Even with one’s radar sweeping low, it’s hard to pick up signals from a valley. Maybe that’s the figurative reason why so little is known about The Legend of Crystal Valley, a new fantasy adventure from Croatian studio Cateia Games. Such obscurity is about to change in a big way, however, as the game has not only recently appeared front and center on the horizon, but it’s within mere weeks of its final release. In preparation for that moment, I’ve now had the opportunity to take the first few steps into this uncharted valley through a playable demo from its developers.
The Legend of Crystal Valley tells the story of a young woman named Eve, who receives a disturbing letter from her father that speaks cryptically of “an end”, along with his favourite medallion. Eve hasn’t spoken to her father in five years, having drifted away in the aftermath of her mother’s death, and in concern for his safety, she rushes to her childhood home. When she arrives at the small farmstead in France, however, her father is already missing, and it’s up to Eve to piece together the clues to his disappearance.
The demo I played takes place solely in this quiet, real-world setting, introducing the scenario with a voiceover narration and cinematic cutscene before allowing control of Eve at the steps of her father’s house. LOCV is a traditional third-person, point-and-click adventure, and players will feel instantly familiar with the game’s format. A smart cursor changes to identify interactive items and exits on screen, and left-clicking any functional objects will call up a small sub-menu with both Look and Use options. Other hotspots can only be observed, but these provide a surprising degree of depth in their own right, as clicking on such items provides three different comments from Eve if you click through all the way. This never appeared necessary in the early going, but it’s a nice way to reward the patient player yet keep the pace moving for those who aren’t.
Like many independently produced games, this object commentary is offered only through text description, and in fact the only voiceover in the game is the opening narration. Music plays in some locations but not constantly, and had a kind of pleasantly soothing, New-Agey feel in the demo. Sound effects are fairly sparse (not that I was making a racket exploring the house), but the farm hens greeted me with suitably ambient clucking as I roamed around outside.
Graphically the game appears to be something of a mixed bag, which isn’t surprising given its budget limitations. The pre-rendered background artwork is certainly pleasing enough, but the character models look a bit unnatural and a fair number of corners have been cut in terms of player animation. On the plus side, the game offers a variety of resolutions, including widescreen, although the latter tends to look stretched rather than properly scaled, so I opted for a lower resolution with the game picture centered on screen.
LOCV’s gameplay is as traditional as its presentation, as I spent my time wandering around and picking up anything that wasn’t nailed down, whether I had an apparent use for it or not. Inventory is opened by clicking an unobtrusive button, where you can access and combine items as necessary. A few select objects can be double-clicked to view up close, but it's unclear which, so you’ll want to try it on everything, even if most of your efforts are unsuccessful. Helpfully, a text description of each item appears when you simply mouse over them, avoiding any of those “what exactly am I looking at?” moments that some games unintuitively impose.
The inventory also has a journal and a section labeled “Magic”, and it’s here where the game hints at the much larger story waiting beyond these opening scenes. By solving an enjoyable multi-level inventory puzzle weaved around a contextual riddle, I opened up a whole new area that… unfortunately, ended the demo. Yes, much to my chagrin, I saw nothing of the fantasy world the developers claim is filled with “strange creatures and characters”, and despite the advertised comparison of Eve to Alice in Wonderland, I wasn’t able to tumble down the rabbit hole myself. And in a game with a reported 9 chapters, 200 locations, over 40 key characters, and 150 items and combinations, it’s clear that my journey had barely begun.
So what comes next? Well, who better to ask than the developers themselves, so with no regard to pre-release crunch time, we flagged down not one but four of the game’s designers to tell us a little more about what to expect in the weeks (and lands) ahead.
Adventure Gamers: The name Cateia is probably unfamiliar to most adventure fans, so can you tell us a little about who you are and what you’ve worked on in the past?
Ivan Bralic (Project Leader, Art Director): Cateia Games is a young development team from Zagreb, Croatia (Europe). We worked on several strategy games in the past, and on some casual titles (like Tibor: Tale of a Kind Vampire). Working in Cateia is a great feeling because everybody is participating in game design, we all communicate and share ideas and talk about how we can improve a certain part of a project.
LOCV is our third game, but also our biggest project so far. Working on an adventure game is a real challenge, I have to say. But you know, when you are working on something that is completely different than other games you worked on, and then you try hard to create something that is going to be competitive with any other similar games out there, basically you just want to do your best. I think that LOCV is an original adventure game with unique atmosphere, even though it’s a traditional point n’ click adventure in the meaning of gameplay.
AG: How long have you been working on Legend of the Crystal Valley, and how did production on that game come about?
Ivan: We have been working on LOCV since October 2007. Then, in September 2008 we moved to another project while LOCV was nearly finished. And two months ago we started to work on LOCV again. The game is finally done, and as we speak, we are preparing it for world-wide online release.
It’s a funny story of how LOCV became our main project back in early 2008. We created a demo, and we tried to sell it to some publishers. We said, if they all turn us down, we’ll cancel LOCV and do something else. But some of them actually paid us money to help get us started, so we said – all right, LOCV it is. I’m really glad now that LOCV become our main project and that it’s going to be released soon, because I think we did a great job with this game.
AG: I’ve just shared my own early impressions of the game, but the section I played barely scratched the surface of what the full game will include. Tell us more about LOCV.
Ante Jelusic (Writer): Well, think of the beginning as something seen in Alice in Wonderland books. We set up the first chapter in “reality” so that we can help you, the player, to get to know Eve a bit better. By exploring the farm and searching for her Father you get to know Eve, and you get to learn a bit about her motivations and her, for the lack of a better word, dreams. When she comes to Crystal Valley, everything she knows starts to change, and Eve starts to think outside of the box, and starts to connect the clues left by her father on the farm. Everything you see on the farm is placed there for reason. The picture on the wall, the sign in front of the farm, the weird object in her Father’s study, everything gets another perspective when Eve stumbles into the Valley. As for the Crystal Valley, it is a fantasy world inhabited by a wide array of different creatures. There are no aliens per se in the game, but you will find a lot of typical races found in European fantasy literature. Since we come from Croatia, there is a firm influx of Eastern European mythology in the game.
AG: What sort of person is Eve?
Ante: One of the main, lets call them “selling” points of the game is the character of Eve. We didn’t want her to be a blank slate, and so we created the first level to give you some insight into how Eve thinks, and what her motivations are. By doing that, we hope to achieve a deeper connection with the player, and give a greater motivation to explore the Crystal Valley. Over the course of the game, you are presented with many choices that help to expand the character of Eve.
AG: I won't ask where the idea "came from”, but well… on second thought, for lack of a better way to put it after all, where did the idea for LOCV come from?
Ante: That’s a difficult question to answer; mainly because it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact inspiration for creating the characters and the world of Crystal Valley. During the writing process, I spent many hours exploring the old Slavic myths and legends. That’s where I found different sets of creatures and many different, let's call them, “moral” definitions of how a person should behave when living with gods, giants and many other different life forms. Then there are the classics: Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien, even some Clarke-inspired heavy science fiction elements. So you see, it is difficult to define where the exact inspiration came from. We like to see the mythology behind LOCV as something completely new, something that will motivate the player to explore all its intricacies, and to look for all the small details that are hidden inside the game.
AG: It’s clear that LOCV is a very traditional point-and-click adventure, at least in terms of its interface and gameplay. What is it about the game that will stand out among other games and really make it memorable?
Nenad Kajgana (Lead Artist): From a visual standpoint, LOCV is a very diverse game. On this journey the player will venture through many interesting environments. One of our design goals was to keep visual freshness by contrasting game environments. I.e. upon exiting a dark cave the player will find himself in a sunny meadow. So no two environments in the game are alike and should keep the player interested throughout the game.
Ivan: In LOCV, players can mostly travel without restrictions - even several chapters backwards! You know how in most adventure games, a player is restricted to several rooms and scenes and you cannot travel around if you didn't solve some puzzle or something? It’s kind of important to say that in Legend, the player is not restricted and can explore freely most of the time.
AG: The demo showed an area in the inventory called “Magic”. Can you tell us how that factors into the gameplay, and how it’s used by players? That seems like a pretty significant feature of the game.
Ivan: Magic is a very important element of the game. There are situations when nothing else seems to be working but magic. Of course, players must recognize when and where to use magic. The main character, Eve, will learn spells from other characters or from books. Each magic spell has a nice visual effect . I believe this feature is another highlight of our game which makes it rather unique with respect to other adventure games on the market.
AG: Are you longtime fans of the genre? What are some of the games that have inspired you over the years, either personally or professionally, and how have those games affected your approach to LOCV?
Nenad: I used to love adventure games when I was a kid but I don’t play them anymore… I don’t seem to have time or patience for that style of gameplay. Two of my favorite adventure games from that time are Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, which had an awesome opening song, by the way. Hehe, it has just occurred to me that I haven't played (finished) an adventure game for 14 years… you people shouldn’t take me seriously. [smile]
In retrospect, some of the games that I played the most are Red Alert, Diablo, Quake: Enemy Territory, Soldat and World of WarCraft. Other than inspiration for drawing tanks on my notebook, what I got from all those games is a sense of what I think makes a game fun and how to achieve it.
Generally some of the things I wanted to avoid in LOCV were pixel hunting, illogical and hard puzzles, and player restriction. I don’t think players should bang their heads on their desk just because I was evil enough to make some object microscopic. We also didn’t want to restrict player exploration i.e. not letting a player out of a room just because he needs to pick up some object he isn’t even aware of. So in that sense, the player is pretty much free to explore the world around him.
AG: What motivated you to make an adventure game, particularly when you had to largely self-finance it?
Ivan: We finished one of our games back then and needed to decide which project we wanted to do next. Ante already had a pretty nice storyline for LOCV and so we decided that we wanted to develop it. An adventure game seemed like a pretty big challenge (later on, during the development, we realized the actual amount of work that needs to be done for an adventure game!!!), but you know, “crazy” as we are, we said “All right! This is a piece of cake! Let’s do it!”
Kresimir Spes (Project Leader, Lead Programmer): We self-financed most of the development because we had no other choice. It's hard climbing to the top, but the hard work and dedication we put into this game was well worth it. As a result, we now have a stable and mature engine and development pipeline which cuts down development time significantly.
AG: Usually games are launched in their native language and local territories, and English gamers wait for a localized release many months later (if at all). You’re a Croatian developer releasing an English version of LOCV right away. Why the decision to go that route?
Kresimir: That's true, but Croatia and local countries are so small it's not worth it. Not to mention that the high rate of piracy here makes it almost a futile effort. Therefore our primary market is English-based.
AG: You’ve chosen to release the game as a download only at launch time. Was that a deliberate choice, or a necessity due to a lack of publisher investment?
Ivan: Not only as a download, but the English version will only be available through download distribution at launch time. We have several retail versions (Russian, Italian and Croatian) in production, but online (download) distribution is much better than retail. I think it’s easier for a developer to release the game online. Digital distribution is the best way to sell video-games at the moment. The retail market is going down for most developers, but the online market is just growing and growing. We are negotiating many retail publishing options, but it’s just too early to say anything about that right now. We are also releasing a casual version of LOCV on most gaming portals like Big Fish Games, Yahoo Games, Oberon, etc. So actually, we have a huge online distribution already arranged, and any additional retail release would be welcomed, of course.
AG: A casual version of the same game? That’s unusual. Can you tell us about the differences between the casual version and the full version?
Ivan: Yes, we are preparing a casual version and “hardcore” (original) version. Basically, this is the same game: same characters, same plot, same locations… but the casual version is additionally “equipped” with some features that will help the casual audience to get into a point and click adventure. We believe that some of these features are not important for true point and click adventure fans as they are all well familiar with the genre. Casual players could, though, appreciate a Tutorial at the beginning, hints and similar help. The casual version is therefore a bit easier than the original version. I think that your readers and everybody who’s interested in LOCV will find both versions satisfying.
AG: Any final thoughts to share about LOCV before the game comes out?
Ivan: I hope that adventure game players will recognize LOCV as a really unique adventure game, with a great story that develops most unexpectedly throughout the game. We made a huge effort while creating this game and we just hope that people will appreciate it.