The Crystal Key

Developer:  Earthlight
Publisher:  DreamCatcher Interactive
Year Released:  2000

Review by Rosemary Young (December, 1999)
ckey.jpgThe Crystal Key is a title that falls neatly into the Science Fiction genre with its assortment of spacecraft and other imposing vehicles which you will pilot around an alien world whilst chasing after a particularly mean, armour-clad adversary. However, adventure fans can relax because it is still a relaxing game of exploration and puzzle solving. You don't actually 'do' the driving, you just sit back and watch the scenery, and you won't be engaging in combat of any description.

It starts out when your planet (Earth?) intercepts an alien communication from the world of Arkonia telling of a recent confrontation with the maniacal Ozgar and warning that he is on the rampage. Unfortunately Ozgar's next target turns out to be your very own planet which he begins to turn upside down with environmental catastrophes soon after. It was lucky indeed that the message was intercepted and traced back to its source. Now, as the test pilot of a newly designed hypership, you can be transported to that distant point to learn about Ozgar and stop him in his tracks.

Gameworld and gameplay
The Crystal Key is a game of solitary exploration of four different worlds and you also get the opportunity to thoroughly search the bowels of an alien spacecraft, if you can escape your prison. It has no strong, evolving story as you are simply placed in a situation and challenged to achieve your goal. And this is not a criticism as I am not in the 'camp' that identifies 'story' as the major thrust of an adventure game. In this respect Crystal Key emulates many fine games that lack an overriding story but rely on atmosphere and puzzle/problem solving to draw you into the game world.

You will get some insights into Ozgar's character, however, via brief meetings with him and his minions, but other than that the only character interaction is with holograms. These brief interludes are crucial because they are the prime means by which the game provides clues and direction and it is a great pity for hearing impaired players that this dialogue is not subtitled. Without any character interaction to speak of, and with no other means such as journals or other in-game reading matter from which to gather information, you are left entirely to your own devices. It is up to you to interpret what you discover.

Your journey is in first-person perspective and I didn't detect any character identifiers so you can simply be yourself and play the saviour. It is reminiscent of other games such as Riven, Obsidian, etc., excepting that there is a small inventory and a few items to collect and use which are stored in a spacepack and displayed below the picture window. One click does almost everything in this game with the exception of a couple of instances when clicking and dragging is necessary. The simple cursor indicates when there is a travel or 'zoom' option, or when there is a hot spot to investigate and you will automatically pick up items when you select them.

Puzzles and problems
The key to the Crystal Key is to search carefully and take note of what you find. Generally the problems are well integrated and are in keeping with the gameworld such as finding coordinates or using inventory objects appropriately. There are no abstract puzzles to frustrate players who don't like them. You'll need a notebook and pencil handy to jot down information and you'll also need to be prepared to experiment because once or twice it is not immediately clear what needs to be done. For example, I collected some objects that had to be processed, but I had no inkling that this was the case. Here experimentation was the only way to learn.

Having said that the game is not difficult if you are willing to try things. Still, as the aliens are curiously humanoid and speak perfect English, I would have preferred a sprinkling of written information scattered around (maybe a simple signpost or a nameplate) to give some of my exploration more purpose, but this was only a problem on a couple of occasions. Most of the time it is not difficult to interpret what you find or what you might need to do, and the end puzzle is particularly satisfying when you finally win the day. This one took me a while because I had to perform an action that had previously been fatal. Thinking about it, I suppose it made sense as it was in a slightly different context, but I obviously didn't think hard enough about it at the time.

Game over
Oh yes, you can meet a sticky end while solving this game, I did on several occasions and found myself staring at the 'Game Over' screen. One such instance had me completely baffled until I discovered that I was at a dead-end because I'd missed an essential inventory item. Another time was more ominous, I got sprung whilst exploring the alien ship. Now I know this is only a personal opinion, but I dislike forever thinking that my next step might be my last as I prefer pure exploration in an adventure game. After that experience my appreciation of the alien vessel was severely diminished. Of course, if you revel in the tension of the prospect of dying at any minute then completely ignore this last remark.

The Crystal Key has been in the making now for several years and it shows a bit in the graphics and particularly in the dark interiors which were quite blocky on my system. I am reluctant to mention this because other players haven't reported the same experience. On reflection I'm probably being picky here as it also has some quite spectacular transitions as you take flight and the atmosphere and sound effects are very good.

This one is a worthwhile diversion for those of you who appreciate the solitary exploration of Myst-style games, and specifically for Science Fiction fans who appreciate futuristic technology. It isn't a long game but it contains some interesting and novel puzzles and demands a good deal of exploration as you travel back and forth between worlds to complete the quest. But, take note, it has some problems, particularly with saving your games. The good news is that there is a patch already available at the DreamCatcher Website. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1999. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
Win 98/95, P133 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 70 MB hard disk space, 8X CD-ROM.
Mac OS System 7.5 or higher, Power PX, 120 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 70 MB hard disk space, 8X CD-ROM.