When the Myst-style adventure The Crystal Key was released back in 1999, it received a ho-hum reception at best and was quickly forgotten. Given that history, it might seem odd for The Adventure Company to bother releasing a sequel five years later. Against the odds, it turned out to be a wise move--or at least not a foolish one. While Crystal Key 2 sure isn't a stunner, it's still a fairly solid adventure game that has its charms.
One big thing that holds Crystal Key 2 back is its writing. You play as a youth named Call. Your father saved your homeworld of Evany from an evil menace in the original game, but the expected peace and prosperity never came. Instead, Evany's citizens shuffle around like zombies, with only Call spared thanks to fortuitous timing.
The game opens with a scene of a morose Call sitting on a deserted street in Evany. A mysterious woman suddenly appears and tries to talk to him, but she is quickly dragged off by masked soldiers. She drops her notebook, from which Call learns that other worlds have been affected by the same stupefying pall that afflicts Evany's people. He naturally decides to seek her out and save his people. To do so, he'll have to travel to a distant world by stepping through a portal that opens with the eponymous crystal key (which is otherwise of absolutely no bearing on the game).
The big problem here is that you never actually see what's happened to Evany, so you never feel its plight. It can be hard to care about a problem when you can't see and relate to the people affected by it. You barely even see the bad guys, either; instead, you mostly just hear about them second hand from the game's characters. Those characters are bland and few and far between--here's yet another adventure game populated by about eight people. On top of that, the characters might look like aliens, yet they talk and act just like ordinary humans. (Some of them even look like ordinary humans, improbably enough.) Just as hokey, dialogue is minimal and usually repeated verbatim every time you try to talk to a different character.
In other words, the gameworld isn't well fleshed out at all. Crystal Key 2's story is neglected during much of the game, anyway, where you feel like you're just solving puzzles for the heck of it. To top things off, the ending feels muddled and anticlimactic.
Even if the writing is clumsy and bland, Crystal Key 2 does some things quite well. The interface is simple and straightforward. Using inventory items or operating objects is a breeze. Even better, getting around requires mercifully little walking. You'll get to use boats, a submarine, a jetpack, and other modes of transportation that quickly shuttle you to the main areas you select by clicking on a map. Each of those areas is reasonably small and can be quickly explored on foot, so even though the game requires some backtracking, it rarely feels burdensome.
The game's puzzles are its best feature. They smoothly ramp up in difficulty and tend to be challenging enough to provide a sense of satisfaction, but not so hard as to leave you frustrated. They're pretty diverse, ranging from simple deliveries to memorizing and playing back a short musical passage to figuring out how to lure some glowing bugs into a dark passage.
Just as importantly, the puzzles tend to give you some insights into the gameworld (even if that world is pretty lame) and enable you to test your powers of observation instead of just hitting you with some arbitrary math problem or ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine. For example, early in Crystal Key 2 you play a board game with a fruit vendor's son. At the time, it just seems like a pleasant way to fill you in on part of the story as the boy explains the local legend on which the game is based. Later, you see that it also offers some vital clues to one of the game's more-involved puzzles.
The puzzles mostly feel unified in style and thoughtfulness, but Crystal Key 2's presentation is all over the map. The locales range from sandy beaches to a village high in the trees to dank caves to an abandoned space port, and they feature some neat architecture from time to time. Each area is discrete--you move from one area to another with mouse clicks--but you can pan the camera in any direction within each area. The graphics engine is limited to 800x600 resolution and flubs a lot, often displaying characters as blurry messes from afar, causing the backgrounds to jiggle as you move the camera, or revealing black, jagged seams in the scenery. The audio works well enough, with some subtle music (but also some cheesy music) and competent but uninspired voice-overs.
If you like solving well-constructed puzzles in a reasonably attractive gameworld, Crystal Key 2 can be fun. The game's writing is mostly a bust, though, so it's not a gameworld you're likely to care about. Crystal Key 2 is also short--you can finish it in two or three evenings--and offers no replay value since it lacks puzzle-difficulty options, multiple endings, or the like. Still, for a short, traditional adventure game, you could do worse.