THE CRYSTAL OF KINGS / Brezzasoft / Arcade
If you take a look at this game on Youtube or give it a spin on MAME or whatever, you might be surprised that some no-name company made this solid brawler with apparently pretty decent production values. Welp, there's an explanation for that one. Brezzasoft was formed by some high-profile SNK refugees in the wake of that company's bankruptcy in 2001. They had only a small handful of obscure arcade releases before SNK reformed as SNK Playmore and almost immediately snapped them back up.
So that explains the production values on this out-of-left-field title that hardly anyone has ever heard of, plus also the Neo Geo-like explanation of the game's moves at the beginning of each new session. The art style breaks with SNK tradition, though, instead going for 2D rendered sprites in the style of Donkey Kong Country and such. This is a style that usually doesn't age well, but it's pulled off about as well as you could at the time here. Some of the larger enemies are well-done and have a nifty sort of Claymation thing going for them.
The structure and setup is as basic as it gets: it's Final Fantasy IV once again as powerful elemental crystals that can save/destroy the world are being hoarded up by some undead army. Enter our four heroes: Japanime Swordsman, Underdressed Hottie, Bald Mage and ... Willow riding an armadillo? OK, it's all pretty standard except for that last one ... amusingly Willow's ultimate magic attack is also to just drop a shit ton of armadillos on the battlefield. It's-a rainin' shelled mammals, hallelujah.
Anyway. This is basically Golden Axe warmed over, with the magic and map structure and a number of other elements all looking suspiciously familiar. It plays better than any Golden Axe game, however, with smoother movement and some special moves with Street Fighter 2 inputs thrown in (in addition to the usual "mash both buttons for spinny attack" deal). You also have different levels of magic attacks, fed by picking up potion bottle drops along the way. There are also fairies you can sometimes spring from captivity, up to four at a time joining you in a Gradius-like chain of options. Some attack the enemy, but others periodically drip-feed a little magic back into your meter.
Other than some areas of the graphics not aging well, my only big complaint with it is that certain bosses are clearly cheap-hitting quarter farms (though the game as a whole is surprisingly on the easy side). Whoever was responsible for all that infamous SNK Engrish also seems to have made the jump to Brezzasoft, but I wouldn't say that's an actual detriment.
The only other thing I didn't care for is a rudimentary "morality system" that doesn't work well. Some levels have innocents on the playfield, either fleeing the enemies or laying out wounded. Hit them, they die and you get docked some "crystal points" at the end of the level. Now, I assumed that reduced your magic power, but no matter how many friendlies I killed it didn't seem to make a difference in the attacks.
The reason the morality system doesn't work is that some areas are so thick with wounded it's almost impossible to not hit one while defending yourself; also, you can't use magic on any screen with friendlies or it wipes them out too. You get some grim animations for this sometimes, like if you hit one of the robed mothers fleeing with her kid, the kid stands there and cries for a while before fading away. And you might as well go on a murder rampage because the "bad ending" is by far the best, you get a bonus boss battle plus the final bit of it after the credits is absolutely hilarious.
It's a very solid game that is surprisingly appealing, though, and worth tracking down for fans of hacky-slashy fantasy brawlers.
* Gameplay Video