Demo Driver 8: Secret of the Magic Crystals
One of the weird things about gaming is that there are these shadow genres which exist despite being almost totally ignored by the rest of the population. The Horse Game is one of those genres. There are tons of these games out there, and every single one of them smells like shovelware and, well, horse stables. It’s all about training your horses, breeding them, carefully brushing them, and so forth. And they are legion. These games come out, they keep coming out, and presumably they are in fact making money. How? I don’t know!
I didn’t actually know that Secret of the Magic Crystals would fall into this genre until I clicked the name, but it does indeed. It’s a game about raising not just normal boring horses, but special magical equine creatures like pegasi, unicorns, and if you get particularly lucky 90s sitcom stars. (Not so much, really.) And hey, maybe it was awesome! I knew nothing about this genre, right? Why not give it a shot?
Oh, right, because it turns out these games aren’t very good.
The problem here is not the subject matter. The story is pretty terrible, centering around some idiot grandfather who got laughed out of academic circles just because he staked his reputation on magical crystals and horses as a field of study, but the actual premise is pretty cool. If you think that I’m not on board with the idea of raising a bunch of magical horses and sending them off to race, friend, we have not met.
Unfortunately, that’s not really what you get. Instead, you have a single tedious minigame, a weak sim aspect, and a whole lot of waiting to do in a game that feels as if was designed for mobile, then hastily ported without too much consideration.
Let’s start with the most absurd part of the whole thing: while the game features races for your horse to compete in, as near as I can tell they’re wholly non-interactive. The only interactive thing you actually do with your horse is take part in the various training courses, in which your horse gamely trots along a pre-determined path and you periodically hit an arrow key like the world’s slowest version of DDR played with your right hand. Make no mistake, this is not challenging – I finished every single training event with a perfect rating, and during several of them I had already begun to think about something else. Like making dinner.
There’s also the fact that the game manages to remove all of the sim aspects that would, in fact, be interesting. Case in point: if time actually plays a factor, I certainly couldn’t find it past waiting for your horses to come back from quests, which are also totally non-interactive. You send Mr. Ed out to do some task or another, which inevitably sounds boring as hell and at odds with the tone of the game. Hello, neighbor, you need a field plowed? Why, borrow my mystical flaming hell-steed, that seems like a reasonable course of action and entirely appropriate!
But there’s never a point in which your horse gets hungry. You have meters about your horse’s stamina and such, but it’s not as if you have to spend in-game currency or much more than a few seconds of your time to recharge that, and it doesn’t seem that you have to face the dire specter of “darn it, my horse is low on stamina but this event is taking place now.” The only reason to run your horses down is if you completely ignore their state. Otherwise, it’s just a few click-based chores and then everything is fine again.
So if everything is set up so that it’s nearly impossible to lose, what’s the alternative? Make winning very slow! Part of that, as mentioned, is the fact that you have a whole bunch of things to send your horses out to do with zero interaction, which is sandwich gameplay at its finest. It also helps that the process for getting stuff in the game is basically attained through a whole lot of grinding rather than any grand accomplishments on your part; spend time, you get more stuff. All that’s missing is a button to spend some money and get a horse back from its last mission faster.
This is kind of a shame; the game is not a terrible mess. While the character art is horrifying, the actual horses are modeled well enough, although the animations can be a little stiff. And as I mentioned, the premise here is solid gold. Who doesn’t want to have some sort of weird mystical fantasy horse-raising sim? You could have horse combat if you wanted, but just horse races using unique mystical horse abilities would be enough. I am angrier just thinking about how cool this could have been than I was while actually playing the game.
For a $5 game, I wouldn’t expect the world. Of course, it’s not really $5 if you want the option to dress up your horses or the multiplayer races which do, conceivably, allow you to actually control your horse during the race. Dividing up the game into chunks of DLC is certainly one approach, but it’s not terribly compelling and I wouldn’t ultimately recommend it.
Then again, I wouldn’t ultimately recommend this game in the first place. Instead of being a fun sim, it strips out most of the choice-based elements of a good sim and replaces them with tedious grinding. Instead of making up for that with detailed horseplay, you get a rhythm game that wouldn’t pass muster on anything short of a tablet. Add to that minor annoyances, like tutorials that pop up every time you swap areas without a single tutorial explaining what the various stats on your horse actually mean, and you’re left with a game that’s bland, boring, and wholly wastes its best ideas right away.
Just once I’d love to try one of these things that looks like bargain-basement shovelware and find out that it’s actually a hidden gem. Alas, not today.