Crystal Towers 2

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Crystal Towers 2 expertly combines the open, branching level design of many Genesis-era platformers with many of the better exploration elements from Nintendo 64 collectathons like Super Mario 64. This isn’t a game which shies away from revealing its influences, there are plenty of red springs and tiles with checkered patterns along the way, but it also doesn’t adhere itself too closely to the formula of any one game in particular either. Though there are a few rough spots along the way, mainly the boss fights, this massive 20+ hour adventure is filled with tons of secrets, charming writing, a fantastic soundtrack, and excellent platforming challenges.

Despite what the title may suggest, this game takes place in a castle rather than in a tower. The castle in question is the Music Castle and it is up to the protagonist, Bernard, to retrieve eight stolen mystical instruments which serve as the source of all music in the world. It’s a pleasantly whimsical premise and the musical theme is supported by a great soundtrack. After deciding upon a profile name and a faction, which is largely just a fancy way of picking the color for Bernard’s cloak, it’s just a matter of watching (or skipping) the opening cutscene and going through a brief tutorial portion of the castle before the game properly begins.

Gameplay in Crystal Towers 2 is split between the castle itself and the levels. The Music Castle serves as a large hub which gradually opens up over time as you gain access to more abilities. Levels are scattered about it and can be accessed by jumping through hoops, though you’ll need to jump through a few less literal hoops in order to unlock them. Other than accessing levels, the castle has a synthesizer, cleverly designed to look like the musical instrument, with which you can create new upgrade items. There are also teleporters scattered about to make traveling around the castle much faster once you find them, a room where you can play a song with the instruments you’ve collected in a way similar to the Sound stone in Earthbound, and a few secret collectibles. Computers are also common within the castle and you can use these to check your progress in each level, see how many collectibles you need to unlock the next few levels, and even upload your progress to an online scoreboard. Computers go a long way towards reducing needless backtracking along with the teleporters and a few arrows conveniently point towards the closest unlocked levels, though I would have liked some sort of actual map at some point since even with all these aids it can still be easy to get lost once you have most of the castle unlocked. Overall, the Music Castle is a great hub and gradually uncovering more parts of it as you gain new skills is very satisfying.

A good hub area is hardly enough to support a game on its own, so let’s talk about the levels. Not including boss fights, there are 33 levels in total divided between 11 distinct regions. Level unlocks are spread out well enough that you’ll never be forced to go through multiple levels in a row belonging to the same general region; there are quite a few levels which get unlocked between the time you gain access to Walnut Creek B and when you can enter Walnut Creek C. Since the focus is on exploring branching paths most levels are compact, rarely taking longer than about three minutes to get from one side to the other. Of course, this would be a much shorter and a far less interesting game if you simply had to reach the end of each level and this is where collectibles come in.

Games focused on collectibles have gained a bad reputation over the years for using those collectibles as a way of stretching out content by barring progress. While Crystal Towers 2 does indeed gate access to new levels behind collectible requirements, these requirements are easy to reach and collectibles are used in a way where players end up replaying levels in very different ways. The first thing to know is that there are three main collectibles tied to unlocking levels: music orbs, gems, and keys. There is one key hidden in most levels and some of these keys can be quite tricky to find and may require you to come back with a later power, but you can access every level in the game and a good number of the optional post-game bosses with not even half of the total number of keys. The other two types of collectibles are objective-based, like the stars in a 3D Mario game. You get four music orbs from every boss and the first task in every level is to collect the music orb, which is indeed simply located at the end. Once you collect the music orb in a level you can then move on to collecting the seven rainbow gems one after the other, from red to violet, meaning that it takes a minimum of eight runs through a level to 100% it.

You’ll spend most of your time with Crystal Towers 2 collecting rainbow gems, so it’s a good thing that these gems are one of the best parts of the game. Unlike the music orbs, collecting rainbow gems is almost never just a matter of finding the gem somewhere in the level. Instead, the gems are tied to a wide variety of tasks. Some of these tasks still span the entire level while dramatically changing your approach to the level, such as by requiring that you reach the end without killing any enemies or, in a far trickier twist, without collecting even a single gem shard, this game’s equivalent of coins. Others may change the level itself by placing large deadly mines about to block off paths and/or to make existing paths much more difficult or by placing you at the end and making you find a way to navigate the level backwards to the start.

Often, the gems have nothing to do with reaching a specific location. My favorite gems are probably the ones related to performing combos because they are basically miniature platforming puzzles. There are actually three variations on combo gems. The first of these awards you with the gem after obtaining a certain number of points in a level so combos may not be strictly necessary, though they certainly help. The second type tasks you with hitting a certain minimum point value within a single combo. Bernard defeats enemies by jumping on them and he bounces off of any enemy he damages so a ‘combo’ consists of any enemies he manages to bounce between without touching the ground and the multiplier increases for each enemy or springboard in the combo. With this in mind, these point-based combos require players to take into account how many points each enemy is worth and scout around for a location in the level where they can get a nice multiplier going. The final combo gem is the most demanding of all as it tasks players with finding a part of the level in which they can perform a specific combo; hit one enemy too few or too many or hit the enemies outside of the order demanded by the gem and you’ll need to retry. Even though combo gems may be my favorite ones, there are plenty of other interesting gems along the way as well, like timed races against ghosts, and a few region-specific gems, such as in the Walled Garden levels where you need to find wilted flowers to water. Gems are mixed well between level-spanning tasks and tasks which can potentially be completed within a few seconds and their varied requirements serve as a way of incentivizing players to fully explore each level, collecting other useful items along the way.

Every collectible other than the three types tied to unlocking levels is tied to boosting Bernard in some way. Bernard begins the game with the ability to run and jump and not really anything else other than a health flask worth five HP. Every level has four collectibles within it which can be obtained regardless of which objective you’re currently going for (unless some mines have blocked it off or there is some other, similarly level-altering task in play of course). In most cases one of these four collectibles is a key, though the others are split between recipes, materials, spells, and flasks. Flasks are the most easy to explain, though also one of the most important, as each flask will either boost Bernard’s maximum MP by ten or boost his maximum HP by five. Spells are even more important than flasks as they largely serve to give Bernard new abilities. The two most significant spells are the double jump, which can be used at any point in a jump for one MP up until slightly after Bernard hits the apex and starts to descend, and the dash, which costs a more significant five MP and can otherwise be used indefinitely on the ground or once per jump in the air. Some spells serve as attacks and others are completely optional, like the heal spell, but most otherwise open up new paths such as by revealing hidden platforms or destroying weak walls.

Recipes and materials are tied to the synthesizer in the castle. There are all sorts of recipes, though they are primarily divided between one-time recipes on the white keys and rare material recipes on the black keys which can be created indefinitely. A good number of these recipes are actually spells, so you need to take the extra step of crafting them after finding them. Others are more for convenience purposes, like a compass which labels the arrows surrounding Bernard in the castle or a ‘luck vial’ which passively increases enemy material drop rates. Most of the rare materials found in the levels are ones which would otherwise take a good number of lesser materials dropped by enemies in order to craft and they usually aren’t too hard to stumble upon while exploring so hunting them down is worth the effort. In general, the crafting system simply feels like an unnecessary extra step which largely exists to give you one more thing to do in the levels in the form of finding the rare materials. Drop rates and crafting requirements are generous enough that you virtually never have to do any tedious material farming so long as you find the rare materials since you’ll get everything you need simply while killing enemies in your quest to collect gems. I only ever deliberately farmed crafting materials twice during my entire playthrough and the first time was because I really wanted to unlock a specific spell even though I had plenty of content I could do without needing that spell and the second time was because I was one emerald short of crafting an optional item in the game for a 100% completion rate after having done everything else. In other words, the crafting system is painless, but it also doesn’t add anything of particular value to the game either.

A great part of Crystal Towers 2 is just how flexible it is, in large part thanks to the spells. You may have to collect the gems within a level in a specific order, and sometimes a gem will even serve as a complete roadblock if collecting it requires a spell you don’t have, but levels unlock so quickly that you have multiple to choose from at any given time. When they aren’t strictly required, spells and even the MP needed to use them serve as a way of allowing for flexible difficulty. For example, let’s say there is a gem where you need to race between checkpoint flags within a pretty strict time limit. You could probably complete this objective when it first appears, but putting it off until later will make it easier in multiple ways. Every MP flask you find gives you enough MP to perform two more dashes or ten more double jumps and having more HP allows you to take greater advantage of the classic speedrunner trick of taking damage to save time. If this still isn’t enough, you can wait until much later to get the Haste spell, which significantly boosts your movement speed. The bubble spell could help with objects where you can’t afford to get hit and if you are given the task of avoiding the several hundred gem shards scattered throughout a level you can always make use of the shard destruction spell.

You’re far more likely to need to retry a level due to failing some sort of objective rather than due to running out of health (health really does largely exist as a way to allow you to ignore greater amounts of damage while under time limits) so you have a large amount of control over just what content you do and how difficult it is when you do it. In fact, you even have a massive amount of control over just when the game ‘ends’ because you can collect all of the stolen instruments and fight the final boss long before unlocking a good chunk of the remaining levels and even quite a few of the bosses; somewhere around half the content in the game can be considered ‘post-game content’ and a far larger portion is entirely optional unless you want to fight the true final boss and get a somewhat different ending after hitting a 100% completion rate.

I mentioned at the start that Crystal Towers 2 has some rough spots so let’s finally get around to talking about them. The biggest flaw is far and away the boss fights. Boss fights range anywhere from completely annoying to okay, but they are almost never very enjoyable. The main issue here is that while most of the game has Bernard defeating enemies by jumping on them with attack magic serving as a weaker, ranged alternative or as something to use in a puzzle, almost every boss can only be damage by using magic. In fact, you need to use quite a lot of magic and you need to manually press the button for every shot. In other words, boss fights tend to involve dodging around projectiles while rapidly spamming the magic attack button dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds of times. MP isn’t an issue because a gem will float back and forth in each boss arena to rapidly refill your MP while you touch it and healing spells also aren’t just a cheap way to negate any sense of challenge because bosses also heal when you use them, but these fights just drag on too long. To their credit, bosses do make their patterns more difficult and/or faster as they get lower on health and there are some pretty interesting boss concepts, like one boss which is a giant pit filled with traps where you need to aim magic upwards at an off button. Unfortunately, creative designs aren’t enough to save these fights from feeling like tedious chores as you ever-so-slowly chip away at the boss’s health bar with your magic.

The other two issues are definitely not as severe as the boss fights. The first of these is that some of the gems aren’t very interesting or just feel pointless. The main offenders here are the ‘finish with one HP remaining’ gems, which rarely requires anything beyond finding something which deals four damage in the level and then repeatedly running into a five damage enemy right next to the gem, and the ‘finish with 100 shards or more’ gems. The first of these two types doesn’t show up much, but the second one is in quite a few of the levels and, like the boss fights, it just goes on for too long, especially since it’s a rather easy task even when taking into account that Bernard loses some gems when he gets hit. To top it off, you get a gold medal in a level when you finish with 100 gems anyway; gold medals are pointless unless you’re going for a 100% run, but their existence makes the 100 shard gems feel completely redundant. Thankfully, the vast majority of the other gem types provide more than enough entertainment to easily counterbalance these duds.

The last issue is the graphics, though not as a whole. Crystal Towers 2 isn’t the prettiest game out there, but it doesn’t look terrible either. The backgrounds actually tend to be quite nice and there is certainly a lot of aesthetic variety with each region having a unique tileset and many region-specific enemy types. That said, even the official Steam page lists “Programmer art galore!” as a joke and this art sometimes gets in the way of the gameplay. It’s not always clear if an enemy is safe to jump on or if it needs to be taken out with magic and a low amount of animation means you don’t get much in the way of tells before enemies launch attacks, which can be a particularly big problem in boss fights. There also are a few cases where I simply wasn’t sure if something was part of the playing area or if it was merely an object in the foreground or background, resulting in me hitting my head on ‘background’ objects or falling ‘through’ objectives I assumed were in the playing area. These graphical issues aren’t so frequent that they’re a constant concern, but they do pop up just often enough to be noticeable.

From the vertically-oriented Luminous Towers to the twisting, trap-filled tunnels of Grassland Ruin, the level design in Crystal Towers 2 is as diverse as its multitude of platforming challenges. There’s a lot of content here, but despite much of that content requiring you to enter each level multiple times it never feels stretched. More importantly, the platforming is solid and varied and thoroughly enjoyable throughout. There may be a few stumbling blocks, but that’s ultimately all they are – small blocks which the game briefly stumbles over before promptly righting itself. Crystal Towers 2 is a fantastic platformer and one which many creators of similar ‘collectathon’ games could certainly learn a few lessons from.

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