Speak softly and carry a big sword
Triangle Studios’ Cross of the Dutchman is an interesting beast. This isometric brawler tells the origins story of Frisian rebel fighter and folk hero Pier Gerlofs Donia. Later known as Grutte Pier (Big Pier), the once humble farmer traded his pitchfork for a hulking two-meter sword to kick off a bloody and successful guerrilla campaign against the Black Band, an occupying regiment in the service of George, Duke of Saxony in the mid 16th century. While the mythology behind Cross of the Dutchman‘s protagonist makes brilliant fodder for a hack-and-slash title, the game’s repetitive nature and truncated campaign keep the title from achieving the mythic heights of its inspiration.
If you’ve played Diablo, Torchlight, or any other PC adventure game in the past few decades you’ll be instantly familiar with Cross of the Dutchman‘s mechanics. Players control the towering Pier Donia as he explores Frisian countryside, performing simple quests that range from collecting a fishmonger’s stolen wares to racing to one of the game’s 3 major settlements to rescue hostages or beat back waves of invading Saxon soldiers. Of course, you’ll spend much of your time in Cross of the Dutchman exchanging blows with the countless Landsknechts, archers, and officers who want nothing more than to squash Pier’s rebellion over the course of the game. Combat is simple, with one button serving as your standard attack, while another executes a powerful special attack that consumes your stamina gauge. It’s simple enough, but there’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from executing a well-placed uppercut that sends a five or six hapless soldiers several meters into the air and watching their broken bodies and gear rain across the battlefield. About halfway through the game you’ll gain access to Pier’s mammoth signature claymore, but it doesn’t do much to change the way combat unfolds – which essentially has you rushing in and wiping out as many enemies as you can with your special attack until your health gets low, then retreating to regenerate your health and move in for the kill. Enemy variety is virtually nonexistent, and the same strategy that worked for the game’s first encounters will be more than enough to help you survive Cross of the Dutchman‘s most chaotic melees.
Despite the game’s simplicity, running around the Frisian countryside, liberating villages and watching your budding resistance grow feels satisfying. I enjoyed watching Pier rise from a simple laborer to a hero of the people (even if breaking open their barrels and treasure chests to line my own pockets seemed a bit at odds with his character), and I felt a genuine warmth from the hulking hero whenever he returned home to his wife and family he fought so desperately to protect.
Cross of the Dutchman‘s controls work well for the most part, so long as you’re playing with a controller. However, playing with the mouse and keyboard can be an exercise in futility as Pier’s path-finding is simply awful, having him consistently take the absolute worst path to reach your selected target, subjecting your powerful protagonist to a mountain of punishment until he reaches your intended target. Using a controller fixes this, turning the game into essentially a beat-’em-up, but I still found myself wishing for a dodge or block mechanic to add some much-needed depth to the combat system. Additionally, with no way to directly control the camera, it’s not uncommon to find your view obstructed by trees, rooftops and other objects in the environment which can pose a huge threat in the game’s myriad rudimentary stealth sequences.
When you’re not crossing swords with Saxons in Cross of the Dutchman, you’ll spend plenty of time running back and forth between the same few locations to trigger key story moments. Considering Cross of the Dutchman can be completed in less than three hours, these numerous treks across the same old Frisian back roads quickly begin to feel like padding to a game that could otherwise be wrapped up in the time it takes the pizza delivery man to bring you a delicious, artery-clogging dose of greasy carbs on a Friday night. This brevity is a real shame, too, because with a bit more mission variety and larger world to explore, Cross of the Dutchman could have been quite an enjoyable – though mindless – adventure. Sure, there are upgrades to buy that permanently bolster Pier’s health and stamina meters as well as unlock new and more powerful special moves, you’ll be hard-pressed to make use of more than one or two of these upgrades by the time the credits roll, making them feel mostly inconsequential.
Cross of the Dutchman‘s presentation doesn’t do much to impress, either. While Triangle Studios’ character designs for the main protagonists have some charming personality, graphically the game leaves a great deal to be desired. While Pier’s model looks serviceable, enemy units lack any real character, and the humble hamlets and swampy crossroads you’ll tread through during your quest look like they’d feel right at home tucked into an early PlayStation 2 release. That’s not to say it’s all bad, however. The game’s story is handled through some admittedly stylish and nice looking stills that add some much-needed flavor to the story’s most emotional moments.
On the aural front, Cross of the Dutchman is perfectly serviceable. The music is pretty much the traditional medieval fare you’d expect from this type of game, with a nice variety that bounces between serene melodies to pounding war drums to accompany the action at hand. Cross of the Dutchman‘s sound effects are also solid, and the impacts of your canned ham-sized fists and sword sound solid and weighty and satisfying. That said, the game still would have benefited greatly from some spoken dialog, which would serve to add some life to the cardboard characters.
If ever there were a hero deserving of being immortalized in the annals of video game history, Pier Donia would certainly fits the bill. It’s just a shame that Cross of the Dutchman doesn’t deliver an epic quest quite worthy of the mythic figure’s lofty name. If the game were more fleshed out, and expanding upon the heroes story while making better use of the upgrading mechanics, developer Triangle Studios’ historical hack-and-slash title could have stood out as a noteworthy addition to an increasingly crowded genre. However, the game grows stale all too fast due to its repetitive, formulaic nature that manages to wear out its welcome despite the exceptionally brief campaign. If you’re a die-hard fan of the genre you might find some enjoyment plowing through the game in an afternoon, but anyone else would be better left hitting the books to learn about Cross of the Dutchman‘s story of revolution.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Triangle Studios ; Developer: Triangle Studios ; Players: 1; Released: September 10, 2015 ; ESRB: Not Rated ; MSRP: $8.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by Cross of the Dutchman’s publisher, Triangle Studios.