This review and game comes with a content warning for thematic reasons: anxiety, depression, suicide, and infanticide, some of the above involving minors.
Video games can often make us think about the world around us, or show us new perspectives or experiences beyond our own. But so rarely does a game turn that response inwards, and make the player look at themselves beyond things like shallow moral decisions. When Spike Chunsoft’s CRYSTAR came across my desk, the last thing I expected was to be confronting my own issues while slashing away at anime demons. Yet, here we are. CRYSTAR is often a simple, to the point action RPG that follows familiar story beats. But the story it tells is framed with honest and respectful depictions of depression and anxiety that not only hit close to home, but also add a layer of existential depth to the usual anime power fantasy.
Drag Me to Hell
Rei Hatada wakes up in a strange place, surrounded by nothing but glowing butterflies. She later learns she was somehow taken to Purgatory, a space where the recently deceased move to be processed into the next life. But it isn’t that simple–not every soul is okay with staying dead. Those with strong wills can regain their self-consciousness, and pursue Revival. But there’s a cost: other souls. If that’s the road taken, these wayward souls become Revenants, a.k.a. the bad guys. Rei finds another route, forming a pact with Purgatory’s demon management to clean up the streets. She agrees in order to save her sister, who was also dragged into Purgatory and killed by… Rei herself. How’d that happen? Play CRYSTAR to find out.
Rei isn’t fighting to save the world. She’s fighting herself. Early on in the game, there are allusions to Purgatory being filled with more troubled souls than not. It seems like the big tease is Rei possibly falling victim to suicide, but that blows over as we instead see Rei often crumbling under her own pressure. She often loses control of herself during intense emotional situations, clearly having panic attacks in key moments. Emphasizing Rei’s internal struggle is CRYSTAR’s core menu screen, which features a slideshow of depression tells. Rei lays in her bed during the day staring at her phone, or staring at nothing while lounging on furniture, or burying her face into her arms. But the core theme of CRYSTAR is finding strength in fighting despair, and that’s the whole key to progression here.
Drawing Inner Strength From Despair
Boiled down to its mechanics, CRYSTAR is a character action game that sees Rei and her friends dashing through small levels, fighting Revenants, and leveling up themselves and their equipment. When a glowing, powerful Revenant is defeated, the bad juju from the Revenant’s own spiteful existence intrudes into Rei’s mind via her own guilt and battle with her ego. As she builds up more and more of that desperate energy, the menu fills up with the scattered wails of poisoned souls. As the player, you can choose to have Rei cry, and doing so washes those powerful feelings away, at least for a time. The remains of that process turn into weapons and armor, which can be fused together for stat bumps. Each piece of equipment has a finite number of upgrades, and the flavor text in the menu becomes a complete phrase, generally one comprising words of encouragement that specifically address mental health.
I’m spending so much time on this part in particular because from my perspective, all of CRYSTAR’s thematic trimmings were so affecting I was caught off guard. Only just recently in my life, I have been diagnosed with a form of anxiety, and have been dealing with things like taking regular medication for the first time in my life. Here, in this colorful, lower-budget anime action game, I found myself face to face with something I’ve been fighting in my own life, something that had been mostly intangible but now had taken form. CRYSTAR gave physicality to my own problems, from the more obvious to smaller details such as Rei saying things like “hate me if you must” and apologizing to her “victims” based on what combo string you’re using. CRYSTAR is laced with anxiety and self-loathing, but in a way that feels studied and empathetic, rather than exploitative.
CRYSTAR remains compelling nearly on the strength of its narrative alone, which only grows more complicated as more characters are introduced, and the world’s lore gets fleshed out. There are certainly tropes and familiar plot beats here in anime action land, but the connective tissue, the characters and their own struggles, carry a lot of weight. I only wish the gameplay loop in CRYSTAR was as substantial as its storytelling. While I certainly enjoyed it, and I say that as a character action devotee, CRYSTAR ultimately falls short in the depth department, with combat that fizzles out despite being snappy and responsive, and progression systems that end up feeling like pointless grinding.
Falling Short of Potential
At a base level, CRYSTAR is fun to play. Each character feels distinct, with similar combo strings in terms of input complexity, but wildly varying functional properties. Each character has their own style, and swapping between them has more utility than just survival. And what combo potential is on the table feels good, with special moves acting as situational tools, and launching properties leading to feelgood air combos and crowd control. But the ceiling here is low, meaning once you figure out your bread and butter that’s about all you get. Enemy variety comes to a screeching halt about halfway through, and combat situations end up feeling almost identical to each other. Boss fights are too slow to ever feel like a threat, and are so HP-spongey that they grind the pace down to a crawl.
The progression system I mentioned earlier starts with a lot of promise, as the equipment fusion is expertly woven into CRYSTAR’s overarching themes. The problem is what happens if you pay too much attention. If you take the time to grind resources and fuse your weapons and armor up to their max, you’ll feel pretty good about your boosted stats for just long enough to be real annoyed when you get the next new piece. There’s no intersection of power, meaning the starting point of the new thing will always be stronger than the end point of the old thing. It’s more time efficient to just keep moving forward through the story and use whatever you pick up, than to take the time fusing things, which ends up requiring replaying stages multiple times. Despite being into the window dressing and completing each item’s little motivational phrase, by the end of the game I was more interested in going through the levels and seeing the next part of the story, instead of repeating old stages. The motivation to do so feels dishonest.
CRYSTAR is a game that feels like it came out of nowhere. Double-A-ish Japanese action games have been kind of a dime a dozen since the PlayStation 3, yet this one’s narrative ambition and strength blew me away. Not only was I relating to the scenario in a bizarrely serendipitous way, but nearly every step of the way I could feel the respect and care taken when handling such sensitive, real life material. As much as CRYSTAR finds ways to beat down its heroes, it also goes out of its way to pull them back up, and give them opportunities to find new strength. CRYSTAR won’t be competing with Devil May Cry in the video game as video game-ass video game department, but as a story it absolutely earned its spot on my shelf.
CRYSTAR review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.