Review: Krystopia: Nova's Journey

21 Jul 2020

Point-and-click adventure games are one of those genres that faded away for a long while, then started to get a resurgence once two facts of video games became clear. The first is that it’s a lot easier for a small team to put together a point-and-click game than anything else beyond perhaps a basic platformer; the second is that the genre is perhaps better suited to mobile gaming than any other, almost comically so.

This is particularly relevant as Krystopia: Nova’s Journey is specifically launching right from the start as both a mobile and PC title, so players aren’t limited in their platform choices. Yes, it’s available on iOS, Android, and Steam. The question of which platform to get it on is thus largely academic; what matters far more is whether it delivers on the two main pillars that every single adventure game balances on.

For the record, the Steam version was played for this review.

She’s No Guybrush Threepwood

At the start of the game, the eponymous Nova wakes up in… a cave. With no memory of how she got there or why. In fact, no explanation of how she got there or why. She apparently remembers her occupation (she’s a scavenger) but doesn’t even know what she’s talking about doing, mumbling about walking to the end of the world in vague and metaphorical terms to her childhood doll, Creepyface.

There’s a setup here for some potentially bleak identity examination, but very soon it turns out that you just had your memory wiped out because you encountered a thing, and very soon thereafter you meet a group of cave-dwelling people who are all trying to get out to the surface to destroy the people who wiped your memory, yadda yadda mysteries, blah blah secrets and powers and oh dear, what if not everything is exactly as you’ve been told?

I mean, it’s obvious no one is telling you the whole story because you barely get told half the story at any given interval, but clearly the point here is that you’re trying to figure out the deep mysteries of the world of Krystopia. Except, well… they don’t seem particularly deep, even from the little hints you get doled out.

Of course, this isn’t in and of itself a problem; after all, many classic adventure games aren’t entirely serious in tone or story. You can make it through a lot with sufficiently charming characters and interactions. Alas, the cast here could best be described as “functional.” Most of the more instructive dialogue about Nova herself comes from her internal monologues and the one-sided discussions she has with her small lizard companion Skrii. Even then, a lot of these don’t seem to match up with what we actually see on screen.

For example, several characters either caution Nova against doing something reckless or imply she has a habit of doing reckless things. But we don’t actually see her doing anything reckless or impetuous or even particularly aggressive. It’s a purely informed trait that’s both at odds with the version of Nova we actually see through the game and serves to make her sound less interesting than she actually is.

The game can’t seem to decide if Nova is searching for her identity, the truths about Krystopia, or just her spaceship to leave. Her goals wobble back and forth a lot. Yes, I get it, the main reason is because she needs to follow the plot before her, but it also means that the interesting suggestions at the start don’t actually pan out to anything.

It’s not a terrible story by any means, and Nova has a secret weapon to make herself a bit more likable. But it doesn’t really stick to the ribs, and the characters and experience are so stock that it sort of slides off you easily enough.

It’s Actually a Bit like Myst

You see that header image? That header image is where this game broke me.

With any point-and-click adventure game, your primary means of advancement is going to be solving puzzles. This is just something you expect as part of the buy-in. Some games it’s all about picking up every item and knowing where to use them, some games it’s more about picking dialogue choices… and some games it’s mostly about getting thrown an arbitrary puzzle that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except that now this is what you have to do.

Krystopia: Nova’s Journey is very much in that third category. You want to get to the next room, learn how to solve this puzzle of connecting a glowy light to another glowy light. Or close the proper number of steam valves that make this drill emerge for some reason. Or enter the right sequence of movements so that you gain access to another room. That sort of thing.

Here’s the big problem the game has, though. Most of these puzzles aren’t actually explained to you in any fashion, and that makes a lot of them exercises in frustration. It’s not clear what you’re even trying to do much of the time; you’re left to guess at it from context clues, and those clues themselves are frequently insufficient or broken.

For example, there was one puzzle wherein I had to pluck out a specific fruit from a group of dancing plants. Clicking on a plant made some of the plants stop dancing and others start dancing. What was the connection between the two? I have no idea. All I knew was I kept failing at it, but it wasn’t entirely clear how different actions led to those failure states. There was no hint, no pattern anywhere, nothing; just clicking and eventually brute-forcing your way through it until the puzzle declares you won.

Another puzzle involved using a set of wrenches, but you needed three to succeed… and one was hidden in a place that it wasn’t immediately clear you could even search in the first place. But not only did the game not make that clear, it didn’t make what you had to do clear.

Is that a problem? I’d say so, yes. If the puzzle said up front “you need three wrenches to do this” and you only get one wrench, you know that you have to find two more. Even if an NPC had mused that you might need three wrenches, fine, still a hint. I spent far too much time on that puzzle because it wasn’t at all clear that the puzzle itself wasn’t “figure out how to do this with only two wrenches.”

It runs through the entire game. There was one puzzle that was intensely obscure until I figured out – by random clicking – that the game wanted me to scoop up dirt with a bucket, and that completed the puzzle I needed. Another one involved transferring power from one glowy light to another through rules the game never bothered explaining or even hinting were a thing.

And then… we have the puzzle above, where the game just stonewalled me completely. That’s in the third chapter of the game, about halfway through (as near as I can figure). I spent an hour staring at that, trying various sequences, trying to do something and having no idea what I was supposed to do. I know the four symbols along the bottom correspond to the little engrams on the top left, that I’m supposed to use those as a hint…

But no sequence worked. Putting them in sequentially didn’t work. There were no other hints, no other guidance available. It got to the point that I literally went to bed, came back the next morning, and called my wife (a veteran of puzzle games) to look at it as well in case there was some obvious hint that I was just somehow missing.

We both stared, and we stared, and we tried things, and we shared theories, and neither of us could figure out what the hell this was supposed to be. I haven’t the slightest idea where to even start with this thing. And I’m sure there’s some way in which this is supposed to be fiendishly clever, but from where I sit it’s just an obtuse puzzle that needs a clearer picture of what I’m supposed to be doing.

And if giving a hint makes it easy? Then it’s not clever, it’s just vague.

This was also the moment most of my goodwill for the game evaporated. I cannot imagine I’m the only person who’s going to get here and just be left staring in abject confusion, wondering what the hell is supposed to be done. For this to be shoved into the game near the end is really bad design, but it’s hardly the first “what the hell” puzzle in the game; it’s just the one that goes so far that it becomes absolutely impenetrable.

Put more clearly, it’s one thing to have a puzzle you cannot solve. It’s another thing to have a puzzle you cannot solve because it’s not clear what the puzzle is.

This is No Maniac Mansion

Because the game is meant for both mobile devices and a PC release, the game’s graphics obviously had to go for something that was going to match the vast gulf between hardware meat. Unfortunately, this means polygonal models that, well… they look fine at lower resolutions and from a distance, but once you look a bit more closely they start having all the stiff and weird problems of old PlayStation games. It’s a game that looks worse the closer you look at it, especially when you’re zooming into look at objects (like, say, for a puzzle) and you can see every jagged seam clearly.

Worse yet, nothing really looks like anything. It tries to split the difference between stylized and simplified and just looks outdated. About the nicest part of the look comes down to the hand-drawn character portraits and the loading screens during chapter selection (you have to select each chapter individually from the start screen).

Nova’s biggest asset in terms of her characterization is her voice actress, who is the only one with actual dialogue instead of just grunts and sounds. She narrates each of the “relics” (non-vital collectible options) as you find them as well as the loading screens, and she has an impressive range that manages to make her more likable than her actual on-screen interactions do.

The music is mostly soft ambient tracks, fitting for the game but more of a soft mood piece that give an unhurried feel rather than being iconic. Unfortunately, the “puzzle solved” noise is a sharp series of tones that feels like it’s toned higher than most other sound effects in the game, which is awkward to say the least. Not terrible, but not great either.

The game is also somewhat buggy. Saving and exiting always requires re-entering the chapter from the start, meaning that the same narration plays every single time. It’s also possible for you to lose certain items along the way, which wound up locking me out of 100% completion on the second chapter… and doesn’t appear to be something that you can fix, sadly.

Not that it’ll take you long anyhow; by the time I hit the aforementioned puzzle that broke me, I had already found nearly everything in the game at just around three hours played. I’d be surprised if you couldn’t clear the whole game in five hours, maybe four if you knew everything going in.

Oh, and the game asks you to sign up for a special blockchain service on the loading screen, so that’s grand. The alluded-to secret additional stuff that this supposedly unlocks will remain a mystery to me; somehow, I am not champing at the bit to uncover this.

A Grim… Assessment, Not fandango

Ultimately, it’s not hard to understand Krystopia: Nova’s Journey. It has some nice moments here and there, but they’re just that. They’re moments. Drips and drabs within a sea of mediocrity and “good enough” and elements that are both familiar and tedious.

I’ve really tried my best to temper my natural disinclination toward adventure games here, but the fact of the matter is that for most non-adventure game fans, this is going to be a hard pass anyhow. The characters and dialogue don’t overcome the fundamental nature of point-and-click games, and the puzzles don’t feel satisfyingly complex but instead frustrating and unclear. You never have that rush of “yes, I got it” from clearing them, just a tired “finally, back to the narrative” before you ask yourself why you’re doing this.

Heck, I suspect even hardcore adventure game fans will find it more like popcorn than a really meaty entry. It fills you up, it’s a thing to do for a couple of hours, but it’s not going to stick with you.

But at least maybe those people will not look at that puzzle and be completely unclear on what it wants you to do. I sure hope not, anyway.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by Antler Interactive for PC. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and courtesy of Antler Interactive.