What do you get when you cross a horticulturally inclined frog, a duck with delusions of grandeur, and an ant queen with pica? Find out this week on Red Light Greenlight when we take a look at Crystal Picnic, by Canadian studio Nooskewl!
Let me begin by saying that this is, by a significant margin, the best game I’ve reviewed for Red Light Greenlight. Granted, that isn’t saying much, but if we had a RLGL GOTY, Crystal Picnic would take home the prize. This is not to say that it’s a particularly good game, especially when compared to the heavy hitters of the genre that it tries to emulate, but there’s something to be said for being top of your class. Kudos Nooskewl!
And now for the deets: Crystal Picnic is a sprite-based RPG in the vein (visually) of the old Square RPGs on the SNES, crossed with a Chuck-E-Cheese stage show. It has an acceptable, but average story (Big Bad steals crystals, the unlikely heroes have to get them back) and sarcastic dialogue that’s worth a small snort from time to time. The music is solid, but can get a touch repetitive since the loops aren’t long enough to handle the size of the areas.
Mechanically it’s also fairly similar to the RPGs of olde, with equipment, stats, party members, and all the trappings of a traditional JRPG. The default keyboard controls are terrible and unintuitive, but they’re also fully rebindable so I guess I can’t really complain too much, and it does support gamepads, so that’s always an option as well. It boasts a number of areas, each with its own impressively sized map, where you run around looking for phat lewts and enjoying, to quote the official website, “hours of exploration.”
However, I feel like it’s more accurate to say that the game has “hours of frustration,” as you run around a huge and mostly empty area with very little in the way of distinguishing features, direction, or even a map, leaving you to desperately wander, looking for a way out as you’re mobbed with enemies. While each area is distinguished from the other, within them there’s very little in the way of landmarks or other features to help you find your way. At one point I found myself doing full perimeter laps of the area, and I had no idea until I accidentally left the way I came in.
When you enter combat (which you will, often) the game switches to a side scrolling platform sort of thing, a la Zelda II, where you have to hotswap your characters (each with different moves) and fight enemies while your party (controlled by AI) does its thing. It’s an interesting choice, and breaks up the tedium so common in small team RPGs, but the mechanics just aren’t engaging enough to provide long lasting entertainment. The combat seems to mostly revolve around stunlocking, both on your part and the enemy’s. If they get close, the enemy can hit you 5 or 6 times before you can jump away, and with the ranged character you can keep the enemy locked across the screen.
It doesn’t help that your AI party members have no self-preservation instinct at all. At any given time, you can find them trapped between two enemies, flailing wildly as they get massacred. Sometimes this isn’t even the AI’s fault, as often a battle will start with your teammates spawning on top of the enemies, who proceed to take away half their health bars in the first 3 seconds of combat. To top it off, there’s no XP mechanic, meaning every battle you get into is a waste of time and resources, and you were better off avoiding it.
But my biggest problem with Crystal Picnic isn’t unbalanced combat or frustrating map design, it’s simply that nothing is intuitive. The menus are oddly laid out, your goals are ill-defined, and everything you do has the slightest touch of obfuscation.
Lemme give you an example: not too long into the game there’s a boss fight. It begins with a bunch of wolves jumping into screen, which I killed. Then, more jumped in, so I killed them too. Around the 5th wolf pack I started to think that I was doing something wrong. Then a wolf happened to jump onto a platform that was a part of the tree in the background (indicated by lighter coloured bark) and finally I learned that I had to do a little jumping puzzle to shoot the tree itself (at which point it will knock you off, and you have to repeat). I did this upwards of 15 times before I won the battle. Now, perhaps my Gamersense™ is getting rusty with age, but it was in no way clear that the tree was even a boss, let alone that I should climb it — and when I did realize, there was no reason I should have to climb it 15 times.
If that’s not convincing enough, take the leveling up mechanic: the game tells you that the crystals you’ve picked up make you stronger, so I waited for magic or some skill tree to be unlocked. Nothing happened. I went to abilities – nothing there either. I eventually clicked the tiny crystal icon in the bottom left and BOOM, there it was, I could level up. Again, there was no indication that this was even a button, let alone the only way to improve your characters.
Now let me make this clear. Some (all) of you have accused me of being too hard on the games I review for RLGL. Now that may be true, I am harsh — but I’m also fair. Most of the games that I look at clearly have no effort put into them at all. They’re slapped together and rushed through the Greenlight system solely to make a quick buck, or they’re barely functional garbage.
This week’s game is not like that. Do I have issues with it? Sure. Do I think that it has some glaring issues that need to be remedied before I would recommend it? Definitely. But it’s clear that the guys from Nooskewl cared about their product. They made the game and engine from scratch, and made sure it runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, Raspberry Pi, Android, and OUYA (and they include all versions with one purchase). Nooskewl has significant room to improve, but they’re not a lost cause. I look forward to their growth and development as a studio.
That said, unless the art or characters really grab you out the gate, I would pass on it. Maybe it’s just me, but fighting with the default controls, the large (mostly empty) maps, and frustrating combat mechanics turn me off more than the characters, music, and story can make up for. Good effort guys, but I guess it’s just not for me.
Eric Roy is a contributing editor for AYBOnline, and really does like things, he promises. You can follow his inane stream-of-consciousness ramblings on Twitter, he’ll probably follow you back (he’s pathetic like that).