Even if easy to applaud, CrossCode does not carry enough of the elusive magical luster that takes the best tales of the gaming medium to the hard-to-reach level of greatness
Although the indie scene has, due to the immense talent of those involved in it, no shortage of weapons to lure in millions of players, there is one strategy that these independent developers seem to lean on with the most frequency: that of paying homage to classics of the past. It is, after all, always a good idea to start a project by treading on firm and well-proven grounds, and these become especially more enticing when they are territory that the mightier powers of the gaming industry have left unexplored for quite a while.
Be it in Shovel Knight’s grand revitalization of the old-school Mega Man formula; in Undertale’s shot at the weirdness of EarthBound; in Hollow Knight’s, and many of its genre peers’, decision to tackle the Metroidvania gameplay while the two forces that name the niche were in deep slumber; or in A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee’s move towards reviving collectathons; indie studios have time and time again proven that they have a knack for giving gamers what they wanted but had been denied by the rulers of the medium. And in many of those instances, independent passionate hands showed the ability to match and even outdo – either in one specific area or overall – the sources they set out to emulate.
To a point, CrossCode fits that bill. For starters, whether it is in visuals, in music, or – more importantly – in gameplay, it nods to the 16-bit RPGs of the Super Nintendo era; a time when the genre was able to produce, at a staggering pace, unforgettable titles that have left strong marks on those who went through them. In addition, the adventure does one excellent job when it comes to throwing the right amount of extra spice into the formula in order to alter the staples that are expected from it and polish the rough lines of its vices. The result, even if still featuring a good share of points that could have been better handled and therefore stop it from being yet another indie project that makes a few giants sweat, is an enjoyable game that is a must-play for fans of the style.
As far as its role-playing inspirations go, CrossCode owes quite a bit to Secret of Mana. In particular, that link emerges due to how the game turns both enemy encounters and boss battles into action-packed affairs that although underlined by traditional variables such as stats, elemental weaknesses, and power-consuming special attacks, are more akin to the skirmishes one would find in a beat’em up. However, in that regard, the adventure puts some extra caffeine into the recipe, and that substance greatly works towards boosting the speed of the encounters to a notable new level.
Meanwhile, everywhere else, the game draws from numerous other pieces. In quests, story, and progression, it points to orthodox mannerisms seen in many JRPGs; in world design, it matches exploration with, surprisingly, platforming; and in its dungeons, quite smartly, it does away with the gauntlets of battles usually presented by its 16-bit comrades to bet on sequences of puzzles that tip their hat to The Legend of Zelda franchise. But CrossCode, more than being a mix of influences, is a game that knows that in order to be notable, a title has to – even if slightly – step out of the footsteps it is walking in.
Case in point, its plot has one rather familiar premise: its protagonist, Lea, has lost her memory, and much of her journey is concerned with figuring out who she is and why in the world she happens to be so important. But where most games of the sort have the star of the show going on a unique path to glory that is exclusively theirs, the road Lea needs to go through in CrossCode is always being quite traveled by, because rather than living in a world that is much like our own, the hero is actually one of thousands (or perhaps even millions) who are playing a fictional MMORPG known as CrossWorlds.
CrossCode takes advantage of that setting in multiple ways. Whether the girl is hanging out in a town or navigating through the land’s wilder parts, other players will also be coming and going, browsing the shops, picking up the same quests she is tackling, or even sitting by the local bench talking to their friends about the latest task they just completed. Furthermore, Lea’s party members, which happen to be the avatars of gamers she befriends as the story rolls on, can be summoned to join her via an in-game communication system and may even temporarily log out in predetermined portions of the plot. Finally, in a charming self-referential twist, various are the comments made by Lea’s traveling buddies about the design of the game, as they grumble about NPCs, sigh at the setup of puzzles, complain about foes, mention upcoming content, point out natural settings that are lacking in respect for physics, and more.
But while certainly aiding it in its search for uniqueness, that nature also does some harm to CrossCode. From the get go, the game will let players know that Lea is different. In fact, where all of those that access CrossWorlds through regular means start out in one shiny modern hub, the girl actually wakes up on a ship controlled by the MMO’s staff, is accosted by a flying virtual demigod who is quite keen on taking her in, is remotely instructed by an unknown man, and has as her first goal merge – without being noticed – into the mass of players that are first logging into the game. But the feeling that Lea is special and that her journey is a noteworthy one goes away quickly.
Out of the thirty hours or so it should take most gamers to get to the end of CrossCode, about three-fourths of those will have the protagonist following the same road taken by all users of the MMO; that is, she will be taking on what is dubbed Operation Trackwalker, where the avatars – known in CrossWorlds as Seekers – travel through the land looking for dungeons that were left behind by an old alien race called The Ancients. And according to the in-game lore, the more folks do so, the more will be learned about the technological secrets left behind by that group of extraterrestrial beings.
Of course, there are punctual detours along the way, which happen due to Lea’s special role; and eventually she will be led to meet a fate that is exclusive to her. But CrossCode struggles a bit with the concept that it is a game within another game. It should not matter that Lea is doing the same tasks as thousands of others when that horde of avatars is simulated and CrossWorlds is a fictional MMO, but there are actually issues caused by that quirk. Firstly, the progression is stiff and overly linear, with multiple areas being locked away due to the simple fact that it is all a game and Lea has yet to acquire the right to explore those regions. Secondly, instead of feeling alive, the world (referred to players as The Croissant thanks to its shape) comes off as artificial, which is a negative side-effect of how characters are constantly reminding Lea that CrossWorlds is simulated and scripted. Thirdly, and quite aggravatingly since the game is an RPG, the storyline suffers.
When it comes to that final element, it is worthy to point out that the mystery behind Lea is well-written, enticing, touching, and its conclusion is satisfying. However, given most of CrossCode’s length is spent on Operation Trackwalker and the mythological mumbo jumbo that lies under it, whose development seems like it was an afterthought, a good deal of the adventure is therefore spent on script that is dull, and in those moments the saving grace of the writing comes in the form of the many avatars that Lea becomes friends with, whose liveliness heavily contrasts with the boring NPCs that inhabit CrossWorlds.
The misfires present in the setup, pacing, and writing of CrossCode are fortunately salvaged by its excellent gameplay, which finds outstanding results in all of the influences it chooses to drink from. Although the varied and visually pleasant regions that make up The Croissant are tackled in an order that is firmly set in stone, they are nicely spread out on their own, offering plenty of branching paths that will leave players with no option but to explore them. Additionally, they are not merely open fields where enemies hang out, but intricately constructed areas that uncover puzzling conundrums via one unexpected guest: platforming.
Most of the jumping, which is done automatically, that happens out in the overworld of CrossCode is done to uncover optional content, be it hundreds of chests with valuable collectibles and either places or items that come into play in the game’s dozens of sidequests, but a decent slice of it is mandatory, for the regions of the virtual land have a myriad of hills, gaps, and smaller platforms that need to be navigated with care.
More than that, the setup of some of them is so meticulous that getting to specific spots sometimes involves jumping sections that encompass multiple screens, as players will be forced to truly study their surroundings to figure out how to get to certain spots, especially if they are aiming to clear or collect some of the title’s most neatly tucked away content. The sole caveat here is that, at times, the camera’s perspective makes it tricky for one to assert whether two platforms standing nearby have the same height, which naturally brews some trouble as players will fall down and have to restart their trek of jumping because they could not see the place they were trying to reach was actually much higher than expected.
In relation to battles, meanwhile, CrossCode takes the action-based encounters present in Secret of Mana and launches them into overdrive. Those with a dislike for mandatory combats will be happy to know that, with the exception of skirmishes that happen in dungeons and a rare batch of cases in the overworld, enemies are quite passive, only entering battle if they are hit. Moreover, exiting encounters is as easy as running away. If players go for it, though, they will discover that Lea is one very flexible character.
Inside CrossWorlds, the protagonist is a spheromancer, a class whose main skill comes from being able to launch balls of energy that can hit foes from a distance. However, she can be pretty effective from up-close as well, delivering a series of quick melee blows that can be stringed together quite nicely. When attacking from far away, players will aim with the right analog stick, move around with the left one, and shoot by pressing R; and that same button can be used to make Lea pull off one of her melee slashes when the right stick is not being used. To top it all off, with the L button, the hero can either dash or deploy a shield, with the former being triggered when the command is done while the character is moving and the latter while she is standing still. It is simple and it makes for very fast-paced battles, but the main ingredient that pushes the combat of CrossCode to a notable height appears in the shape of its combat arts.
As Lea advances on her quest and clears dungeons, she will gain access to four different elemental powers – heat, cold, shock, and wave – and these can be activated by each of the four buttons of the directional pad, with the caveat that Lea may overheat and have to revert to her normal state if she uses them for too long. Simultaneously, as the hero battles and earns new levels, she will gain points that can be spent on ridiculously deep skill trees, of which the girl has five, one for each element and one for her neutral state. And as branches of those trees are unlocked, new combat arts will be learned, with players sometimes having to choose between selecting one or the other (a configuration that can be changed in the menu at will).
In total, CrossCode has more than seventy combat arts, which definitely sounds like it is too much for anyone to grasp. However, the game makes accessing them be quite easy, as they are uniformly performed with the same button. It may seem impossible to employ a single command to trigger so many actions, but CrossCode achieves it thanks to how the art that will be used is determined by three variables. To begin, these skills are grouped into Dash Arts, Guard Arts, Melee Arts, and Throw Arts, meaning that the kind of special move Lea will perform is related to the action she is executing when the ZR button is pressed. In addition, each element has its own arts, causing the mode the protagonist is in to also influence what kind of attack will be performed. Finally, arts are grouped into tiers, making it so that the more power Lea uses (and the longer the ZR button is held) the stronger will be the type of art she will launch.
It amounts to a mighty arsenal that is delightfully varied, visually flashy, and easily accessible. As a consequence, the battles of CrossCode leave a lot of room open for players to get creative. That value in particular is even more prominent thanks to both the adventure’s wide cast of enemies, which force Lea to explore her elemental deck to a good extent, and the fact the title is not shy to throw very daunting combats at gamers. Those who appreciate a lighter challenge, though, can use the menu to – at any point in the adventure – alter not only the frequency with which foes attack, but also the damage their moves do.
The final pieces of CrossCode that deserve a whole lot of praise are its dungeons. The game features six of them, and their mixture of puzzles, platforming, action, and battles is worthy of applause. Besides being complex and open-ended in structure, at times recalling the most daunting moments of the 2-D The Legend of Zelda games, the riddles they house are other than marvelously original, also well-designed and challenging. Most of their puzzles revolve around Lea’s (and other players’) long-range skills, as they have to use numerous devices and the features of the rooms themselves to make the balls of energy they launch ricochet just right in order to hit targets, overcome obstacles, interact with all sorts of buttons, and more.
It might sound basic, but when joined with the game’s four elements, one will be surprised to discover what flying blobs of energy bouncing around the room can do. And much like it happens in The Legend of Zelda, most of the dungeons of CrossCode make use of a specific pattern; that is, a first half that has Lea finding a way to use the temple’s element without having access to it at will, and a second part which takes place after the asset is acquired, meaning that puzzles are rearranged and designed around the fact the protagonist can now deploy the element whenever she wants.
As it is the case with the battles, the puzzles of CrossCode lean towards speed and action, meaning that many of them – especially the highlights of the bunch – usually force players to be rather speedy, having them perform sequences of synchronized actions (usually involving a lot of ricocheting, of course) in a tight time window, a configuration that will require plenty of practice especially when one considers how long a few puzzles are. Once more, though, aware of its challenge, the game allows the speed demanded by these trials to be diminished at any time via the menu, which will likely be a feature gladly used by many.
Truthfully, there are a few complaints that can be directed towards the dungeons. Firstly, they are undeniably long, stretching past the two-hour mark in most cases; and although some will be delighted by that length, others will be dragged down by it. Secondly, and in a decision that is even more questionable given the previous point, CrossCode packs four of those dungeons towards its later hours, with three of them being basically sequential; as such, the title’s pacing could have been greatly improved. Thirdly, and finally, a couple of mazes in particular have problems regarding their design and learning curve, as they fail to take gamers on a smooth ride to make them grasp the mechanics around which they are centered, therefore being the potential cause for some confusion.
The conclusion is that CrossCode is far from being devoid of problems. Curiously, though, most of those are concentrated in matters of progression, writing, and world-building, with the gameplay passing mostly unscathed through any sort of evaluation. However, given the game is an RPG, a genre in which those lacking elements play a considerable role in players’ enjoyment of the experience, these issues cannot be ignored at all, as they do affect to a considerable degree many segments of the quest, particularly those in which the title forgets Lea is quite a special avatar roaming among millions of others.
For that reason, CrossCode is more of a charming and notably inventive homage to 16-bit RPGs – especially those with a knack for action – than a game that walks the same halls as other giants of the genre. Even though its gameplay is a magical combination of fast-paced and flashy combats with audacious puzzle-design, the innovative value of its setting ends up doing it more harm than good, as the title punctually struggles to make Lea’s journey in the fictional MMO of CrossWorlds feel as special and meaningful as it actually is. As such, even if easy to applaud, CrossCode does not carry enough of the elusive magical luster that takes the best tales of the gaming medium to the hard-to-reach level of greatness.