Crystal Ortha is the latest in a very, very long line of retro-styled JRPGs coming from the ideas factory over at KEMCO. You should know the drill by now: a dash of retro, 16-bit (in this case) graphics, an overblown storyline, some heroes who form an unlikely alliance; all the ingredients are here. So, is Crystal Ortha just some RPG, or is there more than meets the eye? It’s time to strap on our long swords to find out.
Now, any RPG lives and dies by the narrative, and if the storyline isn’t up to snuff, it’s off for an early bath. Luckily, in Crystal Ortha, the hard working storywriters have come up with another cracker, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I was genuinely interested to see how the whole, seemingly disparate, strands of story were going to be woven together. Without fear of spoilers, the general gist is that we start off as Ross – a mercenary and owner of the single most unsuited name to appear in an RPG. The winner, that is, until Margaret turns up! Margaret is seeking the titular Crystal Ortha, a fabled treasure trove of gold and crystals that will let her pay off her father’s debts. Ross agrees to help, and along the way they pick up Tee, a treasure hunter who bears an unlikely resemblance to Indiana Jones, and has quite the most off-putting personality in any of the KEMCO games. Believe me, that is a high hurdle to get over. Last but not least we meet Marshma, who appears to be a small girl dressed up in a dragon suit, as her grandfather is the Priest of the Dragon Worshippers. Along the way, Ross is troubled by dreams that seem to be telling him a story about a dragon from long ago, but from there it all just gets weirder.
It’s business as usual in the visuals department for Crystal Ortha, with the colourful sprites moving around a series of pre-drawn backdrops, exploring and fighting beasties as they go. Yes, random battles are back with a vengeance here, and it’s rare to walk more than 10 paces without having to indulge in fisticuffs with some vile creatures. The sounds are quite nice too, with pleasant music and the usual assortment of battle noises to listen to. The flourish at the end of a battle tries its best to compete with those from Final Fantasy VII, but sadly falls short. Still, there’s nothing to object to.
The gameplay follows the usual pattern as well; dungeons to explore and an overworld to wander about. The dungeons are full of twists and turns, full not only of chests to find and loot, but also Carminas, which are making a return from earlier KEMCO titles. Carminas basically give a character a perk or a trait that may be helpful in battle, such as the One Time Miracle which revives the bearer once in a battle, or those that buff the party in various ways at the beginning of the battle. Selecting the right mix of Carminas can have a big effect on the DPS output of your party, and so some experimentation is recommended.
The same thing applies to the skills that the party members can utilise. As Ross, Margaret and Tee level up, they learn new skills at regular intervals, but only five can be active at any one time – balancing them between offensive and healing skills, and also using those that may help in the battles you are going to face, becomes more important as the game goes on. Marshma has a somewhat different method of learning new skills, and she has to actually use a command called “Learn” on each new monster that is encountered in order to pick up new attacks. She alone also has no physical attack, so if she runs out of SP (the points needed to use skills) she is ineffective until she regenerates some more.
Another point worth mentioning as regards the combat is the fact that there are no items to be used in Crystal Ortha at all. If you want healing, you’d better have a healing skill equipped otherwise it’s tough luck. There are no potions, no ethers, none of the staples of the JRPG here either; instead it is the skills and Carminas that have to be equipped.
So, this is the entirety of Crystal Ortha: explore a dungeon, beat the boss, wander around the world map until you find a new town to visit, then rinse and repeat. There are no merchants to hassle, and if you want new equipment you need to have found the necessary ore while exploring in order to craft it. There are weird exemptions to this, however. In one boss fight, I kept losing because he would stack poison on the team and they would eventually succumb. “I Know!”, I thought, “there’s bound to be a ring or something that protects from Poison”. So I left the dungeon, went to the nearest town, and lo and behold there was. I made one, and then discovered I couldn’t make a second as the item had gone from the list. So I had to choose who I wanted to stay alive, and gave them the ring. I’m unsure as to why I couldn’t make four rings, as that would have seemed sensible, but it was not to be.
Crystal Ortha also follows another KEMCO trope that is familiar today, with the game being very easy until a certain boss, and then the difficulty curve goes somewhat vertical. I’ve had to stand outside a boss chamber more than once, grinding fights to increase character levels in order to stand a chance. Once they are high enough (about four levels above the boss seems to be the magic number) then you can usually beat it with the auto battle option engaged.
In all, Crystal Ortha on Xbox One is one of the better KEMCO games of recent times. It’s a long way from groundbreaking, but has enough nice touches, and some decent puzzles, that make it worth playing. The story is good, most of the characters are endearing, and as such it’s an easy game to recommend to the JRPG fans out there.