You know what is rare for me? Getting bored playing a visual novel.
I have experienced the full spectrum of emotions as a critical voice of this subgenre. From the pure awe of playing a true artistic gem like Cave Cave Deus Videt to the blinding rage that can only come from scraping the bottom of the barrel with various fandom bait over the years. But bored? Well, there was one VN from some years ago that bored me, but it had the benefit of being a complete experience. Getting bored with a title that’s not even finished? Even I’ll admit that’s kind of unfair.
Yet, that’s what I felt after playing the demo for Crystalline. I suppose that’s a good thing in retrospect, as it allows the full game to make the necessary correction to ease the problems that led to that reaction. However, this is also PixelFade: a studio that I’ve experienced pushing through with their vision no matter what in Ace Academy. So, I’m not confidant that anything is going to change once this title is finished development. In fact, all present evidence suggests the exact opposite and what bored me in the demo will lead to a boring experience in the full game.
Maybe I’m wrong though, so let me get to explaining myself.
Crystalline’s core narrative deals with the protagonist being transported into an alternate fantasy world: a concept that is in no way beaten to death in modern fiction. Well, unless you include when Rumiko Takahashi wrote Inuyasha in 1996…or when C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1949…or when Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889…OR when Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. You know, maybe we should backtrack just a bit and I should reduce some of the snark in my voice while I’m typing this before the restrictor in my brain finally blows out.
Yes, this is a very well-worn plot. However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible to tell an interesting story with it. This says to me that everyone involved is more than happy to paint by the numbers and rehash the same story we’ve heard for the last one hundred and fifty-two years. And when I say ‘paint by numbers’, I mean by the number and exactly in the lines. You play some schlub who’s transported to ‘Terra’ and is found by Leanna Dawn: a magical knight investigating whatever cosmic force brought him to her world. From there they pull together a party who accompanies them to a mythical city to hopefully find the means to send him back home.
There isn’t really much to analyze here as there isn’t much to the cast or storyline at all. The closest it came to anything interesting was a wizard manipulating the mayor of a small town with dark magic for….wealth? Fun? We never get that far as our protagonist march into town and solve the problem in as much time as it took you to read this particular sentence. It wouldn’t have strayed far from its original intent, but a little focus here to either develop the ties binding our main trio OR to flip the script completely and show that there are threats in this world they aren’t up to fighting yet (presumably leaving the town under the thumb of evil for the time being) would’ve been something of substance.
Also. considering this is a visual novel, it would’ve been nice to give the main protagonist an opportunity to react like an real human would in these circumstances? You know, completely freak out? Refuse to move from that particular spot in total fright? Or, at the very least, NOT TRUST LEANNA. Barring those options however, he quickly acclimates to the world around him just like nearly every other modern-day schlub who finds themselves in this situation. But, there I go coloring outside the lines. How dare I!(?)
As for the supporting cast, everyone here is just fandom bait to the letter and not just for male players. Sure the biggest selling point is Leanna who, at least, isn’t a tsundere. But Zack, a mercenary who is the second person you meet in this world, is: providing to be a Jerkass with a Heart of Gold because female anime fans apparently like that sort of things. All have the depth of a puddle in a piece of cardboard and go no further than to establish that yes, they are as blatantly shallow as they seem to be. Considering how long the demo is, the fact that there is zero time devoted to fleshing these characters out show how cynical the team approach their development. Why should they be any deeper or more interesting? People apparently don’t want that! They want the characters they’ve seen in [insert trash anime here]! Because that’s what good writing is about, feeding fandoms! Right?
No. No, it isn’t.
What little praise I can offer for Crystalline is easily its greatest strength: it’s presentation. A lot of work has gone into properly implementing Live2D to make the world and characters look as good as possible and it is successful. Credit to all involved at PixelFade because from purely technical perspective, they’ve come a long way and done it well. Yes, there are more than a few repeating backgrounds. But, that can somewhat forgiven with how much effort is going into the rest of the presentation.
For many, that will be the biggest selling point of Crystalline and will form the crux of any argument fighting back against a critical take. In which case, I’d like to offer my rebuttal here and now: Fire Emblem: Awakening. I’ve played Awakening a lot…probably more than I should’ve as ‘m going to have to pick it up again soon now that I’ve mentioned it. Simply put, if I want to play a game that borrows so heavily from JRPG tropes, why not just play a good JRPG? Why should I play from it’s less impressive kindred? And that, I think, is why I pressed on through the demo despite not having much here to critique: because the biggest problem with Crystalline is that it’s a less impressive version of much better fiction.
So, what can PixelFade do to correct the story side of this game? The reality is that a lot of people paid good money, and will pay good money, to have this story told to them and will convince themselves that it is, if nothing else; decent. Like with many titles driven by fandom instead of inherent quality, I’m on the outside looking in. However, one can still hope that if PixelFade cares enough to invest the time and energy into making Crystalline LOOK good, then maybe someone in that organization also wants to tell a good story. For that, there’s no real shortcut here: it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Why should I care about this particular protagonist? What motivates the protagonist to want to go back home and if NOTHING motivates him to go back home, why not just stay where he is? As for everyone else, what motivates the people in the protagonist’s group to join the protagonist’s group? What nuances do each bring to the table other than being fantasy fandom bait?
Can anyone on the team answer this questions for me without the sentence, ‘You’ll see in the full game.’ No? In fact, I’m calling BS. These questions are what should sell the audience on this title. If you can’t answer them now, then you won’t answer them. However, as I said before, I’m ready for those question to go unanswered. It’s a shame though. All of this talent, time and energy to make the game look as polished as possible, and it’s all superficial. Maybe PixelFade will change course down the road and finally take their story-telling seriously. If not, I can always play Awakening for another 50+ hours. At least then, I won’t be bored.
If you want to check out the demo for yourselves, visit the PixelFade website here. JP3: OUT.