Well Worth the Wait
The time that CrossCode has spent in Steam Early access has been more than enough to label it as being stuck in “development limbo”. While launching (appropriately labeled) incomplete versions of games is a fairly standard practice at this point, Early Access games that openly spend years at a time within the public sphere often times give players reason to sweat a little bit. “Will the game ever release? Will it actually be good when it does?” Questions like these are pretty common with fans who wait years for a game to release. And, unfortunately, the answers to those questions aren’t always good. But, hey, we’re not talking about other games here. We’re talking about CrossCode. And I can tell you right now that, with a game like this, there’s nothing to worry about at all.
Running Low on Memory
CrossCode’s story delves into a world in which only a small (but admittedly very popular) number of single-player games have dared to tread – the world of the MMORPG. Taking place within CrossWorlds – a highly immersive, fictional MMO that uses what are essentially “digital” (technically they’re made up of something called “Instant Matter”) avatars, but takes place on a real-life moon – CrossCode follows the story of Lea, a young amnesiac woman who, thanks to some outside help, finds herself beginning her own CrossWorlds journey in search of her memories. Of course, things aren’t exactly normal for Lea (just in case you hadn’t already figured that out). On top of being an amnesiac, she’s mute, seemingly incapable of remaining conscious outside of the game, and finds herself being pursued by a mysterious blue figure intent on taking her down. So much for playing the game normally, huh?
I haven’t played a whole lot of single-player games based on MMOs (probably because there aren’t that many in the first place), but I’ve always found MMO-centered narratives to be very interesting due to the kind of approach that they require. Since CrossCode is a game about a game, it has to tell two stories at the same time; the story of Lea herself, and the (heavily lore-based) story of CrossWorlds. Players are subjected to both stories throughout the game, often times back-to-back. And, while there’s some serious potential for narrative hiccups with a story like this, CrossCode always manages to come out on top. CrossCode’s story makes you feel like there’s a real reason behind Lea’s playing CrossWorlds. And sure, there’s plenty that Lea does that doesn’t directly relate to her regaining her memories, but, if anything, I would argue that that just helps to make her relatable. After all, I’m not sure how many of you could jump into a game like CrossWorlds (were it real, anyway) and not get at least a little bit sucked into it – I know that I couldn’t.
A Hop, Skip, and A Jump Away
CrossCode may be inspired by retro classics of the past – something which it readily admits – but its gameplay almost ends up being in a category all of its own. Technically speaking, I suppose that you could just call CrossCode a top-down action RPG with heavy puzzle elements – kind of like a mixture between Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – and that would be accurate. If you really wanted to boil this down to its basic elements, the entirety of the game consists of the tried and true “New Area > New Town > New Dungeon” pattern that we’ve all come to know and love. But a description like that doesn’t really do this game justice. CrossCode has plenty more to offer than a basic exploration cycle. And nowhere does that fact ring truer than with the game’s inclusion of platforming.
Platforming? In a game that I compared to both Secret of Mana and A Link to the Past? How does that even work? As it turns out, pretty nicely! And this is largely thanks to the unique way that the game approaches it. Rather than giving the player the ability to jump, CrossCode’s platforming uses auto-jumping (think Ocarina of Time) which helps to alleviate some of the timing issues which would have otherwise been very present with some of the game’s more demanding sections.
While the game’s gratuitous use of platforming is present throughout the entire game, I couldn’t help but feel as though it affected basic exploration the most. Rather than hiding its treasure chests and collectibles behind secret doors and walk-through walls, CrossCode chooses to hide most things in plain sight on high ledges and seemingly out-of-reach platforms. This ends up being a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand it’s creative, and it’s very rewarding when you’re finally able to open up that treasure box that’s been taunting you relentlessly. On the other hand, however, CrossCode almost seems to be a little too good at hiding its platforms at times. Claiming any of the game’s out-of-reach treasures often times means walking to an entirely different side of the area that you’re in in order to find the one ledge short enough for you to jump on top of – something which gets kind of tiresome after a while. Fortunately, that minor frustration is far from being enough to stop things from being fun and is easy to ignore so long as you’re enjoying yourself otherwise (which you probably will be).
Brawls n’ Balls
CrossCode may have a curiously prevalent amount of platforming mixed into its action-oriented gameplay, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be spending all of your time jumping around – far from it, actually. Despite any unique additions, this game is undoubtedly first and foremost an action RPG. And, as such, you can expect plenty of fighting.
On the whole, CrossCode’s combat not only does a great job of emulating the style of its glorious 16-bit predecessors (here’s looking at you again, Secret of Mana), but even manages to improve upon it. Lea’s status as a Sphereomancer (her CrossWorlds character class) means that she specializes in both close and long-range combat, generally (there are a few exceptions) allowing players the freedom to fight as they please. Combat does take a bit of practice, however. Although Lea’s melee attacks are as easy to get down as any other game’s, her sphere-slinging game takes a little bit of practice. Players are able to charge their long-range attacks, giving them both an extra power boost and the ability to ricochet – something which, when mastered, can be pretty devastating to your opponents. Because charged shots take time to, you know, charge, however, a bit of accuracy is a must – something which can prove challenging when duking it out with some of the game’s more fleet-footed enemies.
Defensive maneuvers are also a part of the ebb and flow of combat, and you can bet that they are very much necessary to get down if you want to survive. While your protective skills aren’t exactly diverse – sticking to the basic dodge and defend – they are incredibly well-integrated, easy to use, and are really all that you would need anyway. Proper dodging becomes especially necessary very early on however, thanks to its ease of use, shouldn’t even pose a problem for players.
After reaching a certain part in the game, elements come into play as well – and they’re more useful than you might think (maybe). Alongside coming in handy against a number of CrossWorlds’ many nasties, switching elements can also provide players with stat and ailment boosts (should they invest in them), and even provide access to new special attacks. The only downside with elements is the dangerous Elemental Overload – a status condition which occurs if you spend too much time using elemental attacks. While I personally didn’t favor the Elemental Overload mechanic too much, I won’t deny that it’s a clever way of making sure that players don’t abuse their powered-up elemental forms too much.
Puzzle Me This
With all of the running, jumping, slashing, and ball-throwing that you do in this game, you might not think that there would be much room for things like puzzles. But, oh boy, would you be wrong. Puzzles are commonplace within CrossWorlds, and can be harder to get past than most enemies if you don’t take time to think about what you’re doing – and that goes doubly so for any puzzles that you might find in the game’s dungeons (which is most of them, actually). Favoring substance over style, CrossCode doesn’t ask players to perform a variety of different tasks for each of its increasingly tricky puzzles. Instead, most of them revolve around hitting a switch. Not surprisingly, though, that’s way easier said than done.
I’ll warn you right now; if you aren’t good at thinking creatively, you might have some trouble with a few of this game’s puzzles. While “hit the switch” may be the name of the game when it comes to most of CrossCode’s puzzles, going about doing that can take both time and effort. Things start out simply enough to help the player ease into things, but it won’t be long before you find yourself spending an increasing amount of time making sure that your aim is perfect, your shot-guiding pillars are lined up, and more. CrossCode tends not to pull punches with its puzzles. For me, and I’m assuming most other players, that’s great; hard puzzles are fun. Those of you who aren’t too keen on solving puzzles in the middle of your action RPGs, however, may find CrossCode‘s many puzzles frustrating instead of fun.
I’ll be frank with you; as far as immersion goes, CrossCode probably could have done a little better at feeling like an MMO. I’m aware that this statement might be unfair due to the fact that there aren’t too many other faux-MMOs out there – leaving me to compare this game to franchises like .Hack and Sword Art Online – but most of the time it felt less like I was playing a game within a game and more a, well, game. To be fair, this isn’t anything that’s going to break the game (no pun intended), but it does kill the immersion a little bit. Other than things like customization, the way quests and towns are set up, and the fact that NPCs run around on the overworld, I didn’t get much of an MMO feeling from most of the game. Sure, the game would constantly tell me that I’m an MMO, but seeing is believing; and there wasn’t much MMO-ness to see.
Like a Fine Wine…
CrossCode may have taken its time during its development, but this game is clear proof that, every once in a while, being stuck in development limbo can be a good thing. Whether it’s its colorful cast and world, silky smooth combat and controls, or clever puzzles, CrossCode is an obvious choice for those looking for a unique and challenging action RPG. And, though it may have the occasional flaw here and there, they’re nowhere near reason enough to warrant not checking out this amazing title.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Deck13, WhisperGames, DANGEN Games ; Developer: Radical Fish Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 20, 2018 ; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of CrossCode given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.