Saturday, April 13, 2024

Game 511: The Red Crystal (1993)

The Red Crystal
United States
Wild Card Software (developer); Quantum Quality Productions (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 11 April 2024
I like to start every new game as unbiased as possible, so I try to avoid learning anything about it from external sources. There have been times that my reactions to universally-adored games have been negative, and there have been times that the opposite has occurred. I feel that either scenario is more likely to happen if I go into the game with a blank slate.
I did that with The Red Crystal, but a few hours into it, when I allowed myself to look at the game's Wikipedia summary and saw that Computer Gaming World had rated it the 22nd worst game ever made, I thought, "Yep, that tracks." CGW has been monstrously wrong before--that same list includes Disciples of Steel!--but when I saw that Crystal's chief designer had come from Paragon Software--which never really understood RPGs--and had previously been a lead programmer for MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990), it was all the explanation I needed.
You know this guy is evil because he wears a skull on his belt.
That designer is Charles Griffith. In addition to MegaTraveller, he programmed some of Paragon's Marvel titles, such as The Punisher (1990) and X-Men II (1991). He was briefly at MicroProse, which bought Paragon, but then seems to have staked out on his own. I suspect that Wild Card Software was his own label. (The company's name comes up briefly in the title screen sequence but is not found on any of the game's documentation.) His publisher, QQP, was a well-known maker of wargames, and according to CGW, they should have stuck to that category. Griffith's LinkedIn profile proudly mentions his time at Paragon/MicroProse and his later work for Acclaim and Stargate Interactive, but it skips over Wild Card and Crystal, which is probably another bad sign.
He must be a Targaryen.
The game takes place in the empire of Blackmoore, which consists of seven kingdoms which peacefully coexisted for 3000 years. Then some troublemaker named Lexor came out of nowhere, raised an army of the dead, and conquered the empire. He gave each of the seven kingdom's castles to one of his chief lieutenants ("the seven worst tyrants the world has ever known") and tasked them with guarding the Seven Secrets of Life. (Most sites give The Seven Secrets of Life as a subtitle. It appears on the box cover but not anywhere in the manual or title screen, and my policy is always two out of three.) Your goal is, of course, to retrieve them and use them somehow to destroy Lexor. Involved in some nebulous way are red crystals, which have weird magical properties, including foresight and telepathy.
Character creation begins by choosing a portrait from a number of cartoonish options that would look perfect in a comic book game, although they don't seem to have been adapted from X-Men II. I am grateful that they offered some helmeted options in case you just want to imagine your own character under the helmet. You can also choose a crest from among six options: a chalice, an eye, a mouth with a wagging tongue that looks a little disgusting, a skull, a fist, and a lightning bolt.
Some of the character portraits. The two women look like the same woman from different angles.
You then enter a name and choose from five classes: barbarian, knight, lord, sorcerer, and thief. Barbarians are supposed to be all physical offense, knights slightly less so. Lords are supposed to be wealthy, so they can bribe their way out of more combats, but I wonder how well this really works in reality (see below). Same goes for the supposed stealth and trap-defying abilities of thieves. Sorcerers are masters of magic, so they start weak but get stronger as they master their powers.
The game's attributes are strength, intelligence (for spells), ability (to disarm traps and such), armor, damage, resistance (to spells), stamina (hit points), and zetos (money). The manual tells you nothing about what the maximums are, so you have to reroll a lot to feel it out for each potential character. I tried a lot of rolls and came up with the following chart:
"Armor" and "Damage" are odd because they have initial values, but these are changed by the weapons and armor you later equip. Most games make innate damage a function of strength and innate armor as a function of dexterity or what this game calls "ability."
This was a pretty solid set of statistics given the maximums above.
The game begins on an outdoor map that seems to depict a desert environment. A smaller-scale map to the right (by default, unless you have a companion) shows the entire kingdom, including the seven castles and various towns. The character icon is represented by a sword. NPCs move around the map at the same time, but I find they never have anything interesting to say. Merchants never offer to sell anything and bounty hunters are never looking for you, so they don't engage in combat. It's really a wasted mechanic.
I'm so glad we had this encounter.
In most RPGs, you head for the town to buy some equipment before you start seriously adventuring, but here that's not possible because you begin with so little cash. (I'm not sure if I can bring myself to use the word "zetos.") So you might as well go right to one of the seven castles. However, for later reference, towns have weapon and armor shops, oracles who provide crystals and healing, wizards who sell spells and potions, wandering NPCs as useless as the ones in the outdoor map, NPCs in houses who sometimes give side quests, and courthouses where you can literally buy the town and I guess start collecting its tax revenue. 
Exploring the wasteland, I come upon a castle and its town.
The seven castles are all near towns. When you enter, you get a qualitative assessment of how tough the enemies are going to be in the castle compared to your current level. 
I guess this one shouldn't be too hard.
As you explore the castles, you run into enemies--bestial, undead, humanoid, and other. There are only 15 monsters in the game, but they can exist at different power levels depending on what castle they're in. I think their color has something to do with it. You can try to avoid them, but they tend to swarm you, and it's better to just deal with them even though they (somewhat slowly) respawn.
The death screen. I don't understand: how did Lexor's guards fail in my mission?
Combat is the game's big failing. Aspects of it probably sounded good to someone. You're taken to a separate "arena" screen for each combat. You and the enemy can run around the screen or stand still and swing at each other. There are theoretically nine types of attacks that you can choose from: three low, three medium, three high. Each enemy is particularly susceptible to one of the nine types of attacks, so you have to experiment a bit to figure out which one applies to that enemy. When you land on it, the difference is obvious. Your attacks go from 1-2 damage per hit to 5-10 or more. Then you have to annotate or remember the best setting for each enemy.
Fighting an "orb," which is a beholder with hair. I clearly need to adjust my attack.
This all sounds okay, but two more important principles govern combat:
  • Even if you have your attacks set to the idea setting, you can't just stand next to an enemy swinging away. You'll die after a couple of combats, if not the first.
  • Your reach is always greater than the enemy's. (This might not be true with daggers, which I haven't tried.) None of the enemies have missile weapons. Even spellcasters have to get up close to you.
In practice, these factors create a combat system in which you wait for the enemy to approach, swing a couple of times as he gets close, then run away before he can hit you. Then you find a new position and do it again. It's tedious and exhausting. One level was enough for me, and I've got dozens of them. Some enemies have over 100 hit points and only take 3 or 4 per hit at best.
With a little practice, it's not hard to avoid all enemy attacks. Since you can't afford to stand still and get hit by any enemy, there's functionally no difference between the easy ones and the hard ones except how long combat will take.  
That's more like it.
Every encounter with an enemy gives you a chance to bribe before you fight. The manual suggests that this is the lord's primary way of dealing with enemies. I don't know how this works. Maybe you get experience for successful bribes. I'm not sure how you get the money to bribe in the first place if you don't fight, but maybe there's a way to do it by running around, collecting treasures from chests until you have enough to buy a town, then bribing off that town's income. Or multiple towns. It would be a unique approach to gameplay if it were possible, but I can't think it would be all that exciting.
I leveled up a couple of times as I killed enemies. The experience point statistic is hidden, but it clearly exists. Levels increase maximum stamina and, according to the manual, accuracy.
Only in CRPGs does getting struck by lightning leave you stronger. Maybe the armor acts like a Faraday Cage.
As I explored the castles, I found additional items to use and wear, including armor, gauntlets, boots, potions, and food. Potions are color-coded, and the manual has nothing to say about them. Food restores stamina. Some slain enemies deliver money. I also found a couple of things that sound like quest items, including "Hunwell's Skull" and a "Lost Crown."
Finding a chest in the dungeon. Chests are often empty.
Castles have multiple levels with lots of stairways up and down and hidden doors. I had hoped to find the first Secret of Life for this entry, but I started over once (when I realized I'd rolled lousy statistics for the first character) and the castles are large. They have multiple levels, and the game doesn't remember the map once you've left a level, so it's very hard to systematically explore without going in loops. Then, it turns out that some encounters on higher levels are with multiple enemies at once, which makes the entire game less like a CRPG and more like a game of Pac-Man where you spend the entire thing running around trying to avoid getting touched by your foes.
It would be nice if they'd given me a bigger screen.
The game does have one innovation I haven't covered and probably can't: cooperative multiplayer. Supposedly, you could get a friend to dial in via modem and join the quest, with the second player taking up the spaces on the right hand side of the screen. I haven't been able to figure out how to replicate that--and I couldn't do much with it even if I did--but it is something that few other games of the era were offering. If only it was offered in the service of a game with better combat mechanics.
Time so far: 3 hours
I've made an update to the last entry for Tygus Horx based on some information I got from the author. I still couldn't finish the game, but from his notes, we know what the ending should have looked like.


  1. I don't think I would have figured out this was made by some of the same people who made the Paragon RPGs if you didn't mention it. Glad they finally made a game that doesn't have 2000 different skills, but it's a shame they wiffled the execution here. It looks cool at least.

    Also, gotta love how instead of making you create a character then shoving a helmet on him, you can just skip that step entirely and just put him in a helmet.

    1. I swear Baldur's Gate 3 is trying to trick me into not using any helmets by making the characters all look so ridiculous in them.

    2. Out of chronology impressions of BG3 post, when?

    3. I imagine that meeting went something like this:
      - Ok, we've learned from our mistakes. Instead of 200 skills, most of which are useless, this game will only have 6.
      - But most of them will still be useless?
      - Of course!


    4. "Out of chronology impressions of BG3 post, when?" Maybe when I win.

    5. Might be worth mentioning that helmets in BG3 can be hidden so the pain of using ugly helmets is decreased.

    6. I believe there's a setting that lets you hide the headgear. Seems like a common complaint.

    7. terrible headgear that needs to be hidden has been a thing in so many games I wonder why they bother having helmets anyway

    8. It took me a long time to find it. It's on the helmet itself rather than i n the game options.

      Andy, the answer is that players want the statistical advantages of helmets without the appearance of them.

    9. Even if the headgear isn't ugly, it seems odd to spend so much time designing your character's head/face if you're going to cover it up. This would be less of a problem if more games took into account that most people don't socialize while fully armed and armored.

  2. That isn't lighting that is making you gain a level... It is the quickening. Because there can be only one at the end game!

  3. Lacking first-hand experience with both combat styles: isn't the "Combat Waltz" in DM and its clones equally tedious and exhausting? Or less so because using the available limited space in DM provides more of an interesting challenge while at the same time maybe having less extended combats due to a higher ratio of 'HP hit for to total enemy HP'?

    1. The combat waltz, tedious? Sacrilege!

      More seriously, I think that fighting combats in Dungeon Master 1 and 2 with the combat waltz or similar movement tactics is quite satisfying. Some monsters have attack patterns which force you to move a bit differently; when fighting against multiple groups, you must avoid getting surrounded; and as you said, the limited space can lead to interesting situations. The classic case is where you accidentally evade backwards into a dead end, so now you need to fight the enemy without being able to dodge their attacks. And yes, each hit is a bit more dangerous, both from the party and the opponent. Additionally, a large part of it is the pleasant audiovisual feedback: the swift stepwise movement, the damage display in the UI and the sound effects.

      Most of this doesn't seem to apply to The Red Crystal. Combat is fought in a large empty square and the enemies just approach you in a direct line.

      But I think that you're a little bit right. The real-time combat systems of Dungeon Master and a couple other early CRPGs really do have the problem that many fights can be cheesed by sidestepping (combat-waltzing) or backpedalling. Both Dungeon Master 1 and 2 can be too easy (but not tedious IMO) if you move skillfully and especially when there's a 2x2 tiles space available. (I think that you can even kill the dragon in DM1 without being hit even once.) In Ultima Underworld, you can always move forward with a wound-up attack, release the attack, and move backwards before enemies can strike back. It's hard to balance such a game for both players who do this skillfully and those who stand still or fumble the movement.

      And then you might say, shouldn't the character attributes and equipment be the deciding factors in RPGs, not the player's dexterity? One way out is to go the Dark Souls route: simply *require* a high level of dexterity and focus on complex movement.

      Another way out is to increase the enemy's attack/reaction speed, so that whenever the player lands a hit, the enemy will also land a hit. Then it's more about character attributes and equipment again. For example, I think that in Diablo 1, you can't really attack in melee combat and run away before the retaliating strike? Diablo 2 is probably a middle ground where some abilities allow you these kind of maneuvers with a little bit of dexterity. I guess an approach like Diablo 1 or 2 would have been the right thing for The Red Crystal. (Plus combat areas which have walls and doors, of course.)

    2. both seem equally tedious to me, which is probably why I've never been a fan of most action-RPGs and never finished Eye of the Beholder!

    3. "shouldn't the character attributes and equipment be the deciding factors in RPGs, not the player's dexterity?" For me, it should be the way the player builds, adapts and uses these elements, i.e. which attribute / skill / item / spell when, how and against whom. And yes, not dexterity. There are many other types of games which focus on that already. So like Andy Pathro I'm not big on Action RPGs and prefer GB to EoB. To each his own.

  4. The Skull&Bones aesthetics are strong with this one.

  5. I was actually looking forward to you covering this when I noticed it showing up on the list. Reviews in Germany were so remarkably horrible I would inevitably get curious even though I knew I should ignore it. You know, like with a car crash.

    I actually got hold of it myself several years ago, but after about five minutes of play decided that whatever revelations of badness gameplay and story might hold, they would not be worth the suffering through hours of what you just described. So, once again, thank you for your service to the public. Your noble sacrifice will not be forgotten. (There is some kind of medal for this, right?)

    1. The reviews are also quite negative about the graphics. While that is certainly true for the intro, the game graphics look servicable, and the 2D art is actually quite good.

  6. "a mouth with a wagging tongue that looks a little disgusting"

    I see a red crystal and I want it painted black...

  7. The battle system sounds a lot like the one from Sword of Vermilion for the Genesis mixed with Taito's arcade game Gladiator.

  8. The flaming skull is extremely cool, yes, but it loses its luster being there all the time.

  9. Should've called it "the Rad Crystal"

  10. "some troublemaker named Lexor" given the developer went on to other superhero works, is this perhaps inspired by Lex Luthor? I'm not sure the player character is quite a Superman though!

    1. Ha, when I read "Lexor" I also thought of Lex Luthor.

  11. oh also the buying up towns element is something that makes for an interesting part of the Mount & Blade series which you may get to many years from now. I am curious if any RPGs have done it well without just veering into being strategy games instead.

  12. The game does have one innovation I haven't covered and probably can't: cooperative multiplayer. Supposedly, you could get a friend to dial in via modem and join the quest, with the second player taking up the spaces on the right hand side of the screen. I haven't been able to figure out how to replicate that--and I couldn't do much with it even if I did--but it is something that few other games of the era were offering. If only it was offered in the service of a game with better combat mechanics.

    One of the German reviews (quite lambasting the game in its single page review) mentions that the game also offers local multiplayer. Given the overall quality of the game I don't expect that there are any chances that you could rope Irene into trying that with you...

  13. BTW, there's another ancient game for the master list:

    1. Well... I guess at least this one doesn't literally copy its tiles from Ultima. That's something... right?

  14. So, does the death screen change depending on your character portrait or is the top left one in your screenshot the "canonical choice" (of course it could also be one of the helmed ones like your knight)?

    Unless that's not (yet) supposed to be the PC, but an example shown to him of the public execution which (still) awaits him as the caption says, though that would rather seem like a cop-out explanation.

    1. Probably a bit too much to ask of a 1993 RPG to match the intro/outro art to the selected character (I'm sure it's been done, but not often).

      The game changes the background colours of the portraits, isn't that good enough for you? :P


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