By Scott Ramage / July 17th, 2019
When a developer-slash-publisher has an extensive enough library of games, it’s natural to think about incorporating as many characters from them as possible into one title. Why not add a few from other people’s games and even a couple anime characters? It’s like a big slumber party, but in Nicalis, Inc.’s case the pillow fights are actually puzzle fights. Crystal Crisis takes the formula for puzzle games like Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and adds a few twists, all while being flexible to the player’s preferences for how to play. Hundreds of colored bricks later, here’s what I took away from the experience.
If you’ve played Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, most of Crystal Crisis should feel quite familiar. Drop two-block pieces so their colors line up, then line them up with a similarly colored spark crystal to destroy them. Doing this with enough blocks and chaining multiple blasts together causes more countdown crystals to clog up the opponent’s playing field, which generally make life difficult until they turn into normal blocks after five turns. Said countdown blocks follow the attack pattern for each character, which determines what colors appear when and in what position (e.g. full row of blue first, then alternating yellow and red for the next, etc.). Get the opponent’s blocks to the top of the field in two of three rounds to win. Minor additions to enhance playability include a faint grid outline on the field and a ghost piece at the bottom, which shows where blocks will land if the player quick drops them. While all this is going on, both characters stand opposite each other and trade attacks and one-liners. Everyone is fully voiced, with most speaking in Japanese with English subtitles, though these don’t appear during matches.
Where Crystal Crisis starts to deviate from the label of being a Puzzle Fighter clone is with the Burst system. Every block shattered builds up a gauge on the side of the screen. Split into three segments, this gauge can launch either offensive or defensive special abilities which vary across each character. The three segments can be deployed one at a time or all at once to make the ability stronger. One character’s offensive burst may rearrange the opponent’s blocks to break up clusters while another may shift their columns a few spots to one side. One character’s defensive burst may speed up countdown crystals while another may destroy or rearrange select crystals on the grid. There’s a solid variety of abilities across each character, though some are highly situational and some don’t have three-tiered abilities. There were a few times with certain characters when I would end up not using an attack or defensive burst because it would neither hurt my opponent nor help me much. That aside, the game maintains a quick pace thanks to its intuitive control scheme and easy-to-follow game mechanics.
While most of the characters are from games developed or published at some point by Nicalis (Cave Story, 1001 Spikes, The Binding of Isaac, Umihara Kawase Fresh!, etc.), others seem to come out of nowhere. Tezuka Productions gave the green light to use both Black Jack and Astro Boy from their respective series. Some characters, like Elise, are from projects Nicalis hasn’t announced yet. The tutorial at the start of Crystal Crisis is taught by one of the most bizarre inclusions of all, Johnny Turbo. If you’re not one of the five people on Earth who know who that is, he’s from a short early 90s comic series advertising the TurboDuo console. I’m not opposed to it; I just don’t know how to react to it, even after playing the game for a couple hours. The catch is that of the 20 characters in the game, half of them need to be unlocked, so be prepared to work for those grayed-out roster spots.
Crystal Crisis rides the boundary between anime and 3D cartoon with its art style. While I was mainly focused on the grid, all the stages are designed around the in-game characters. The graphics won’t blow away anyone, but the stages and characters are presented well in the game’s art style regardless. That said, the pre-fight intros tend to turn certain characters into ventriloquists, speaking for several seconds while their mouths stay clamped shut. This is almost made up for by the soundtrack alone, with compositions from UMI☆KUUN and Toshihiro Ogihara. The upbeat electronic works can be played in a separate music player, unlocking once they’re heard in the main game. It’s easy to find, right next to the art gallery and achievements list in the Extras menu.
As for the ways to play, there are several. Arcade mode splits into five separate modes: Standard, Survival, Inline, Tag Team and Memory, ranging in difficulty from Normal to an unlockable Master mode. There’s also a Stoy mode, in which an ominous red crystal creates a dimensional rift of sorts allowing all of Crystal Crisis’ characters to meet up. The heroes want to destroy the crystal and save all worlds in all dimensions while the more villainous types want to hold onto it. There’s also local and online play, the latter of which allows for ranked and unranked matches.
But wait, Crystal Crisis isn’t done yet! The rules can be adjusted to turn on and off a variety of mechanics, like grid wrap (pushing blocks off screen one way and having them appear on the other side) and poly-crystals, which nuke all blocks of the same color, even if they aren’t touching. Inline mode changes the rules to match three colors instead of using spark crystals. I wanted to try some of these out early on, considering the loading screens often mention some of them, only to not see them in the Options menu. The bulk of these options need to be unlocked. Some are understandable, but considering I tended to struggle with the spark crystal mode of play (e.g. not having the right color of spark crystal appear until after getting flooded with countdown blocks), I badly wanted to switch to Inline mode, only to realize it was an unlockable. It’s not just rule sets that are treated like this; every Arcade mode except Standard is an unlockable. Way too much of the game felt like it was gated off in the early going.
And this is where I need to admit something about Crystal Crisis: I can’t play it. You see, I’m color blind. It’s not that I can’t see color at all, but I often struggle to tell certain colors or groups of colors apart. In this game the default block colors frequently blended together for me, leading to blocks getting scattered all over the field and an eventual loss. Crystal Crisis does offer various arrangements of colors for the blocks, including a color blind set and even a custom setting. While those helped slightly, I still couldn’t get too far in the game because I’d keep mixing up at least two colors. As a result, I ended up not being able to progress too far in Story or Arcade mode.
Excuse me while I get on my soap box for a bit. When designing a puzzle game, specifically one that involves color matching, it’s nice that Nicalis thought to add something to help out color blind players. However, different types of color blindness affect different groups of colors and, ultimately, the visual design of Crystal Crisis made it far more difficult for me. Having all the blocks be solid colors can make Crystal Crisis nightmarish for a color blind person to play, in spite of the color blind option. Adding a texture or design of some sort for each color would make it far easier to tell the blocks apart, even more than the slew of custom color options. Puzzle Bobble, one of my favorite puzzle games, does this to great effect, having unique designs for each colored ball. If any prospective color match puzzle game developers are reading this, here’s a test to see if your game can be played by a color blind person. Ask whether or not someone could successfully play it in black and white. If it would work on a Game Boy or a graphing calculator, you’re golden. If not, it’s time to rethink how the game pieces look.
Crystal Crisis is available now for the Nintendo Switch and will release on the PlayStation 4 as well, both retailing for $40. It can also be purchased physically through Nicalis’ Crystal Crisis page. For any fans of Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo or Puyo Puyo-like titles it should be an entertaining experience, even without knowing who the bulk of the characters are. As for myself, I’ll stick to puzzle games which aren’t as heavily reliant on color differentiation to play.