Crossword City Chronicles is a barebones port of a woeful mobile game that turned Scrabble into a tedious, mind-numbing grind.
Let’s clear something up: crosswords and Scrabble are different things. They’re both word-based puzzles that use a grid of overlapping words, sure, but very different in how they actually work, and what sort of satisfaction comes from solving them. So when I see a game with “crossword” in the title and it turns out to be a form of Scrabble solitaire, it already gets itself off on the wrong foot.
But that’s the least of Crossword City Chronicles‘ problems. It’s sold as “the only game that combines word puzzles with adventure, crime, and mystery!”, as a game where you can “beat crossword challenges to solve cases” and “use your detective skills and dictionary” to “reveal clues by scoring word bonuses”. In reality, it’s a game where a mind-numbing grind is the driving force, where investigation is non-existent, and where the mysteries are as superficial as possible.
On paper, Crossword City Chronicles sounds intriguing. Playing as an investigative reporter in the 1950s, you’re meant to “solve cases and grab headlines”, using word puzzles and detective work to reveal clues and get to the bottom of each new investigation. In practice, it’s a game that strips most of the strategy out of Scrabble in favour of a tedious grind, the remnants of what was once an incredibly stingy free-to-play game. The microtransactions are gone from the PC version, but the tedium is still here in spades.
In short, each case involves playing short-form games of Scrabble solitaire in order to earn stars, which you can then use to unlock pieces of evidence. Each round takes place on a 9×9 grid—so much smaller than standard Scrabble board, with much less space to actually make words—with the goal of earning as many points as you can in four turns. Reaching arbitrary, cumulative point totals unlocks stars, but with each new case the targets get exponentially higher, and with it, the amount of replaying the same levels over and over just to get there.
In theory, it’s meant to be a game that rewards skillful play: higher-scoring words means more points earned, and fewer replays needed to unlock the stars you need. In practice, the scope for skillful play is limited; the short turn count and small board mean the biggest factor in how many points you can make in one attempt comes down to how lucky you get with tile draws. And even if you do get a good hand, it doesn’t take long before levels start to have such high point targets that no amount of skill or luck can overcome the need to grind incessantly.
This is what amounts to detective work in Crossword City Chronicles. Grind for points, earn a star, unlock a piece of evidence—there’s no actual investigation game at all, and even the narrative component of it amounts to extremely short dialogue scenes where all the pieces just happen to fall into place. Characters are the simplest of caricatures with nothing to make them memorable in the slightest, and the cases themselves lack even the slightest amount of depth or intrigue. What should be key details glossed over in the space of a sentence, all the quicker to get you back to grinding for more stars.
Some levels introduce slight variations on the basic Scrabble format. You might start with only part of the board visible, with new spaces opening up as you play words next to hidden ones and a target number of spaces to uncover. Sometimes you’ll make narrative choices based on where on the board you lay your tiles, with the scores for words in different marked segments contributing to a target score to pick that choice. One of the more interesting and unusual ones is a sort of Scrabble match-three, where you play tiles in a grid of letters to try to clear them out by completing words.
There are kernels of some interesting ideas here, but they’re far from fleshed-out enough to be a worthwhile distraction from how tiresome the basic structure of Crossword City Chronicles is. Worse still, they get dragged down by all the same problems as the standard levels: no matter what wrinkles you introduce, a Scrabble game driven by grinding and luck is one that’s never going to be satisfying.
These are the symptoms of a game that was once a free-to-play mobile game, where the combination of grind-based design and a miserly energy system meant, in theory, that people would be encouraged to drop some coin to skip the wait for their next turn. For its PC release, Crossword City Chronicles has done away with the microtransactions, but kept the grind intact—that’s never a great place to start, and certainly not when the core game loop is as dull as what’s on offer here.
You can see shades of its free-to-play origins elsewhere, too. Almost every case involves at least one moment where your character needs to go away and do some legwork on her own to gather clues, only to return with those clues instantly. In the mobile version, this was when a timer would start, halting progress until you either wait it out or pay to skip ahead; in the PC version, the timer and pay option are both gone, but with these bizarre little pacing blips in their absence.
Despite being mouse-driven on PC, the main screen still prompts you to “Touch to start”. Whether in full screen or windowed mode, the display is locked to a mobile-esque portrait orientation, any extra space to the sides left blank (with the exception of the map that serves as the level select screen)—there’s not even so much as a wallpaper to decorate the void. These aren’t necessarily problems in their own right, but they’re symptoms of how little effort has gone into adapting Crossword City Chronicles to a new home where landscape displays and mouse controls are the norm.
The idea of a unique blend of word puzzles and detective investigation is an intriguing one, but that’s not what you’ll find here. Crossword City Chronicles is a no-frills port of a free-to-play, microtransaction-laden mobile game that ditched everything enjoyable about Scrabble in favour of a mind-numbing grind. The microtransactions may be gone, but the tedium remains, and without any hint of the promised “use [of] your detective skills” and the most lacklustre cases imaginable, tedium is all there is.
Crossword City Chronicles is developed and published by Trailblazer Games. It’s available now for PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.