Cross of the Dutchman: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed], Mac OS, GNU/Linux
Developer: Triangle Studios
Publisher: Triangle Studios
Release Date: 10 September 2015
Price: €8.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
The story of Pier Gerolfs Donia, or Grutte (The Great) Pier is not that well-known outside of Holland. Luckily for you, I’ve been on Wikipedia again. His life story is, for the most part, riddled with exaggerations and unreliable sources, but what is known is that he was a peasant in the Dutch province of Frisia (modern day Friesland) around the turn of the 16th century and he was involved in a rebellion against the Saxons. Central to the legend of Grutte Pier is the theme of superhuman size and strength. Triangle Studios set out to separate history from myth and give us an accurate as possible portrayal of those events in Cross of the Dutchman.
Have a beer with Grutte Pier
The game begins in quite a formulaic fashion, with Pier leading a quiet and simple life on his farm with his wife and children. During the tutorial you are given menial tasks to do, which are acknowledged as such by the characters in a self-aware manner, bordering on breaking the fourth wall. Before long, you are attacked by brigands, easily dispatched with your bare fists, driving home the whole idea of Pier being possessed of massive strength. Slowly but surely, as Pier is simply trying to go through the motions of a regular day he is drawn into trouble by various characters from around the province and eventually finds himself a reluctant fighter in the rebellion against the Saxons.
The game offers an isometric perspective, reminiscent of an ARPG, but sells itself as an Action-Adventure title. You always have one objective and a minimap guiding you into its general direction. Most of the action consists of small skirmishes in which Pier needs to dispatch several to dozens of soldiers. The combat system is very simplistic and not something I’d call sophisticated, but it’s satisfying. Pier starts out with just his fists, able to execute short combos and soon unlocks his special heavy attack which hits much harder and consumes stamina.
Several vendors scattered around the villages and countryside sell various replacement special attacks that have different attack arcs, knock-back values and damage amounts. You can also purchase health and stamina upgrades. For this you can use the gold inside the many unattended chests and inside the numerous destructible crates and barrels around the game world. Later on, Pier gains access to his legendary claymore, improving his damage and attack range.
More than anything I felt the absence of a dodge or block button. It’s easy to get overrun by enemies and you can sometimes be forced to run around the battlefield followed by enemies while your health regenerates, humming the theme to Benny Hill. However, I haven’t been gaming for over 20 years without being able to adapt, so I started to approach the battles as puzzles instead of combat situations. The enemies attack in identical waves on each of your attempts, composed of the same number of soldiers, archers and officers, so you can eventually find an optimal strategy to minimize damage taken during a fight and use your stamina in the most efficient manner.
Between the fights, Cross of the Dutchman advances the story by having you move Pier from location to location, meeting new characters, assembling a motley crew of merry men and eventually an entire army of rebels. Some of them will assist you in battle on occasion and thankfully, do not require you to babysit them. For variety, the game also throws in a few stealth missions in which you have to evade soldiers patrolling along predetermined paths and some time trials combining both stealth and combat that you need to complete within a time limit.
As far as storytelling goes, Cross of the Dutchman takes a light-hearted approach to what was undoubtedly a series of gruesome events. The rag-tag band of rebels is a fun little group of misfits reminiscent of Robin Hood’s Merry Men and Pier is more of a reluctant hero that would just like to get back home to his family. At one point during the game, he actually does, and starts working the fields just to be attacked by soldiers mere moments later. This is, I feel, one of the game’s problems: the pacing. The game world consists of just a few villages and the surrounding countryside and Pier is constantly ordered back and forth between areas, with little more than a short dialogue between errands. The environment is constantly changing, albeit slightly, as a consequence to the various events that transpire but it can get a bit repetitive running around the same villages. In fact, the whole process of starting a revolution seems to take place in as little as three days.
Cross of the Dutchman and beyond
The art style is simplistic, but cohesive. In tune with the light-hearted narrative, the character models and environments lean more towards colorful and cartoony, but the real stars of the show are the cutscenes. Important story events are told through subtitled gorgeously-drawn stylized drawings which for some reason, the game seems to be in a hurry to flip through at times, which is a real shame. Nearly every one of the cutscene drawings are wallpaper material. The soundtrack manages to evoke a proper medieval feel and the sound effects, especially during combat, are satisfying. In fact, there were a few more intense sequences where I was surprised to find that I was a lot more invested than I would have expected. It’s a pity that these moments are fewer because, as mentioned before, Cross of the Dutchman seems to be overly enthusiastic with showing you as many events as possible as fast as possible, without giving you the time to take in any of it.
In fact, at times the game seems as if it would have benefited from being a different genre, one more focused on the story rather than the combat, as the combat and travelling seem to be just busywork to take you from plot point to plot point. I also sometimes got the feeling that it wanted to do more with the Resistance aspect of the story. You have several allies, each with their own special skills and a large number of vigilante soldiers. Heck, at one point you even requisition an entire training camp to use as a base of operations. I felt like I was inches away from the game introducing some sort of strategy mechanic, having me deploy troops to defend a village or manage my base and allies as you would party members in an RPG. And yet, as close as that moment felt, it never came. The ending, however, did. Cross of the Dutchman is only several hours long, but ends by hinting at Pier’s possible further adventures.
The game is flawed. It is not, however, irredeemable. Not by a longshot. The graphics are simple, but fitting. The combat is rudimentary, yet satisfying. The story is interesting and intense now and then, but poorly paced and short. And yet, overall, I think the good outweighs the bad because, above all, Cross of the Dutchman is earnest. It’s one of those games that shows deep passion and effort. It seems as if the developers wanted to tell a story close to their hearts and ultimately fell prey to the all-too-often encountered beast that is Budgetary Constraints. Yet they seem to have been aware of this because the game comes, in my opinion, fairly priced.
In fact, I was so intrigued by the game’s many quirks that while I was writing this review I sent the developers several interview questions to get their side of things and they were kind enough to answer. At the end of the day, Cross of the Dutchman is a decent game. It misses a lot of opportunities but I had fun with it and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Grutte Pier.