Sometimes you just need to have one good, soul-cleansing cry.
It’s a lesson that Crystar teaches again and again as it stops a cavalcade of protagonists with one unfortunate story after another. There’s personal sadness. And then there’s the unparalleled misery that befalls the game’s cast.
At the same time, Crystar, which gets new life on the Nintendo Switch, also provides an interesting take on shedding tears. Often times, crying is seen as a form of weakness — a sign that someone is unable to handle their own emotions. In Crystar, however, weeping can become a source of strength, ultimately proving to be a weapon that can be wielded against the very things that cause those tears.
You start the game from the perspective of a butterfly trapped in a dark desolate world. Bereft of memories or even a sense of self, the butterfly wanders aimlessly through the void, occasionally bumping into other butterflies who recount their own agonizing moments in life before eventually forgetting who they are.
It’s a compelling start to a journey that foreshadows the kind of emotional investment that Crystar demands from its players. Even as the butterfly regains her true form before fading away by finally remembering who she is — a young girl named Rei Hatada — this personal victory is immediately followed by even more painful personal loss. It’s a common theme in Crystar, which likes to give, only for it to take something valuable away.
The game certainly doesn’t just give lip service to grief. It also wants the player to personally experience it through the eyes of its characters. Oftentimes, this is done by leveraging one of the things human beings value most: personal relationships.
In the case of the normally directionless Rei, her north star would be her cheerful younger sister, Mirai. Although Rei prefers to avoid the outside world and spends most of her time locked up in her own room, Mirai serves as one of the rare connections that Rei has to an actual life.
It’s a connection that would prove particularly strong.
Rei is the kind of person who would rather wallow in self-pity and fade away than fight for her own self. When it comes to her sister de ella, however, Rei would stand up and do anything, even if it means making a deal with the devil.
Oh Faustus, oh Faustus
With her sister’s life on the line, Rei quickly strikes up a Faustian bargain with two cleverly named demons, Mephis and Pheles.
As part of the contract, Rei agrees to fight as an Executor for the two demons by ridding Purgatory of wandering monsters known as Specters and Revenants.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Any devilish deal, however, comes with a catch or two and Rei’s contract is no exception. It doesn’t take long for Rei to realize that the “monsters” she exterminates are not exactly the evil, thoughtless beings she initially believed. With the regrets of the souls she exterminates ringing frequently in her mind de ella, the inner voices further fuel Rei’s already strong inner turmoil even more.
Then again, the more conflicted Rei is, the better it is for her two demonic watchers. That’s because her strong negative emotions from her — more specifically, her tears from her — crystallize into something called an “Idea” (pronounced “ee-deya” in this game), which Mephis and Pheles absolutely prize. By collecting enough Idea, Rei can fulfill her contract from her and save her sister from her in the process. Unfortunately, it entails doing things that just make her feel utterly terrible.
This constant tug-of-war between Rei’s own personal morals and convictions vs. the need to the demon’s dirty work for her sister’s sake is one of the main themes of Crystar’s tale.
Storytelling is definitely the main strength of Crystar, which delivers a compelling narrative that is at times touching and, more often than not, uncomfortable. The game loves to sprinkle enough plot crumbs to tickle your brain and make you think you’ve deduced what’s going on, only to throw in one left turn after another to misdirect your expectations. To quote the late and great Rowdy Roddy Piper, just when you think you’ve got all the answers figured out, Crystar changes the questions.
The story is further enriched by a soundtrack that matches its tale almost perfectly. The maudlin and often haunting melodies make every sad moment even more poignant, adding another layer to Crystar’s storytelling. Players also have the option of using either English or Japanese voiced dialogue, which helps bring the story to life as well.
Throw in the game’s unique art style, especially the wonderfully sketched character illustrations used in cutscenes and you get a stirring and wistful vibe to the game. Even the simpler 3D models for the game still work somehow, thanks to creative use of light and shadow. There are times when locales look bright and vibrant with plenty of pop and shimmering surfaces. Then there are times when colors get muted and dark, almost like a Tim Burton movie.
For a non-triple-A title with a smaller budget, Crystar makes the most out of what it has with its presentation. And with a story that spans several other characters besides Rei, each with their own interesting backstory, the game appears to have the elements of a cult classic. Even the enemy mobs that you defeat have their own story, which can be read via encounter records known as Memories of the Dead. I usually never read these enemy profiles in other games but Crystar’s implementation is the best I’ve seen from an engagement standpoint. Some of these stories are just so sad and heartwrenching that they actually touched me.
All of that being said, video games are called games for a reason.
While Crystar delivers a nice hit with its narrative and presentation, it still needs the legs to round all the bases in the form of gameplay. Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to lose its momentum.
Crystar’s gameplay: Good repetition vs. bad repetition
If there’s one word that can be used to best describe Crystar’s main gameplay, it would be repetitive.
Crystar’s action revolves around real-time combat and has you controlling Rei and her allies on the field using their weapon of choice to mow down the various denizens that populate Purgatory. To do that, you have your choice of light and heavy attacks that you use to perform combos. You can also pull off special attacks and summon Guardians to further wreak havoc on the battlefield.
Admittedly, action games are typically repetitive by nature. From old-school Double Dragon and Streets of Rage to Devil May Cry V from just a few years ago, such games typically involve smacking around a group of foes and then moving on to smack the next group of foes.
That being said, repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I say that as someone who loves playing Bayonetta and Dynasty Warriors-style games, for example, which has you on a continuous loop of delivering beatdown after beatdown after beatdown and, well, you get the drill. What differentiates those games from Crystar, however, is variety. Even the highly repetitive Warriors games have different combo strings, including ground-based strings as well as aerial juggles that engage players. Bayonetta, meanwhile, also throws in a nice selection of enemies, a last-second “bullet time” dodge mechanic, as well as challenging gameplay on top of its diverse combo system.
In contrast, attacks and combos in Crystar essentially feel the same. Regardless of what character I use and what enemies I face, I’m usually doing the same thing, which is string together some basic combos, maybe end a strong with a special, use dash to dodge or reposition, and then repeat the same thing again.
Meanwhile, the combo system feels more like a glorified combo counter. Maintaining combo counts isn’t particularly hard and about the only carrot you have in front of this gameplay stick is filling your Tear Gauge so you can cry and summon your Guardian.
Instead of being the main incentive for playing the game, the combat can feel more like something you have to do so you can see what happens next with the game’s intriguing narrative. The lackluster combat also makes one of the game’s surprise developments toward the end of a game design standpoint feel more like a slog. Instead of being seen as a great opportunity to play the game longer, it can make it feel like the game overstays its welcome as you do the same thing all over again.
Once again, being repetitive is not bad for an action game. Being monotonous, however, is and that’s how Crystar’s combat can feel after a while.
It’s unfortunate as the game has some promising gameplay elements outside of that. The “Torments” or negative emotions you build up from eliminating Purgatory’s poor souls, for example, can be turned into “Sentiments” that further aid you in battle after having a cathartic good cry in your room. You can also craft by using the materials you gather from the field.
If only the combat was more engaging, Crystar would easily be a can’t-miss game.
On the plus side, the game runs well on the Nintendo Switch. I didn’t notice any frame rate hiccups and the game also looks good for a Switch game. The version I got also came with a bunch of skins unlocked, including a hilarious mascot costume that makes you look like the game’s big white dog Thelema. If you missed the PS4 version and want the option to play the game on the TV or handheld but don’t have a Steam Deck, the Switch version would be a great option.
Final thoughts on Crystar
Crystar gets a Switch port following its earlier release on the PS4 and PC, giving you one more avenue to cry on the go. Crystar is actually one of those rare cases where a game boasts a strong and compelling story that’s unfortunately saddled with action gameplay that’s OK at best. Folks who prioritize top-notch combat mechanics and don’t particularly care for storytelling might want to look elsewhere. If you love games with a strong narrative and interesting characters, however, Crystar is definitely worth playing despite its faults.
Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Like this content? Support local journalism with an RGJ digital subscription.