Crystal War, by South Korean developer GNC Interactive, is a real-time linear strategy title belonging to a defense sub-genre typically called “castle-vs-castle”. It’s a genre that’s become rather crowded — like most genres on the app store — with titles like Battle of Puppets, Cartoon Wars, Armageddon and Ancient War, to name but a few. Of all these titles, however, Crystal War is the only castle-vs-castle game that’s managed to arrest my attention and hold my interest for more than a few minutes. Despite my hithero disinterest in the genre at large, Crystal War is a game that’s kept me coming back for days on end.
The game is played on a two-dimensional field, with the player’s commander and the enemy commander occupying opposite sides. Players mine the field for crystals, which may be spent in deploying units to the field of combat, the goal being to overrun and defeat the opposing army and bring down their commander.
In addition to your commander, there are fifteen unit types to be unlocked and upgraded during the course of the game, up to seven of which may be brought into any given stage. Finding a combination of units and a strategy that works for each stage is a part of the fun. There are many different enemy types and several types of enemy commanders, each of which poses a different type of threat during combat. For example, goblin swordsmen are easy enough to dispatch, but goblin bombers and boulder-throwers can quickly dismantle your frontline, leaving your rear guard and commander vulnerable to incoming units.
In addition to your soldiers, you may also purchase and upgrade four magical spells to wield during battle. Used properly and at the right moment, these spells can often turn the tide of battle in your favor, or save your being overwhelmed by powerful foes.
The campaign mode features twenty stages, and completing the campaign unlocks an endless play mode.
Artwork & Graphics: Crystal Wars is a visual feast. Stage backgrounds are beautifully drawn on multiple layers, with parallax scrolling effects. Looking at screen captures of the game does the artwork no justice; you have to see it in motion, see the background layers scrolling to really appreciate the beauty of the environments. The units also are quite lovely, pixel-based sprites animated in an almost cell-shaded style, each distinct and with personality of its own. The game is worth picking up for the artwork alone!
Player Involvement: Crystal Wars does an excellent job of keeping the player active and involved in each battle. In many castle-vs-castle games, it seems the player simply purchases units and then watches the game play itself. Crystal Wars engages the player by having them not only manage the deployment of their units, but also gathering coins and harvesting mana, supervising mining operations, and casting spells to support your army. And as the enemy rolls out different unit types of its own, it’s important to effectively deploy counter units.
Overall Presentation: Not only is the artwork fantastic, but the menus and interface are slick and attractive, and easy to use. The shop interface is elegant and intuitive. And the music and sound effects really help to support the ambience of the game. When it comes to presentation value, Crystal War delivers the entire package, and even includes OpenFeint support.
Star Ratings & Achievements: GNC Interactive missed the mark in implementing star ratings for stages and OpenFeint achievements. The way the system works, a star is awarded for completion of a stage. Stages may then be replayed, and stars earned for each completion to a maximum of three per stage. Earning stars unlocks OpenFeint achievements. Here lies the problem, however.
Achieving three stars simply requires that you play through the stage three times. There are no additional conditions to be met, no new challenges to be had. The developer could easily have enhanced replay value and have provided a boost to the game’s difficulty level and last appeal by implementing simple conditions such as completing the stage under a give time threshhold, completing the stage using only specified unit types, or completing the stage only using no more than three different unit types.
Because the star system adds nothing new to the experience, it feels as if it were tacked on to artificially extend the length of the game. There’s no real challenge or incentive for playing through the game three times under identical conditions unless you’re just an OpenFeint junkie trying to boost your score. GNC Interactive really dropped the ball here.
There’s definitely room for improvement in Crystal War, though nothing wrong with the game that could not be addressed in updates. I’d like to see the system of star ratings and achievements retooled to include additional conditions, bringing new challenges to the game and extending its lasting appeal. The first star should be granted for stage completion, the second for completing the stage in a given time limit, and the third by imposing limitations on your unit usage. This change would significantly improve the title.
Of lesser importance, other fun ideas might be a second campaign mode played from the perspecitive of the goblins, and then a multiplayer mode in which two players face off online or via WiFi, choosing to play either as the Human-Elf Aliance or Goblin Army. And while the game already plays fantastically on the iPad in 2x mode, I would love to see Crystal War released as a universal app or in an HD version. The artwork definitely deserves the HD treatment!
All wishing aside, however, Crystal War is a beautiful, highly entertaining castle-vs-castle game, and one that I heartily recommend.