The Crystal Skull

Developer/Publisher:  Maxis
Year Released:  1996

Review by Rosemary Young (December, 1996)
cskull.jpgTime Travel has been an enduring theme in computer games and The Crystal Skull gives us another chance to travel from one time period to another. It is set in the past, in the Aztec Empire of Central America at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, but as you follow your quest you will eventually retreat further into the past and emulate some of the myths and legends of the ancient culture.

Your character is Quetzal, Bird Keeper to the Emperor and, more importantly, the Youth with the Feather on his Breast. The game opens with a short sequence showing the Emperor dreaming of this mysterious, feathered youth bearing a Crystal Skull, when suddenly his vision is shattered by news of the sighting of foreign ships carrying white men with beards. He immediately issues orders for you to be found, but there is a traitor in the camp, none other than Snake Skirt, his trusted servant. Snake Skirt will dispense with you if he can so, whilst keeping out of his clutches, you must first gain access to the Emperor and from there you will be ordered to fulfil the Emperor's dream and embark upon the quest for the Crystal Skull.

Controls and Options
The Crystal Skull is a point and click adventure using a curser that changes shape when passed over a 'hot spot' -- a hand for doing things, a speech bubble for talking and an eye for looking. The playing area comprises about two thirds of the screen and the game icons are activated below the picture simply by moving the curser over them. Here there are icons to open your inventory, for saving and restoring, for sound control, for easy travel and for shapeshifting, once you have acquired that skill; as well as one for getting hints and for accessing the encyclopaedia of information on Mesoamerican culture.

The whole interface is very easy to use and the excellent hint system means that this is a game in which you need never get stuck. Of course, this is both a good thing (for people who don't like getting stuck) and a bad thing (for people who like to work things out for themselves without the temptation of easily accessible hints), so the game obligingly allows you the option of either accessing these hints or not when you start each new game. There is just one other choice to make at this time as well, you are also given the option of triggering a quick resurrection if you are ever unfortunate enough to die (which you will be, I can assure you). If you don't take this latter option you can always resort to restoring to your last saved game, but if you refuse the hints that icon will be forever 'dead'.

Learn as you go
I quite appreciated the 'educational' aspect of this game which, as mentioned above, takes the form of a concise encyclopaedia of Mesoamerican culture. For each game location you visit, the zoo or the market, for example, you can read a short, referenced, entry about that particular place in ancient culture. Or, when you stumble across the ruins of a temple or a strange rock carving, once again, you can read all about it. Depending on the location, this information might be a quick descriptive caption, a potted history, or it may be a re-telling of an ancient myth.

Not only does this feature work well and add interest to the game, but it is also incorporated into the play as the information provides a number of critical clues. If you don't want to read it constantly, my advice is to read it when, and if, you are stuck because you'll probably find your salvation here.

Slow start
I didn't find this a particularly easy game to get into. The gameplay at the beginning was fairly ordinary and it didn't succeed in drawing me into the story. On reflection this was at least partly due to the game characters themselves, not only are they unimaginative but the indifferent acting fails to inspire. Also, although your character marches everywhere with purpose, screen changes are sluggish so he is never really in a hurry to get to where he's going, and this doesn't enhance the initial exploration.

Another word of advice, be patient, The Crystal Skull does improve with age. After you set out on your quest for the skull the puzzles become measurably more interesting and the play is much more involving. Here some of the problems include doing favours for other characters whilst others involve researching the encyclopaedia. Also, there are a couple of arcade type puzzles, a couple of sliding tile puzzles, as well as a riddle and a simple logic problem.

The good and the bad
Really, The Crystal Skull is a mixed bag of tricks. It has some aspects that I thoroughly appreciated but, unfortunately, these are tempered by some very annoying habits. Beginning with the positive things, I liked the educational aspect, finding clues in the encyclopaedia was different and interesting. Also, I thought the hint system was very good, feeding out clues little by little, and I heartily approved of the option for skipping the arcade bits. Thankfully, I didn't have to harass the hapless parrot, or play the ball game, and people who don't like tile sliding puzzles will be pleased to note that these can also be skipped.

As for what didn't I like about it, well apart from the slow start, it would have benefited greatly by a text translation of the speech. Sometimes it was difficult to catch clues the first time around and it would have helped greatly in solving the riddle. Also, The Crystal Skull breaks some of the golden rules of adventuring. For instance, you can step into deadly danger with no inkling beforehand, and no possible escape. Also, at least a couple of the locations are inaccessible until you have activated their 'trigger' such as finding a particular object. On one occasion this involved me searching endlessly to find a location because I had already tried to enter it previously and failed. I didn't realise that the 'dead-end' was only temporary.

It's a bit rough around the edges, still The Crystal Skull developed into a reasonable game though it will never be one of my favourites. The excellent hint system makes it very playable for novice adventurers. In fact, considering this, together with the 'learning' aspect of the game, I'd like to recommend it more for younger players but, be warned, you will meet plenty of untimely 'deaths' and, though there is no emphasis on red splotches and death screams, your demise is, nevertheless, very unpleasant at times. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486/DX2/66, 8MB RAM, 2xCD ROM drive, SVGA, sound card, mouse. Win 3.1, Win '95. Also available for Mac.