Crystal Key 2: The Far Realm Review

Crystal Key 2 is the sequel to the best-selling Crystal Key, which appeared in 1999. After the nefarious Ozgar is defeated in the original game, our new hero -- Call -- discovers that before Ozgar was destroyed, he had placed satellites around several planets, including Call's home, Evany. Through means not entirely explained, these satellites were taking control of the minds and wills of Call's people, turning them into little more than vegetables. Call must discover how to overcome this power, and return his people to their normal state.

The relation of CK2 to the original Crystal Key is remote, at best. In the original game, the crystal key was pivotal to progressing to new stages in the game and was carried in inventory the entire game. The same crystal key appears in the opening scene of CK2, it is used immediately (for seemingly gratuitous purposes), and then disappears, never to be seen again for the remainder of the game! There is a relationship of the story line between the two games; however, referring to this game as Crystal Key 2 is a stretch.

The game is easy to install, though a bit tedious, as it installs completely on the hard drive. The only option is a full installation, requiring a fairly sizeable 1.3GB of disk space. However, once installed, the game can be played completely from the hard drive, removing the hassle of disc swapping.

Technical problems began showing up early. The game either crashed or hung several times. Each time required a restart of the game (and replaying whatever was "lost" since the last time the game was saved). Although I was not able to determine the cause of the problem, it may have been related to a timing issue that I observed elsewhere. Frequently, as I would attempt to click on an active object, there would be no response. However, if I waited for a second or two, it would work correctly. It seemed that if I "got ahead of the game" -- i.e., clicking too quickly on something -- I would either get no response, or I would experience a hang or crash.

Movement through the game is simple, and entirely point-and-click. All scenes provide full 360-degree panning (180-degree vertically), and changes in the cursor indicate possible directions of movement and/or active objects (items which can be picked up, used, etc.). One minor objection I had is that the only difference in the cursor between a completely "dead" spot on the screen and an active item or a direction of movement is a change in color from blue to green. And the blue and green were not sufficiently contrasting enough to make them easily distinguishable. When panning quickly over a scene, I found it quite easy to miss "hot spots" or direction indicators, simply because the change in color of the cursor was too slight.

The introduction to the game (as well as the trailer distributed by The Adventure Company) held promise that there would be good, and frequent, animation in the game. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Movement within the game is via scene-to-scene transitions, and most scenes are fairly static, with some minor animations, such as birds flying in the sky, or water rippling. However, the implementation of these animations was not convincing. They lacked realism, and often gave the game a cartoony atmosphere.

While the static graphics were reasonably well done, there was nothing that was stunning. No breathtaking scenes, as in Mysterious Journey II, or Syberia. The trailer for the game implies a far greater quality of graphic design than was actually apparent throughout the game. The artwork is modestly 3D, although shadings, textures, and shadows are often unrealistic. The animated characters in the story have the greatest degree of detail; yet there was little or no effort made to synchronize their mouths with the words that they were speaking.

The sound in the game was underwhelming. There is almost no musical score, and often actions that one would expect to produce sounds (e.g., climbing a steel ladder, walking on gravel, using a metal object) don't. The game isn't completely silent; there are occasional sound bytes, such as water running. However, it is not consistent, and often, these sounds would just stop abruptly (and very unrealistically). More often than not, I found myself playing the game in silence.

The puzzles in CK2 fall into two categories: the traditional inventory puzzles, and a few logic puzzles. The majority required repetitive traversing back and forth throughout areas of the game already visited, to locate objects, talk to other characters, or find information necessary to solve a particular puzzle. Many of these actions are triggers for progressing in the game. And this brings up one of my personal annoyances in this game, and similar adventure games. There were many instances throughout the game where a particular item was either not available, or was not active, earlier in the game; however, after a specific puzzle was encountered, or a character had been talked to, I could go back and pick up the item, or discover that it had magically "appeared", where earlier it had not been.

Another thing that I observed was that the nature of the puzzles changed dramatically, about 2/3 of the way through the game. In the first part of the game, the puzzles fit well into the story line; they were fairly intuitive, and there was very little confusion about what was needed, what actions must be taken, etc. However, the remaining puzzles -- up to, and including, the end game itself -- took an extremely non-intuitive turn. The complexity of the puzzles became almost gratuitous -- complexity for complexity's sake -- as if the developers were merely looking for a way to extend the game by introducing puzzles that required extensive traveling back and forth to previously-visited locations, and intermingling incredibly obscure items or actions ("Why would I ever want to do that???"), to solve a puzzle and move along in the game.

One interesting note is that the most annoying and non-intuitive puzzles could have been made much more integrated with the addition of a few simple clues. Had the developers taken the time to create a few "bridges" between seemingly unrelated scenes and characters, absolutely stymying puzzles could have been far more attractive -- and solvable. This "chaos of design" was so prevalent throughout (especially later in the game), that I often felt as though I were playing several separate and unrelated games.

As I approached the end game, moving through the game also become more laborious, often requiring traversing 10 screens or more, with absolutely nothing to do along the way, only to find one single object (necessary to solve the current puzzle), and then travel all the way back again. All of the scenes along the way appeared to me as "make-work" scenes, intended only to make the game appear longer, and serve as a marketing tool. ("Hundreds of locations to visit!") There were also several instances where incredibly complex puzzles, mazes, or tunnels had been created, leading to virtually nothing. While kudos are due to the graphic designers for putting together this elaborate scenario, from a story standpoint it was inconsistent -- e.g., jumping through endless hoops, and solving countless (unrelated) puzzles, only to get to meet a character who basically says "Hello," and then you return to where you came from, not having accomplished anything, and never to see that character again.

Games can be saved quite easily, and are stored in individual files -- allowing an unlimited number of game saves. Each is saved with a date/time stamp, as well as a thumbnail of the current scene, making it simple to locate, and restore, the correct saved game.

One thing I found interesting, is that even after completing the game, one key plot point is never addressed. I couldn't tell whether this was a deliberate omission -- perhaps to leave an opening for Crystal Key 3? -- or just poor design.

All in all, CK2 provided a combination of relaxing entertainment, and frustrating head-banging. For the most part, it was a visually-pleasing game, and should present about 15-20 hours of enjoyable gameplay. More attention to linking the various pieces of the story together, as well as the addition of some background music and sound bytes, could have made even the more bewildering puzzles a bit more bearable.

-- Frank D. Nicodem,Jr.