There was a moment early on in Crystal Ortha, the newest RPG from the developers at Hit-Point that made me pause. During the first battle sequence, when I noticed that I could set the battle animations to play twice as fast and that with the Auto-Battle button, I could have the sequence progress automatically.
In a past life, even the suggestion of such a gameplay mechanic would have turned me off, but now as a parent with limited time to play games and even less time to play uninterrupted, Crystal Ortha revealed itself to be a great fit for my new style of play. On top of that, the storyline just got more bloated and ridiculous with every stereotype of the genre you could think of. It all wrapped up to be a really satisfying “JRPG-lite” that gave as much as I needed it to.
There’s a lot about Crystal Ortha that feels faithful to its inspirations. For me, Final Fantasy IV is the clearest property that the title is channeling. Reviewing any sort of 90s-esque RPG is going to force some comparisons to what I believe to be the greatest RPG of all time, but there were a lot of things in this new title that felt like the revered classic.
The turn-based combat, flexible attack order (based on Agility), the graphics, the huge storyline (which grows and changes as the game goes on), there’s so much that is inspired by classic Square titles. But as we’ll talk about in a moment, my time in the kingdom was quite unlike how I’ve approached RPGs in the past, and it fits perfectly with the lifestyle that I lead now.
GAMEPLAY – THERE IS NO SECRET MANA
At first glance, Crystal Ortha seems like your average RPG title. Characters are exaggerated, there are many, many random encounters, and your goal involves some mysterious crystals. The battle system is turn-based, and party members can attack with their equipable weapons or with skills they learn as they level up. Marshma, the fourth and final party member you encounter, can “learn” skills from enemies instead of traditionally attacking, which throws a fun spin on the mechanic.
But that’s really where the game stops being traditional. For starters, there are no usable items. There’s no currency. Shops exist but are used only as set pieces for dialogue and exploration. Weapons and armor can be crafted using ore found throughout the world. Chests in dungeons usually hold some specific regional ore, while other types can be found while sniffing around the crates and corners of towns.
Personally, I found this incredibly liberating. There’s not so much more to go find (most items require less than four pieces to craft), and the hidden spots are obvious enough for seasoned players. Bunch of barrels in the corner? Probably a piece of ore there. A shiny glowing object in the middle of an empty field? You bet that’s an ore.
The trade-off to this super simple handling of equipment means that I have an inventory full of low-level swords and armor that I can’t do anything with. There’s no way to drop or sell items, I can’t trade them for or break them down into ore, so I’m stuck with a huge list of old junk. Granted, since there are no items, there isn’t a whole lot of reason for me to go into the menus and see all of these ineffective weapons, but it becomes frustrating when I equip a stronger piece of armor or a more effective ring.
This might all sound strange. No items, but how do you heal? The answer to that is simple: you need to be prepared. Remember to equip a character with a healing Skill before you set out for battle so that you can bounce back during a tough fight. There’s no Phoenix Downs or magical grass to bring back one of your party members. You will need to pay attention to what Skills you have set to ensure that you’re able to heal or revive in a pinch.
This isn’t as brutal as it seems. Every time your party is defeated, a helpful screen comes up that offers advice, and you have the option of returning to the title screen or simply restarting the battle. There are no penalties to the restart, so you can simply try to best your enemies as much as you want. This is one of a couple of major breaks from traditional RPG structure that are both alarming and incredibly welcome.
This is a game that respects the time of the modern gamer. At least, for players like me, some quality-of-life changes took away game mechanics but enabled me to enjoy my time even more. In every battle, players can push a button and double the speed of all animations, cutting the encounter time in half. On top of that, a trigger button turns on Auto Battle, causing the characters to handle things on their own, allowing me to just sit back and watch.
Turning an old-school style RPG into a visual novel might not be what people are looking for, but for a father of two who doesn’t have the time to stay up slaying monsters all night, these features were a godsend. In much the same way that Celeste‘s accessibility features allowed the gameplay to be tailored to your abilities and interest, the inclusion of a speed toggle and automatic battling allowed me to enjoy a large-scale RPG in a way that I haven’t been able to for years.
STORY – EVERY SINGLE TROPE
We need to talk about the storyline of Crystal Ortha. From the outset, it is really predictable. A mysterious mercenary with colorful hair in a backwoods town and mysterious intentions is thrust into adventure thanks to a beautiful girl and the promise of riches. The thing is that as the game continues, it somehow packs every single stereotypical JRPG beat into the story, even if it’s in passing.
A depressed former soldier. Magical body modification. A rich but passionate teenage girl. A 30-year-old who tries to hook up with the teenage girl. An entire religion nobody understands. Steampunk. Crystals. These are all things we’ve seen in games before but that are now shown off as quickly as possible. There isn’t anything unique or exciting about the storyline. Nothing about the main narrative stands out or leaves a lasting impression on you.
If anything, it’s the subquests that hold the real storytelling magic. For instance, Margaret’s butler mentioned that her home had become overrun by mice. Exterminating the vermin led me on the path to recovering one of her father’s jewels from thieves. They turned out to be children who were raised in the desert by a former soldier who was experimented on by the government. He was grotesque, his family was destroyed, and over his years in the desert, he cared for orphans who had nowhere else to go. It was a touching mini storyline that required little of my time but really expanded the world.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – CRANK IT UP
The game looks better than the artwork would have you believe. The world design and character sprites look fantastic, but the official artwork used in advertising and on the menu screen is, well, lacking. I really don’t enjoy the character artwork. The enemies are really impressive works of pixel art, but the decision to use a modern font is one that I simply cannot understand. Every part of this game is trying to express nostalgia for a time gone by, but every text box reminds you that things have changed.
The soundtrack, however, is fantastic. Featuring strong musical backing tracks filled with high-speed guitar and strong bass lines, this is one game that I played with the volume up. Sometimes when a game is attempting to convey the feeling of a certain time period, the audio quality can fall flat. But perhaps because the title doesn’t have to rely on the strength of its sound, in this instance, the music really shines.
Crystal Ortha was reviewed on Xbox One. A review code was provided by KEMCO.