An adventure like KatGames’ The Cross Formula reminds you that it’s important to evaluate games on more than simply a couple screenshots and a teaser synopsis. A cursory look at the press materials for The Cross Formula evokes thoughts of Runaway, with its colorful hand-drawn 2D visuals, and brings to mind story heavyweights like Sanitarium with its promised intense narrative of an amnesiac waking up in a hotel and discovering he is wanted for murder. An actual playthrough of the game, however, brings to mind little more than The Dream Chronicles, the casual game series the Spanish studio is famous for, because The Cross Formula is more of the same—not a hidden object game, but a pretty average lite adventure.
It all starts very promisingly, with an intriguing bit of amnesia and a foreboding series of animations leading you to the aforementioned hotel room, where a tablet alarm mysteriously warns you that the police are after you. The game then moves you along a linear path to a variety of locations, including the trailer of a UFO enthusiast, an underground military base, and an upscale Los Angeles apartment, as your memory recovers and the events of your exploration trigger clues to who you are and what you’ve done. This journey is a lonely one, with brief passing interactions with static supporting characters (a gas station attendant, a diner waitress, and the UFO nut) as your only human contacts.
The game utilizes a first-person interface with no scrolling and very minimal animation in the backgrounds, and a whole lot of hunting for objects (tough to expect much different from a casual game developer) with a simple click-to-activate interface. Objects picked up can be combined or used in the environment, but most items are found very close to their intended use and are gone quickly, thus keeping a light and inconsequential inventory.
The clues to the “Cross Formula,” whatever that may be, aren’t necessarily uncovered through any natural narrative developments, but rather through a series of what the game calls “vision puzzles” which are about as casual as puzzles get—a word such as “Vision” or “Focus” must be placed, letter by letter, into a strange pre-arranged shape in a manner such that all the letters can fit in the space without touching each other. The words, the shape, and the actual solutions don’t really mean much more than an attempt to make a game where the puzzles are the stars rather than its human characters.
The game is also loaded with similar casual-friendly puzzles, such as spotting differences between two pictures, arranging a series of sliders to form a correct image, generating punch cards, and numerous others. The puzzling comes fast and furious, with a much smaller focus on inventory and a much larger focus on what might almost qualify as Layton-esque puzzles—except with a substantial built-in safety net. The game has three levels of difficulty that you can move between at any time: Casual, Expert, and Challenge. Casual mode allows you to skip puzzles and features a hint system; Challenge mode removes those options as well as the ability to show item names of objects your cursor is hovering over (which the game refers to as “tooltips”).
Even on the toughest level, don’t be under the impression there are any real challenges other than a few somewhat devious puzzles (trial-and-error puzzles like properly sequencing colored circuit wires can be really fun; trudging through morass like assembling a large camera one piece at a time is not a good idea). There is no way to die, and really no situations that even feel urgent at any time, which you’d think would be the case if you’re an amnesiac murder suspect. You may want to turn the tooltips off anyway, because in one of the more aggravating design decisions, you have to hold the cursor over any object for almost a full second before its name fades into view, and if you bump it off you’ll have to go back and wait again for it to fade back in. It’s a really terrible way to encourage interaction with lots of different objects, which is the whole point of many scenes in this game.
I like the look of The Cross Formula quite a bit—the hand-drawn 2D animation has a very classic adventure feel to it, and the washed-out colors lend a gritty atmosphere to the narrative. You can’t exactly make a successful casual game without being graphically impressive, and the details of the background art as well as some of the more visually-dependent puzzles give the game a very appealing look and style. The music is a bit more of a failure, with only some misguided jazz tunes and mysterious ambient sound, and not much in the way of actual musical tracks that lend to the story and atmosphere. The game contains no voice acting or voiceover narration—which is fine, as I greatly enjoyed supplying the voice of the half-crazy UFO enthusiast myself.
Assuming you have even a partial knack for puzzles of the Professor Layton variety, you’ll likely finish this game in under four hours, even without skipping any puzzles. Once you do finish it, the ending is an entirely abrupt, almost nonsensical wrap-up and instant ushering to the end credits that does absolutely nothing to satisfy curiosity about the story and leaves you really no better off than when you started—other than having developed a remarkable skill for fitting large letters into a small space. No dice if you want to restore a saved game, either; the game is built with a “bookmark” save system that saves your place when you leave and picks it up again when you return.
I struggled with being fair in evaluating The Cross Formula. As a budget downloadable game with varied puzzles and intriguing visuals, it can be fun to play in short bursts. As one cohesive game though, it leaves a great deal to be desired with poor design decisions, a lack of any narrative strength, and an awful non-ending. If you’re a casual game fan, you could approach from the other direction and say that in a world of incessant hidden object snoozers, here’s a game that brings more puzzle creativity and at least makes an attempt to wrap some story around its puzzling. If that’s your mindset going in, and you don’t actually care to know what the Cross Formula is (because trust me, I still have no idea), then you’ll find a decent casual adventure that will not let down its specific intended audience. And maybe it worked better than I thought, since I can’t help but type this sentence and think how much fun the letters of the word C-A-S-U-A-L would be to arrange in a very small space.