Crystal Defenders ReviewSometimes an Xbox Live Arcade title comes out of nowhere, with no advanced notice, no first-look preview showings and no events to demonstrate it. In some cases, it’s a pleasant surprise, such as when Peggle was announced as coming this week. However, Peggle’s release counterpart this week, Square Enix’s Crystal Defenders, represents the other side of the coin. It hit XBLA this week with few details in advance, though its tie-in with the Final Fantasy series makes it an immediate buy for some gamers. Trust me—the tie-in is pretty loose, as are the gameplay and the game’s graphics. Let’s just say that Crystal Defenders was first introduced last year as a mobile-phone game in Japan (as Crystal Guardians, with a more recent release under its current name on iPhone and iPod Touch), and it doesn’t appear that a whole lot was done to take it to the Xbox 360 as an XBLA release. Crystal Defenders is what’s commonly called a “tower defense” game, in which you’re tasked with preventing enemy units from crossing the playfield via the provided paths by placing your own units at points to intercept and destroy them. It’s more a strategy game than an action one, because your units are set to autofire on anything that comes within its firing-range radius, so you need to line the paths with enough units to complete the job. You have a limited amount of crystals in reserve, and each enemy unit that makes it through the path takes a crystal (or more if it’s a unit that can take more than one). Of course, you can’t just fill your map with “towers,” which come in various forms, such as soldiers (which are powerful but limited in range), archers (more versatile in longer-range battles, but with less damage capabilities) and mages (which have better range and damage capabilities, but longer recharge times between shots). You have limited resources for putting units out on the map, which the instructions call “points,” but appear from the visual interface to be coins. So, imagine that you have a limited budget for placing units, and the only way to earn more coin is to destroy enemies. That creates a pace to the game where you can only add new units when you’ve done enough destruction to earn the money to make more, and so on in a vicious circle of strategy. Similarly, you can upgrade units for a price, which increases their range and speed between shots. You also have restrictions on some units, which may prevent them from being attacked by your current “army.” The soldier, for instance, cannot attack aerial units, which is where the archer or mage comes in more handy, but if you’ve already spent your account on putting a bank of soldiers out there, if might result in your having a Swiss-cheese defense—one that has a lot of holes in it. If your cash reserve is tapped, you might end up sitting there without the ability to build the right type of units and prevent the adversary from getting across the board with units intact. There are also special aids you can summon less frequently, which might put a large dent into your opponent’s forces or slow them down for the duration of the “wave.” The cost of using these reserve über-units, though, is that you’ll suffer a large dent in your own account, because using them draws from your precious crystal reserve. On paper, it’s a good strategy-game concept, which requires lots of decisions to be made along the way. You have a number of maps across each of the three “chapters” (excitingly titled W1, W2 and W3). The W1 set is a collection of somewhat easy maps to handle, and with gameplay concepts lightly introduced to you in tutorial form. W2 is more challenging, with the introduction of power crystals you can buy and place, which affect a unit within its range by increasing their attack power or firing range with no interaction on your part other than placing them close to the units you want to influence. (And, of course, crystals come at a fee also, so they’re added to your resource-management puzzle.) The W3 set offers you more variety in your unit types, but also in where the enemies can travel, so you have to be more frugal and resourceful in preventing your foe from running you over. Where Crystal Defenders really comes apart is with its graphics and animation—or the serious lack thereof. The units could have been nice 3-D models, such as what you’d find in a Command & Conquer or even the recently released Halo Wars—yes, even in an XBLA game, such as what Chair did in Undertow or that found in the Unreal-powered RoboBlitz. Instead, you get 2-D sprites that jerk around the screen as if they were on a Sega Genesis—or a mobile phone. It’s clear that Square Enix went way too light on the design, which could be why it came out with nary a peep. Similarly, the battles are fought without the benefit of more elaborate 3-D visuals. There’s no chance that this will be confused for the latest Geometry Wars or something like that, because it’s clear that there was little effort to take advantage of how the Xbox 360 hardware could be used to anywhere even close to its fullest extent. The big plus here is that you can use the Right Bumper button to accelerate the action, so you don’t have to wait for all the enemy units to slowly plod through your map. One nice feature is the ability to save a replay, which can help you analyze your previous gameplay—or see a sample “devplay” runthroughs. If you don’t understand the game all that well or just can’t get out of a jam that you put yourself in frequently, these are valuable tools to improving your experience. Okay, there are some compelling strategies at the heart of Crystal Defenders, so it might draw you in for a while—in one of those “Why am I still playing this game?” moments—but it’s such a dull presentation that it ends up dragging down the whole gameplay concept. If you’re interested in playing Crystal Defenders to try and rack up the 12 achievements for 200 points, you’ll be at it for a while trying to meet all the objectives (see the full achievement list at the end of this review). I could forgive the game more if it came with a lower price tag. The 800 Microsoft Points (or about $10) is about double what it should be, even with the tenuous Final Fantasy connection. There’s gameplay in there, but you have to endure a lot of uninspired design before you will feel even slightly fulfilled. It’s not a total miss of a game, but it’s hardly what it could have been with even just a little bit more of an effort from the game’s developers.