I spent the prime of my childhood and teenage years in the 80s. Some people ask - half-jokingly or dead-serious - how did the mankind survive the decade of glaring neon lights, puffy hairdos, and Duran Duran? I say, how could we exist without the 80s? So much of its popular culture is forever etched in my heart. Action-adventure Crossing Souls, by small Spanish indie developer Fourattic, rides unashamedly high upon the waves of 80s nostalgia. There’s no way I wouldn’t like it, right?
It’s 1986 and the summer vacation has just started in a small town of Tajinga, somewhere in the conceptual North America. Teenage boy Chris is eager to meet up with his friends and spend the sunny days equally frolicking and slacking. There’s a change in the plans when his kid brother Kevin informs him via walkie-talkie that he has found something super exciting that Chris & co. must immediately see. After a short stroll through the neighborhood, the gang is together, joined by Matt, a child prodigy of scientist parents, and Big Joe, a food-loving and strong-but-good-hearted son of a storekeeper. Finally, there’s Charlie, the girl who Chris has a crush on. She lives in a lowly trailer park with her drunk dad, but don’t let that fool you - she’s streetwise and sporty.
The (not so) famous five gather at the tree house and Kevin leads them through the woods. The exciting thing he was so eager to show off is… a decaying body. Gross! The corpse is holding a small, triangular stone in his hand. Smart as he is, Matt reckons it’s not from this earth, and a few experiments later, he has a deduction: the stone is actually a key to access duat, a space in which souls of the deceased wait for the judgement day and pass into the afterlife, or destroyed by the beasts of the underworld. Matt builds a device around the stone which lets the kids see the ghost world. Awesome! But also, oh so frightening. Evil major Oh Rus is hell-bent on getting the stone and setting his plans in motion. What is this One Day War he’s about to declare?
Viewed from a top-down perspective and painted in vivid pixel art, Crossing Souls plays like an action-adventure from a previous time. The player runs across the game world as one of the kids, whacks monsters, and solves puzzles along the way. You can change between the fab five on the spot, and that is the key to overcome some of the more devious environmental puzzles. The kids really do need each other as they all have their special abilities: Chris can climb and has a baseball bat for a weapon, also used to deflect projectiles; Matt sports a pair of rocket shoes to hover for a short distance, and his weapon is a ray-gun; Big Joe can move heavy obstacles, withstand attacks and deal some wicked damage with bare fists; Charlie is fast and agile, and wields a whip for rapid short-range attacks. She can also use poles to catapult her over a distance.
But what about Kevin? He's pretty useless in this plane of existence, but it’s not much of a spoiler to say he’s over to duat world duties early in the game. He can do more to help the gang as a ghost, like pass through doors and jump on platforms inaccessible to the living. The serious vibes, like Kevin’s passing, are counterbalanced with some goofy moments and good-hearted humor. Much of it comes from numerous nods to the 80s movies, from Stand by Me to Goonies, Ghostbusters to Back to the Future. Whole scenes from these classic flicks are lifted for major parts of the adventure. It all works for the game’s favor, though, as it has enough of own voice to make the best out of these homages.
A few arcade sequences, like BMX biking and bullet-hell flying, are on the brink of whether they’re good sport or not. They are clumsy as hell to play, but on the other hand, it’s because of their awkwardness that they have an odd nostalgia value to them. Some of the 80s action games were really like them and we were ok with it back then. There’s no question about the music, though. The amazing score, reminiscent of 80s adventure movies, mixes Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and some up-beat disco pop to set the pace for Chris and co.’s excellent adventure. Also, as a rare treat in indie games, there are cartoon cutscenes, inspired by the 80’s animated TV shows.
But all good things must come to end. For all its love, dedication and fun, Crossing Souls changes into an exercise in tediousness and agony by the end. The last two chapters (out of eight) throw the gameplay balance and charming personality out of the window. Suddenly, it’s all too serious, as is the hellish precision-platforming to perform. The previous save point is farther way by each unnerving jump over moving conveyor belts, vanishing platforms, and laser beams, all the while dodging search lights. It seems like it will never end. Indeed, the final chapters serve no purpose gameplay-wise other than being extra baggage to make the game last longer.
Perseverance can whittle through a rock, though. It helps if you understand the logic behind old-fashioned gameplay mechanics like these, and experience is the best teacher. When compared to the insane platforming just before, the final boss fight - all three phases of it without checkpoints in-between - was actually easy despite seemingly bad odds. I was so exhausted in the end that the epilogue, probably meant as a tear-jerker, was only cringeworthy.
Be prepared for the best and the worst of the 80s with Crossing Souls. For the most part, the action-adventure against the comfortable backdrop of the era’s popular culture is a heartfelt and charming trip down the memory lane. At its best moments, the game made me even feel like a kid again, and that’s hell of a triumph. The torturing endgame drags Crossing Souls needlessly down, and is a cold reminder that all those games we remember fondly from decades ago were actually a bit sadistic in their nature. Just stock up plenty of Sugaheart candies to the items hotbar when you’re about to brave the closing chapters, and you’ll be fine. Hopefully!
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.