Platform(s): Windows, Mac, Linux Developer: Triangle Studios
Genre: Action Adventure RPG Platform Played On: Mac
As an (unfortunate) general rule of thumb, I am usually quite skeptical of a game when it touts being “based on a true story” as a main draw of attention. Don’t get me wrong, I love anything that is both entertaining as well as educational – however, I often find that there’s a big disconnect in balancing the two. A game can either be very entertaining in its own right, with a historical context “just because,” or it can get so caught up in shoving information down a player’s throat that it becomes nothing more than “chocolate-coated broccoli” – something that’s educational in its own respect, with elements of fun haphazardly thrown in “just because.” Finding that balance of two, as difficult as it is, is where the inclusion of historical elements in a game shine. Unfortunately, a good example of that in action is hard to come by, and Cross of The Dutchman is no exception.
Cross of The Dutchman by Triangle Studios is an action-adventure RPG roughly based on the Dutch folk legend of Pier the Great. Set in 16th century Western Europe, in the coastal region of Frisia, players take control of Pier Gerlofs Donia. Pier, a farmer living peacefully with his wife and children in his home of Kimswerd, has his world turned upside down when invading Saxon soldiers begin to terrorize the neighboring settlements. As a result, Pier begins to band together neighboring farmers to form a rebellion front, taking matters into their own hands. What events follow in the game are said to provide the origin story for how Pier Gerlofs Donia, a simple farmer, became the legend he is known for today, the Cross of the Dutchman.
A well meaning, easy-to-digest origin story in itself, right? It provides for an interesting premise to an adventure game, and appears to be one that involves plenty of action to keep players entertained. Sadly, that’s the extent of where the addition of a historical basis in this game ends. Pier’s story is taken for its basic elements and applied as a skin to the game, rather than adding anything substantial to it. His story becomes an inconsequential addition to the game as a whole, rather than adding to the game’s entertainment value.
So, where does the game derive its entertainment value? Our natural assumption would be to first look at the combat system, seeing that Pier’s origin story is one that is so heavily focused on fighting. Pier has a simple, three strike punch combo that can be varied by the purchase of power attacks from vendors throughout the towns. These power attacks are performed sparingly, as each one utilizes a portion of your stamina bar. Having these interchangeable power attacks should add variability in gameplay, forcing the player to strategize about which type of attack to use and when to use it. In all fairness, the power attacks themselves greatly helped me when I was faced with multiple foes at once. Unfortunately, the inclusion of power attack variety is only surface-level, with the effects of the individual power attacks not differing greatly between one another.
The gameplay did become (slightly) more interesting with the introduction of Pier’s famous greatsword, but this introduction didn’t happen until 2/3rds of the way into the game, something that I wish had happened sooner. When the main mechanics of your game lack honest variability that might encourage a more engaging play experience to occur, you’re not providing your players with much to do by way of participating in your world. What you’re doing is only allowing them to passively interact with your system, which might captivate your audience’s attention for a short amount of time, if at all.
Not only is this combat system boring, but how players use it as well as interact with rest of Cross of the Dutchman is also not one to write home about. The game runs on a Runescape-esque click system, where the player moves Pier through his environments, as well as interacting with them, by use of the mouse. I’ve seen this done well in other titles, but there is a subtle broken quality to the way this is done in Cross of the Dutchman. Your combat combinations are executed by clicking DIRECTLY on an enemy. If he moves (spoiler alert: they all move) you must find the same relative polygon as before in order for the game to register you are trying to attack an enemy, not trying to move next to him as he continues to impale you.
This frustration is particularly apparent when you enter large brawls with groups of Saxon soldiers. If you are in the middle of squabble with several of these indiscriminate clones, hope and pray there isn’t a interactable character nearby. One wrong click, and you are put into an inescapable dialogue that doesn’t cease combat around you. Your backside will continue to be met with the wrong end of a sword as you exchange niceties with the local vegetable vendor.
As annoying as these interactions are, the environments in which they occur redeem some of these aspects of the game. The art style is realized in the brief, comic-book-esque cutscenes between the chapters of the game, as well as within the beautifully realized depiction of 16th century coastal Netherlands. While not super varied in physical layout, the characters, buildings, landscape and overall presentation of this world is nothing to make a pass at. You can see where the hours of research and care went into this project, helping to make the legend of Pier the Great come to life in a new, vibrant way.
The cartoon style and overall presentation almost helps me to forgive the larger functional problems that the game has by way of being engaging. By way of presenting the story in this new form, Cross of the Dutchman presents the folk legend of Pier the Great in a way that makes the basic information accessible and interesting to a new audience. While this representation is not done in a way that is mind-blowing, its inclusion in general isn’t something that is horribly offensive.
Sadly, much more about the actual story of Pier is cut short, seeing that the game ends on a note which I would have expected to be the initiating call to action. Without spoiling too much, I was left wanting more at the end of my three hour campaign, which is already a short game play experience in itself. The way in which this story was presented, while simple, was not one that I would call awful. Simultaneously, it is a story that I can not wholeheartedly reccommend, as it felt inconsequential to the game as a whole.
Ultimately, my feelings about Cross of the Dutchman are centered around not only how I feel about the sub-par mechanics, but how I feel in general about the usage and touting of a game being “historically based.”
The compromise is often made in what a game is trying to do with its own “historically based” nature. It ultimately depends on how the game developers position themselves in relation to the study of history. Usually, this dichotomy arises: “Do I want to make this game historically-based in order to teach them the facts, dates, and events of this time?” or “Do I want to make this game historically based in order to explore the larger factors for why these events occurred, and potentially put players in that same decision making process?”
Cross of The Dutchman by Triangle Games mostly focuses on the former, without much to show for it in terms of true education or entertainment value. It treats its own historical context as a changeable theme to the game-play, neither adding to the player experience in a meaningful way, nor taking away from it.
Where there now exists an okay game, I see so much potential for a great one. Once you pair this with a sub-par combat system, and short overall run time, and less than perfect AI, there’s not too much else to give it credit for rather than being a decent way to spend three hours of your time.
- Environments are detailed and visually interesting
- Historically accurate depiction of environment, people and architecture
- Comic book style cutscenes are beautiful
- Heart-wrenching ending that left me wanting more
- Historical setting adds nothing substantial to the overall game
- Short overall game experience (3 hours)
- Simplistic combat system
- Click-based system doesn’t always register properly
- Fights in game are more cumbersome than fun
- “Variety” in attacks is only surface level
The Score: 5
Rebeccah Bassell is an editor for Analog Addiction and a lover of all things games! You can like them on Facebook, follow her personal blog, The Rhetorical Gamer, or pretend to be her friend on Twitter. I think she’d really appreciate that ❤