It’s telling of a game’s impact when you can’t help but admire it despite a laundry list of frustrations. I cursed Crossing Souls numerous times for its unforgiving design decisions, but the rad style, love for its source material and unflinching storyline were gripping enough for me to play through the entirety in practically a single day.
It’s a Californian summer in the mid-eighties, and five larger-than-life kids are hanging out at the start of their vacation. When they discover a mysterious magic stone, however, it wraps them up in a crazy science fiction adventure in which they – and the world – are suddenly placed in grave danger. Crossing Souls’ tone is disarming. One minute it’s full of light-hearted banter between the kids and cheesy self-aware homages to eighties pop culture, and the next it’s deadly serious, throwing heart-wrenching curveballs.
To speak more of the homages, this is a game which loves its era. It’s hard to not feel a Stranger Things vibe from the setup – a gang of kids in the eighties caught up in a supernatural conspiracy – but its influences run much wider. From collectable VHS tapes and records parodying media from the age, to characters and events making thinly-veiled references, the worship is unmistakeable. Sometimes these pastiches are genuinely funny or evoke warm and fuzzy nostalgia; other times, it’s a case of ‘hey, look at this pop culture spoof we shoehorned in!’.
An upside of this mish-mash of styles is varied level design. You’ll trek through creepy forests, secret sci-fi laboratories and even the Wild West on your trip to save the world, and for this reason Crossing Souls is rarely dull. Exploration is a pleasing blend of platforming and light puzzling with chunks of beat ‘em up combat.
What truly sets this apart is the character swap system. Each kid has different attacks and movement styles, from Chris’ baseball bat and climbing prowess to Matt’s ray gun and hoverboots, and some surprising game-changing abilities unlocked later on which I’ll keep schtum about. This medley of playstyles is not only essential for progress; it gives the freedom to tackle situations in different ways and essentially makes you a one-man co-op party.
What lets the side down, unfortunately, is slipshod handling. Switching characters is done one at a time with a single button, which is less than ideal with five kids to select between. In a heated firefight where you’re rapidly trying to juggle abilities for the situation and keep weaker characters safe, it all falls apart. Likewise, items you’ll need in a split-second, like healing lollipops, are mapped to the D-pad but bafflingly still require a two-button combination to activate. Combat is consistently marred by these poorly conceived systems and a perceptible latency. Big Joe, the larger-boned of the group, has a shockwave attack which takes a couple of seconds to charge and rarely seems to connect, making it all but useless.
Platforming is comparatively a little tighter – and creatively designed to boot – but still frustrates at times. Not only does control responsiveness still fall short here, the decision to have a straight-on, top-down perspective leads to some real ambiguity. It’s irritating to fall to your death over confusing platform placement, an issue which an isometric view would likely have alleviated.
I recently played through Celeste, in which I could feasibly retry a single section over a hundred times. Celeste’s mechanics are bulletproof: every failure was my own fault. In Crossing Souls, after dying several times in a row I couldn’t help but blame unresponsive controls or bullshit attack patterns. Difficulty is uneven, with mostly non-threatening grunts punctuated by the occasional gruelling boss. Worse, it commits the cardinal sin of forcing you to sit through cutscenes every time you restart a boss. I’m still seething over the (very difficult) final battle, cursed with a lengthy intro and multiple stages with zero checkpointing in between.
Crossing Souls is at least a lovely-looking example of pixel art. Its world is teeming with colour and character. The attention to detail on your hometown and the buildings within it is particularly wonderful. Chris’ bedroom is a shrine of painstakingly minute sprite work, from the posters on the walls to the jovial array of toys and figurines. Matt’s family home, on the other hand, is a charmingly far-fetched laboratory of science – and science-fiction – paraphernalia.
It’s the cute little animation quirks which breathe life into the gang’s adventure. Matt almost stumbles to maintain his balance whilst his boots chug and sputter to levitate him mere inches above the ground. In lieu of real attacks, Chris’ younger brother Kevin blows pink bubble gum and plays mischievously with a whoopie cushion. Even the comic book store owner, a relatively trivial NPC named Gary, has a uniquely hyperactive gait, suggesting he’s downed one too many sodas.
Sadly, dialogue between the characters has a tendency to miss the mark. Whilst its heart is in the right place and it manages to drop in a few good jokes, chatter can be stilted and dry. Even the grammar isn’t always quite right – such as the incorrectly used ellipses – which betrays how writing perhaps wasn’t the studio’s strongest point.
Overlook the awkward and hammy writing, however, and the story will take you for a great ride – I could hardly put it down. Retro animated cutscenes (complete with VHS artifacts) are sprinkled periodically throughout, and the soundtrack lends it some real atmosphere – the rich, chill-inducing synth track is a highlight. Crossing Souls is full of these hooks drawing you into its evocative, nostalgic setting. Rough around the edges, and a pain in the ass sometimes, its charm and earnestness shine through.