31st Jul2018

‘Crossing Souls’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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Originally conceived by Spanish developer Fourrattic via Kickstarter, before being adopted by indie outfit Devolver Digital, Crossing Souls now arrives on the Switch. It always seemed like a perfect fit for Nintendo’s machine, this eye-popping pixel art adventure with its overtones of Earthbound. On the very first screen there’s a NES on the floor of the hero’s bedroom.

It’s 1986, see. One night, a lightning storm throws the town into chaos. Teenager Chris gathers his friends – scientist Matt, tough guy Big Joe and whipsmart Charlie – and they go and meet Chris’s little brother Kevin in a Monster Squad-style treehouse. Kevin has a revelation that will lead the group to a device known as the Duat Machine, which allows the user to cross between the realms of the living and the dead.

The ruthless Major Oh Rus is after the Duat and he will stop at nothing to get it, so that he can trigger his apocalyptic “One Day War”. Soon the residents of the town are being rounded up, and it’s up to Chris and his friends to venture forth, through streets and sewers, through time and dimensions (a la A Link to the Past, another Nintendo classic), to save their parents and friends.

Crossing Souls is, above all, a love letter to ‘80s pop culture. Within minutes you will spot references to The Thing, Stand By Me and Poltergeist. Later, two of the bosses are directly based on spectres from Ghostbusters 1 and 2. Keep your eyes peeled for Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China and even Police Academy – the whole gang’s invited.

Exploring the town of Tajunga in the early moments is a joy, with its dazzling arcade (the games are not playable, sadly), its ‘50s throwback diner and its multitude of idiosyncratic yet mostly well-meaning citizens. The local bully is named Quincy Queen, modelling himself on Michael Jackson and Prince. On top of all this, the orchestral score is a blend of James Horner awe and John Williams whimsy, while Timecop1983 provide the synth numbers.

The luscious pixellated style is bright and detailed, and the cute idle animations recall the best of ‘90s Lucasarts. Intercutting the main game are visually convincing animated cutscenes, mimicking the style of cheap and gaudy ‘80s cartoons, right down to the VHS recording artefacts. Sadly, these vignettes are brief and wordless, therefore lacking some energy and feeling rather incongruent.

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You control one character at any given time but you can swap between them instantly. Each has his or her benefits and drawbacks. For example, Big Joe is tough and strong, but he can’t jump; Matt has a ranged attack and a floating jump, but he’s a total weakling. The combat and puzzles are designed with the various talents in mind. Choosing the right character for the job isn’t hugely taxing.

It’s also not that much fun. Crossing Souls is a game with an endless wealth of ideas, yet the actual moment to moment gameplay is rote at best and frustratingly clunky at worst. The combat never feels meaty and it’s shallow and repetitive; the puzzles are standard block-sliding and switch-flicking; and the boss battles are samey and simplistic. Once you’ve played the first couple of chapters (there are eight in total) you’ve pretty much seen it all.

It’s such a pity that the game fails to sustain the promise of its opening half-hour. What begins as a character-driven adventure, rich in atmosphere and ostensibly open, turns into a linear, monotonous slog. As the story goes off the rails, one’s attachment to the team dwindles. It’s not helped by poor translation, replete with typos, and some weirdly inappropriate f-bombing, which steals away the joyous, childish tone of the first part of the game.

Crossing Souls excels in crafting its setting, but for all the nostalgia it evokes, it cannot conjure a consistently fun gaming experience. It’s a gorgeous and affectionate concept built on flimsy mechanics; a game I wanted to love but struggled to enjoy. It promises much and delivers flashes of brilliance. But its ideas and its excellent production values cannot mask the flaws at its core, so it’s hard to recommend to anyone but the most eager retro culture aficionados.

Crossing Souls is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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