Despite the nostalgia attached to the period, there aren’t many all that many video game developers out there willing to tackle the 1980s as a setting. Inevitably, there are probably a lot of potential reasons for this. However, one of the main ones might be that games have to sustain themselves in a way that movies and even TV series like Netflix’s Stranger Things don’t.
To their credit, when faced with that reality, indie developer Fourattic saw a challenge and they saw opportunity for their first full-length release: Crossing Souls.
Inspired by classic 80s films like The Goonies and set in 1986 California, Crossing Souls follows a group of ragtag group of five friends who discover a mysterious crystal that allows to travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead. From there, events quickly spiral out of control and the group quickly find themselves on the run and their small town torn apart by a sinister government conspiracy that wants to reclaim the gem by any means necessary.
You’ve Heard This One Before, It’s A Throwback
In terms of how the mechanics of this adventure play out, Crossing Souls is a sort-of top-down, party-based action-adventure hybrid. The best point of comparison here would be something The Lost Vikings or more-recently the Trine series.
Each of the game’s five playable characters - Chris, Kevin, Charlie, Matt and Big Joe - brings a different set of skills (and combat style) to the fore. Big Joe can move heavy objects, Matt can hover across gaps using his homemade jetpack, Chris can jump and climb up ledges. You get the idea. The unique hook to this formula comes in the form of McGuffin-like Duat Stone. Acquired early on, the Duat Stone lets you alternate the game between the regular and supernatural worlds.
The latter of these is populated by ghosts and other supernatural objects. Sometimes these ghosts will attack you, other times they’ll offer clues on how to progress. Finally, spoiler alert here, but over time, some of your party will actually die and become ghosts themselves. While this means that you aren’t able to use them in combat anymore, you are able to use them to solve otherwise unsolvable puzzles.
After we sat down with a preview build of this game, our biggest concerns with the game were how the experience would hold up over the long-term. Only an hour or so in, the combat was fresh, the aesthetic was novel and the characteristics were charming, albeit a little obnoxious and cliched. Unfortunately, as we feared, this lustre quickly faded when stretched out over the games 5-7 hour long single-player campaign.
Each of the game’s eight or so chapters sees you navigate levels, fight through groups of enemies and solve puzzles - eventually encounter a boss and move the story forward. Each character has their own health-bar, so you’ll generally want to juggle between them depending on their health and the type of enemies you’re up against. Frustratingly, however, this reliance on combat as a mechanic quickly leads the experience astray.
It’s never quite clear how much damage this or that enemy is going to do - which means it’s sometimes difficult to get a sense of how close to death you are. Each characters has a set of Zelda-style hearts, broken into quarter-hearts. However, some enemies will take off one or two portions per hit. Others will slice off one or two whole hearts per hit. It feels super inconsistent and, in the absence of any health upgrades (aside from consumable, one-off, health-kits), leads to a situation where as you reach more and more difficult enemies, the total amount of damage you can actually take just becomes smaller and smaller. What’s more, if any one of your party dies in combat - you fail the encounter and are reset to the last checkpoint.
In addition, some of the late-game platforming sequences leave a punishingly little room for error. There’s a special kind of frustration in knowing that one wasted second won’t immediately kill you in a sequence but will doom you by leaving you short on time to complete a later section. These sections of the game feel gimmicky at best and outright unfair and unfun at the worst. Perhaps most annoyingly, it doesn’t feel like a huge of playtesting would have been required in order to highlight these difficulty spikes and rebalance them accordingly. Unfortunately, in the absence of such things, you’re left with an experience that’s extremely uneven in terms of how fun it actually is.
Don’t Sweat The Details
From the moment you hit ‘New Game’, the look and feel of Crossing Souls seems to do its retro premise justice. As we said in our preview, it’s positively vibrating with the retro timbre of the time. Courtesy of the game’s delightfully animated pixel sprites and VHS-style artifacts, it feels like Fourattic have worked overtime here to create something unique and something that tries to embody its source material in both style and substance. The animated cutscenes here look especially striking, though they are few and far between.
Unfortunately, the story that underpins that aesthetic isn’t quite as impressive and doesn’t land quite so cleanly. After the game’s introductory hour or so, it felt like it lost focus and become a far more scattershot affair. Any sensible character development is quickly sidelined for low-hanging meta humor and even lazier references and parodies of 80s pop culture artifacts like Back to the Future, ET and Ghostbusters - no matter how at odds at these sequences feel in tone to the rest of the narrative.
Even if some of these references are fun but it leads to a situation where the main plot thread of Crossing Souls becomes very muddled, mired and outright-mediocre. It’s not really clear what - if anything - Fourattic are trying to articulate about childhood, friendship, good intentions, dealing with grief and loss or even the game’s beloved 1980s California setting. Well before the credits roll, it feels cheap, disposable and meaningless.
The Bottom Line
As endearing as its nostalgia-enriched aesthetic is, Crossing Souls often feels less like a fully-featured indie darling and more like a really-long flash game. It’s definitely the kind of flash game I’d sink hours into but it’s all style but light on substance.
Even at its best, the platforming, puzzles and combat in Crossing Souls feel only adequate and, in the absence of a story or character worth investing in, adequate just doesn’t quite cut it.