenty of clues and reinforcement to help you leap to the right conclusions. Sadly, though, a few actions were so tricky (and rigidly linear and non-intuitive) to make consulting a hint site necessary. For instance, you're supposed to get some "kracklenuts" from a very unlikely source--a guy out in the desert repairing his ship. Why there? It doesn't make any sense, but you're supposed to show him your empty kracklenut shell, then fetch an object for him, and then he gives you the nuts. My only guess is that the developers felt that they needed to factor this guy into the gameplay somehow, but they should have offered more hints (i.e., had the guy munching on the nuts when you visited him, or shown a bunch of nut wrappers or empty shells lying around to give you the insight).

There is also quite a bit of "backtracking" required in this game. You'll frequently discover that you'll need to travel all the way across the gameworld to do something, and then back, and then back, etc. Sometimes this is just flat out annoying. For instance, to get to several locations, you need to fly to a landing pad, go down an elevator, and then take a boat. Another part of the world requires you to play a certain sequence on a float to summon a lift. It's a lot of unnecessary steps. Fun the first time, irritating afterwards.

Listen to this, developers--once a player has figured out once how to get to a location, stick it on a map and just let him get there by clicking on it. There's no reason to force him to perform a boring, repetitive task each time he wants to visit that location.

That said, I did enjoy the variety of traveling options at your disposal. You get to fly with a jet pack (wee!), navigate the river in an airboat, explore underwater in a mini-sub, even glide on the back of a giant flying squirrel! It's really neat getting to experience all of these, even if you don't get to control them directly (it's just a point and click, watch-the-clip affair). Nevertheless, it's fun to imagine it, and again adds spice.

Really, though, what makes a game fun to play isn't so much how clever the puzzles are, but rather how the game makes you feel to play it. It's in some ways comparable to watching a "great" vs. a "fun" movie. I can deeply appreciate a movie like Citizen Kane, for instance, without enjoying it one whit. On the other hand, I've watched The Princess Bride a dozen times and always have fun every time I do. Am I saying that all movies must be funny to be enjoyable? Nope. I put movies like The Seven Samaria and Lord of the Rings in the ultimate category--fun and great. The same is true of games. Everyone serious about games has to acknowledge greats like Myst and The Longest Journey, and firsts like Mystery House and King's Quest, even these games aren't (arguably) much fun to play. Indeed, I felt more like I was "doing work" getting through Riven rather than having a blast like I do with the Nancy Drew or Monkey Island games. Nevertheless, I recognize their greatness, and realize that it's doubtful that folks will be talking about Monkey Island 50 years from now, though they might very well talk about Myst and King's Quest, if only in history or "literature" courses.

On the other hand, there are some GAGs that I feel are truly fun and great, though only time will tell if they manage to hang on to their appeal. It'll take serious critics a lot of work to ensure they don't fade into obscurity. I'm talking about games like Syberia, Gabriel Knight, The Dig, and The Longest Journey--games that didn't so much invent something new as refine what was there. Although I much prefer the Gabriel Knight series to Myst, again I'm wondering if that's not a bit too much like preferring The Princess Bride to Citizen Kane, or J.K. Rowling to James Joyce. For whatever reason, usually the "greats" and the "classics" turn out to be those works that take lots of "work" to appreciate, whereas genuinely fun stuff gets lost forever.

Thankfully, there is a movement in literary circles to celebrate "popular culture," and I think that's the key to preserving stuff like Monkey Island and Syberia. Sure, they aren't necessarily "edifying" in some grand sense, but they are fun and they did influence a great many people.

I'd definitely put The Crystal Key 2 in this category. It's not especially "deep," but it does have something to say (generally about war and environmentalism), and it is a great deal of fun.