There was a time when fantasy seemed to rule the adventure genre. Since the very beginning with Colossal Cave back in 1976, adventurers have become well accustomed to perilous journeys in the company of elves and dwarfs, dragons and powerful wizards. Games today may be dominated by crime investigations set in our grim, grayish world, but in the genre’s heyday there was many a voyage spent wandering through the bright green landscapes of Daventry, the eerie woods of Mordavia or the whimsical land of Quendor. Unfortunately, aside from a few not-entirely-notable exceptions, there seems to be little room nowadays for endearing fantasy universes full of batty characters, fairy forests, kind giants and cauldron-equipped hags. Into that void, however, steps The Legend of Crystal Valley, the first adventure from independent Croatian developer Cateia Games, and though it doesn’t break much new ground, it does enough things well that it will surely inspire a wave of nostalgia for those genre days of yore. So, it’s time to put on your adventuring cap once again and follow me: I’ll be your guide through the Valley.
The Legend of Crystal Valley starts when a young woman named Eve receives a letter from her father, from whom she has drifted away since her mother died in a car accident years earlier. Standing in front of her mother’s grave during a storm, Eve narrates the letter and two sentences immediately grab her attention: “My end is here now, I see that it is inevitable. All I wish is to see you once more before I sink down into oblivion.” Fearing that her father, still desperate from the loss of his beloved wife Jessica, was planning to commit suicide, Eve rushes to the old family farm, only to find it already empty. Worried for his life, Eve starts searching around for clues that might point her in the right direction and solve the riddle of her father’s sudden disappearance. Soon enough, though, she will find even more answers; answers to questions she didn’t even know to have. Slowly, a bigger picture begins to form and as every new piece falls into place, Eve discovers the many mysteries and secrets of her family, beginning with the dedication her father engraved on Jessica’s tombstone: “The gods did not want us to be together.”
This seems a strange thing to write on a grave, but when Eve falls into a hole concealed in her childhood home and winds up in the land of Crystal Valley, the epitaph proves only the first of many oddities. She soon meets a bizarre creature, sort of a hybrid between a small dragon and a bat; she stumbles upon some unusual-looking rocks she is quite sure aren’t from our world; and when she thinks that nothing could be stranger, she is politely asked for a favor by a tall, slim, green figure: Konoba the butler, a gentle and well-educated valet who wouldn’t look out of place in an old English mansion. Eve may be astonished by the fantastical wonder of the surroundings, but everyone in the little village of Trisgon, a small town built inside the skeleton of a giant hero of the past, seems to greet her without any sign of surprise. As the villagers explain to Eve, they were once very used to visitors from Other Worlds and they haven’t forgotten their good manners. When Eve asks them about her father, they advise her to search for him in The City, the capital of the Valley, where everyone passes once in while. The problem is that a curse has been laid upon the village, and no living soul can cross the bridge that leads to the city. Naturally, it will be up to Eve to help them by lifting the curse and thus proceed on her quest to find her father and solve the mystery of her entire existence.
If you are a longtime adventure gamer, this premise can’t help but feel a little clichéd, and indeed Eve’s adventure bears many resemblances to April Ryan’s longest journey. When Eve first learns about other dimensions, the universal first language and the vital concept of balance, this feeling may grow even stronger but – and it is important to clarify this point right away – the developers were wise enough to avoid any direct similarities. On the contrary, they tried hard to create their own mythology. This is no easy task, since so much fantasy has already been written that it is difficult to find a new perspective. However, drawing on the rich (and severely underused) Slavic folklore and moving away from classic Tolkien-esque stereotypes, Cateia has successfully designed a world that is archetypal enough to make the player feel at home and yet full of unexpected little details capable of keeping the material fresh. For example, dwarfs aren’t the typical long-bearded blacksmiths we are used to, but share characteristics of the leprechauns and some of the domovoi (house spirits of Slavic lore), while giants aren’t the stupid-but-tough villains of tradition, but accomplished engineers, often well-versed in literature and history. The Crystal Valley itself, while surely not as detailed as Middle Earth or even Arcadia, is an intriguing mix of recognizable places like Daventry (especially as portrayed in the early King’s Quest games) and Jonathan Swift’s imaginary kingdoms with a new, unexplored dimension whose particular elements are stirring enough to motivate players to thoroughly explore.
More importantly, the Crystal Valley is brought to life by more than forty characters, all of them entertaining and colorful, mostly well-rounded and often endearing. From the fisherman who is more interested in composing sad ballads with his flute than in fish to the lizard painter who is currently struggling with his 244th self-portrait, the inhabitants of the Valley may not shine for their originality, but they have a quality we rarely find in today’s adventures: a heart; a vivid personality that shines through the often brilliant and always witty writing. Taking the time to speak exhaustively with each of them is amply rewarded by the sheer amount of detail the developers included. For example, when I learned that the motivation behind a local theft was an unrequited gay love, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness shown in addressing such a delicate theme. And this isn’t the only case: when Eve first meets the mysterious Count – about whom I won’t give away any details since he is easily the most accomplished and beguiling character of the game – I was really amazed by the cleverness and subtlety used in approaching some sensitive issues like war and peace, political power and compromises, among even heavier universal subjects like loss, death and the afterlife.Continued on the next page...