The 1980s! It’s been 29 years since they ended and we still cannot escape them. The pop-culture power of this weird decade is such that even today we mine its essence for influence and storytelling. Honestly, this humble writer is just about to tap out on this flavour of nostalgia. The next 'Simon' toy we see is going straight out the window

The Kickstarted debut release from Sevilla developer Fourattic and published by Devolver Digital, Crossing Souls is, among many things, the latest contender for the apparently coveted 'maximum '80s' crown. Fortunately, Fourattic built this pastiche of pop culture on top of a solid — if occasionally frustrating — beat-em-up foundation with some fancy tricks up its sleeve.

Imagine, if you will, Stranger Things written by Steven Spielberg and animated by Don Bluth, played back from an exhausted VHS tape. The loyalty and love of its subject matter is abundantly clear, and its focus on execution is sharp. Crossing Souls follows five teenage-ish friends in a small California town who come across a mysterious, deadly trinket called the Duat, enabling them to interact with the spiritual world surrounding our own. Naturally, some Very Bad People (TM) want the Duat to kick off the ominous-sounding 'One-Day War.' Being teenagers in the 1980s, you are the best — nay, only ones — equipped to stop them. Events are nominally set in 1986 California but Crossing Souls is more interested in amplifying the decade than staying faithful to history. Nods to Ghostbusters II (1989) and Metal Gear (1987) are clear anachronisms, but, like, whatever; enjoy the full decade, nobody’s getting hurt here.

The game itself is an overhead brawler with platforming and exploration elements, broken up over the course of its 8-to-10-hour run time by the occasional boss battle and genre switch-up stage. Players control the party of friends, each with their own unique abilities and health, switching between them at will. Some do better in certain scenarios than others, which encourages you to get proficient with all of them to boost your odds. Baddie blasting projectiles got you down? Smack ‘em back with blue-haired Chris’s baseball bat. Come across an impossible jump? Nerdy Matt’s rocket boots will bridge the gap. And so forth.

The Duat itself can be toggled on or off to reveal denizens and hazards of the spiritual world otherwise unseen. Oh, mild spoiler, but someone in your party bites it early. End spoiler. Once they’ve crossed over and rejoined the fray, you can flip on the Duat to control them as a spirit, which opens up new abilities like walking through closed doors to reach otherwise unobtainable areas.

Stages and enemy encounters make smart use of these abilities — adding a pleasing tactical element to what could otherwise be unremarkable beat-em-up gameplay. When at its best, Crossing Souls thrusts you into situations demanding you to make on-the-fly strategic decisions, be it from managing multiple enemy types at once or navigating deadly stage hazards. However, some of the more basic abilities being locked to individual characters — like jumping — can at times feel like a cheap way of forcing tension during otherwise stressful times. And without a limiting mechanic (like a battery meter), there’s simply no reason to not just leave the Duat activated at all times once in your possession. The game world can be fairly empty with the Duat switched off, and leaving it on offers access to abilities that you otherwise wouldn’t have. The power comes with no counter-balancing tension and little strategy, both of which would help elevate its presence.

While in theory a nice change of pace from exploring the world, the occasional genre change-ups don’t always add to the enjoyment. A bullet hell sequence later in the game frustrates, and unevenly designed boss battles (including a Simon-themed one, aaaaah) range from dialling in on the balance of mechanics that makes the game unique to chaotic hot messes. You can’t skip the cutscenes, either, so don’t fail.

The story is genuinely interesting, especially for how it attempts to tell a new tale using the tropes, themes, and soul at the core of all your favourite things from the decade. This is a story of devoted friendship, of never giving up in the face of immense adversity, of weird science. It’s so faithful to the type of film of the era that we wouldn’t be drastically shocked to learn that this was a script in development that just never made it off the ground until now. And it’s fun! One knock against it is that the English script could use another layer of polish to sound more natural. Some might find this charming, but after a while, the occasionally questionable phrasing and odd typos can be harder to look past.

Rounding out the game is its absolutely gorgeous pixel art and fantastic music. On the art side, the character designs are pleasing, the animation is fluid, and environments are — for the most part — well realized with strong identities. Vertical elements in the stages can be sometimes difficult to “read” due to the straight-on 90-degree viewing angle, leading to whiffed jumps and seeming dead ends that are anything but. The music, as well, is sweeping and fantastic at setting the adventurous tone. Wear headphones.

Conclusion

Come for the wonderful presentation, stay for the baddie boppin'. Crossing Souls nails its 1980s aesthetic, no question there — the 'long-lost-cartoon' game is strong here, right down to the artfully placed VHS artifacts in the animated cutscenes playing out across a sweeping adolescent adventure. Nostalgia aside, the story and beat-em-up gameplay please and surprise in a few key ways, but come with a few too many paper cuts to prevent Crossing Souls from breaking through to that next level.