Monday, July 14, 2014

I will play you the song of my people! - Crystal Towers 2

One of the reasons I started this blog was it gives me a way to point people towards games they might have overlooked, and Crystal Towers 2 is a perfect example of this. Released in 2011 and not available on Steam, GoG or any other major distributor besides Desura, it's pretty easy to miss this game, which is sad because it's really good.

Crystal Towers 2 is a retro platform game that takes a few pages from games like Super Mario 64. You have a single, massive hub where you can access all the games levels from, each level has a series of goals that you unlock one at a time, and completing these goals and finding abilities in levels allows you to open up news sections of the hub and new levels with it. Interestingly, Crystal Towers 2's levels are unlocked with three different things. Orbs, which come form beating bosses and beating levels for the first time. Rainbow gems, which you get by completing extra challenges in each stage and keys, which are hidden in some levels and each stage needs oh so many of each one.
The hub is where you access the rest of the games levels from, and it's huge.
Another thing the game does differently is it's spells. Instead of the usual ability upgrades, you gain most of your upgrades by instead finding new spells, and there's a good number of them, ranging from attacks to unlocking doors to using warps found in some levels. all of them cost varying amounts of mana that you replenish by collecting vials found in some stages, it's a unique idea but it also suffers from a little weirdness, like the fact that double jumping is now a spell that you need to cast that only lasts 30 seconds, rather than something you simply unlock. Also, while you can change your equipped spells whenever you want, you can only have 2 equipped at once, which occasionally brings the action to a halt when you need to go into the menus because you need to cast unlock on something.

Finally, there's the rainbow gems, each level has 7 and they act as extra challenges for each of the games levels, and the challenges are quite varied, with things like beating the stage within a time limit, destroying all of a certain kind of enemy, ending with a certain amount of health or scoring a combo worth so many points. There's a lot of them and even in later stages you'll still run across new challenges.
The game has a fun little combo system, though you don't always have a chance to make large combos like this.
Graphically, the game goes for a retro look although with a slight twist. Despite the game's mechanics having some similarities to Mario, it doesn't actually mimic the the look and feel of Nintendo's old 8 and 16-bit consoles. Instead, it mimics the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Namely, here the game takes some obvious influence from the older Sonic the Hedgehog games. Levels begin with an overlay showing the level's name and levels have A, B, and C stages, much like how Sonic's zones have multiple acts. The levels cover a large variety of terrain, from volcanoes to industrial centers to jungles to ancient ruins. The graphics can feel a bit primitive at times, even when you account for the game's retro aesthetic, but it never degrades into the truly horrible.

The game makes a bit of a deal about music. The story, what little there is, is about music disappearing from the world, the hub is called the Music Castle... you even craft items using a synth! With that in mind, the soundtrack is awesome. Much like the graphics, there's some definite Sonic the Hedgehog influence here, and the music here would be right at home with a game in that series. Tunes are catchy, cover a decent rage of genres with each levels theme very distinct from the others, and sounds like something you'd hear in a Genesis game. Where the graphics might falter a little here and there, the music nails that retro Genesis/Mega Drive feel perfectly and if nothing else, I'd recommend at least giving it a listen from the bandcamp link below.
Each level starts with an overlay like this. Not pictured: catchy stage music.
While the game is mostly solid, it does have some flaws, one of the most obvious ones is that it's difficulty is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is a proper old school challenge, and that on it's own is not a bad thing. The problem comes form the fact that it can be a little too rough at times. Some rainbow gems can have fairly exacting challenges, like completing a level without picking up any of the shards that litter the stage. Also, while levels are not massive, they're still fairly sprawling and have no checkpoints, death or failure means starting over from scratch. There will be times where you carefully navigate a hard level or challenge only to make that one little mistake near the end that immediately kills all your progress and sees you starting from square one yet again, ow. Fortunately, you have unlimited lives, so while it might get frustrating you at least have as many attempts as you need to push through it.

Another problem would be the game's hub, it's a fairly large hub and unfortunately not as well organized as I'd like. While levels might be grouped into A, B and C stages, the gates for them aren't always anywhere near each other. On the same note the hub also doesn't really theme areas much if at all. so there's nothing in the terrain to guide you towards the gates. Gates are color coded, and you do have a sort of radar that points you towards where the gate are, but it only points to a small number of the closest ones you have unlocked, and then by simply having an arrow pointed directly at them. Finally, you need to find things like new spells, health and mana upgrades to progress, but the game tends to treat these pickups like secrets meaning you have to go a bit out of your way to find them, and you can't tell if you need a particular spell or upgrade until you play a challenge and see you can't do it. The end result is it's possible to find yourself lost, with no clear idea of where you can or should be going at the moment.
There's several bosses in the game, and they can be a real challenge
Finally, I encountered an odd crash bug with the game. Apparently the game will just up and crash after you die a certain number of times. It's a large number, but with the difficulties mentioned above, the deaths tend to pile up unless you're REALLY good and I'm... not. Fortunately, I've never lost any real progress due to this bug and it doesn't seem to be damaging anything in the game or my system as a whole. Still if you decide to try this game, you might want to close and reopen the game every few levels, especially if you just completed a hard stage that took a lot of attempts to beat.

Overall. I'd Say Crystal Towers 2 is worth a look, the problems I've mentioned can be annoying or frustrating, but despite this it's still a very fun platform game, with a surprising amount of content and one hell of a soundtrack.

Crystal towers 2 was developed by DavidN, it's available on Desura, and directly from the developer, along with a demo here. It's soundtrack is available on Bandcamp, and it's homepage is available here. Finally, you can vote for Crystal Towers 2 on Steam Greenlight here.

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