Crystar Review (Switch)
Release Date: March 29, 2022
File Size: 4.3GB
Publisher: NIS America
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Games can be emotional. A great game can make the player feel a variety of emotions by contrasting their narrative objective with their gameplay agency- a disparity known as ludonarrative dissonance. A sense of gameplay victory or accomplishment can be further supported by the narrative, but at times, we are forcibly rejected by the game for doing what we are told: that experience itself being the “dissonance.” Sure, I don’t want to harm animals, but when causing them harm by lighting them on fire or electrocuting them is considered a “victory” as a trainer, I don’t have to feel so bad about it. The game might tell me to feel bad, though, and despite my desire to want to protect nature, the act of defeating animals might be my only means of progression. No Pokemon title has ever aspired to tell such a nuanced narrative, but hey, that’s probably why those games are for children.
Even if games don’t commit to the ludonarrative bent, they can still present us with tricky moral conundrums. For example, FuRyu, the bane of my existence, the eternal thorn in my side, has done everything possible to create role-playing games where things aren’t necessarily black and white. Sometimes that means tussling with enemies who exploit others for personal gain, but only to delay or defer their own torments. Sometimes, a character makes a big oopsie and has to atone for it by committing questionable acts. Like defeating the manifestation of their soul in a fantastical depiction of Purgatory.
Wow, this took a dark turn. But as it so happens, that’s just the direction we need to head down if we want to talk about Crystar. And if that makes you a bit emotional, strap yourselves in: we’re about to embark on (a review of) twenty-five hours of crying.
Crystar is an action role-playing dungeon crawler, where players use up to four characters to chart the wastes of Purgatory and defeat revenants, creatures that feast on souls due to their own torments. The player can utilize light and heavy attacks to deal damage, which can be used in midair for combo potential, and can also queue up skills mapped to each of the face buttons by holding the R bumper. Dodges can be executed with the ZR trigger, and players can charge their tear meter- the gauge that summons the player’s spirit guardian for additional damage, combo potential, and a destructive finishing move- by holding the L bumper. Consumable items can be assigned to quick-use slots on the D-pad, and the player can lock on to enemies by pressing the right control stick. These are the basics of combat, and also the entirety of combat.
Dungeons are comprised of small arenas of varying size and terrain interlinked by narrow corridors, and completion of these dungeons- known in-game as Ordeals- occurs upon reaching the final floor and defeating whatever boss encounter might exist there. There is no particular reason to exhaustively comb dungeons unless players are looking to gather large amounts of in-game currency, obtain the odd consumable, or further exploit the game’s somewhat strange equipment system via Torments.
Torments are emotions and trauma that plague Revenants, stronger versions of enemies that pepper dungeons. Upon defeating a Revenant, you’ll receive their Torment, which appears as a debuff on your playable party until you exit the dungeon and purge these negative emotions from your body via… you guessed it, crying. This converts Torments into equipment in three forms: offensive, defensive, and support varieties, which can be further enhanced via modification or merging, both of which require materials from fallen enemies.
The debuff element of Torments is arguably Crystar’s most unique trait, and it can be streamlined via completing story quests to unlock optional Ordeals that are designed for material grind. Outside of this, there is little else to engage with in Crystar: when not in Ordeals, the player can also access a bestiary, plot summaries, and alternate costumes, ranging from “questionable for combat” to “intentionally hilarious.”
Narrative and Aesthetics
Crystar is… wild. The game’s version of Purgatory and all its strange rules, regulations, prerequisites, and terminology are enough to make any individual playing this game without their full attention hopelessly lost. Let’s just say that this game isn’t above pulling out all of the stops in terms of narrative technique and content: limited perspective, amnesiac storytelling, time and space distortion, reconstructed reality… it’s a lot. But all of that belies the narrative core of Crystar, which is a game about emotion. Not always catharsis, but feelings so intense that they require some degree of outward expression.
The hoops that the narrative will keep you jumping through are suitably emotionally draining if only due to the sheer insanity of the entire ordeal, and although the game ends with bittersweet, saccharine vibes, it takes you on a roller coaster that you might not expect. Whether you find yourself tearing up at the same time as the protagonist will largely depend on your personal experience with, or susceptibility to, that outrageous realm of Japanese storytelling that FuRyu tends to gravitate towards. Oh, and of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the at-times edgy and potentially triggering scenarios.
On one hand, an abundance of text and voice acting can be a sign of quality, and in this respect, Crystar certainly presents as a high-production effort. So much of this game is voice acted that the prologue alone feels a bit exhausting. If you are looking for immersion, the voice acting does a fine job of accentuating the tone of the product. However, there does come a point where the pacing of the game is negatively impacted by the sheer amount of voice-acted text. Considering this is an Action RPG, I did not find the pacing of gameplay to be in-step with these narrative elements.
In terms of visuals, Crystar is very competent. The depiction of Purgatory, with all of its thematic cues that reference memories and real-world settings, comes across as alien, though not always hostile. Clever use of draw distance and set dressing allows for the world to feel much vaster than its rote dungeon design might imply. With that said, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of topographical variety, with certain enemy types thriving in specific combat arenas if only because they are tucked neatly into corners. The music is similarly ethereal, leaning into strings to achieve angelic tones, but also rooting itself firmly in a genre styling I can only label “anime opening credits,” which falls in line with the game’s own intro. I can’t say that many tracks have wormed themselves into my brain, but the music might just not be for me.
Impressions and Conclusion
As FuRyu tends to lean more towards novel twists on the turn-based RPG, my interest was piqued upon hearing about this Action RPG’s arrival on Switch. However, there are signs of questionable design all over this game that result in a mystery dungeon that barely embraces any of the subgenre’s most appealing traits. This is largely mechanical, but also stems from the narrative and gameplay imbalance that never reaches proportional distribution.
Simply put, Crystar is shallow. While elements like shared EXP allow for constant progression of all party members and separate tear gauges allow for chains of special attacks to be unleashed, there’s rarely a time throughout the game’s brisk campaign that a heightened sense of difficulty or problem solving feels necessary. The main character Rei is simply superior to some of her peers in a variety of ways in terms of attack range and skill usage, to the point where one might question whether or not they need to switch characters in order to tackle threats. These party members don’t feel like unique Ys characters, whose weapon types have added benefits against certain enemies, but instead are hindrances.
This feeling might come from the tedium and lack of investment inspired by the equipment system, however. Simply put, even an Action RPG can have a grind, but the gathering of necessary materials should feel worthwhile and entertaining. Scouring the corners of purgatory is anything but, and the resulting spoils might be barely enough to upgrade the weapons of one or two of your playable cast, meaning that party members might still feel weak when stacked up against one another. All this results in longer and more tedious combat, which is truly the main offender. Simply put, combat sucks in Crystar. Although the game might not be trying to convince you that slaying souls in Purgatory is fun, the abrupt nature of attack animations, relative lack of hitstun or knockback, and stiff movement controls make something that should feel free-form and inviting the actual antithesis of the idea.
What else does this game have to offer, then? Outside of dungeons that grow longer as the game goes on, you’ve really only got the narrative side of things, and if you like seeing cute girls do cute- and sometimes not-so-cute- things, that might be enticing enough. The character portraits are depicted in an art style that feels wholly unfamiliar and unique, it’s not reason enough to stumble through the copious amounts of text, lore, and character interactions that Crystar feels ready and willing to throw at the player.
While there are certainly worse Action RPGs with less ambitious narratives on the Switch, Crystar doesn’t do enough to find its way in front of the pack, feeling like a generic Japanese title. This is the most unfortunate impression one might give, considering how wonderfully colorful Japanese games, anime, and culture can be, but that’s Crystar for you: something you’ll never expect, but never really feel satisfied with, either.