I recently picked up this DS title for fairly cheap, and played through it. Spoiler: it was worth the ~$12, but not necessarily much more.

It does have a multiplayer mode, with its own story, which I haven’t tried. It was one of the reasons why I got it—Smudge and I keep an eye out for multiplayer RPGs—but I’m not currently looking to bump other things off our ‘to do’ list to get a second copy and try it. I understand that the original Crystal Chronicles game for the GameCube was purely multiplayer, which must have been an interesting experiment, so this is much more flexible game.

However, that probably explains the biggest failing of Ring of Fates. You end up with a four-character party in an action-RPG style format, and you control one character at a time. The other characters follow you around, and if their pathfinding isn’t up to the job (there’s a lot of jumping/platforming in the game) you can summon them to you with the L button. However, in combat the rest of the party is only marginally useful, only able to use the base weapons and often standing about instead of engaging enemies (if they’re nearby and facing the right direction, they might help, but the AI shows no initiative). To be fair, the enemies generally concentrate on the character you’re controlling, so they aren’t just standing around getting slaughtered (…except in boss battles).

The various areas are simple 3D-rendered environments that look pretty good, with good differentiation between areas, and are split up into rooms that can be quite extensive. There’s a map function that shows how all of these interrelate (possibly across several floors, though that’s only clear by relative positioning as you flip through the layer displays), as well as a minimap on the main screen. However, all these do is show you the overall shape of the room, and nothing of the contents. Since there can be quite a bit of vertical dimension inside these rooms (up to three main levels plus various ledges is pretty common), it would be hard to give a detailed floor plan, and yet all too often that’s exactly what I needed. The overall map at least marks save crystals, but not anything else, including the doors between rooms (you can generally parse it by the room shapes, but it’s not always clear), though the minimap helpfully displays them and whether they’re locked at the moment or not.

Magic in this game uses ‘magicites’, elemental crystals that can do fire, lightning, heal, et cetera (nicely, the plot acknowledges that these are reasonably common and everyone uses them). You press the X button and then use the direction pad to guide it over to the monster and let go of X to ‘cast’ the spell. This is somewhat annoying to do in combat (especially as the rest of the party can’t be counted on to run interference), but the monsters in the game have to go through the same process meaning you can generally dodge those attacks, and they have to stand still to do it as well. You can also ‘lock’ a ring with the L button, and then cast another magicite onto it for bigger spell, but I pretty much never bothered with this in the pressures of action-oriented combat. Also, switching from one spell to another requires switching magicites on the touch screen (and swapping active characters is the same), making you break out the stylus, and is also clumsy to do in combat. The magicite selection is done per character, so I often set up the party with different magicites and then swapped to the character that had what I needed.

And like in any cRPG, equipment is important, and gives various stat bonuses. These are never looted off monsters, but instead raw materials and recipes are. You can buy new equipment directly, or you can go to a synthesis shop and use recipes to get your materials made into new equipment. In general, this grants superior equipment, as you get a one-slot additional material which grants an extra bonus. I generally cycled through equipment at a slow pace, and didn’t do too much with this because it was too hard to figure out what I wanted. If you’re looking at three weapons for the same character in the shop, it will tell you who can use them, and if they’re an upgrade or downgrade, but until your ready to equip the item, it doesn’t tell you what is changing or by how much (or even what the actual stats on the item are). Prices are a guide to what’s best as usual, but even that gets more confusing in the synthesis shop, and I was never sure what the various items I could add do (that may have been in the manual…).

The Crystal Chronicles series has four races, and the eventual party has one example of each (fixed characters), and they all have different abilities. Primarily they use different weapons: Clavats (humans) use swords for strong melee attacks, Yukes use staves with a short indirect fire range, Selkies use bows, and Lilties use …spoons (and ladles, and maces), melee weapons that have a good chance of stunning an enemy, they also have a pot (which I will talk about in a moment) which they can get inside and roll around the battlefield slamming into enemies.

The bulk of the environments have a number of puzzles to them, some of which are just to get to optional items, but the bulk of which are needed to make your way forward. All the characters other than the Clavat main character are needed in turn to get through these. Yukes can draw magic from convenient ‘needles’ to conjure items like stepping stones and light candles. Selkies can use their bow to hit targets to trip switches. And Lilties can use their pot to …do way too many things. They can roll around in it to get under low obstructions. Put it in special places so it will float up, carrying someone standing on it. Or on other special places to make it weightless, so you can grab it, jump up, and come floating slowly down. This is in addition to the usual switches, and keys, and things that need magic cast on them.

I generally liked the puzzle-nature of many areas of the game, but had a number of big problems with how it worked out in practice. First of all, all enemies in each area respawn every time you re-enter the room. If the combat was really fun, that might not be too bad. But it isn’t, and since the puzzles involve a lot of going from Point B back to Point A to get at what you just unlocked (not to mention all the wandering around figuring out what to do), I got very annoyed at hitting the same encounters over and over again when I all I really want is to piece together how to go forward. Worse, really, is despite all the uses of the Lilty pot, many of them get introduced early, and then not used again until quite late in the game (and there were a few other things seen early, and not really used again). I spent some time stuck because I couldn’t remember how to do certain things, and the writeups tend to assume you’ll know.

The best part of the game is the writing around the main plot, but that gets off to a slow start, and also has some odd choices. The center of the game is a pair of twins, but you effectively just play as the boy, Yuri, while his twin sister, Chelinka, is only there for the cutscenes. I wasn’t really happy with this idea, but the entire linked-opposites theme of the twins is used during the entire story, and is essential to the climax. The real problem is that the opening parts of the story set up certain beats very well, and the initial parts just feel like waiting to get out of the tutorial, and the inevitable tragedy to set everything in motion.

Important parts of this section inform the rest of the game though, and are leveraged well. Better, the twins (who are quite young) gain some important maturity, and go from slightly annoying characters to reasonably strong ones. Even better, the rest of the party are good characters and the game’s writing shines as the cast expands and they interact with each other. Large parts of the story are broadly predictable, but the writing for much of it is great. (The villains are over the top, which is explained by this being for a younger audience, but the big bad has a reasonable core motivation, even if his ego’s blown it into the required apocalyptic doom of a FF title.) On the other hand, the story tends to be told in a relatively few fairly large scenes (with the odd mixture of voiced and un-voiced parts that seems to be a feature of JRPGs now) where I’d prefer parts of it to be a bit more broken up.

Traveling around the world is done on a node system. There’s an icon for where you are, with arrows showing which directions you can go in, and you use the direction pad to select a destination area and go there. Since you have to flip through everything, this could get confusing if the world was very big, but at 5-6 areas it’s not a problem. Of course, a fair chunk of the second half of the game locks you out of all this, and other than a couple areas in the beginning that are inaccessible because you don’t have your full party (and puzzle-solving abilities) yet, there’s little reason to go back anywhere, and I wonder why they bothered with this at all. (On the other hand, this might get a lot more important in the multiplayer game with its variable party composition.)

The soundtrack is good and might be worth getting, but much of it didn’t really stand out to me in-game. This is at least partially due to the DS’s speakers and environmental noise, but even there the Rela Cyel theme stood out to me. Surprisingly, given everything, it has one use of the classic Final Fantasy “Crystal Theme”, which should be a natural fit for more of the game. I also don’t know if it carries any themes from the original GameCube game.

I liked the game for the story, and thought the rest of it was interesting. I do wish there’d been a second Crystal Chronicles game for the DS, because I’d like to see this general engine with some of the rough edges polished off. If you like this kind of game, I recommend picking it up cheap as I did.