Crossing Souls is a game that strives to capture the sense of being a 1980’s teenager and all the optimism and seemingly endless possibilities that came with it, however, with unpolished gameplay and so many clearly evident sources of influence, it runs the risk of being nostalgia bait with little value elsewhere.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PS4 (reviewed), PSVita, PC, MacOS, Linux
Release Date: 13th February 2018 (WW)
I’ve been thinking for a while about how pixel-art in indie games has become passé in recent years. Shovel Knight introduced us to an art style that, once a necessity of game development, had become a sort of nostalgic novelty. Unfortunately, as with every other trend, it was picked up and overdone until it no longer became a spectacle.
The thing about Crossing Souls and its use of such an art style is that, thematically, it wouldn’t have made sense to utilise a more refined and detailed graphical style. Crossing Souls is a throwback to NES and SNES Zelda titles, and it also has shades of Earthbound thrown in too. Modern influences seem to be Netflix’s Stranger Things, who certainly didn’t introduce and popularise the use of 1980’s pop-culture and its nostalgic overtones but played a strong hand in bringing it to the forefront of current media. In fact, for the first hour of the game, Crossing Souls feels like a video-game adaptation of Stranger Things.
As you progress, Crossing Souls appears to have taken more of its inspiration from Saturday Morning cartoons with highly-detailed and excellently animated cut scenes which show the protagonists in action in that cheesy, over-the-top way that such cartoons are known for. Not only does Crossing Souls take narrative cues from shows such as Stranger Things, it also feels reminiscent of films like Super 8, and perhaps its biggest plot-point in the early part of the game is derived from Stephen King’s The Body. The soundtrack is, similarly, inspired in the same manner, with light, jaunty music which reminds me of E.T or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It’s nice to listen to and plays softly enough in the background as not to get too irritating but there was a lack of variety which let the experience down a little. Obviously, there were certain tracks reserved for boss battles and key scenes but outside of that, it started to feel a bit samey.
In short, the story is that the main characters discover a body in the woods, holding a supernatural device which can bridge the gap between our world and the afterlife. At the same time, a stereotypically written comic book villain and his band of equally stereotypical henchmen are looking for said device, which introduces the conflict and obstacle to overcome. That is not to say that Crossing Souls is completely derivative, it is just a game that is so devoted to the works it pays homage to that it is hard to see through all of that and to assess the finer details. 1980’s pop-culture homages also appear throughout the game with one-liners pulled from films such as Home Alone and scenes from Poltergeist taken and applied in comedic contexts.
As for the central protagonists, there are five of them: You have Chris, the generic, every kid who plays the De Facto role of gang leader; Matt, the nerd who, of course, knows science stuff; Charlie, the independent and fiery girl whose main character trait is ‘I can do what boys do but better’; Big Joe who is big and can move heavy stuff; and Kevin, Chris’ troublesome little brother. You can hot switch between these characters to solve puzzles or tackle certain situations which require a character’s special ability. For example, Matt has a jet pack which allows him to cross far-reaching gaps and Big Joe can move heavy items to clear a path or add a stepping-block to reach higher ground. As characters, no one is more interesting or entertaining than the other and there is no incentive to keep one as your main exploratory character. You just call upon them as you need them, which works within the games structure but can create a dissonance between player and character.
Mechanically, the game is broken between light puzzle-platforming and combat. Unfortunately, neither of these core tenants of gameplay work that well. Combat can feel floaty and hit-detection can feel imprecise. The game includes the ability to dodge incoming attacks, but this draws away too much stamina which is an extremely finite resource and, given you are playing as teenagers, doesn’t make sense as they should be full of energy. Platforming is also skewed by the game’s top-down perspective, making it easy to miss platforms you are trying to jump to. Certain puzzles, after a while, cease to feel challenging as it stops being a matter of ‘what do I do here’, and becomes, ‘which character do I need.’ See a heavy item that’s in the way? Joe will move it. A platform you can’t quite reach? Matt will get there with his jet pack. Something needs destroying? Chris has a baseball bat, send him in. Puzzles that require multiple actions from each of the different characters were few and far between and, consequently, there wasn’t a lot of challenge here.
Crossing Souls is a game that has some shortcomings and I hoped it would be redeemed by some charm or ingenuity, but this never happened. There is no moment where the characters become more identifiable, perhaps because they are all the purest examples archetypal 80’s kids that there is just nothing about them to grab on to. Their personalities are not distinct or interesting, they are one-dimensional. Fortunately, the dialogue is strong if only for its witticisms, but these are not character specific. Some one-liners and comments could have been uttered by any one character and the strength of the dialogue cannot carry a game alone. Crossing Souls is a game that started to frustrate and infuriate me the more I played and, despite my initial excitement after watching the launch trailer, it is a game I left ultimately disappointed in.