Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Crux: A Climbing Game, which debuted for iOS and Android in the fall of 2020, was heralded as one of the first “real” climbing video games. This accolade was largely deserved. The mobile app was a deep, polished effort, without the spammy animation and bug-ridden, unrealistic gameplay commonly found in most climbing apps. Crux was a rare effort in the climbing video game world, in that it was made by climbers for climbers, and it showed.
The game’s developer, Benjamin Dressler, recently released the second iteration in the Crux series, christened Crux: The Great Outdoors. The original game featured exclusively indoor problems, but, as the name suggests, Crux: The Great Outdoors adds outdoor bouldering into the mix, in addition to a few new features, such as dynos.
If you checked out the original Crux, the gameplay is largely the same here. If not, here’s the gist. You control a climber as they attempt to solve various boulder problems. You can customize your climber’s gender, clothing, shoe, hair and skin color, and so on, though the personalization options are fairly limited.
Your climber is controlled either via virtual buttons or swiping, and each side of the screen controls a different half of your body. Swipe on the left and your climber will move their legs. Swipe on the right and they’ll move their arms. Each limb must be moved individually. You’ll need to move your left hand up to grab a hold, then move your right hand up, then your left foot… and so on.
Some holds are “rest” holds, where you can hang on as long as you want while you survey the moves ahead, but most holds incorporate a time limit. You can only hold on for so long before your climber falls.
Despite the outdoor setting, the game features the same grid-based design as its predecessor. Holds are laid out equidistant to each other, up, down, left, and right. As mentioned above, The Great Outdoors does incorporate dynos, an improvement over its predecessor, but the gameplay remains formulaic at best, and repetitive at worst.
Basically, every level of Crux: The Great Outdoors is some combination of moving right, left, up, or down with your climber’s legs and arms, trying to decipher the correct combination to reach the top before falling. It plays like a mix of bouldering and solving math problems. There’s still that jolt of satisfaction when you decipher the correct sequence, but it often comes only after a painstakingly long session of trial-and-error.
In many ways, Crux: The Great Outdoors reminded me a lot of Guitar Hero (or another pattern-based, time-sensitive button-masher). The timers on the holds are often extremely fast, so there is no time to think on the fly. If you haven’t slotted your beta before you make your first move, you likely won’t send the problem. In that sense, Crux mimics the natural endurance factor of climbing quite well. You can’t hang on the problems endlessly. Once you start, you damn well better be able to roll through to the finish hold.
Another one of the main draws of the original Crux was the animation, and the outdoor setting for this new iteration gives that animation more room to shine. It’s much more enjoyable and relaxing to spend time puzzling through the game’s various boulder problems, as ocean waves lap in the background or birds coast by overhead, than it was to work the problems of its predecessor, which typically saw you staring at a blank gym wall.
User-generated routes were another big selling point for the original game. Crux: A Climbing Game allows you to design your own problems, then share them with other players. When Climbing reviewed the game in October 2020, Crux players had already made and shared over 3,000 problems with the community. Unfortunately, user-generated problems don’t return in The Great Outdoors, probably because each map features a unique, dynamic outdoor backdrop as opposed to the largely featureless gym wall in the first game, so the routes in The Great Outdoors have to be custom-designed by the developer.
This wasn’t really a downside for me, however. The Great Outdoors has nine different locations, and while I haven’t unlocked them all yet, the first two locations have over 50 problems between them, so I don’t see myself running out of content anytime soon.
The other main draw of the original Crux was that it was both free-to-play AND free of pop-ups and other advertisements (as most mobile gamers know, those two combinations are a rare find in the modern era). The Great Outdoors, on the other hand, will set you back $3.99. Most of us have spent more on protein bars at the climbing gym, so I can’t say the price is of much concern. Once you buy the game, there are no paywalls, paid-to-win features, or any advertisements, so it feels like money well-spent.
However, if you aren’t sure you’ll like The Great Outdoors, it makes sense to download the original Crux for free instead, since the gameplay is almost identical. The only reason I could see to shell out $3.99 for the newest iteration is if you’re a huge fan of the first game, have blasted through all the available problems in it, and are looking for more content.
All told, if you’re a climber who comes to the sport because you enjoy deciphering complex beta, or if you’re already a puzzle-fiend, you’ll likely enjoy both Crux games, and especially this newest iteration. It presents a calming, almost meditative puzzle-based look at the cerebral side of bouldering. When you hone in on a long Crux problem, sailing through the holds using perfect beta, topping out presents a feeling surprisingly akin to that which you get when topping out a hard project in real life. It’s a treat.
But like the original game, Crux: The Great Outdoors isn’t for everyone. If you’re a climber who comes to the sport for the love of adventure and risk, Crux fails to deliver much of either (which is perhaps to be expected… since it’s a game you play on your smartphone). The formulaic, often repetitive nature of the gameplay means that Crux: The Great Outdoors can become tiresome quite quickly if played for more than 15 or 20 minutes in one sitting. That said, it’s a great little game to play in short bursts, while on the subway, while drinking your morning coffee on the balcony, during your lunch break at work, and so on.
In short, Crux: The Great Outdoor isn’t the long-awaited climbing video game that will bring climbers who aren’t gamers into the fold, but it does present a polished, relaxing puzzler that will surely delight puzzle enthusiasts, whether they’re climbers or not.