It is hard to divorce Crea from the 2D survival 'n' crafting games that have come before it. Five years ago we saw Terraria take Minecraft's formula of day and night survival and flatten in along a single plane, with excellent results. A couple of years later Starbound gave it all a sci-fi skin, populated it with alien races and encouraged you to hop from world to world. Crea has been in early access for some years now and while it has many of the same elements that made its predecessors so good, the passage of time has left it feeling a little stale.
You begin life next to a blue crystal (in my case, in a verdant green landscape) and you must get cracking with lumberjacking straight away. The first tools are handed to you, so there's thankfully no tree punching. And unlike other crafting games, your items won't deteriorate into uselessness. Once you have an item, it's yours for good. A welcome time-saver to anyone who has nightmares of wooden boxes filled with pickaxes and spades.
In fact, this is just one of the things that makes it much gentler than its survivalist cousins. If you die, for instance, you are warped back to your home crystal without losing any of the gear you were carrying. And the monsters close to home are all low-level slimes, slow-moving softies that soon pose no threat. The further away from your starting location (in any direction) the more worrisome the creatures become. From wild hogs that charge at you and breathe fire, to boomerang-flinging ghost-fish that can pass through solid blocks. If you ever wander too far from home, you can warp back if you find another crystal, paying for the journey with the blue shards that grow nearby. Over time you build a kind of network of these crystals, allowing fast travel all over your world.
To deal with threats, you mostly have to bash them. But there are other magical skills - I had a fireball and healing spell right off the bat. Your primitive club and shield will soon become a sword or a bow with crafting and time, and fighting will earn you Talent Points to pump into buying more combat skills or magic spells. There are a bunch of different talent pools - combat, magic (called 'Syle'), exploration, crafting, and gathering - and each earns points independently. So you might spend your 'Arms' points on a skill which shoots a bramble arrow that locks enemies down. Meanwhile your exploration points might offer you a glowing orb that follows you around, providing light. Many of these skills you can map to four loadouts - two for combat and two for gathering - and the game mercifully lets you switch between them at the press of a button.
When you start to buy up all the new skills, affixing them to hotkeys for use in a fight, you begin to notice just how much inspiration from RPGs the game has taken, for better or for worse. There are a lot of skills and spells, for instance, more than you'll ever be able to afford as a single character. Spells that build blocking walls or cast protective shells or summon magic swords. It encourages you to have a "build" - an agile ranger or an arcane warrior. Whenever you uncover more of the world, you get access to boss fights, the first being a magical shielded mage that fires orbs and boomerangs at you and summons more of the game's mascot slimes.
But the RPG soul has also carried over its flaws wholesale. The "levelled" enemies, getting stronger as you travel further out, give everything a gated feeling, to the point of being MMO-ish. And the sheer amount of grinding you have to do to find and gather enough resources later in the game (silver, iron, gold) induces that kind of bored despair so familiar to gamers. It doesn't help that all of this is accompanied by the most obscure researching system. Let me try and explain this, because the tutorial does a terrible job.
To discover the "recipes" for objects beyond the absolute basics, you have to craft a research desk and use it to research objects one by one (doing so also consumes the object). So by researching a sapphire you might discover the recipe for a special enchanted robe, etc. But you can't make the robe yet - you have to discover ALL the items used to craft it by gathering them researching those as well.
This is not a terrible system in itself but the presentation of it makes it much more complicated than it needs to be, with tabs and lists and little silhouettes (this is not as helpful as it seems). To cite the worst offence, under the "Recipes" tab there is a sub-tab also called "Recipes". So there are recipes for recipes. That's the kind of crafting system you're dealing with here. It's a confusing hodgepodge that would be much simpler as a straightforward tech tree of some kind.
When crafting items there is something called "Chaos" as well, which the tutorial somehow does an even worse job of explaining. When you make a sword or a shield or a piece of gear, you get the option to use Chaos to increase the quality. This involves using catalysts you've made from those little crystal shards you normally use to fast travel. Every time you use a catalyst the quality goes up but a Chaos meter also increases. Or gets one step closer to increasing. It depends on some other things. The goal is to get your quality as high as possible without the Chaos meter filling up first - as that ends the crafting and finishes the item.
But the screen for this system is likewise annoyingly opaque. There is talk of "steps" and "triggers" and "effects", while other "improve quality" skills soon get involved to make it even more complicated, allowing you to postpone the Chaos meter and so on. I only learned how it all worked by making club after club and trying to decipher what the hell was going on. And even after that, I would still press a button on this menu and wonder why the meters filled the way they did. There is likely some very clever maths behind this menu - but it just feels like a crapshoot to use.
There is still some of the nourishment of the crafting genre here, however. Building your home bit-by-bit, for example, is as much a compelling generator of pride and creation as it has ever been. Watching as your simple cabin morphs slowly into an adventurer's manor makes you briefly forget about all the grinding and confusing research you had to do to achieve this. And the list of furniture and decorative items you can make is long. Tapestries, candelabras, chandeliers, coats of arms, llama statues. There's a lot of stuff to adorn your castle or fortress with.
One of the best additions to your home is also, sadly, one of the game's biggest disappointments - the mannequins. These simple wooden figures can be plopped down wherever just like bookshelves, beds or desks. But there are "outfits" you can craft, not for yourself, but for the mannequins. Put these on and they will transform from lifeless wooden dummies to research assistants, cartographers, healers, and so on. I built my first "scavenger" outfit and put it onto a mannequin, feeling enthusiastic, briefly filled with hope that the last two hours of grinding had accomplished something. She would come to life! And what then? Maybe she would follow you and help you fight! Maybe you can send her off to gather things, lessening your load?
The scavenger came to life and I clicked on her. She was selling stuff. Of course she was selling stuff. And it wasn't even interesting stuff. It was stuff I could find anywhere and they were all deeply overpriced, costing hundreds of the gold leaves I had been scrounging as the game's currency. The research assistant mannequin was no better, fulfilling the exact same role as the research desk, with the added ability to translate scrolls into more "recipes". The cartogapher mannequin sold upgrades to the map - a map I never used because it appears as a translucent overlay on top of the game, meaning it is often hard to make out much of the world. Altogether, the dummies made my home look much nicer, populated with characters. But in terms of impact, they were a wasted effort.
All in all, I found it difficult to get into Crea in the same way I did for its forefathers. It would be easy for me to say that part of that is down to fatigue with the genre - I have been through it all before, after all. But that is not the main problem I have with this latecomer. The fact is, it just does everything less well. The crafting, the researching, the art style, the fantasy monsters. There is constant development, like many of these games, so there is always time for things to be stripped out, and much more to be added in future. But at the moment, Crea feels like a step back in time.