Let's start this review with some background information. For those unfortunate souls living under a rock for the past few years, The Crystal Key II is the sequel to The Adventure Company's best-selling game of the same name. The first game has sold in excess of 500,000 copies in North America alone, so no doubt, there was a need for a sequel. However, as we all know, sequels are a mixed bag. The vast majority are pale replicas of the original, usually missing the spark that made the first game a success. Financially, sequels make sense; there is already a built-in audience, a developed story line that can be finessed for more mileage (or in some cases blatantly regurgitated), and you already have a recognizable brand. Add to that solid sales for the original and you have what appears to be a no-brainer in the win-win department. There are even some spectacular cases, like Riven, where the sequel is superior to the original. Since half a million people had found something in the Crystal Key worth ponying up their precious pennies for, I was intrigued to find out if the same would be true for CK2.
But, sadly, I don’t think lightening will strike twice. While the game is solid enough in most respects to earn a 2.5 in this review, it can ultimately be described in one word, and that word is beige. Why beige? Because simply put, beige is neither an offensive nor boring colour, but neither is it interesting or innovative; it is the median point, completely average. CK2’s graphics can be described as faintly off-kilter, having a slight fuzziness that only seems to disappear during cutscenes (which are, thankfully, pristine). There are lots of fabulously exotic-looking doors, portals, huts, tree houses, and marine palaces that all look vaguely familiar, largely because most of them are strongly inspired by objects in other games. I just couldn’t shake off the Myst-ness of many of the game’s locations, and while my love for that game is well-documented, parts of CK2 brought on a strange feeling of deja-vu. Paying homage to something you admire is an age-old tradition, but the fact that almost everything in CK2 echoes of other, and in many cases better-crafted games gives it a homogenized feel that cripples the game’s ability to generate any type of personality of its own.
The story--and it is thin--is a rather unimaginative extension of the first game. Only this time, instead of a single nemesis, our hero must thwart an entire race of aliens bent on reclaiming their galactic empire. Most of the narrative is advanced in the first five minutes of the game when the backstory is delivered through a recovered journal. Though you do interact with other characters, it is limited, as all dialogue is preset leaving you nothing to do but watch it play out. These exchanges are the only thing that advances the story at all after the discovery of the journal, but as they are fixed they don’t build a great deal of curiosity or lend any kind of longevity or depth to the storyline.
Transitions in the game are done through dissolve and they are agonizingly slow. Luckily, later in the game the designers do provide you with a jet pack to jump between in-game locations. This does speed things up, but the inclusion of the jet pack in the game feels to me like the icy fingers of a trigger-happy first person shooter and is only a half-hearted attempt to address the laborious backtracking criticized in the original game. While it does aid in maneuvering around the game more rapidly, it doesn’t address the slow transitions experienced in the game environments.
The voice work is pretty good, with the strongest performances being turned in by the game’s supporting characters. The voice work done for Call (the main character) isn’t great, but this is mainly due to the trite dialogue the character is required to spew. His dialogue is peppered with so many instances of "Whoa" that I thought Keanu Reeves might be playing the character. Largely, the game’s decent voice work is brought down by cliched writing.
CK2’s soundtrack is probably the game’s most solid design element. It uses effective ambient sounds--wind blowing, water running, doors creaking--in conjunction with thematic music for the game’s various environments. In some games, either sound or music will often drown out the other. Thankfully, that is never the case in CK2. The soundtrack is unobtrusive to gameplay and does the job it was designed to do--create ambience and mood.
Gameplay is also a marvel of simplicity employing the never out-of-style point & click interface. A diamond-shaped cursor passes over the environment and indicates which direction the player can move by its colour. Often the game takes the stand that too much wandering could be a bad thing, and so in most places only the direction that advances gameplay is open for exploration. This really speeds up gameplay, as all that pesky exploring is conveniently swept away; you may not find this to be a positive element, however.
Certainly, quick gameplay is what CK2 is about. I finished it in two nights, and I estimate that for the average gamer it can be completed in 10-12 hours. Scant gameplay was a shortfall of the original game as well, but it appears the designers did not take that criticism to heart when developing the sequel. Though length of play does not necessarily guarantee quality, such skimping cheapens the gaming experience, and worse still, some gamers may even feel ripped off.
While Crystal Key II does have its charms, none of them are strong enough to save it from being average and lacklustre. If you have limited gaming dollars and want to stay in the price range of this game, you would do better to pick up one of the longer playing and more interesting Nancy Drew games. If you can afford to scrape together a few extra bucks, they would be better spent on Microids’ far superior Syberia II.