Here’s a little insight into my life. I’m what my friends like to call a "workaholic." Usually, I use the precious few spare hours left in my week to try — keyword, "try" — and play some games.
Since I don’t have much free time, naturally, this is reflected in my gaming habits — mainly in that my tolerance for games I personally don’t enjoy is at an all-time low. Now, I want to make it clear I don’t mean this in an I’m-too-elitist-to-enjoy-games-anymore way; rather, I play games to be entertained and to be made to think and to learn from them. Now, I would argue that’s a fairly wide range of possibilities for a game to appeal to me. So, if a game can’t accommodate even a single one of those desires, I feel like it isn’t worth my time. And if something doesn’t seem like it’s worth my time, I drop it at the third sign of trouble, with no remorse whatsoever, because, as I said, I have to be selective.
The kind of games that appeal to me are:
a) Ridiculously fun b) Constantly "entertaining," even if they aren’t "fun" c) Neither of the above, but do something interesting that grabs my interest anyway.
While a) is pretty straightforward, b) is a little more subjective. My idea of "entertaining" usually pertains to an interesting story or interesting characters. I’m very prone to spending hours upon hours chatting with certain equally obsessive friends about differences in character personalities, motives that aren’t expressed clearly within the story and even occasionally trying to figure out what a designer / manga-ka / director was thinking when he or she made a particular design decision. It isn’t unusual at all to wake up at 7AM one morning and find myself debating with someone about whether or not Time Hollow had further untapped potential in how it largely did away with a lot of the stereotypes one would expect to see in a game of its kind.
A game could be terrible, design-wise, but as long as it has a decent story or interesting characters, I’ll probably like it anyway. This is why you see me try to spread awareness of visual novels. This is why I adore Mana Khemia 2 and don’t like Shiren the Wanderer. This is why I can’t enjoy, say 70%, of today’s JRPGs, and why, when there is one that I do happen to enjoy, no matter how low-budget or niche, I take it upon myself to push it on the site as hard as I can.
This is why I want to talk about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers.
While the end product couldn’t have turned out any more different than one initially imagined, Crystal Bearers first debuted in CG form in 2006 during Nintendo’s E3 press conference. At the time, it looked like it would be the successor to the original Crystal Chronicles on Gamecube, both in terms of design and aesthetic. Sure, it was no Final Fantasy XIII — whose own trailer made jaws drop — but it was a follow-up to a very unique game nevertheless. Then, for nearly two years after its initial reveal, nothing. All was quiet.
To everyone on the outside, it seemed like producer Akitoshi Kawazu’s team at Square Enix had gone silent to focus on finishing up the game’s development. After all, it had been shown off at E3 to commemorate the launch of the Wii — it couldn’t be far off from release, could it?
Unfortunately, that notion couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The truth is, when Crystal Bearers was revealed at E3, actual production of the game had barely commenced. Once production work did begin in earnest, the project spiraled down into development issues that nearly resulted in it being canceled. Whether the reboot into the final design was initiated before or after these troubled times is unknown, but Crystal Bearers spent another good three years in the boiling pot before it was ready for its controversial release at a time when expectations of Square Enix were sky-high.
Hey, wait a second. Some of this sounds rather familiar. Oh, that’s right.
The difference between that game and this one, however, is that Crystal Bearers is the closest Square Enix have ever gotten to creating a game with a healthy blend of eastern and western design, and it’s criminal that they aren’t pushing it harder. Let’s start from the beginning.
When the first real Crystal Bearers trailer was shown off in early 2009, a lot of us were initially taken aback. Bluegrass music? Telekinesis? A complete lack of weapons? Spin-off or not, this game still had "Final Fantasy" in the title…what were Square thinking, showing off this monstrosity?
But then, we watched the trailer again. And again. And again. And each time, it seemed a little bit cooler than the last, until many of us couldn’t help but grin foolishly when Layle jumped off the airship at the end, in pursuit of a bazooka, yelling at the top his lungs, thrilled by the prospect of blowing up giant dragons while plummeting in a free-fall to the ground.
There was potential here. The lead character looked badass. His potential love interest was curiously interesting, too. And there wasn’t a hint of CG throughout the entire trailer, which meant this really was how pretty the game would look. As more trailers trickled in throughout the year, Crystal Bearers caught more and more attention — some of it positive for being so bold and daring, but a lot of it negative because…well, it wasn’t Final Fantasy XIII.
Sadly, that’s just the way things work within our insatiable demographic. We complain about pretty boys and emo kids and terrible characterization, but when a Square game eschews all of those in favour of trying something different and entertaining, we ignore it.
Ridding Itself of Stereotypes
To me, the Crystal Bearers trailers all said the same thing: "this is going to be one hell of an entertaining game." And while the end product is far from the best game released in 2009, for everything it does wrong, it does a lot right.
Take Layle and Keiss — the game’s free-for-hire "mercenary" leads — for instance. They’re bold, spontaneous, down-to-earth, both utterly badass and have a fascinating relationship that sometimes feels like it doesn’t require words. They’re the best of friends, but they’ve got their differences and their issues with each other, which is something the game touches upon frequently.
Keiss, while bold and intelligent, is an opportunist first and foremost. He desires fame and acceptance, and he’ll do what he needs to, to acquire both. For those unfamiliar with Crystal Chronicles lore, Keiss is part of a race called Selkies, who are essentially considered outlaws and frowned upon in the era during which CB takes place. Part of what Keiss does, it would appear, is in the interest of breaking free of that reputation by getting in the government’s good books, and hopefully, improving relations between Selkies and Lilties (the ruling tribe) as a whole.
Layle, on the other hand, is reckless and craves adventure, and never passes up the opportunity to show off and have some fun at the expense of pissing a lot of people off. On the one hand, his behaviour tends to annoy Keiss, who does his best to keep out of trouble and play it straight. On the other, he and Keiss are inseparable because deep down, they’re quite similar. For you see, Layle is part of the Clavat race, which is the equivalent of the downtrodden, agricultural lower-class in this game. To top that, he’s also a "crystal bearer" — beings with a magical crystal imbued in their bodies that give them special powers.
Unfortunately, crystal bearers are feared and discriminated against. While it hasn’t been explicitly stated — at least not yet — it’s obvious Layle’s showboating and confidence come from years of dealing with this treatment, to the point where he’s just learnt to ignore it in the same way an adult wouldn’t let everyone else’s opinion bother them.
The two work in perfect coordination with each other when it comes to carrying out missions. When separated to handle individual missions, their trust helps them carry out their own responsibilities without worrying about how the other is doing. And yet, somehow, at the end of the day, they manage to be a couple of wise-cracking kids anyway. They’re probably the most interesting characters I’ve seen in a Square Enix game, period.
Then there’s Belle, another member of the Selkie tribe and Layle’s "love interest," so to speak. They start out hating each other’s guts, but each subsequent run in gets increasingly bold and flirtatious, until you’re practically yelling in your head for one to admit they’re interested in the other. Like Layle and Keiss, Belle is as far from brooding and angsty as you could possibly get. She’s sharp, self-centred (although, in a very cute way) and a thief to the bone. Her frequent run-ins with Layle were some of the biggest highlights in the game for me, personally.
Every character in the game, in fact, stands out in their own way. The voice-acting is convincing enough to convey their unique personalities, and for those of us out of our adolescent years and wanting characters we can reasonably believe in and relate to, Crystal Bearers has a few. Most importantly, it doesn’t try to resort to tragedy or death or temporary amnesia to achieve this, and while it’s a lively game, it’s not without its emotional moments.
Then there’s the actual gameplay experience itself. We’ve already done an extensive playtest of how the game plays, but there are a few points that weren’t mentioned in Spencer’s write-up that I’d very much like to address.
A Combination of East-meets-West Design
As I mentioned earlier, Crystal Bearers is probably the first time in recent memory Square have successfully blended eastern and western game design without sacrificing any of the "quirkiness" you’d expect from a game out of Japan. The environments are open for exploration, and while they can certainly feel rather empty (in terms of a variety of things to do) at times, there’s enough experimentation within the combat and the realization of the world to make me glad this isn’t yet another strictly linear turn-based RPG.
Something in particular that stands out is the in-game "news feed," which is a horizontal bar of scrolling text that always displays at the bottom of the screen. The news feed gives you information about the area you’re in, events taking place, and sometimes offers in-game tips pertinent to your current quest. It’s a simple feature, but it goes a long way toward making the world feel more alive, and makes you feel like you’re part of it. It fits the feel of the game, and best of all, you don’t have to switch into a menu to access it — it’s always running and constantly feeding you information, should you want to read it. I felt it was an incredibly forward-thinking feature with a lot of potential.
The presentation of characters and events, too, is very unlike your traditional Japanese game. Crystal Bearers isn’t afraid to take risks with its characters and to flesh out potentially interesting circumstances for fear of not being accepted by its Japanese audience. And you know what, I’ll come out and say it: while I love the man’s eye for detail and unmatched ability at Square to design a fun game, I’m glad this one isn’t drawn by Tetsuya Nomura. The art style is a real sight for sore eyes.
For better or worse, another thing Final Fantasy XIII and Crystal Bearers have in common is that they don’t really ever pause to give you a break. In both games, the story is relentless and keeps you moving. While in FFXIII, this is largely due to its linear structure, in CB, it’s because, despite the large open-world, there really isn’t all that much to do. It’s a lot like Twilight Princess in that regard, really, and it’s the game’s biggest flaw.
However, when it comes to the main quest, CB is chock-full of minigames and events and regular battles and exciting story sequences, and its greatest strength is that it never lets up, mixing each of these at regular intervals to keep things feeling alive. You’ll find yourself coming out of one big event into yet another of the game’s brilliantly choreographed cutscenes time and time again, should you choose to pursue the story. I love that you’re never allowed to feel like it’s wasting your time.
I said earlier that I tend to have a low tolerance for games that fail to be entertaining. Fortunately, while Crystal Bearers — just like FFXIII — doesn’t live up to the gargantuan expectations of a modern-day Final Fantasy game, it’s a fascinating and extremely entertaining experiment, considering it was developed internally at Square Enix. While I know this is wishful thinking, I hope, someday, the higher-ups at Square realize that Kawazu and his Crystal Chronicles team are exactly the kind of talent they need to tap into, if they want to tear themselves away from their tendency to recycle their own ideas and actually learn from western game design.
The problem is, Square’s loyal fanbase is doing everything it can to send them the exact opposite message by lapping up everything the "bishie-squad" churns out and ignoring their more daring ventures, all the while complaining about how the company refuses to meet modern standards.