At first glance, Devolver Digital and Fourattic’s role-playing adventure, Crossing Souls, seems to be nothing more than a flashy send up of everything we all loved from the 80’s. The main elements of the game have it all: young kids discovering adventure just beyond the white picket fence, a government performing nefarious acts, a classic pixel-art style, and a synth-heavy score. However, Crossing Souls ultimately becomes a reminder that games can have a heart and soul that go much deeper than the surface.
Let’s take a step back, though, to give the elevator pitch of what Crossing Soulsoffers. It’s 1986. Five friends have just made a Stand by Me-esque discovery of a dead body in the woods. Together they must uncover the mystery of the man’s death, including what the strange talisman is he was clutching in his hands. Along the way the kids will be fighting monsters and government agents, learning the power of friendship, and cross between the realm of the living and the dead. Typical teenage rights of passage, right? While the gameplay and story begin as nostalgic retreads of 80’s movies and games, Crossing Souls takes risks and detours from expectations for better—and for worse.
Nothing scratches my nerd itch more than when the narrative and elements of gameplay overlap and intertwine. Crossing Souls does this to a degree that I never expected, and thankfully, is clearly an intentional choice. Without revealing which character this happens to, there is a death of one of the five playable heroes early into the game. In turn, you can switch back and forth between the world of the living and that of the dead, which creates a new means of exploration. Not only does this separate the game from its purely nostalgic label, as it steps away from being nothing but a coming-of-age brawler, it also gives players a reason to expect more from what’s about to unravel in every respect, from how to play to character arcs.
For the building blocks of gameplay, a majority of the time players navigate the different areas in a top-down adventure style, similar to the original Legend of Zelda, with each character housing their own skills. Chris, the character players are first introduced to, is the most well rounded, as he can swing a bat to attack, jump, and dodge roll. However, his unique trait is his ability to climb vines and ladders. Kevin, our lead’s younger brother, doesn’t have a particularly unique skill, but can navigate the more perilous platforming portions of the game with better ease than anyone. The rest of the young gang have similar mechanics to Chris, but much like his climbing skill, offer an integral reason to be a part of the team. Matt, the brainy nerd, comes fitted with a laser gun for ranged attacks, but his jetpack also helps him hover over long distances. The lone girl in the group, Charlie, is an expert with her jump rope, allowing her to perform semi-ranged attacks and vault herself across long chasms. Big Joe, the tough and tank-like teen, moves slowly but his close-ranged punches deal a ton of damage, also using his brute strength to move large objects.
As stated previously, the death of one character gives them the ability to become a ghost and move through walls, providing new ways to travel through the various locales Crossing Souls has to offer. This, combined with the other useful skills at a player’s disposal, gives the game its first point of positive complexity. I truly enjoyed knowing that navigating fights and new areas would come down to using everyone’s abilities, instead of just picking one character and forgetting the rest are even there. On top of it, when in the dead realm, you can interact with other ghosts to learn about the history of an area, or at times, appease their wandering soul by helping them deal with a sin of the past. It adds side quests and reasons to always switch to the ghostly realm’s view, which can be done with a press of the right shoulder button (I played on PS4).
However, the gameplay also takes mechanics from different arcade genres and sprinkles them throughout, making each stage feel different from the last. At one point, Chris is forced to outrun a villain’s car on his bike, which changes the gameplay into high-speed side-scrolling. While it’s a blast to play, the developers didn’t waste the chance to add some difficulty to the experience by pulling inspiration from iconically intense side-scrolling levels. Much like the Turbo Tunnel level in Battletoads, or Sewer Surfin’ from Turtles in Time, players must navigate obstacles and pick the right path to succeed, which I can guarantee will take many attempts to master. In another stage, the gang is chasing down the boss in an airship, which becomes a Galaga-style top-down shooter experience. Apart from being exciting deviations from the top-down portions of Crossing Souls, it’s another mining of retro material, included in a modern package.
When it comes to the storyline in Crossing Souls, that’s where the creative work that went into the game really shines. What begins as a nostalgia-driven retread of iconic 80’s pop culture takes twists and liberties that are fairly unexpected. For a story that revolves around a group of young teens, the writers weren’t afraid to send them down dark paths that are typically taboo, like placing life and death stakes on them. Even better, when the story does push the envelope, it doesn’t feel exploitive, but instead, adds a complex emotional layer to those more hard-hitting moments. It’s difficult to delve too deeply into specific moments without spoiling the surprisingly emotionally hefty plot, but suffice it to say, it’s a journey that kept my attention through every cutscene and NPC interaction.
My opening praise of narrative elements melding with gameplay mechanics is also on display here. When the kids are embroiled deeper in the plot, more death occurs, where you as the player must experience the suffering of a typically fast-moving or powerful character through gameplay. As the physical or emotional toll of the experience weighs on the teen in question, moving them around the world feels sluggish and labored, giving you a personal connection to the character that isn’t seen often in games.
The ending stages are where things start to get muddled, though. The plot takes some needlessly romantic turns between characters that weren’t properly developed and the finale is strangely open-ended. It doesn’t ruin the story by any means, but it does stand out as a misstep compared to the rest of the characters’ more well-developed arcs. Sadly, gameplay takes a detour here, too, as the final stages and boss fight feel less polished than the entirety of the game up to those points. One of my favorite parts of Crossing Souls was waiting to see the next boss fight and discover which skills were required to overpower them. Much like the arcade-style stages mentioned previously, they offered a great departure from the norm and felt like real triumphs when beaten. However, the final bosses, who should arguably offer the greatest challenge and variation on gameplay, were forgettable.
The different aspects of Crossing Souls, from gameplay to art design, are made well and announce developer Fourattic knows what it’s aping from, instead of using nostalgia as a one-trick pony. More importantly, the team took risks by going for an emotionally driven experience, instead of resting on the whole “look, it’s 80’s stuff!” Another overwhelming example of this is the score, which includes John Williams-esque strings by Chris Köbke and synth from Timecop1983. Both forms of music capture the emotional depth they reach for, from Köbke’s focus on grand strings and horns for the moments of adventure to TimeCop1983’s action-packed synth numbers in the boss battles.
There are many bones that make the body of Crossing Souls amazing, but like most gambles, it doesn’t always pay off. In this case, the ribbon to tie everything good together didn’t really complete the package. However, it’s offerings under the surface are definitely worth applauding.
Devolver Digital’s Crossing Souls isn’t afraid to wear its love for the 80’s on its sleeve, but thankfully, there’s more to the story on top of it. While it isn’t without its missteps, using interesting and unique gameplay elements, diverse locations, and well-rounded characters, the arcade adventure game will give both modern and retro gamers something to enjoy.
T – Teen
|Crossing Souls is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Code/hardware was provided by Devolver Digital for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|