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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cross of the Dutchman



Cross of the Dutchman
Developed by: Triangle Studios
Published by: Triangle Studios
Release Date: September 10 2015
Available on: Steam - Provided by developer
Video: YouTube

I first saw Cross of the Dutchmans preview trailer only about a month ago and fell in love with its visuals and theme. It's based on a true story about the giant of a man turned rebel, Pier Gerlofs Donia who started a guerrilla band against the Black Band. My minimal research into Pier has shown me that Cross of the Dutchman does take some liberties with the telling of the story but overall conveys the tale well. It tells the story of a farmer who fears for his family's safety, during a time of strife.

The gameplay is reminiscent of action RPGs such as Diablo or Torchlight, movement and combat tied to one mouse button.  Player movement is slow, although it does convey the massive weight of this giant of a man. Combined with the repetitive trekking back and forth through empty zones this can turn into a humdrum slog. There are many side paths that you can take to gather loot via smashing everything in sight.  Depending on your point in the story, many of the pathways are blocked off by roadblocks or just plain old dead ends. After each major event you will have to travel back to your home and check on your wife, not your family, just your wife. This forces you to travel through several of these empty, dull, boring, zones just to get back home, talk to your wife, then head back.

Quests are poorly laid out and far too often have a time limit of exactly 5 minutes, never more. Timed quests are rarely mentioned, the only way you know it's timed is if you look at the quest tracker in the upper right. The timed quests can lead you through the poorly implemented stealth sections with no clear area of detection, multiple dead ends for no good reason, slower movement speed and even slower guard speed. One of these sections was through 4 zones alternating between stealth and combat. If you took the time to fight the enemies you were guaranteed to run out of time on the 3rd zone. I only made it through by running past the combat into the stealth zones and even then I made it with only 30 seconds to spare, at which time was given another 2 minutes with Pier commenting that "this is going to take forever"... Nooo really!

Clear as mud capture radius

Other quests will have you search an area for a person. In one quest you have to find a blacksmith. The person that knows where he is tells you to head "east". Heading east leads you to a bridge to town that you can't access till you find him. His actual location is south-east, then south, then west. This would have made much more sense to say south, especially since you can see his camp across the river if you look. Other such quests are when you have to talk to your wife but she is not even close to the quest marker. Turns out you have to talk to a monk/priest/friar (not sure what  he is, but he looks like friar Tuck) who just runs past you as you walk to the quest location. He's supposed to talk to you as soon as you enter the zone but I had to go back and talk to him. Hopefully this is fixed in a patch before release.

Let's now talk about combat, the great horned beast of a combat centric game. I mentioned before that this is similar to games like Diablo and that holds true for combat, in it's most basic sense. You use left click or A (on an Xbox controller) to attack and right click or B (on an Xbox controller) for your special attack. There is no dodge or healing items and very limited amounts of upgrades. I found the mouse controls to be a little better than using a controller since it's easier to do fine adjustments with the mouse. These adjustments are required because Pier, being a massive man, pushes forward by nearly a full character length when he swings. This caused him to push his enemies away as well, but they don't just push back, they push to the side and out of his strike zone. Eventually Pier will get a sword, which has a nice arch to it when you swing, or you would think by the animation. Turns out that arch is just for show and if the enemy is not directly in front of Pier it will pass right through. This can obviously cause some issues when you expect a wide area of attack as the trade off for the loss of speed.

Swing and a miss - slowed to 25%
Throughout the game you will get into situations where you're surrounded by massive amounts of enemies. They will overwhelm you, forcing you into a corner and most likely death. There is generally an area where you can funnel them to make things easier on you and allow your special to do its thing. Pier needs to have enough stamina to execute a special and each one has different stats. Pier will regenerate stamina over time but at a fairly slow rate. This slow rate makes it hard to use them more than once in any but the large combat sequences and even then you have to spend a lot of time lining up your enemies to make it count. You often have an ally with you during large fights, who just so happen to be immortal if they are one of the named followers. Since they are immortal you can use them to hold back the tide, allowing you to run away to heal up. Not an ideal strategy or even one that should exist but it's one that can be used to improve your survivability.

There are a grand total of ten upgrades that you can buy through your journey: 2 health, 2 stamina, 3 fist specials, 3 sword specials. None of them are particularly useful or significant. Specials are not explained at all, the only way to know you can get them is to visit a blacksmith. The blacksmith shop just shows a minimal amount of information: Name, Stamina usage, power and range. All the stats are shown as a basic bar, no other info is provided. You may assume that if it shows 50% of the stamina bar it would use 50% of Piers stamina, but this doesn't take into account the 2 stamina upgrades.

As stated at the beginning this is based on a true story, or more of a folktale. You would expect this to translate into a relatively robust and interesting story. Unfortunately somehow Pier comes across as a petulant child always complaining about having to do something. In the first part of the game Piers wife asks him to gather some vegetables from their farm to bring to market and trade for fish. She is immediately met with "Do I have to? Can't you send one of the kids?". This one line made me go "WTF? this is how this is going to go!" Not a good start to what could be a wonderful tale. This whining and "Do I have to?" continues for the first few chapters. I can only assume that this was to portray Pier as a "reluctant hero" but as I said it only made him seem like a petulant child. Around the second half of the game the writing gets better and Pier becomes a madman hell bent on leading his friends and family against the invading Saxon army. This is a nice change but I couldn't shake off the whiny piss-ant of a man at the beginning.

The Petulant child talking to his wife

There are several cutscenes that use still images panned and zoomed to form a simple yet effective cutscene. Each scene shows a focused slice of the events in a much more dramatic way, and could add a lot to the moment. You may notice I said "could" there! Well that's because they usually came after seeing the exact same scene, with the same dialog, but in engine. At that point the moment is lost and it just feels like it's dragging on. Luckily you can skip the cutscenes (at least the ones I tried) so you don't have to sit through them. Some of the cutscenes suffer from a case of eerie silence syndrome, making them feel out of place. This again could just be a bug that will be fixed. Last little nitpick on the cutscenes is since they are not voice acted and have text overlaid, they need to be timed properly. Some of the text disappears before I can read half of it. Other times test is still on after I had read them twice. This could be solved by making it user advanced.

The game performs well with very few hiccups or frame drops and I personally think those were due to Windows 10 and the awful Nvidia drivers. As always my system is an i5-2500 with a GTX-960. I did experience a framerate drop of 10-20 FPS while recording with OBS using nvenc (shadowplay encoder).

Conclusion:

Overall Cross of the Dutchman is a decent game marred by some poor writing and mediocre controls. The cutscenes need to take the place of in game events, not show the same thing that you just saw. The art style is beautiful and fits the story well. Protagonist could be less of a whiny brat in the early game, especially since he's a grown man. Having its roots based in a real world tale adds so much to the story. Combat needs more depth and a clear strike zone for swings with sword and fists. Lessen the cluster of enemies that come at you, it gets tiresome and annoying.

Pros
  • Based on a true story
  • Nice art style
  • Cutscenes are nice




Cons
  • Mediocre controls
  • Dialog does not do the story justice
  • Protagonist comes across as a petulant child
  • Combat is lacking depth
  • Enemies thrown at you in large groups
  • Strike zone too small when using a sword
  • Cutscenes need better timing for text

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