There’s a certain breed of entertainment that manages to be nostalgic for a particular era, while still transcending that allure to become a wonderful spectacle on its own. For all of the Ghostbusters and Clash references in Stranger Things, it’s still a tense sci-fi thriller unto itself. The same goes for the excellent comic series Paper Girls, or the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” both of which use the time period as a jumping-off point to explore larger themes about technological advancement.
Crossing Souls is a new 2D action / adventure game that launched this week on PC and PS4, after being in development for several years. It doesn’t quite reach those lofty heights: take away its synth-heavy soundtrack and copious ‘80s references, and the game wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. But Crossing Souls apes its inspirations with such earnestness and zeal that it’s still incredibly entertaining. Sometimes heart can make up for lack of originality.
Crossing Souls takes place in 1986, and is set in a California suburb that — you guessed it — is the site of some strange and mysterious events. The game stars a cliche cast of five misfit friends. The leader with good hair, the brainy nerd, the tough black kid, the lone girl, and a pesky younger brother. The group stumbles across a dead body holding a powerful object that makes it possible to see the world of the dead. Naturally, there’s also a powerful and almost certainly evil military force after the device, which plans to use it for nefarious purposes. What follows is an intense few hours of gameplay as the kids attempt to save their town, thwart the military, and discover more about the device’s mysterious powers over life and death.
As you’re playing Crossing Souls, at no point is it unclear what time period the game takes place in. The pixelated suburban world is rife with references. The kids get bullied by a gang leader dressed like Prince in Purple Rain, and you can collect hidden game cartridges and VHS tapes lying around town. There are lots of pinks and purples, and a soundtrack that John Carpenter would be proud of. Some of the set piece moments in the game are pulled directly from classic films. You’ll fight a ghost in a library, Ghostbusters-style, and see some gross Stand By Me-esque puking. There are shades of Gremlins, Back to the Future, and even Saturday morning cartoons.
The story and setting might not have much in the way of originality, but there’s something about Crossing Souls that nevertheless feels warm and comforting. Over the course of the game’s eight chapters, I found myself growing attached to the misfit group of ‘80s stereotypes and rooting for them as they struggled against seemingly impossible odds. Crossing Souls has a charm to it that isn’t diminished by its lack of originality. The heartwarming moments feel appropriately sweet, and the tense scenes will have you on edge. Later on, during some traumatic turns, it can get downright heartbreaking.
The game’s premise also paves the way for its most unique gameplay conceit. The object the kids discover lets them actually see the dead walking amongst the living: the ethereal ghosts of caveman wander around the suburbs, while Civil War-era soldiers hang out in people’s backyards. In order to solve the game’s many puzzles, you need to switch back and forth between these two worlds constantly, exploiting their differences.
Similarly, you can play as any of the five kids at any given moment, but each has different skills. (Strangely enough, the official Stranger Things mobile game featured a simple structure.) One is strong enough to push big objects, while another has a bat for knocking away incoming projectiles. The nerdy kid has a handy pair of rocket boots. Curiously, the group’s leader is the only one who can climb ladders. In order to progress, you need to figure out how to use these various skills in both the real world and the land of the dead. It’s a lot to take in, but it leads to some very satisfying and challenging puzzles. Later on, players even get to control a ghost.
Much like its setting, the gameplay of Crossing Souls is a mishmash of the classics from the time period. Outside of the puzzle solving, you’ll spend lots of time running around town talking to other characters, and there are plenty of platforming sequences where you navigate perilous areas by jumping around. There are beat ‘em up action scenes that feel like Streets of Rage, and there’s a bullet hell shooter sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place on a dinged-up old arcade machine. Boss battles, meanwhile, are multi-stage affairs that require both quick reflexes and pattern memorization.
Crossing Souls crams so many different elements in that it almost doesn’t have time to feel derivative; you’re never really sure what’s coming next. You can easily spot all of the different influences and references, but the way they’ve been put together in the game works. It’s all from the ‘80s, sure, but there’s a surprising amount of variety to both what you do in the game and the places you’ll explore.
Unfortunately, the developers have brought some of the less appealing parts of the decade along as well. The platforming can feel frustratingly rigid and at times unfair, while the save system often forces you to repeat huge chunks of the game when you die. Even worse are the unfortunate stereotypes that feel incredibly backward in 2018. The lone black member of the group is the big, strong one, who is constantly bullied for his weight, while the sole girl lives in a trailer park with a drunk dad. Naturally, all of the boys want to protect her. There’s also a mystical Chinese man with a store full of strange objects, who almost definitely should’ve stayed put in Gremlins.
These moments are frustrating and tone-deaf and stand out because the rest of the game is so well-done and charming. Crossing Souls isn’t shy about its influences, but it also isn’t cynical. You can feel the love and care that went into re-creating these moments. Crossing Souls isn’t exactly like any one single cultural reference from the ‘80s; instead, it distills dozens of them down into something that feels like a greatest hits album of the decade.
Crossing Souls is available now on the PlayStation 4 and PC.