Friday, 9 November 2018

Crystalline Review (Western Visual Novel)

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Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this game by the developer. All opinion presented here are solely my own. 

PixelFade is a studio that from the very beginning showed an unusually ambitious approach to EVN development. Their first project, Ace Academy, offered some features rarely seen in Western VN of similar scale (~10h of content), such as good-quality, full voice acting and lots of impressive-looking, stylistically consistent artwork. It was also pretty atypical in its storytelling, featuring a mostly college-age cast, choosing a very tame approach to romance and avoiding the fanservice endemic to this kind of lighthearted, SoL-focused VNs. Initially funded on Kickstarter as Kendo Crush, it went through a curious evolution from a generic-looking, sports-themed game into a futuristic story about mecha battles but regardless of all the tribulations, the end effect was a highly refreshing, all-ages experience with a satisfying mix of light drama, non-violent action and mystery. In my opinion, it’s still one of the best EVNs ever released, with few real issues beyond the somewhat abrupt, anticlimactic ending and the overly simplistic "gameplay" elements.
            Considering the relative success of Ace Academy, it was obvious that there would be high expectations connected to PixelFade’s second project, Crystalline – a lighthearted fantasy tale with a single romanceable heroine, which promised a longer story and even higher production qualities than their debut. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in early 2017, with gathered over 60k CAD (an amount pretty much unseen when it goes to original EVN projects), the game fairly quickly entered Steam on early access and was fully released in late August 2018 – the much anticipated final product offering truly impressive sound and visual design... And, in my opinion, a truly disappointing lack of compelling story content. But why is that exactly?
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As usual, the production quality in PixelFade’s work is way above the usual EVN standards, making Crystalline particularly nice to both look at and listen to
 
A bit atypically, I’ll start my review with the visual side of the game, because there’s a lot to talk about here. From the very first moments, Crystalline proves to the reader that its impressive budget (provided not only through the KS campaign, but also a significant Patreon support) was well-spent. The intro animation and the original song accompanying it (performed by Amanda Lee, the VA of the main heroine, Leanna) are pretty endearing, and the title screen greets you with an absolutely gorgeous, animated background and upbeat music. While definitely a bit saccharine, these first moments honestly impressed me and got me excited about exploring the game further. What came after those was similarly pleasing to look at – the Live2D-animated sprites are highly detailed, expressive and more often than not really nicely designed (Leanna is actually my least favourite character in this respect, mostly because of slightly weird proportions and head shape, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling her design bad and I had no issues with most other sprites). The Live2D animations are pretty subtle, making the scenes feel more alive, but very rarely going overboard with the gimmick in a way that would make it distracting. It’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into the sprites and scripting of all the scenes, making it more natural-looking and seamless than most attempts that I’ve seen, including some Japanese VNs (ex. the clunky animation from the 2016 edition of Go! Go! Nippon!).
            The CG and backgrounds don’t disappoint either. While the repetition in backgrounds is sometimes noticeable, especially when it goes to interiors, it never really gets in the way. The CGs are not that numerous for a medium-length VN, but many situations that would normally benefit from them are communicated quite effectively with the sprite animation and voice acting, so they only show up in the crucial moments of the story. They’re always a joy to look at and very consistent with the general artstyle – there’s no kind of disconnect here, so common even in the better-produced VNs due to numerous artists working on different assets. The artstyle itself is an evolution of what you might be familiar with from Ace Academy – somewhat standard anime illustrations, but relatively detailed and slightly more on the realistic side of things, with vibrant colours and distinct character designs. While I'm still not sure whether it can compete with some of the higher-budget JP productions, it’s definitely a joy to look at and has tons of personality. In general, the visual side of the game is a great artistic achievement that has few serious competitors within the EVN scene and it's definitely one of the main, if not the main selling point of the whole Crystalline experience.
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As the central heroine, Leanna could probably use a few more flaws and twists – her competence and positive attitude makes the game just a little bit too devoid of convincing drama
 
The music and VA don’t fall far behind the visuals – apart from the opening song, I didn’t find the soundtrack especially memorable, but I never got bored of it or felt it didn’t fit the situations. Voice actors do a very, very solid job, not only giving quite a lot of personality to the main cast, but also keeping the supporting voices convincing – secondary and tertiary characters are usually the bane of Western VNs due to their low budgets, but here everything was kept at a solid level and I don’t remember ever cringing at over-the-top acting or poorly read lines. Obviously, while everyone could expect a top performance from Amanda Lee, the star of the game’s voice cast and the person having definitely the most spoken lines, the rest of the actors, especially those voicing lead characters, didn’t fall far behind. I wouldn’t even hesitate to call Crystalline the best EVN ever produced in this particular respect – there’s simply nothing to complain about.
            It’s all the more shame that the script these talented artists and voice actors were asked to work with was average at best. The general premise is a very standard isekai – a typical, borderline featureless high-schooler is magically transported to another world, given unusual powers and chosen by some higher power to save the struggling fantasy realm. Immediately after travelling through dimensions he meets Leanna Dawn, a young and beautiful mage-knight who, along with three other companions, will take him on the journey to explain his appearance on the magical land of Terra and help him find his way home (of course, banishing some kind of primal evil in the process). The whole journey is rather full of fantasy tropes, random popcultural references and pretty much completely devoid of interesting twists or tension. One thing that contributes to this greatly is heavily toned down violence and the very lighthearted tone of the story – while the game is full of battles, with swords and fireballs being pushed in all directions, there’s pretty much no death or drama attached to it. The protagonist even jumps into a fight with a group of bandits with no combat experience beyond kendo and is seemingly unaffected by what we would logically expect to be a gruesome, life-or-death situation completely outside of his normal experience.
            From this moment forward, every enemy the main cast beats is “unconscious”, every treachery is forgiven and there you feel there are no real stakes within the story, as the writing style doesn’t allow for the possibility of something truly bad happening (with literally one exception, somewhat gruesome in its implications, but also never directly shown). What made sense in the sports-themed Ace Academy, here feels seriously disingenuous and takes away from the experience. The way the protagonist acts and limited impact of most choices also don’t help much – the game spends a lot of time on cute downtime, giving relatively little attention to the main intrigue and offers you pretty much no control over what’s going on, even with dialogue choices popping up every few minutes. While what you say have some influence on the ending and whether you can romance Leanna, there’s little branching or meaningful feedback from many of your actions. Your personas of choice include the "generic nice guy" (which leads to the optimal conclusion), the "perverted idiot" and the "grumpy asshole", with nearly every dialogue option very transparently aimed at one of these archetypes and none of them being particularly compelling to play as. The story is ultimately very linear and formulaic, with only a few creative ideas that could immerse you in the experience and make you curious about the game’s world (which, admittedly, have a lot of lore that gets infodumped on you between every important story bit and feels relatively interesting). While the game managed to get me a bit pumped up in its final moments and during one confrontational event involving Leanna, it was ultimately pretty unsatisfying story-wise and baffling in its over-the-top politeness – and while I understand that not every fantasy story has to be dark, this one simply goes overboard with how sanitized it is and how it limits player’s agency and immersion because of it.
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Crystalline's cast is likeable and well-designed enough to carry a much better story one that simply never materialized within the game
 
What should’ve been Crystalline’s another major selling point, the expansive romance scenario involving Leanna, also disappoints. While the idea of focusing on just one heroine and making her relationship with the protagonist more deep and believable is something I wholeheartedly support, at no point I felt that the subplot offered anything unique or especially satisfying. Leanna, in the core, is a very basic character with few defining traits, no meaningful flaws and a very predictable backstory. While there are some fun interactions between her and the protagonist along the way and there’s a visible difference between the romantic and platonic paths (this is pretty much the only form of route variety the game offers), everything is once more extremely tame and, to be honest, pretty dull. The one attempt at building drama between her and protagonist is mostly just annoying, serving no purpose other than being a questionable attempt at some emotional roller-coaster in the final stages of the game, done in a very transparent and thus superficial way. While I can’t say the romantic subplot was plain bad, I very much wanted it to be special and redeem the game’s story to some degree. Still, it simply fell short – and this is said from the perspective of True Ending, which I unlocked at my first try. Maybe, when approached with lower expectations, it can be more fun to go through.
            One last thing I definitely have to mention is the minigames – very simplistic, “click the matching icon” or “follow the pattern” segments that show up during fight scenes or in response to certain challenges protagonist's team faces. While your performance in them determine the ending you’ll get, they’re so easy that you pretty much have to fail them on purpose to see the bad conclusion. This also added to the feeling of severe lack of substance I’ve got from this VN – sadly, "the form" really is the sole redeeming factor here.
            So, in the end, is Crystalline worth buying? I’d still say yes, although only if you’re willing to put up with a very casual and rather shallow story, masquerading as a fantasy adventure, in order to appreciate the visual and sound spectacle it offers. If approached properly, it’s a very pleasant game to go through, but one that had the potential to be much, much more than that and it makes me extremely sad how unimaginative and sanitized it turned out it be. At times it truly felt like a game for children and I can’t imagine that is the actual target audience PixelFade wants or would be able to reach. I really hope that their next game will take more chances and prove to be a truly compelling experience – if they did it once, they can definitely do it again.
 
Final Score: 3/5
 
Pros:
+ Great sound and visual design
+ Interesting setting with decent world-building
+ Good supporting cast
 
Cons:
- Slow pacing and TONS of slice-of-life filler
- Overly sanitized when it goes to violence and sexuality
- Ultimately bland main heroine and generic romance
 
VNDB Page
Buy Crystalline on Steam

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