The Legend of Crystal Valley

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 19 May 2009. Last updated on 07 September 2009.
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The Legend of Crystal Valley
Eve's father pens the fateful letter to her.
The Legend of Crystal Valley
Life in Skeleton Village is quite laid back, despite a troublesome curse.
The Legend of Crystal Valley
The trashed car is both a gag and a symbol of the world's dark side.
The Legend of Crystal Valley
Never trust a dinner host who is unnaturally pale and calls himself The Count!
The Legend of Crystal Valley
Near the end of Eve's journey, the atmosphere becomes ominous.

Fantasy novelists often portray their otherworldly settings as somehow connected to modern Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is, as he tells the reader, rooted in his translations and retellings of historical texts. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, C.S. Lewis's Narnia, and J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts are just on the other end of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, or a railway.

Fantasy adventure games sometimes offer a dose of modern connections too, such as the comic anachronisms in Quest for Glory or the mundane prelude in Simon the Sorcerer. However, in these games, the effect is generally lighthearted.

The Legend of Crystal Valley, the first adventure game from Croatian developer Cateia Games, offers instead a mix of comedy and tragedy in its divided worlds. The game's story follows a young woman named Eve. Her mother has died long ago and recently Eve has received a strange letter from her father. She travels to his farm in France to check up on him. While searching his house, she stumbles across a tunnel into a fantasy world—a place that is tied to her fate more strongly than she knows.

The game's strengths are its clever writing, imaginative setting, and original styles of graphics and sound. There is no voice acting, however, except in the intro sequence. The puzzles do not require the player to plan far ahead; they are mostly intuitive and otherwise easily solvable by trial and error, so even a novice gamer can progress at a steady pace. On the other hand, an experienced gamer may find the challenge level too low. The length of play is only around 7 hours, including plenty of optional dialog and descriptions that the game offers.

Much of the writing is humorous, yet it also reveals subtle character details. For example, early in the game, examination of many objects around the farm brings back Eve's memories of her family (Eve and her father both tended to break things accidentally, but her father was obsessed with gluing them back together). These flashbacks establish a pattern of character behavior that becomes crucial to the story later on.

Beyond the details, the game also gives a sense of a broad fantasy world. Among this land's most charming creatures are its giants—kind, simpleminded beings who are unfortunately employed as professional engineers. There are also dragons, a vampire, a pair of bratty dwarven kids, and even stand-ins for Elvis as well as Romeo and Juliet. More purely original characters include mouthless angelic telepaths who live in furry houses and a polite humanoid grasshopper who pulls a stagecoach.

Despite the sound of it, this magical world is not all light and cheerful. As Eve persists in her quest to find her father, she learns that the laws of the universe will force her to face a devastating choice someday. Ultimately, the game's conclusion sidesteps this dark future (it is presumably still going to happen, but the story stops short of telling this) and presents more conventional moments of melodrama instead. At least to me, this ending is unsatisfying, yet the tension that precedes it is effective for most of the game.

The graphics combine a crisp and colorful style of modeling and texturing with a variety of milky lighting effects for the moodier scenes. The animations for magic spells are flashy and entertaining. The characters' movements are varied and quite natural. A few scenes play with perspective to show massive differences in scale (always popular in fantasy): buildings towering above Eve or abysses plunging below. Although the environments and visual tricks are not as elaborate or breathtaking as those in Wicked Studios' Keepsake, Legend of Crystal Valley is graphically appealing. The many whimsical elements of the character art, such as Eve's polka dot shirt, suit the story's mood.

The game's soundtrack emphasizes natural ambiance (chickens clucking on the farm, birdsong in an enchanted forest, burbling brooks), alongside choral or wind music. The combination is generally soothing and wistful; later, it grows mournful and slightly eerie. The sound, too, fits the story's mood and pace well.

The lack of English voice acting is a bit disappointing. Still, each character's personality comes across clearly, thanks to the good writing. Also, it appears that the game engine may be designed to support voiceovers as a possible future expansion, since there is a Speech Volume setting in the game options!

The game's puzzles are mostly based on inventory items as well as several magic spells that behave almost like reusable inventory items. Many of the puzzles are simple fetch quests. Sometimes, multiple fetch quests are interwoven with each other, such that a particular character must be helped before the player gains the means to fulfill another character's wishes. Other times, the puzzles require the player to combine items, but mostly just in commonsense ways (a handle and a blade make an axe, or a piece of food and a potion make a drugged meal), rather than to make farfetched or improbable devices.

The magic spells are nicely embellished with visual effects. A particular spell, Shrink, is usable anytime; the player can make Eve walk around in miniature, in any scene, just for fun. Another small but entertaining gag comes in the form of an inventory item that the player can pick up early in the game, only to use for an optional gag near the conclusion.

None of the game's magic spells ever need to be used in combination. In hindsight, this lack of spell combo puzzles is a bit of a missed opportunity. For comparison, in Quest for Glory, the wizard character is memorable not just because he has a repertoire of spells but rather because he mixes them together to tackle each element of a challenge sequentially as that challenge evolves. Thus, the wizard's skills are more the sum of their parts (as is true of the game's other hero types too). Instead, Legend of Crystal Valley does not do quite enough to tease the player—to make a puzzle change into a deeper challenge than it first appears to be.

Besides inventory and spell puzzles, the game also includes several combination lock puzzles, which rely on riddles and visual clues. These clues tend to be relatively challenging to decipher, though alternatively many of the combination locks are quickly solvable by trial and error.

The interface is generally convenient and intuitive. The inventory, spells, conversation log, and system functions are all easily accessible, and they do not obscure the scene unnecessarily. All interactions with the scene can be done by left clicking the mouse, using a system of hotspot icons (look, magnify, use/take). An additional system of color coded pointer icons (white for an impassable and unusable region of the scene, yellow for walk, blue for exit, green for other possible actions) is less intuitive, however. Particularly, the green cursor is easily mistakable for just another area where Eve can walk, whereas in fact it is a hotspot. Colorblind gamers are especially likely to have difficulties with this interface design.

I experienced no stability issues in the game, except for a single critical bug that was caused by saved game corruption. Whenever I loaded a certain saved game, Eve was many times taller than normal, so that only her lower legs showed up on screen. The only fix to this graphical glitch was to reload another saved game.

Notwithstanding these few unintuitive elements in an otherwise solid interface design, The Legend of Crystal Valley offers an enjoyable gaming experience overall. The game is certainly geared toward low frustration rather than high challenge. Since puzzle solutions often lie just around the bend, gameplay encourages exploration and keeps the story rolling. The payoff in the game's modest finale is not great, yet the journey there with the heroine in the polka dot shirt is still fun.

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