There are few rivalries in the animal kingdom more infamous than that of cats and dogs. The two species are often considered natural enemies; the independence and aloofness of regal felines clashing with the boisterous, friendly nature of canine companions. Publisher KEMCO and developer Rideon have tapped into that natural enmity as the basis for their newest strategy RPG, Cross Tails. While the clash between fangs and claws fails to deliver an engaging narrative, the core gameplay and progression systems remain satisfying enough to make this furry journey of war and conflict worth seeing through to its conclusion.
Cross Tails begins with a choice between the two sides of its conflict. Players can either play as Shaimaa, daughter of the clan chief of one of the great clans of Hidiq, or Felix, a captain in the Ravenfurt army. War breaks out between these two nations after a Hidiq village is attacked under mysterious circumstances, igniting a long-standing feud between the nations of cat and dog people. Being a cat lover, I had to go with Shaimaa. The two characters cross paths numerous times during their respective journeys (hence the game’s title), and the inclusion of two separate routes with different recruitable characters and storylines certainly adds replayability to the package.
Rideon is certainly no stranger to the tactical RPG genre, having developed a number of entries in their Mercenaries series. Most of these games follow the same template, use the same character progression mechanics, and while they may offer different character art, typically use the same sprite-based 2D art style. Cross Tails, on the other hand, is a massive aesthetic and mechanical shift for the developer. The game features fully 3D battle maps, and the eye-catching 2D character portrait art translates well into simple polygonal character models. While some may prefer the 2D sprite art of the Mercenaries games, the familiarity of this style meant that their titles had a hard time standing out from one another, giving the series a manufactured feeling. The polygonal visuals on offer in Cross Tails are by no means technically impressive, but they feel cohesive with the character art and give the game a unique visual identity that goes a long way to help the game stand out among the developer’s prior work.
The characters and world-building are a step above what Rideon has produced in the past, with the canine Kingdom of Ravenfurt feeling more European in style and the feline Republic of Hidiq inspired by desert-dwelling societies like Ancient Egypt. Despite playing and enjoying Rideon’s past games, I would struggle to recall the names or personalities of the characters in any Mercenaries game. However, many characters in Cross Tails stuck with me despite their simplicity, such as the headstrong and impulsive protagonist Shaimaa, her reluctant and cautious friend Nisrine, and Abbas, the old Berserker with a drinking problem.
Unfortunately, uncovering the complete details of the plot requires playing both routes, so the narrative is vague and meandering when playing through one path. While the reason for the war is ultimately revealed, the answers feel unsatisfying. The plot itself is bog standard and very predictable, and events proceed haphazardly until the conflict suddenly rushes towards its conclusion with little fanfare.
Further hindering the storytelling is the translation, which is simply not up to snuff. The dialogue feels incredibly stiff and lifeless, with very little personality conveyed through the writing and phrasing that comes off as very unnatural. Most of the game is intelligible, and there wasn’t any point where ability descriptions or tooltips left me confused, but it could have used a further editing pass.
The gameplay and mechanics are where Cross Tails truly shines. The basic gameplay will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has played a tactics RPG in the vein of Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics. Battles take place on an isometric, grid-based map with elevated terrain, and turn order is determined by the character’s speed (AGI). Characters each have classes they can train and learn skills from, and these classes can be mixed and matched to specialize in a particular role or unlock more advanced classes.
The true innovation lies in its details. One major addition to the formula is Hate, which determines how likely the AI is to target a particular unit, represented numerically beside their character model on the battlefield. As characters attack, heal, or use abilities, they generate Hate and are thus more likely to be attacked by enemy units. This system adds an extra layer of strategy as it forces the player to consider the ‘aggro’ of enemies when selecting actions and gives the player a method of manipulating the enemy’s focus. This mechanic makes tank-style units like warriors and knights extremely important to keep the enemy’s attention away from squishier mages and archers.
The progression systems have their own unique flair as well. Unlike many similar games, money is the most essential resource in Cross Tails. Players use money to purchase items and equipment just like any other RPG, but also to learn and upgrade skills. This creates an engaging risk-reward system, requiring that players decide between outfitting their party with the latest and greatest equipment or learning new skills and abilities. Furthermore, skill progression is not metered by acquiring a separate resource like job or class points. If players complete a battle and find their purse particularly heavy, they can change a unit into a new class and immediately spend all their gold to max that class out before the next fight. This level of flexibility is novel, and I enjoyed the additional player agency this provided me in building my team at my own pace.
Cross Tails may not be one of the best tactical RPGs I’ve ever played, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for a developer and publisher who are often accused of churning out generic, by-the-numbers games lacking in creativity. A dime-a-dozen plot and poor translation let the story down, but Cross Tails makes up for it with unique mechanics and a solid battle system that provides a moderate challenge.