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RELEASE DATE (NA): July 1990 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Can you save the world from Draygonia?

SNK is a company known mostly for their fighter games, such as World Heroes, Samurai Shodown, Art of Fighting, and the ongoing King of Fighters series (along with the gratuitously and comically violent Metal Slug series). They don't seem to develop much else nowadays, but back in their earlier heyday, SNK had dabbled its hand in a wider variety of video gaming genres. One genre SNK isn't known for is its RPGs, but indeed, they do exist. There are two that I can think of off the top of my head: Shinsetsu Samurai Spirits Bushido Retsuden, an RPG based on the Samurai Shodown series, and Crystalis for the NES.

Entitled "God Slayer: Haruka Tenku no Sonata" (or "God Slayer: Sonata of the Distant Sky" to us Anglophones) in Japan, Crystalis is a top-down action-RPG, not unlike Secret of Mana for the SNES or Falcom's Ys series, so expect lots of sword-swinging. Your heroic main character, whom you get to name yourself, has been revived from a cryogenically-induced slumber after one hundred years of sweet napping. Though he recalls nothing of the past, he comes to learn that a worldwide nuclear war has ravaged the planet, and that civilization as he may have once known it has now rebooted itself into a more primitive existence. The art of science, being the cause of the catastrophic events, has been all but abandoned. Magic is now the only surviving knowledge in use. Since the nuclear downfall of Man, the survivors built a tall tower and sent it to the sky. Within the tower lies heavy weaponry; the contents of this tower are enough to terrorize and overtake all of humanity. This would be a pretty nasty power to wield, especially in the wrong hands. Well, this IS an RPG, so someone MUST be trying to sneak into the tower for this very purpose, right? Indeed, and it is Emperor Draygon of the Draygonian Empire who is trying to do so. Our purple-haired protagonist is now entrusted (somehow) with the quest to seek out the four elemental swords and combine them into the mighty Crystalis, the only sword capable of stopping Draygon's devious deeds. Epic? You bet your sweet fanny.

The hero is initially given one sword (the Sword of Wind) to fend off nasty creatures. Eventually, he'll come across a few other swords with different properties. As you defeat enemies and gain experience, you'll level up your character and become stronger, just like pretty much every RPG on the planet. Oddly enough (and the manual clearly states this), you can only promote yourself to Level 16, and that's it. That's fairly odd, considering that other RPGs of its time and earlier allowed for much higher levels. The original Dragon Warrior, for example, allowed up to Level 30. But hey, if that's how they planned it, there must have been strict reasoning behind it. Or not.

As you gain additional accessories for each sword (usually an orb, followed by a bracelet for each one), you'll be able to charge the sword up to different degrees for even more powerful attacks! You have to stand still to charge your sword, though. That slightly jars the pacing of the game, but not too heavily; it's still a comparatively fast-paced battle system. That being said, one aspect that DOES slow down the pace is that not all enemies can be defeated by the same elemental sword. SNK made it a point to put different types of enemies that are immune to unique elements in the same areas, thus requiring you to constantly switch back and forth between several swords on many occasions. And because certain walls can only be destroyed by specific swords, you may be required to switch back and forth for these events as well. There's no one-button trick to swapping your weapon, requiring you to enter your inventory screen and make the switch. While it seems reasonable that enemies may be resistant to different elements, a better system of shuffling swords around would have been ideal for this concept.

All of his armor and shielding, however, will have to be purchased in towns; you won't find any freebies in chests. In fact, there aren't as many treasure chests in this game as in other RPGs. Maybe we just take them for granted. Anyway, as in most RPGs, if you want better protection, you have to cough up some serious cash. And something, cash on hand is difficult to maintain. Pretty much every minor enemy drops money, and yet, I am often broke (mostly after buying expensive equipment). As well, you are taught spells throughout the game, which can be crucial to your survival. These spells (naturally) use up Magic Points (MP).

This is one bad-ass amethyst brawler. Yeah, you better watch out.

I'm a bit baffled by the control scheme, though I suppose it's to be expected in an RPG with the limited number of buttons on the NES controller. The B-button is set for your weapon, and that's great. But when you have to use an item, you have to basically equip it from the item menu. Then, to use it, press the B-button. So the B-button is now the attack AND the item use button. Next is the A-button, used to cast any equipped magic spells. But there are also certain specialty items, such as the Rabbit Boots for jumping, which are used via the A-button. In order for THAT to work, you have to unequip your spell and then use the item with the A-button. The START button opens up your stats screen, showing off just how buff you are. The SELECT button opens your weapon/armor menu. Scrolling down reveals your item and spell inventory. It's on either of these screens that you can then press START to save or load your game. That seemed a bit well-hidden! You also can't load your game from the title screen. You have to enter a new game and then load your game from the in-game menu. Is that not unusual? The "CONTINUE" feature on the title screen is only for when you have died and wish to keep going from the last area in which you entered. Quite frankly, trial and error was the way I eventually figured out how to use those boots, although having purchased a used copy of Crystalis a while back and not having an instruction manual with it added to the confusion.

There are other issues I had with Crystalis. You are given quite a limited inventory to work with, so I wouldn't rely heavily on any medical herbs to keep you safe because they'll run out very quickly (and don't heal that much anyhow). There seem to be extra spaces for additional items on the inventory screen, but they're not used efficiently and are empty most of the time. Crystalis also, like some other RPGs, does not always give you clear direction on what to do next. I found myself puzzled on many occasions as to exactly what I should do next. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the game has some issues with collision detection -- sometimes I feel I should have hit the enemy, when in fact, no damage was detected. It's important to be accurate with your sword, then -- both in Crystalis AND in real life!

Crystalis definitely is more pleasant to look at than other games of its genre at the time. Dragon Warrior, released in North America only a year earlier, looks extremely archaic by comparison. The characters are larger and a bit more detailed, while environments look more lush than similar offerings. Granted, nothing is spectacular, but for the NES, it's a good-looking RPG specimen. Though I must ask: why is my main character purple? The music is fairly decent as well, offering a few memorable tunes here and there. The first overworld theme will likely be the track recalled the most clearly.

Considering how few action-RPGs were really available on the NES, Crystalis is a boon to fans of the genre. It's not the finest game for the console, and likely won't be making any major publication's Top 10 lists, but it's a good game on its own, if you can overlook a few notable flaws. Crystalis never sold in droves, but it was prominent enough to warrant a remake on the Game Boy Color in 2000, courtesy of none other than Nintendo itself. However, due to some of the more glaring changes made, particularly the heavily revised storyline, it is often considered a downgrade from the original. If you must select the superior Crystalis, seek out the NES version.

Oh yes, I can!

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