Crossing Souls Review — The Crazy Summer of 1986
Stand By Me meets Teen Wolf meets old-school action adventure game for an 80’s, totally bitchin’, good time.
On the surface, Crossing Souls makes quite the impression with its thoroughly polished rendition of the 80’s that mixes pixel art from a bygone era, vibes of a Saturday morning cartoon, and a story reminiscent of a Spielberg summer blockbuster. Crossing Souls undeniably time-travels and captures the period meticulously and truthfully, packing a serious dosage of nostalgia. Unfortunately, beneath its nostalgic surface is a final product that doesn’t fulfill its potential.
I simply like looking at screenshots and video of Crossing Souls. It’s not the first game to try and bottle-up the 80’s vibe, but it is undoubtedly one of the best attempts. The 80’s were colorful, with an easily identifiable style that was utterly “tubular.” And Crossing Souls never falters in transplanting the player smackdown into the thick of it.
Coming off a Yakuza 0, Cuphead, Tokyo 42, and Persona 5 -packed 2017, I was skeptical of 2018 and its ability to produce a game that could live up to that bar of style execution. But then in walked Crossing Souls, as well as my fiancee who I routinely called into the room to “just have a look.”
But Crossing Souls presentation isn’t just good for phone and desktop wallpapers, it’s impressively and passionately detailed, which is what ultimately grabs you and shakes all of your nostalgia out. And it seizes you immediately at the start of the game, with a cutscene presented through an old VHS lens that transitions into a familiar bedroom littered with Pac-Man memorabilia, Ghostbusters and Michael Jackson posters, and of course an NES with two controllers plugged in. These tiny, yet potent details are sprinkled throughout the world of Crossing Souls, from start to finish. It’s apparent Sevillian developer Fourrattic loves the 80’s, as its passion spills all over every scene and corner of its beautifully imagined old-school world.
In the opening hours, I regularly found myself exploring every little inch of Crossing Souls‘ small Californian neighborhood the story brought me too. And while it embodies the small-town feeling, the game’s semi-open world is decently large and split up into different, distinct areas, separated by brief loading screens. Within these areas is every classic 80’s environment to explore, such as an arcade lit up with rows of machines, a comic book shop, dark sewers filled with lime green sewage, and more. Each setting — bar a few — was visually stimulating and a joy to discover, at least for awhile. While the game’s aesthetic allure never let go of my attention, the act of meticulously exploring become more and more dreary as the game progressed, especially if there wasn’t an easter egg to reward you for your effort.
Dividing up gameplay sections and story points is traversing in point A to point B fashion. This isn’t an open-world game heavy on exploration; it’s a semi-open-world game where the main narrative mainly guides you on your adventure in an almost linear fashion. And it’s these in-between sections — that chiefly house the game’s puzzle and platforming parts — where Crossing Souls is as monotonous as it is pretty.
These sections feel like the definition of an afterthought; tacked on for padding rather than to compliment. It’s evident Fourratic wanted to capture the weekend exploring with your friends feeling, and it does a bit, but in blundering fashion.
In the game you control a ragtag gang of five friends (more on them later) who you switch between as you please. However, beyond cutscenes and individual moments, only one character is on-screen at a time. And so the whole exploring with your friends thing is handicapped by an isolatory exploration experience. There’s no banter, nothing; and thus the sense of comradery is forfeited.
But the more significant problem of these sections of the game is puzzles that you run into and the platforming you have to begrudgingly navigate. Platforming should perhaps be in quotes because there is hardly a challenge or delectation to be had. If you have never held a controller in your hand, ever, then perhaps you will be able to squeeze out some enjoyment, but otherwise you will find the whole process stultifying as you jump through an uninspired design of platforms, only sometimes stalled by semi-clunky movement that can fail you.
Equally as substandard are the puzzles. The fine-line between puzzles and chores is demonstrated in most of Crossing Souls’ puzzle sequences that take longer to execute upon then they do to figure out. Many of them are uninvolved and simple in design, one to two-step solutions that more often than not involve laboriously pushing around a box at a pace that is just slow enough to be a little bit annoying.
The actual act of exploring being so lackluster would be more forgivable if the payment of collectibles wasn’t so unsatisfactory. Throughout the world of Crossing Souls are collectibles to be found: from secret government files to 80’s callback items. And for the most part these collectibles add zero substance of any measurable consequence, nor are they engaging to collect. You find them, and then you forget about them. It doesn’t feel good to discover them or rewarding to know you have them. They might as well not exist.
And again, all of this is underpinned by poor traversal mechanics. For some reason only certain characters can jump. Meanwhile, only one was taught how to climb things, while the other is the only one efficient to platform with. This would be excusable if each character wasn’t so similarly floaty and clunky, mostly only distinguishable by different speeds or quick getaway maneuvers. But they all feel samey (and not great), subtracting from the gameplay rather than adding to it.
Going into Crossing Souls I was generally smitten with everything I saw… except for the combat. It looked very stale, uninvolved, and quite frankly a bit amateurish. And some of this hunch was spot on, though the combat wasn’t without its moments of redemption.
Crossing Souls at its core is an action-adventure game with very light RPG touches that appears to be inspired by classics like The Legend of Zelda, and the more recent hit, Hyper Light Drifter.
As mentioned previously, in the game you control five teenage friends that come together from all different walks of life to form an unlikely gang of sorts. There’s Chris, who in addition to being the leader of the group, is the most normal, and thus most out of place character in the gang. He comes equipped with a wooden baseball bat he uses to smash his enemies with and is the only one with the rare ability to climb things. Then there is his sidekick, Matt, the token-nerd who built his own laser gun that he uses to vaporize enemies from a distance. He is also the designated platforming character, as he has jet-boots that enable him to hover over distances the others can’t jump (if they can even jump in the first place).
Charlie is the crush of Chris, who lives in a trailer park, has a drunk of a dad, and thus can display a tough exterior. She has a jump-rope that she whips enemies with and that she uses to slingshot across vast distances. Then there’s Big Joe, the token “bigger guy” of the group. The strongest in the group (but the biggest softy on the inside), Big Joe’s weapons are his devastating fists that thrive in close quarters. His downside is he’s slow, but even this is remedied by his shielding ability and by having more health than every other character. He’s also the character that can push around boxes, and thus you will be seeing a lot of him during puzzle time. And lastly, there’s Kevin, Chris’ little brother who is always getting the group into some type of trouble.
During any combat encounter, you can switch on-the-fly between characters, deploying any of them for different scenarios, adding a nice light element of strategy to the otherwise hectic hit-and-run gameplay. Each character’s weapon, ability, and dash has been streamlined to a few buttons and an analog stick direction, meaning combat isn’t about mastering complicated button patterns and schemes, but about timing, patience and reacting. And the usual systems around this type of combat — stats, perks, etc. — has been stripped out in favor of creating an experience that is less about preparation, and more about never breaking up the action or adding too many components to a simple formula.
I appreciate Fourattic for bucking the recent trend of tacking on countless RPG systems onto combat. However, this appreciation is often undermined, as I found myself bored with repeatedly coming across a group of rats or other bottom-tier enemies, and then quickly disposing of them with minimal thinking and action. This is only worsened with hackneyed enemy types and lackluster AI design that renders almost every encounter in the game as either too easy or purely meaningless.
The combat isn’t always monotonous, however; containing actually good boss fights and minigame-like sequences that feature further twists on the formula, like one boss fight against a dead bus driver and his army of ghost kids he killed that adds a “Simon: The Memory Retention Game” mechanic into play.
Considerable shortcomings in the gameplay department are sadly not alleviated by the game’s story. Crossing Souls opens with you playing as Chris, who awakes to his younger brother Kevin — who snuck out overnight — on the other end of a walkie-talkie explaining to his older sibling that he needs to meet him in the treehouse fort outside of town to see something very important and urgent. From here Chris runs around town gathering the gang in D2: The Mighty Ducks-style. After meeting up with Kevin, the crew treks deeper into the woods upon a mysterious scene of a fly-infested dead scientist and a strange glowing pink artifact that’s power is as evident as its mystique.
After presumably a few hours in Matt’s home-lab, the group taps into the artifact’s power: the ability for the holder to interact between two planes of reality — life and death. But of course there’s a catch: the artifact also sucks the life out of the user if certain precautions are not taken.
The discovery of this artifact triggers a series of unexpected events that include a government conspiracy and a nefarious rogue general with sinister plans that revolve around the artifact that the now five friends hold. If this plot sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s got all the classic hallmarks of the 80’s movie era. And truthfully, it can feel trite at times, but comfortably familiar at others, simultaneously tired but welcomed, the video game equivalent of eating your favorite childhood junk food as an adult: not as good as you remember, but heartening.
Heighting the quality of the story is the sprinkling of Saturday morning cartoon style animated cutscenes that are inspired by the likes of Teen Wolf, Saint Seiya, and perhaps a bit of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These animations are executed at a consistently professional level and go a long way to making up for the lack of voice acting.
Recreating a decent classic 80’s story, crafting a world of realized characters, and producing stellar animated cutscenes, is all, unfortunately, let down by fair-to-middling writing though (the crux of many indie games is often the writing). Intended jokes often fall flat, character dialogue struggles with believability, and a degree of choppiness makes reading sometimes a struggle. The writing was never stop-you-in-your-tracks bad, but it did feel uninspired, and a significant blemish on an otherwise decent narrative package.
Crossing Souls’ best feature is its presentation. If anyone argues you otherwise, you unfriend them and never look back. Unless the said friend is arguing the game’s music is its best feature because it very might well be. Just like in other parts of the game, Crossing Souls’ soundtrack (composed by Timecop1983) embraces the style of music of the 80’s, with multiple terrific synthpop tracks that I fell in love with, including Mercury, which made me want to get my own gang back together to take on the world.
As I mentioned above, I didn’t always enjoy exploring Crossing Souls’ world, but the orchestral swells and dips and synth sounds that accompanied me as I did, at least made things feel epic here and there. At the very least, the music always perfectly matched with the scene. In many games, the music feels tacked on, or complimentary at best, but here it felt like a harmonious relationship.
With its debut project, Fourattic has serviceably captured and recreated a period, with nostalgia and passion bursting through every seam. The 80’s was a helluva an era, and Crossing Souls is a lovely, familiar slice of it. But like the era itself, there are some lows. Crossing Souls’ amount of greatness is balanced by an equally abundant amount of mediocrity, for a final product that comes out somewhere in-between.
Reviewed by Tyler Fischer, Contributor
Tyler Fischer is a contributor at DualShockers. He specializes in writing breaking news, managing assignments, and organization. Born and raised in New York, Tyler studies journalism and public relations at SUNY New Paltz.