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Indie Game of the Week 273: Cardinal Cross

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The big Wheel of Wheelhouses rolls around again only to stop on another familiar genre around these parts, albeit one that is certainly less represented than others: the sexy cyberpunk thriller visual novel. I've only covered two others previously - VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (IGotW #6) and Synergia (IGotW #215) - but ever since Snatcher (or possibly Neuromancer for C64) there's been no shortage of developers large or small offering discerning folks those elusive, seedy, neon-soaked vibes they've been seeking as they fulfil their fantasies of jacking into cyberspace with the best decks an underworld operative can afford in order to give those rascally megacorporations the business. Of course, I say all that, but what Cardinal Cross from ImpQueen has is probably closer to a near-future spacefaring setting that only occasionally includes tall, dark, handsome, and cybernetically-enhanced strangers hacking into your brain computer for salacious info (but I guess in like a romantic way?).

Cardinal Cross is set in a fictitious galaxy of colonized worlds with a power structure similar to those seen in sci-fi mainstays like Firefly and Star Wars: a centralized confederation of richer planets living it up through the misfortune of those dwelling in the scruffier and inhospitable outer systems, whom are bullied by their far more technologically-advanced neighbors into providing resources such as rare metals and pure water but in turn enjoy a greater sense of freedom further away from their oppressive governments. Lana Brice is one such outsider, running scavenging operations on "Nyx" planets - worlds that have become so devastated by technology that they've become impossible to live on, and only slightly more possible to visit just long enough to steal shit - until she encounters an Egon: an agent of the inner-worlds' vast Intelligence network and its precognitive supercomputer overseer. This particular Egon is looking to defect, however, and needs the ancient artifact Lana is trying to hock to put his plans into motion. What results is your typical spacefaring adventure staying one step ahead of antagonistic armed forces in your scrappy star freighter as the number of safe ports continues to dwindle, while taking on board the likes of: Karel, a hunky scholar laying low in the outer worlds after his accidental discovery of some incriminating historical data; Lana's loyal partner and childhood friend Wiz, the ship's engineer; and Pious, an officer chasing down the Egon for personal reasons. There's also the Egon himself, a serious dude who alternates between intimidating (and a little privacy-invasive) and a bit of a dork. As you might've already surmised by the use of "sexy" in the lede, the game has a romantic aspect to it where certain dialogue decisions can put you on the "route" of one of several paramours, including a same-sex coupling.

There's a lot of lore drops early on, and the game sticks them in the UI as green text connected to these readouts that you can read up on if need be. More elegant than having the scene screech to a halt so characters can explain all this to an audience surrogate.
There's a lot of lore drops early on, and the game sticks them in the UI as green text connected to these readouts that you can read up on if need be. More elegant than having the scene screech to a halt so characters can explain all this to an audience surrogate.

As a visual novel, Cardinal Cross is typically light on interactive elements. Beyond tapping to the next line of dialogue, the game has what I would call major and minor dialogue branches: the former is enough to shift the game's narrative to a new direction, such as choosing to get involved with a risky rescue plan with a planet's local militia, while the latter simply determines your affinity with the game's major NPCs, including the three you can eventually romance. Lana can choose to respond to dialogue partners with one of several options, the tone of each is indicated by the color and an icon of Lana's expression: purple with Lana's smiling face, for instance, are the humorous/sarcastic replies, while other responses might include being diplomatic, being terse and unfriendly, or being flirtatious depending on the topic. NPC responses to your retorts can be optionally displayed in the top left of the screen, providing feedback of whether your comment was received positively or negatively and (vaguely) to what extent: "slight interest" might be a very mild positive bump, while "thrilled" is far more positive and "angry" clearly negative. As many responses are unfortunately timed, however, you can't easily reload to try other options unless you remember to save regularly and roll it back to before these choices happen: the game's "skip text" mode is extremely rapid, at least, getting you back to the important decisions quickly. I've gleaned that there are several endings, based in part on decisions taken and your overall positive or negative attitude to other characters. You can absolutely choose to play as an opportunistic scoundrel offering no allegiance to anyone but yourself, or try to find the path of least casualties and heartache as the stakes get ever higher.

As for the game's presentation, there's a certain low-budget feel that doesn't necessarily bleed over into the character designs, backgrounds, or music (all are quite good) but rather in aspects like a lack of voice-acting and the occasional UI glitch when it's loading the next line of dialogue. There's a Science Adventure-style glossary of terms that fills in as you play, but it runs out of steam almost immediately once it's imparted everything it feels you need to know about the setting, as well as a barebones CG gallery that adds new content once you've reached the relevant scenes. However, it also lacks features that you'd normally expect as a baseline in any visual novel, like the ability to roll back the dialogue in case you clicked past it too quickly; most VNs will have a function to let you see the last few dozen lines of text in case you need to check back, but I've unable to locate that same feature here. (EDIT: I eventually found it by accident. It's the H key (I guess I channelled my inner Drew Scanlon) but there's no equivalent button on the UI to summon it.) It does at least have an impressive number of save slots to use, but for a decision-heavy game like this I'd almost prefer a timeline flowchart - though granted those rarely seem easy to implement, especially considering how many incidental character-affinity-affecting choices you'd have to account for too.

Look, ya girl doesn't always make the best choices...
Look, ya girl doesn't always make the best choices...

The game does have some... strange ideas about boundaries, and I'm not sure how much I'm overthinking things. A pivotal moment has the Egon essentially violate Lana to teach her a lesson after she tries to betray him to save her partner Wiz: this isn't done through physical abuse, and certainly nothing akin to sexual assault, but rather he uses his cybernetics to scan her mind and throw her worst memories and thoughts back at her as punishment. It's a scene that highlights the Egon's troubling pragmatism - a theme of his plotline is that he hates the cold and efficient operative his government molded him into from a young age, and how that occasionally manifests through inhumane acts of privacy-trampling info-gathering convenience - and this event is quickly and surprisingly forgiven by Lana, re-kindling the possibility of the Egon becoming a romantic option. To say I was a little apprehensive about this development, or rather both these developments in succession, is sort of an understatement: I'm curious if the later parts of the story will do a good enough job of exonerating his behavior when it feels to me like a line had been irrevocably crossed. Then again, I'm not exactly familiar with the otome genre: maybe they all have a potential love interest that gets a little too intense at times, and that some perhaps cater towards those with a hybristophilia fetish. Makes me a tad uncomfortable just thinking about it though.

Besides a few squicky moments like that I've been enjoying the story thus far and its worldbuilding efforts, for as derivative as some of it can be. I also found it amusing that the leaders of the inner planets are all named after the twelve astrological starsigns: that makes two Indie games in a row where the powerful antagonists have been Zodiac constellations, after last week's Virgo Versus the Zodiac. I'm inclined to see what ending I naturally arrive at and then use the skip text function and a guide to see what the others might entail. I don't think Cardinal Cross is going to rate as highly as some other VNs I've played recently, which had more compelling plots and characters along with better quality-of-life features in which to couch said stories and make them easier to navigate alike, but I can't say I haven't been entertained so far by its twisty, seductive sci-fi yarn.

Peoner? I barely know 'er!
Peoner? I barely know 'er!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Post-Playthrough Edit: This game definitely has a few neat ideas here and there, such as playing around with the concept of causal determinism and how often decisions only come back to haunt you during the eventful finale, but I'm going to stick to my original 3 Star rating. I'm not faulting the game's meat and potatoes as a narrative-focused game - the plotting, the characterization barring a few instances, the presentation, or the pacing - just really everything surrounding it. Like a very competent game made in something like RPG Maker or Ren'Py there are strict limitations of what it can achieve, with regards to the modern conveniences and features most of the bigger VNs enjoy. Maybe that's the equivalent of taking in a good movie at a theater and complaining about how uncomfortable the seats were, but all the same the VN crowd is getting real dense out there and every edge helps - especially if you're expecting players to check out every route without making them sit through an hour of rapid-speed skipping for each run. If you're a fan of sci-fi stories that let you flirt with dangerous men (or Samus Aran visiting from another universe) by all means give it a shot though, as it delivers on that front well enough.
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