Wot I Think: Crossing Souls

Crossing Souls gets off to such a great start. It immediately looks vividly beautiful, a gorgeous splash of pixels and colour, incredibly detailed scenes that would only look less elaborate, less refined, if they were depicted in a more updated graphical style. Then it goes head-first into nostalgia-poking happy places, a story of kids starting an adventure on the first day of the impossibly long summer holidays.

Or you could say: Crossing Souls, a game that grows steadily worse the more you play, immediately beginning by ticking off every tropey 1980s reference one by one, as it introduces its stereotypical gang of kids in a cavalcade of ‘80s movie clichés, grabbing hold of the very tip of Stranger Things’ coattails.

It would very much depend upon how cynical you were feeling. Both are true.

In Crossing Souls you play as a group of five kids, who are, in order:

Chris: the everykid, a generic entry-point.
Matthew: the nerd, thus possessing scientific genius.
Big Joe: the fat black kid, who is fat, and the one who is not white.
Charlie: the girl, poor, infectiously plucky and just as good as any boy.
Kevin: Chris’s little brother, always getting in trouble.

It’s quite clear that this boilerplate collection is very deliberate, because Crossing Souls is about rejoicing in the nostalgia of those sub-Spielberg/Stephen King movies of impossibly inventive and adventurous kids falling into peculiar tales of mystery and magic.

Things begin with you playing the blue-haired Chris, the unopposed leader of the gang, and your first task is to find the other four members to join you. Matthew’s doing science experiments with his scientist parents, Joe is doing chores for his mom, Charlie is – inevitably – trying to avoid her drunk father in the trailer park in which she lives, and Kevin is at the gang’s tree house in the woods, having discovered – wait for it – a dead body nearby.

So tick off every movie ever, and Stand By Me. And on the dead body is… a mystical floating jewel. (What I believe those in the know call a “Phlebotinum”.) A jewel that allows the kids to see… the dead. Ace.

From here on in the first half of the game is a mix of vague platforming, a few simple puzzles, and some rudimentary combat. Each is approached by switching between which of the kids you’re currently controlling, each with their own abilities. Chris is a good all-rounder, and can climb, but has weak health. Matthew can hover above the ground for a bit, because, er, science. Joe packs a punch, and has extra health, can move heavy objects, but is slow-moving. Charlie is, er, the same as Chris but can’t jump. And Kevin is a pain in the arse.

The result of this was probably intended to be a lot more involved than has appeared in the final game. In the end, it amounts to switching to Chris to climb, Joe to move blocks, and Matt to jump over big gaps. Charlie, rather tellingly, is entirely superfluous. There’s never any mystery to who can best solve what – it’s just a case of putting the square shape in the square hole each time.

Platforming is, unfortunately, deeply hindered by the chosen perspective. In a manner that might be familiar to those not hypnotised to be incapable of criticism for Hyper Light Drifter, the straight-on view often confuses what’s a path, what’s a wall, what’s a block and what’s a gap. Falling in water often means resetting a hefty way on a longer puzzle, but it’s often incredibly ambiguous what is water, let alone whether something is the wall or the floor. Take this scene, for example

That seemingly brick wall in the middle back is in fact the path out of the scene, and the apparent concealed alleyway to his left is in fact solid wall. Is that bit at the bottom a path, or some water? Walk on it to find out. That’s a whatever in a scene like this one, but when you’re trying to time jumps between disappearing blocks, with already clumsy platforming, such ambiguity can be infuriating.

Combat is similarly average. For the most part you’re hitting rats and spiders, and you can do it barely looking at the screen. Occasionally this is punctuated with a boss fight, nearly all far too easy, just a case of chipping away until they’re over, with little to no imagination required. Of course the game’s final fight is a ludicrously difficult, mad spike, killing you dead in a single hit, and then making you sit through a cutscene and pre-fight each time. Combat’s there in the first half to add more dimension to a very story-led game, but doesn’t really amount to much. By the second half, when they’ve seemingly given up with the adventure and exploration, its mediocrity begins to dominate.

The largest problem however, is despite the wonderful presentation, the gleeful vibe, and all the nostalgic elements seemingly in place for an indie classic, well, the story just isn’t very good. The farther you get, the more unwieldy and inane it becomes. What begins feeling like a pleasingly silly supernatural ‘80s TV movie far too quickly becomes a jumble of every imaginable idea all thrown into an unstructured muddle.

This is so significant an issue for Crossing Souls because it’s really the story that would have held its disparate parts together, forgiven the weakness of the platforming, or the mediocrity of the combat. They’d have been distractions along the way, as with Night In The Woods, where you ploughed through in order to hear the next witty lines, or see where the tale turned.

(The game also repeats what’s rapidly becoming its own trope, since Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, of conflating 1980s Saturday morning cartoons with straight-to-video action for adults. So you get the video-taped cutesy cartoon sections, interspersed with ultra-violence and effing and blinding. How did this become a thing?)

Of course, if you find yourself screaming in rib-exploding hilarity every time a comedian says, “DO YOU REMEMBER THE GOONIES?!!?” then you’ll inevitably enjoy the constant references to movies and TV of the decade. If you want a bit more than someone reading out a list of things you’ve heard of, it doesn’t reach that far. This isn’t satire, or lampooning, but simply referencing. Being like it.

Referencing excuses many a thing, but your mileage may vary with the cod-Red-Indian dialect of ghostly Native Americans (“Bah! He have fun, shout with joy. My father do same to me, on top of bear,”), or representations of trailer parks as being populated by toothless hicks all related to one another. To me it just feels tired, rather than anything else.

And yes, The Girl One is a trope of the era, but it would have been nice if Charlie could have had, you know, any reason to exist in the game at all. She’s there to be drooled over by Chris, and while playable, only as a slightly less capable version of the same. And naturally is damselled at various points.

Toward the end, however, it really goes out of its way to find new ways to be poor. A gruesomely incongruous and tiresome bullet-hell-ish arcade sequence makes no sense in the game, and doesn’t have the sense to offer a skip for anyone who thought they were playing a calm adventure game with occasional platforming sections. It is, in fact, a warning that the game’s about to suddenly and clumsily shift genres, into an action platformer it is in no way good enough to support.

Then the platforming becomes morbidly bad, asking you to rapidly switch back and forth between characters in between timed jumps on disappearing platforms using a limited energy pool while dodging roaming searchlights, with any tiny slip-up putting you back to the start. That’s bad enough with its slippy, laggy controls, but unacceptable when it then starts glitching, madly teleporting your character from the platform they landed on to another one with the searchlight over it. Good grief. Shortly after this, a command prompt to open a non-existent door became stuck on my screen, making everything bemusing.

It begins to string together these broken sections without good checkpoints, meaning its bugging out at any point can punish you by having to replay the lot of them. A galling prospect when the game just isn’t up to platforming in the first place. It becomes utterly farcical, where twenty minutes of dreadful, glitchy, timed platforming has to be replayed over and over because of one mistake, whether by you or the game.

This ghastly section all culminates in an extended timed platforming sequence of such magnificent awfulness that it only induces a dull depression. It is a fight between you and the game’s god-awful controls, ridiculous perspective, ability to glitch, and most especially, its ignoring crucial button presses. There’s no forgiveness within these limits, no notion of its own astoundingly limiting shortfalls, creating a sequence of utter misery and tedium.

You might think this would be the end of the game, but good lord no, on and on and on and on and on it goes, adding more nonsense to its nonsense, the story unravelling like a jumper made of stupid.

Crossing Souls desperately needed some brutal editing, cutting out vast sections that patently obviously just didn’t work, that its design just couldn’t support. It out-stays its welcome to the degree where I found it a chore to keep playing. Which is such a shame after the promising – if hackneyed – opening. It suggested a gentle game of exploration and adventure with a band of kids, by, er, being that for many hours. And then suddenly it isn’t, and what remains are all the worst parts of the first half screamed through a broken megaphone.

In the end, the relationships between the children could have saved it all, but they’re just non-existent. It relies entirely on your nodding at the archetype and just agreeing that’s enough, and it clearly isn’t. The reliance on reading off a list of films and TV shows you saw in the 80s (and somewhat confusingly, often the 90s too) inducing a state of nostalgic bliss might work for some, but not for me. I wanted this game to do some heavy lifting too. That it ultimately collapses into a string of unpleasant platforming sequences that the core design simply can’t sustain means I grew to loathe Crossing Souls, once it entirely abandoned its redeeming features for everything it couldn’t get right.

Crossing Souls is out today on Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam

27 Comments

  1. ashleys_ears says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t have anything to say about the quality of the writing, specifically. Trope-heavy, way too long, short on creativity and long on nostalgia porn, but aside from all that, it’s just not very well-written at all. It feels very… simple. The dialogue is frequently wooden or just plain bad. Night in the Woods is a great title to bring up in comparison, because it’s so much stronger. Night in the Woods has heart. It has characters and themes the writers clearly felt strongly about, and put a lot of thought into.

    In contrast, Crossing Souls seems like it was made by a group of people who watched all the 80s classics and said “We want to do that!” and never really gave it any deep consideration. There are characters. There’s a plot. It checks all the boxes of technically being a story. But that’s what it feels like – like they literally went down a list, checking boxes. There’s no depth, no substance. “Reading out a list” is exactly what it feels like.

    And that sucks, because I REALLY wanted this game to be what it was aspiring to be.

    • Alastor says:

      Amen

    • noodlecake says:

      I think the dialogue is bad (and it really is bad) because it was translated from another language in a very dry way without being combed over and rewritten by a decent English writer. A lot of really good anime movies and foreign films are ruined by that too and it’s a shame.

      I wish I could see them (both this game and the badly translated films/anime I have seen) in their original languages being able to speak said languages and understand their nuances.

      • Mandrake42 says:

        Yeah I agree, I think poor localisation is part of the problem with the chunkiness of the writing. I’m not sure how this reads in the Spanish the developers speak, but the English version is a bit awkward. Still, I’m actually enjoying this way more than John did. I’m only 3 hours in though so eh. I’m hoping it’s just a grumpy John review and that I enjoy it more than he did by the end.

        • John Walker says:

          I’d be very interested if you’d come back and say which way it went, because I was fairly sure I was going to be enjoying it by the end at about three hours in.

          • Mandrake42 says:

            I think that’s an entirely fair request, I’ll keep you posted.

        • Mandrake42 says:

          So I eventually uninstalled it without finishing it. I liked the premise a lot and I loved the pixel art, but there are just too many frustrations. For me cracks began to appear when those really annoying vanishing platform sections first reared their head. Then their was the bullet hell sections, possibly my least favourite style of game (I have the dexterity of toddler). The one that broke me though was the dragon chase. Pure frustration. The controls are just not tight enough to be up to the precision the game is asking of you. I’m pretty sure I could finish it if I grit my teeth and tried for another hour or so. But I play games for fun. I realised I had better things to do. It’s shame because it just feels like squandered potential. Another thing that bugged me is one of the games draws was the roster of characters and their different abilities. By the end section the game has lost most of that diversity for plot reasons. That’s a grumpy me review ;)

  2. DinoSteak says:

    I can’t tell if I’m enjoying the angle John takes on his reviews because they are well pondered jewels of insight, or because I’m just as jaded/bloated, but either way Crossing Souls is indeed a turd. I Hoovered this game up, holding my reservations on bated breath, because I thought I saw a glimmer of invention and design beneath the pandering gimmicky nature of the previews… but was sadly proven correct in my reserve…again.

    We’re truly in the Golden Age of Gaming *echo*echo*echo*…. The barrier for entry is miniscule, and so is the effort/editorial process for a growing majority of games these days (*cough* kickstarter)

  3. InfiniteSubset says:

    Every time I see something about this game I read it as “Crossy Souls”, a new Frogger/Soulslike game from Hipster Whale.

    • Zelos says:

      I can’t help but think it’s some sort of animal crossing/dark souls crossover.

  4. Rubicon says:

    Disappointing to hear. Unlike other kickstarter games that never came out, I’m overjoyed this actually materialized, but its reception makes me already want to just put this in my backlog to play never.

    • ashleys_ears says:

      It really stings, because I so, so badly wanted this game to be everything it was trying to be. A classic 80’s teenage adventure romp, complete with supernatural hijinks and a synth-heavy soundtrack and the general feel-good-ness of a Goonies or a Stand By Me. I wanted Fourattic to bat this out of the park. Instead it’s a clean whiff. It’s not a good game OR a good story. It’s just a 6/10 in every way.

      • Rubicon says:

        Those 6/10 games are so heartbreaking because if you squint you can almost see the game it could’ve been. Plus, I’m still waiting for that itch to get scratched game wise.

  5. zsd says:

    Sometimes I genuinely wonder if we’ll reach the 2080s before we’re done fellating the 1980s.

    • Ghostbird says:

      I remember the 80s well enough to find it inexplicable. And to add to the irony, the most popular “classic 80s” stuff was based in old white guys’ nostalgia for a sanitised version of the 50s.

  6. Beefsurgeon says:

    I’m so burned out on the 80’s Spielberg throwback stuff. There’s just not much mileage in it. One season of Stranger Things would have been plenty. Can we get back to original ideas now?

    • skeletortoise says:

      I mean, not to be the guy who needlessly defends the ultra-popular TV show, but does taking inspiration from numerous different sources and giving the occasional nod to those inspirations really make you that unoriginal? What does original even look like? The case can definitely be made that it’s more worthwhile to draw on easily understandable cultural touchstones and archetypes to tell a new story (or an old story in a new way) than it is to completely reinvent the wheel and likely make an incomprehensible mess. I dunno. Perhaps I’d agree with you more if we didn’t exist in a time when it seems like most of media is literally just remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations of things which already exist. I guess my point is I don’t think people would be much more or less likely to like Stranger Things if they had never seen a single Spielberg or Carpenter movie or even if they lived in a world where neither director had been born.

    • fco says:

      It should be mentioned that this game started development a whole year before Stranger Things entered production.
      Bad timing really.

  7. skeletortoise says:

    So you get the video-taped cutesy cartoon sections, interspersed with ultra-violence and effing and blinding.

    What does effing and blinding mean? I mean, I figured effing might mean profanity, but I’m completely clueless on blinding. This is the first time, as a filthy American, where I’ve been completely clueless as to what some presumable Englishism meant without being able to guess the gist from context.

      • skeletortoise says:

        Well yeah, except the way the sentence is written doesn’t give indication to the uninitiated that effing and blinding is a phrase rather than two separate terms.

        • theremin says:

          It’s awful that idioms, slang, and dialects you’re unfamiliar with aren’t flagged unambiguously for you.

          I’m always grateful that American slang, dialect, idioms and sporting metaphors are universally marked up as English:Colonial:NorthAmerica:US or I don’t know how I’d understand anything on the internet.

          • skeletortoise says:

            Are you reading my question as somehow super rude or entitled? I didn’t know what something meant so I asked. Sorry?

          • theremin says:

            I did originally read your comment as “I shouldn’t have to search”, but on re-reading the article, the run of conjunctions does make it hard to spot that it’s a self-contained phrase or saying.

          • skeletortoise says:

            Yeah, I mean in retrospect I guess asking any question that seems like it could be handled by Google should probably come with an explanation up front or it might seem weird or demanding. I generally prefer human explanations to decontextualized Google results.

            FWIW, that was a pretty sick takedown of the entitled jerk version of me, I would keep it in your back pocket for future use.

          • Eddy9000 says:

            Don’t apologise skele; he’s just being a bit of a Berkshire Hunt, to add to your lexicon of englishisms.

  8. elvirais says:

    Loved the review, just wanted to say that. Also, I had to prove my humanity this time to log in. I feel greatly validated.