I am inordinately disappointed in this game. I can't say what I was expecting, exactly, but I do know that I was hoping it was an unheralded gem of a game, and that I would be transported to a delightful world of pony-centered fantasy, where all my problems might be solved by kindness to animals.
I no longer think that is likely to happen.
The game makes a fairly good first impression. It opens with a brief slideshow that summarizes the backstory - A comet passes near the earth and breaks into crystal shards. Later, a crackpot academic (your character's grandfather) posits the theory that those crystals can give special abilities to horses, and is subsequently laughed out of the university.
You can then choose to play either a boy or a girl, and presumably your motivation is to vindicate your grandfather by raising magical horses and harnessing the power of the crystals.
I kind of like that. It doesn't make a damned bit of sense, but I like it. (Seriously, questions abound: why do the crystals only affect horses; how did your grandfather come to that conclusion in the first place; you start the game with a unicorn, was it affected by the crystals, or is this an alternate world where unicorns are perfectly normal, and thus your grandfather's colleagues are perfectly justified in scoffing at his "magic crystal" theory?)
I guess the thin excuse for a story raised my hopes. It was like the writers were all, "So there's this comet, and a professor dude has a theory about it, and ZOMG!! UNICORN PONIES!!!" I thought it spoke to an enthusiasm for the material, as if a framing device were expected, but the main draw of the game - raising various magical horses - was so compelling to the creators that they just did the bare minimum that would allow them to get to the point.
I was wrong. In retrospect, it is just the first example of this game's general half-assedness.
First things first - the tutorials in this game suck. I didn't understand how the shop was supposed to work, forging horseshoes involves a QTE that was sprung on me without warning. I wasted hundreds of gold pieces trying to cure my sick pony because after you click on it with the stethoscope and it asks you if you want to spend money on medicine, you are then supposed to click on a syringe which has no tooltip or animation (and which doesn't change the mouse cursor until you move it over your horse), and then click on your horse - a process which is nowhere explained in-game, and only vaguely explained online (I think the game was patched after release, and some of the gameplay mechanics changed, because the cost of healing your horse is higher in my version than was stated in the online guides), and breeding your horses is an unintuitive process, who's tutorial only triggers if you click on an icon you otherwise would have no reason to believe is actually an interactive part of the interface.
But, you know what, I'm going to give Secret of the Magic Crystals a pass on its tutorial system. Even great games can have problems getting that right. What is less forgivable is all the blatantly missing features - things you would expect from a pony-raising game that are simply not there.
For example - you cannot name your ponies! How does that get left out? I'm trying to think of something more basic and necessary to the pet-raising genre, but I'm drawing a blank. It is simply unacceptable.
The rest of the game is not much better. You can give your horse both food and water, and you have three different grooming tools - a big brush for their body, a smaller brush for their hooves, and a sponge for their head, but it doesn't matter, because your horses only have two needs. Any sort of grooming will restore their condition, and either food or water will restore their spirit. So, it really doesn't matter what you do, because pretty much everything works the same.
The same thing applies to training your horse. You have four different activities - pulling a sledge, running a dressage or obstacle course, or running through the forest, but the only difference between them is the background and your horse's animation. The actual activities themselves are all the same basic QTE, with no noticeable variation. Each activity raises a different subset of your horse's stats, but as far as I can tell, the stats don't have much affect on anything (they may influence you success in the races, but . . . I'll get to that later).
You can earn money by sending your horse out on missions, but, you guessed it, these are all the same. You send your horse away, and then for a certain length of time (which varies based on the mission) it is simply gone. When you only have a single horse, this sucks big time, because there is literally nothing else you can do. Once you get a second, you can train it while the first earns you money, but it still isn't very interesting.
You can also race your horse. This works exactly like sending it out on a mission, but has the "advantage" of being accompanied by incomprehensible commentary. Trying to follow your horse's progress is a pointless exercise in trying to decipher a word-salad of horse-racing cliches. You do get trophies for winning races, though. Unfortunately, while they appear in your horse's stall, you can't interact with them in any way (not even to check which trophies you already won).
I think the worst part of the game is that the horses don't have any individual personality. The different breeds look different, but horses of the same breed are pretty much identical, and though you can buy various horseshoes and potions for your horse, I haven't noticed them having any affect on its appearance. You can spruce up its stall, and in theory the different lamps, buckets, and troughs available have different effects on your horse's stats, but at least for the level one races, it doesn't matter, because the default horse is more than strong enough to win on its own.
All of this amounts to it being very difficult to make any sort of connection to your horses. Which is probably for the best, because the only way you can "level up" your horses is by breeding them, and once you do, you have to get rid of your old horses to make room for the new. You can't even hold on to a particularly good horse because each horse can only breed once. So you have a constant turnover of more or less interchangeable horses.
Like I said earlier, my hope was that this game got chosen because "ha, ha, raising ponies is lame," and that I would find a delightful pet simulator underneath all that. Consider those hopes officially dashed. Secrets of the Magic Crystals is simply not a very good game, period.
Nonetheless, I can see how it might be possible to sink 20 hours into this game. The activities are repetitive, but there is something intrinsically addictive about seeing your numbers tick up, about always chasing the next higher level pony, expanding your farm, unlocking new horse shoes and magic potions, collecting meaningless trophies. So, who knows, maybe time will make me a convert.