Cross of the Dutchman – or any historical games “based on a true story” – should ship with a disclaimer. At some point during the player’s virtual crusade, the developers will con the hero or heroine into doing video game busywork. For all the research written or legends told about King Arthur, Alexander the Great, or similar larger-than-life figures, you never hear stories about the hours they spent slaying rats or smashing crates for experience points. Some teams overcome these immersion-breaking flaws, trading factual accuracies for a game’s overall fun. This particular title seems to forget about both.
Cross of the Dutchman trades the excitement of an action RPG for a mediocre, semi-authentic origin story. Players witness the genesis of Pier the Great, the 16th-century hero that sparked a rebel army’s rise against invading Saxons in the northern Netherlands. While he starts out as everyday Pier Gerlofs Donia, Pier’s ascension from farmer to formidable pirate contains several erroneous details. Only his wife died at the hands of the Saxons, not his son. Second, although I wasn’t there, I suspect Pier fought deadlier forces than Cross of the Dutchman’s Runescape-like vagabonds. The strangely shaped swordsmen, archers, and, umm, slightly stronger swordsmen and archers – because Cross of the Dutchman poses a lack-of-enemy-variety problem – model themselves after marionettes.
I’ve seen puppets put on livelier expressions. You’d think Pier’s foes would respond to his seven-foot-tall mass of musculature, or his capacity to uppercut soldiers in droves of four or five men at once. Cross of the Dutchman’s combat is a simple-minded ordeal that I played without a keyboard. Seriously, every interaction is performed with just your mouse, whether you left-click merchants to browse their wares or bruise Saxons black and blue. A stamina meter feeds Pier’s special attacks, too, if he has the energy to burn. Dozens of infantry may surround Pier during battle, though a spin of his mighty claymore or a thunderclap of his fists squashed my adversaries indiscriminately.
I admit to feeling some pleasure in reducing Saxon numbers by the handful, their bodies going slack as the last gasp of oxygen escapes their lungs, but the sole indication of the special attack you have selected is a tin, bronze, silver, or golden fist/sword. I will not mock Triangle Studios for including eight super moves in total – you can buy them any time, and they legitimately swing altercations in your favor – though players may have trouble differentiating between a stab or ground pound when surrounded. All I realized is that two health and stamina upgrades cannot save the misguided stealth sequences.
The stealth sections creep in at the oddest times and reek of a studio striving for any reason to change up the gameplay. Infiltrating a camp? Sure. Trying to reach the next town before Saxons hang Pier’s friends? While most games require discretion in such tenuous situations, Pier snuffs Saxon garrisons out single-handedly. Why does a solitary guard catching sight of him result in a game over screen? Slipping by guards is a crapshoot without a clear cone of vision. I estimated the eyesight of my pursuers to be the diameter of a lantern’s glow, excluding their absent hearing and periphery senses. Those caveats notwithstanding, enemy sentries still spotted me from the shadows.
If the game lasted longer than two hours, my blood pressure may have spiked. Brevity is a gift, and Cross of the Dutchman’s playtime is a boon and a curse. I finished Cross of the Dutchman in one session, but remember my mention of video game busywork? When not bashing Saxon heads in, most objectives require Pier to gallop between segregated countrysides, speak to an NPC, and run back. If those menial tasks sound enticing, you could smash barrels and crates for the gold inside, or survey recreations of the towns that the real Pier fought to defend. Hidden chests only pack your coin purse tighter, and many sit in plain sight. Collectibles they are not.
Despite Pier’s stature, players have to do all the heavy lifting. Jogging around the towns of Arum and Kimswerd should be a relaxing endeavor, but the pathfinding scarcely works and my clicks barely registered when I wanted to talk with somebody. While clicking on the ground sends Pier scurrying to that location like a cat chasing a laser pointer, the Saxons that brand Pier as an oaf have become self-aware. Unless his path is free of debris, Pier runs into boxes, trees, or fences until players interfere. He is obstinate, incapable of stepping around natural obstacles unless you click and drag the mouse to guide him. When hoping to complete my errands, I’d click on NPCs three, four, five times before Pier stopped skipping around his kinsmen and commenced with a conversation.
Mapping too many actions to one button cripples battles just as often. You cannot hold down the mouse buttons to assault enemies; you strike them one by one. In a sea of Saxons, combat becomes a contest of “Find Your Cursor.” Cross of the Dutchman would misinterpret my attacks for a movement order or even a prompt to talk to allies. Why would I ever feel the need to ask Pier’s nephew about our mission when opposing bows and blades envelop us on all sides? The Saxons won’t pause for Pier and his troops to discuss private matters. Rather than reveling in fighting alongside the soldiers I recruited, I ran ahead of my troops to dodge the possibility of engaging in accidental dialogues.
Serenity only came from hunting the secret chests. The soundtrack’s innocent acoustic melodies placed me in a trance, and something about breaking boxes and barrels, watching Pier’s wallet grow fatter, tickled the pleasure centers in my brain. It was great to devote a couple hours to a game that did not demand my rapt attention beyond a few minutes here and there. Perhaps Triangle Studios will expand Cross of the Dutchman into a series with open environments and chances to explore off the coast of the Netherlands, where the actual Pier’s infamy flourished. Maybe then Cross of the Dutchman would be at home among action RPGs.
Whether Cross of the Dutchman wants do right by other action RPGs or not, it has a long way to go. Unlike Assassin’s Creed’s debut, the gameplay foundations are not yet there. The action and stealth sequences are too unrefined, and the rewards for deviating from the beaten path not juicy enough. If Triangle Studios hopes to make a future with Cross of the Dutchman, the team needs to build its ideas bigger and better. Given the option to replay Cross of the Dutchman, I’d sooner read Pier’s Wikipedia entry again, which offered greater entertainment at no cost whatsoever.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided.
Cross of the Dutchman’s “based on a true story” narrative is neither accurate, nor are its battles a substitute for action RPGs like Diablo. I would rather read Pier’s Wikipedia entry again, which offered greater entertainment at zero cost.