Effectively Ishar 0, Crystals of Arborea introduces the player to the land of Arborea, which has later spawned three Ishar game. The evil god Morgoth has submerged most of the world, save for a small island, where he keeps the enslaved humans, elves, gnomes and others. Only you, the elven prince Jarel and your six companions were not influenced by Morgoth, and now have to defeat him. To do so, you will need to find four crystals and place them on the top of four towers. Morgoth takes you quite seriously, though, sending legions of his followers to stop you or find the crystals first. If everything else fails, he will meet you at the last tower to personally prevent you from placing the last crystal.
The story is not too imaginative, nor it is too detailed for an RPG game, and is definitely one of the weaknesses of Crystals of Arborea. Where the game really shines, though, is the gameplay. You will use four screens. The main screen is used not only when you start the game, but also for resting the party. The 3D screen serves for moving around in first-person mode. This will make sense when you come close to one of your objectives or will try to avoid the enemies (it helps a lot that Crystals of Arborea offered an unprecedented degree on peripheral vision for its time). The third screen is the combat screen. This features a tactical grid, where your characters can move and attack the enemies. The last screen is an overhead map of the world, where you can direct your parties and observe all enemy groups in real time.
That's right, you will be able to direct more than one party. In a very unique move, Silmarils, the developer, allowed the gamer to split his party into several smaller, in order to speed up the quest for the crystals. This has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, smaller parties are more prone to being overwhelmed and killed by the opponents. On the other hand, more parties can cover more ground, which is extremely important in this game. The enemy will search for the crystals as well, and I have yet to find one of those crystals that were taken by Morgoth. Thus, you will need to work very fast to get all four crystals.
Another area where the game excels is the graphics. Not only it offers very good textures for its time, but also features a multitude of opponents, a few unique structures and the change of day and night. Until today, the night lighting has been very rarely reproduced.
The part of the game that drags it down is, as it is so usual with European games, the interface. The character development is very limited and level advancement never fully explained or transparent enough to know what to expect. Camping and healing is very cumbersome; for example, you need to go to every character and manually close his eyes to make him sleep. There is no inventory to speak of, and the spell system would need a little more balancing.
Overall, Crystals of Arborea was a gem among games when it was first released. Pushing the boundaries of technology, and offering a very good gameplay made the game very enjoyable even to people who were new to roleplaying. However, the weak interface, lack of a coherent story and a few balancing issues have hurt the game considerably.