What makes a good visual novel? If your answer is ‘there’s no such thing’, then now’s the time to back away. Cross the Moon is very much visual, very much a novel. If your answer is ‘dialogue choices and multiple paths, leading to different endings’, then Cross the Moon is also a no-go. There’s zero gameplay, zero divergence here. All you’re doing is pressing A to move to the next lot of chat, or auto-playing it like a movie.
This is a visual novel in the literal sense. It’s a novel that happens to have imagery to smooth over the reading. You could argue that Cross the Moon is better defined as a motion comic, and the themes and art feel like neighbours to some prominent comics. The work of Kieron Gillen comes to mind, particularly Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine. Cross the Moon features attractive, young people doing stylish things in clubs, all with a cracking soundtrack and some magic-realism moments.
Let’s return to that first question: ‘what makes a good visual novel?’. If your answer is more along the lines of ‘fantastic story, dialogue and characters’, then Cross the Moon may be the best of its kind on the Xbox, at least for the past year or so. It would make a worthy plot for a TV series or comic run. It had us glued for the eight hours or so of runtime, and it does it all for a bargain price of £4.99.
Cross the Moon starts as an anthology piece, with three unrelated characters crossing paths in the French town of L’Amour. The first, most prominent story follows Lux, who is a vampire. He is having a night on the tiles with his friends Apollon and Corentine, and he’s drawn the short straw: to chat up a young lawyer and convince him to willingly let them suck his blood. Lux has the ability to ‘mesmir’, a kind of Jedi mind trick, and blood is soon on the menu. But things spiral from there, and the young trio get in over their heads.
Then there’s Ryouko, a Japanese detective who has arrived on an exchange with the French commissariat, so that she can learn more about policing vampire-populated cities. It’s her first day, and she finds herself on a murder case, with a corpse that has had its eyes removed and its neck punctured by fangs.
Finally there’s Aurore, a vampire interviewing for a position at bloodFLOW, a multinational that makes artificial blood drinks for vampires. It seems like she’s being groomed to become the token vampire on staff. But as you’d expect from a shady corporation, there are further politics at play.
These threads weave in and out of each other, and the characters soon show similarities and connections. There’s a neat backdrop to all of this: decades ago, the Moon ruptured, showering rocks onto the surface of Earth, and – at that very same moment – thousands of people became sick and turned into vampires. Since that event, vampires have been pushed into ghettos, forced to register, and had curfews imposed. It doesn’t take much to spot some real-world corollaries here, and while Cross the Moon can be a little on the nose with its racial tensions, it stirs the corollaries in too. Both Aurore and Lux are black, and they reflect and compare on how the world reacts to their often-demonised attributes.
But while Cross the Moon dabbles in real-world issues, it’s at its best when it’s a mystery box. The initial whodunnit develops into a ‘who is bloodFORM really?’ corporate thriller, before crossing into some existential questions and a wee bit of magic and aliens. The story’s constantly surprising, and picks equally from expected and unexpected plot developments, meaning that you’re often surprised. We’ll keep schtum beyond that.
The characters are decent, although the main ones (particularly Apollon) are wet blankets with a penchant for making bizarre choices. It leaves the supporting cast to be the real winners. They’re allowed to go full-panto, so we get the smarmy Felix Jonquille and his ram-horned vampire police, the Apotropes; Corentien Ipomee who has zero patience for anyone; and our personal favourite, a bouncer who looks like an Edwardian strongman, twizzly moustache and all. The writing for all of them is strong, only occasionally over-written, and you’ll have to pay attention as the plot developments move at a fair clip.
What makes Cross the Moon stand out is that it doesn’t look or feel like your conventional visual novel. There’s no romancing here, no anime characters or obvious archetypes. It’s more interested in unwrapping its mystery than letting you dry-hump the cast, and feels mature and refined as a result. The soundtrack helps with this, also created by polymath author and developer Patrick Rainville, and it’s well worth searching out on Bandcamp. We’d place it somewhere between the gothic synth of a Depeche Mode and more modern chillwave. It’s extremely well-done.
For artwork, Partick Rainville has opted for real-world photography as a backdrop, with the comic book characters layered on top, and – again – it works well. The photography never felt lazy or crowbarred in, and was always suitable for the scene. The characters could have done with a few more poses – ‘idle’ and ‘talking’ are pretty much it – and a little more animation would have made it feel less static, but generally your attention is held in what is a longer-than-expected modern fairy tale.
Which takes us to Cross the Moon’s biggest flaw. It’s a fantastic story, told without interactions or divergence, and that means there’s zero replay value. Being a mystery box, it’s not a story you will rush to read again in the future. We also found playing Cross the Moon tiring: it demands complete focus over eight hours, as there are details in the dialogue that need your attention, but the game doesn’t actually require you to do anything at all. Sure, there are shells to spot which give you achievements and a journal entry, but they’re rare enough to be handwaved. On auto mode, you’re not turning a page, and on manual mode you’re getting carpal tunnel from the buttons, so there’s no real sweet spot: you’re either focused but doing nothing, or pressing buttons intensely but not doing anything meaningful. We had to play through it in small chunks. But that’s more a problem with the genre than it is the story.
Cross the Moon’s a stylish and enthralling vampire tale, and there are very few visual novels that have its confidence. It has a sure hand in its photography, soundtrack and plotting, and – as long as you can stomach the lack of any interaction at all – you’ll take great glee in unwrapping its mysteries. You won’t ever come back to play Cross the Moon, but one of its unexpected moments or lilting songs will sink its fangs into you.
You can buy Cross the Moon for £4.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S