Squashing The Bugs
In the world of gaming, there are a select few developers and publishers that have a rabid fanbase as large as Arc System Works. This company has been around since the heyday of video games and has created some of the most beloved franchises ever to grace arcades and consoles. I mean, these guys have created some big icons! BlazBlu! Guilty Gear! Double Dragon! River City Ransom! Need we say more? Well, those Technos franchises were acquired by Arc System Works, but you get the idea.
It’s A Party!
What’s a gaming company to do with all of these awesome franchises? Well, most churn out annual or bi-annual games that feature new stories and graphical updates and the like, but Arc System Works have decided to wrangle all of their adored characters and get them together for an epic platforming action party. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, this has been done before, but Code Shifter is a bit different.
In Code Shifter, players take on the role of Stella, a video game developer who works for the cleverly named Awesome Rainbow Corp (ARC…get it?). ARC’s biggest game of the year is on the cusp of its release day, but unfortunately, there are a few bugs in the game’s code that need to be squashed before being released to the public. Unlike Bethesda, the folks at ARC want the game to be bug-free on launch day.
Stella and the rest of the ARC crew are diving deep into the game’s code, but something doesn’t seem right. As the team is taking care of the bugs new ones keep popping up, making the game nearly unplayable. Stella decides to take matters into her own hands and develops her own debug program called Code Shifter. In Code Shifter, Stella can use Sera, a digital avatar she created for herself, to traverse the game world and destroy all of its bugs. Luckily for Stella, Sera has a little help from a host of digital friends within the game, which just so happen to be characters from (real-life) Arc System Works’ franchises. We’re talking Kunio, Sol Badguy, Noel Vermillion, and even the Double Dragons!
She’s Pretty Shifty
As the story progresses the player uncovers the mystery of who is creating and planting said bugs. The story is told in between levels, where Stella can walk around the ARC office and chat it up with the other developers. The tale is interesting, but the voices of the characters can get a tad annoying. Instead of actual voice actors, the player has to deal with garbled noises, similar to Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series. The lack of voice acting isn’t a game-breaker, but the garbled chat will grate on the ears after the 100th conversation.
Other than chatting with the other developers in the ARC office, Stella can also find/receive power-ups that will permanently boost her in-game avatar’s abilities. It’s wise to explore every nook and cranny of the office, as some power-ups will only appear when Stella is nearby.
Controlling Stella around the office can be somewhat of a chore. She walks extremely slow and the collision detection is off. Stella will bump into everything in the office, and each bump is accompanied by an annoying thud. This office is very cluttered, so trying to avoid obstacles is nearly impossible.
Thankfully, the game within the game controls nicely. Well, most of the time (more on that below). Sera is equipped with a short sword-like weapon and also gains the ability to double jump early on. But you’re not here for Sera. You’re here to play as the 100 plus Arc System works characters! Well, only 30 can be controlled. The other 70 act as assist characters. This may be disappointing to some, but the 30 characters that can be controlled are pretty badass.
Mix All The Ingredients
Changing into Arc System Works characters is easily the most exciting part of the game. Within each stage, Sera will come across small platforms that display holograms of the different Arc System Works’ characters. These are usually randomized, but some are fitted with specific character types that are required to advance through the stage. For instance, characters with electric abilities can turn on disabled platforms, and the lighter frame characters can catch wind streams, which will let them fly to otherwise inaccessible areas. This injects small, simplistic puzzles into the stages, but are still fun to figure out.
Players can transform into other characters by simply stepping on the platform and pressing the right bumper button. As expected, changing into a beloved character is exciting. Each character is presented in an 8-bit form, which is often hilarious since most of them never appeared on an 8-bit console. This also goes for their theme music, which is also presented in an 8-bit form. Switching back to Sera can be done by pressing the right bumper again, but players can also switch back to the Arc System Works character at will. The Arc System Works character will remain accessible until the player finds a different character to change into.
Character’s abilities vary. Kunio, for example, deals out heavy damage, while Jin Kisaragi is floatier and can move throughout the environment easier. Since Stella’s avatar Sera is the easiest to control, players will find themselves switching back to her in between battles often. Sera’s larger frame and faster movement along with her double jump ability makes her the go-to character. Each Arc Systems Works character felt clunky and had a laggy-feel to their jump. This didn’t matter which character was being controlled either. Constantly switching back and forth between characters made the game feel tedious. This was especially annoying since the music keeps switching back and forth with each character change.
The assist characters can be found on similar holographic platforms. These characters have certain abilities, as well. Some will heal, some will boost defense, etc. Players can utilize the assist characters by pressing the left bumper but be aware; these characters do have a cooldown period. With 70 assist characters in total, it can be difficult to remember which character has which ability. Thankfully, pausing the game will give you all the info you need.
The stages themselves follow a theme, but they’re barely memorable. Besides the 8-bit Arc System Works characters, the visuals as a whole are pretty bland. Backgrounds are often muted colors and foregrounds are filled with basic looking environments. Level designs follow the same suit, as there’s not much variety. Enemies are varied though and their patterns, although basic, are fun to figure out. Code Shifter will be quite easy for most veteran platform gamers, but the difficulty does get bumped up quite a bit toward the end of the game.
A Game Within A Game Within A Game
There is a small mini-game included that can be accessed on a console within the Awesome Rainbow Corp office called Colorful Fighters. This is a Smash Brothers-like brawler where up to 4 players can duke it out. Only a handful of characters are available from the start but players can play through EX levels within Code Shifter to unlock more fighters. This is a basic brawler where each character has a very limited move set. Since the fighters are presented in their 8-bit form in this mode, they’re very hard to distinguish between, and since the fights are fast and frantic, I often had difficulty locating my character. It’s a pretty basic mini-game that you’ll probably play a handful of times and then forget about.
Code Shifter is an overall decent platformer, but I was expecting much more. Maybe it was the constant shifting between characters that made it too cumbersome, or maybe it was Stella’s awkward controls while walking around the office. There is a reason to go back to Code Shifter after the story is finished, but this is only to go through the same levels with a higher difficulty, which I didn’t find too exciting. If you’re a big fan of Arc System Works you’ll find a lot to love in Code Shifter. If you’re not familiar with the characters, you’re better off finding a different action platformer to dive into.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows; Developer: Arc System Works, LAND HO! Co. Ltd.; Publisher: Arc System Works; Players: 1-4; Released: January 30, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Nintendo Switch review copy of Code Shifter given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher