Dungeon crawlers were one of the first genres that explored 3D (or pseudo 3D) environments. It makes sense then that someone would pay homage to these games of yore with a full VR experience in a grid based, stone-walled castle. Crystal Rift is an interesting bit of new technology combined with old school design that doesn’t mix as well as it should on paper.
In the game, you move one space at a time with the ability to strafe left and right. You can swing your sword, change the type of sword you’re using, and interact with objects in front of you. These controls are far from complex and building on simplicity is one of the things this game does right. I was surprised at how much variance the developersgot from the limited amount of buttons. For instance you can charge up different swords to create different effects. Is there a button across a pit from you? Just shoot some goo at it to turn it on!
The reason things might have been kept simple could be because of the untested waters of modern VR. Many of the virtual reality games I’ve played in the last few years generally don’t overwhelm the player in fear of making them overwhelmed or worse, sick. Crystal Rift unfortunately did not escape the specter of nausea when played behind a headset. Movement in a virtual landscape is hard for our minds to comprehend and I’ve experienced a few titles that still haven’t figured out how to clear that hurdle.
To its credit the game tries to offer a few options to avoid motion sickness. I thought going into it the grid based map and simplified directions (forward, turn, strafe) would save me from that uneasiness in my stomach. It seems like the developers knew that it would be too much for most as there are toggles for the speed of turning and moving forward. I played around with these and found very little effect on my queasiness.
The advanced VR options were better with a few selections that made more of an impact on my ability to play for longer periods of time. But even the ‘stability cubes’ and ‘fixed player height’ toggles couldn’t stop the inevitable disruption in my gut that made me have to stop after a few dungeons. Luckily there’s a ‘normal’ mode setting for the game.
The ability to play outside of the VR space shows that Crystal Rift wasn’t built with that in mind. The issues are by no means game breaking but some niggles persist. The biggest difference between the two modes is that you can’t look around everywhere in normal mode, especially down. Since the camera is places on the upper part of your avatar’s body, you can’t see much of what’s below you. This even includes your sword and I actually had to swing it to know what type I had equipped. Even worse was trying to navigate any area with trapdoors and pits. You can kind of see what’s on the ground a tile in front of you but it’s not as easy as it should be. I still was able to tackle unseen dungeons in this mode and figure things out but it wasn’t as fast as intuitive as the VR set up.
Even when the headset experience smooth and immersive I found other challenges that made the game hard to finish in this mode however. While you can look all around you in VR mode, it can get disorienting. At one point, I found I had moved around 90 degrees in real life without even noticing it. Looking up, down, and side to side was also confusing when dealing with difficult timing based obstacles and combat late in the game (I’ll touch upon those subjects later).
For example, I’d look to my right to see a fireball coming straight at me and instinctively try and move based on the direction I was looking. I ended up falling off a lot of ledges this way. There’s an advanced VR option that lets you move in the direction you’re looking but it came across as even more confusing and also made your sword point downwards most of the time. There were also points where the perspective would shake for no discernible reason in VR mode. I played with different set ups and locations relative to the PS camera but the issue reappeared randomly. It usually didn’t last long but it definitely was disruptive.
While 90% of the game is walking, things are broken up with puzzle solving and combat. Puzzles sometimes involve figuring how to interact with the environment or navigating multiple switches; however, the bulk of these brainteasers are spent avoiding deadly traps while trying to get from A to B. All kinds of machinations wait to try and kill you and I was surprised by the diversity of these areas. But the timing of some of these obstructions was finicky and I found a lot of unnecessary deaths occurred when I’d step into an area that hadn’t 100% been clear of the trap.
The most challenging spots are the ones that feature rooms with constantly falling boulders or constantly shooting fireballs. The timing for these sections can be very tight and it caused a lot of retries. I played the game on normal difficulty which gives you five lives — and even then I found myself getting sent back to the beginning of the dungeons often. The difficulty ramps up quite quickly at level ten (Temple of Doom – one of the best sections that has multiple homages to the Indiana Jones movie of the same name) and only dips a few times until the end. This challenge spike was consistent with dungeon crawlers of old but it made the second half of Crystal Rift more of chore to complete.
The combat is rudimentary in nature which leads to a number of back and forth encounters that just eat up time. There’s no block button so generally you strike your opponent, move back, move forward, and strike again. Things get a bit more interesting when projectiles come into play or you can slow enemies down but it still never feels fun or fleshed out.
The monsters in the second half make this even worse as they basically become damage sponges taking upwards of 8-10 hits to kill. There’s also an inconsistent period of time that enemies are invulnerable after taking a blow. The only time combat became challenging was when the game purposefully set up encounters where you’d be flanked by two fast moving critters. Rather than adding a bit of suspense to the whole system, it literally meant you need to find a choke point of one tile and fight each creature individually, slowly whittling down their obscene health.
Even duller are the various parts in the game where you ride in a mine cart from one part of the map to another. In VR you can at least look around and sometimes see creatures moving around but that’s it for the interactivity. I really don’t know why these were put in: maybe as a way to stop and take in the environment? But a lot of the levels look similar with the same walls or textures used over and over and this isn’t really a fast paced game. I don’t really want my exploration halted for a boring on rails section.
Secrets are surprisingly plentiful in the 20+ dungeons of Crystal Rift. Most of the time it involves finding a hidden switch on a wall to open up and a lot of the time it isn’t obvious where these are. Actually, for the first bit of the game I found myself constantly checking all available surfaces for secrets which got tiring after awhile. I generally liked how these mysteries weren’t obvious but the sheer amount of collectibles got exhausting after awhile. Most of the hidden secrets were painted skulls that really serve no purpose other than to unlock a few PS trophies. Heck, I found the 50 you need to find to unlock the final accolade in the first dozen or so dungeons.
More appealing are the crystal idols: 1 is hidden in each stage that isn’t one of the few enjoyable ‘boss’ encounters. If you collect all of these trinkets that you unlock a bonus level at the end of the game. The search was more fun than the reward as many of the early idols were cleverly stashed away. For some reason, as the game got harder the trinket placement got more obvious. Unfortunately the final reward was lackluster and the special level ended up being more of a museum than an actual dungeon.
The graphics definitely aren’t going to win any awards and they follow the dungeon crawler sin of having near identical hallways. Luckily things are more varied area to area but still small details are usually lacking. However, the monster models and certain effects (walls encrusted with gems) look nice and detailed in VR mode. There are also attempts to add some spice with ghostly images showing up to scare the player. Again, the effect was much more pronounced behind the headset.
The sound quality in the game is good but suffers from a lot of repetition. The game boasts about having multiple tracks, it felt like the game cycled between 3 of them for most of the experience. Once again VR mode wins out when it comes to the quality of the audio experience, especially with the small spooky noises like a ghost mouse squeaking behind you. But there was a consistent drone of the player’s beating heart which didn’t add much to the playthrough. The speed at which it pounded also randomly changed from section to section and had no bearing on actual gameplay.
The story in Crystal Rift is intentionally vague and at times pretty funny. It’s completely told by the old method of scattered notes. The basic premise is that you’re a adventure who finds a magical sword in a series of connected tunnels. These dungeons are somehow caught in between worlds and magical rifts exist that lead to multiple universes (you don’t actually see these until the end). There’s mention of prisoners who go insane, a sadistic necromancer who is set up to be the antagonist but never makes an appearance, and outside observers from beyond. There’s no real conclusion to the threads mentioned in the scattered pages but it was enough to keep me entertained.
The game offers a lot for a $13 USD price tag; my playthrough ended up being closer to 20 hours. There’s also two ‘ways’ to play the game and a lot of different options to customize the VR experience. That being said, Crystal Rift seems to peak halfway through and just become a test of endurance for the second half. Some of the later levels are much harder to complete in virtual reality which defeats the original intent of the game. Traps become very difficult to get through and the already mundane combat suddenly transforms into a unfair experience. While there’s definitely fun and wonder to be had here, it’s hard to recommend playing through the entire game, especially on higher difficulties.
The (very strange) ending of the game seemingly sets up for more dungeon crawling adventures in some interesting settings. I’m curious to see what Psytec Games Ltd improves upon if they continue with their VR games.