Crosswords and mysteries, puzzles and clues - as the classic song says, "these are a few of my favorite things." When I heard about Crossword City Chronicles, a game which promised to feature all of the above, I was beyond excited. I eagerly volunteered to review it like a slightly more grown-up version of the teacher's pet who excitedly waves their hand in the air every single time a question gets asked in class.
If I can say one good thing about my experience playing this game, it's that I can at least write this review warning people how terrible it is. Hopefully, other crossword and mystery enthusiasts will read this and avoid being tricked by this game the way I was.
To put it bluntly, Crossword City Chronicles features almost NONE of the gameplay and story elements it promises.
The primary reason for this is rather simple. This is a mobile game which was ported to Steam with very few changes made. Although it has removed the majority of "stamina" or "time-lock" mechanics so that gamers can complete multiple puzzles without having to wait hours in between, it otherwise feels a lot more like a mobile game than a PC one. There's a huge number of levels, but each is short with minimal plot and dialogue. Each "case" is solved in the exact same way, and involves little actual mystery knowledge or skills. It is a game meant to be completed in bite-sized portions, and as a result gameplay is extremely repetitive and quickly gets dull.
A Crossword By Any Other Name...
First things first, the definition of "crossword" this game uses involves puzzles in the Scrabble or Words with Friends style, in which tiles are used to create horizontal and vertical words with overlapping letters. As it started its life as a mobile game, Words with Friends was in fact likely a major inspiration behind it. This is the only area in which I'll take a little bit of the blame. My brain associates "crossword puzzles" with the New York Times-popularized model in which you are provided with clues and use them to fill in the appropriate words and phrases. I should have done more research to determine what the game meant by "crossword" before playing it.
Now these types of puzzles are not necessarily a bad thing - I personally enjoy the occasional game of Scrabble, although I don't have nearly enough friends to exchange Words With them. However, how Crossword City Chronicles handles them is...not great. You are given an extremely small game board already populated with two long words related to the "case" that you are solving. Due to these factors, you have very little space to actually work with, meaning there is little impetus or ability to create words longer than three or four letters long.
The standard puzzle simply challenges you to earn as many points as possible within a set number of turns. This isn't too bad, although the game lacks a mechanic for having your tile redistributed, meaning that a single bad hand can sink your entire round. One rare positive is that the game accepts a decently larger number of words as valid, including far more two-letter combinations than I expected. This does become annoying when the game gives you "hints" if you go too long without inputting an answer, because its suggestions will always be things like "Hi" or "At" that earn you almost no points.
Gimmicks: Good or Groan-worthy?
I said that Crossword City Chronicles had removed most of the time or "stamina" based mechanics which mobile games tend to feature. Most, but not all - and the one that remains is pretty darn bad. The "Informant" system allows you to collect stamps with characters faces on them. Collect enough stamps, and the letter that character represents will increase in point value. You get one stamp every four hours, and can buy more with coins which are sometimes earned when solving puzzles. This gimmick is extremely frustrating, as the stamps you receive are totally random. For example, I was able to upgrade the value of "F" nearly three times before getting a single stamp for such key letters as "A" or "E." The whole thing felt like a waste of time and effort.
In addition to the "Informant" system, occasionally, the game attempted to shake things up with a "gimmick" puzzles. A few of these are OK, such as timed puzzles, but most are pretty awful. "Debate," which challenges you to form short words on a 4 x 4 grid, at least gets some points for being different than the standard formula. Others were just the same "Scrabble-like" puzzle with a weird quirk or rule. My least favorite was essentially entirely luck-based, as it required being able to spell out a five-letter words within two turns if you wanted to get a good score.
I also disliked the "Vs." puzzles, which divided the board into red and green sections and gave you a different "outcome" depending on which section you placed more letter tiles in. While these puzzles were presumably meant to give the player some illusion of choice, this attempt totally fell flat. One section is almost always larger than the other, making it nearly impossible to actually get both results when replaying the puzzle. And even if you do...the "difference" amounts to little more than a few lines of dialogue which has no ultimate effect on the outcome of the case.
Speaking of dialogue, well...
It's a Mystery How UN-Like A Mystery This Is
I didn't think it was possible that Crossword City Chronicles' plot could be worse than its dull, repetitive, uninspired puzzles.
And yet, it was.
You play as a nameless journalist who solves mysteries and writes articles about this. His/her (you can choose between a male or a female character) boss and coworkers seem surprisingly un-bothered by the fact that a newspaper worker is investigating murders and international smuggling rings. Each mystery is "solved" when the protagonist has successfully collected three clues: the Who, the What, and the Where. Doing this typically involves interrogating a series of witnesses and sometimes playing weird and almost definitely illegal tricks on them like stealing their stuff or pretending to be someone else.
This format could work. However, it doesn't. The mysteries are completely clueless, meaning that the protagonist simply declares what happened as he/she investigates. The player actually does not need to do anything to solve the mystery. To make things worse, the Who, What, and Where are SILHOUETTED at the top of each case screen. The character silhouettes (the "Who") are extremely distinct, which means that the player can immediately figure out "whodunnit" as soon as the character in question appears. How is that a mystery, I ask? What is mystery-like about this at all? The answer is simply given to you, each and every time!
A Plot Thinner Than The Characters' Waists
As the cartoon-styled, doe-eyed, enormous-headed, tiny-waisted characters make their way through endless "mysteries" which barely fit the definition of the word, I held out some hope that the writing at least might be halfway decent. I mean, there had to be ONE less than terrible thing about Crossword City Chronicles - and it could be the writing, couldn't it?
Apparently, it could not.
The "plot" of each case is shoestring-thin. Interrogations and investigations take place over the course of just a few short lines of dialogue. Somehow, the main journalist character makes huge, case-solving deductions based on that tiny amount of information. I get that, as Crossword City Chronicles started its life as a mobile game, the focus was on gameplay over plot, but I still feel that the team behind this could have given us a bit more dialogue and character scenes than they did.
I was especially frustrated because each case had a "super ending," which could only be unlocked if you got high scores on every single puzzle in the case and earned enough trophies. I eagerly ground my way through Case 1 to reach its Super Ending...only to find out that it only added about three new lines of dialogue! This disappointing pattern continued throughout every single case.
While the character designs were decently cute, if a bit oddly proportioned, I was very disappointed with how often Crossword City Chronicles relied on outdated and even harmful stereotypes. It was filled with down-on-their-luck yet somehow chipper orphans trying to earn a buck, vaguely Italian mobsters, and foreign spies who stumble through dialogue in broken English. Worst of all, this last stereotype is used to implement a game mechanic where your letter tiles are worth less because the person you're interrogating doesn't speak good English. These puzzles made me highly uncomfortable to play and definitely felt more than a little bit problematic.
All Con, No Pro?
So was there anything good about Crossword City Chronicles at all?
I'm tempted to say "Not really," but I have to admit one thing: I actually spent several hours playing this game. It has that addictive element so common to mobile games where you can easily tell yourself "just one more puzzle" because they're just so short. And there's something that really satisfies the part of your brain that craves reward about seeing puzzles lit up with gold stars or gold trophies as you get higher and higher scores.
While I'm not sure I would recommend the Steam version of this game unless it's really on sale, if you're looking for a fun mobile app to fill your time during breaks, this certainly isn't the worst choice out there. Crossword City Chronicles was meant to be a mobile game, and it shows, so stick to that if this is a game you wish to play.
TechRaptor reviewed Crossword City Chronicles on Steam using a code provided by the publisher.
- Large Number of Cases to Play
- Short Puzzles Make it Good for Playing During Breaks
- Extremely Repetitive, Simple Puzzles
- Mysteries do not Actually Require Puzzles
- Gimmicks Make Puzzles Less Fun Rather Than More
- Dull and Almost Non-Existent Dialogue