Brian Edwards reviews CrossCode, the action role-playing game developed by Radical Fish Games.
Every time I watch a YouTube video titled “Top 65 Upcoming Indie Games” or something these days I’m relatively certain that I am going to see many 8 and 16-bit lookalikes, reminiscent of the games of old.
At first glance, after watching a trailer or two, one might assume that CrossCode is just another of these games, an homage to the past. While CrossCode certainly earns some comparisons to notable 16-bit titles such as Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, it doesn’t take long to realize that this game is much, much more than just a love letter to an era gone by.
The story starts in a way that would seem familiar to players of RPGs. Your character, a blue haired girl named Lea, awakes inside of the game Crossworlds, a popular MMO. She has no memory, no idea how she got there, and no clue of what to do. Thankfully, a voice rings in your ear right away telling you what’s happening.
Lea is in a coma in the real world. However, her brain is still able to connect to the MMO Crossworlds and control her avatar. The voice in her ear, a Crossworlds employee named Sergey, informs Lea that, by playing Crossworlds, she may be able to trigger parts of her brain that recover her memories. So, you set out on a quest to recover your memories as a voiceless amnesiac. Sound familiar, RPG fans?
While the tale of the protagonist looking to reclaim their memories isn’t new to the genre, this is merely a thin layer of what the story develops into. I won’t go into specifics in order to avoid spoilers but I can say that this story evolves in several satisfying ways over the course of the game. The narrative went places I wasn’t expecting, digging into the backstory of the creation of this fictional MMO.
Playing a single player game that is set in a fictional MMO was a concept I couldn’t wrap my head around but it takes shape quickly. Despite looking somewhat like a Super Nintendo game, the world in CrossCode is set up much like a familiar MMO world. There are towns with markets full of traders. When you see an exclamation point over someone’s head, you know they have a quest for you. There are guild halls with more NPC’s to give you quests and rewards. Seemingly, everyone needs help, and you’re just the right person to give it to them.
A couple hours into the game I was managing a quest log filled with a dozen quests or more, some of which felt straight out of World of Warcraft. Collect 12 of this, slay 14 of that, etc. It felt right for the world they were building for me, and it made me eager to get out into the wilderness and start exploring.
The cool thing about these quests is that they often led into intricate side quests with some endearing and hilarious writing. One that springs to mind is an innocuous quest I got in the village of Bergen. I was tasked to drive a pesky goat out of the village. Cool, I can do that.
So I hopped around rooftops to drive the nuisance out. What ensued was a three part questline that ended with me in a cave lair of genetically modified and sentient goats who were ruled by a maniacal master. This questline ended with one of my favorite written lines of dialogue in a videogame.
CrossCode is just full of this type of stuff; quests will start out seeming like generic MMO quest lines and develop into fully fleshed out sidequests with their own stories. There was not one of these quests that I did not find thoroughly enjoyable and I looked forward to going back to towns to see what new quests were available.
Another way that the MMO world is simulated is with the presence of other players. The world is populated with tons of characters just going about their business, much like a real MMO. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked out onto my first wild path and there were just a bunch of other parties running around. Other ‘players’ fighting enemies, returning to town to sell loot, and meeting outside of an instance to party up. Places that would be social hubs in a real MMO were populated well in CrossCode, selling the illusion that they were attempting to pull off. An effective illusion it turns out, as I often had to remind myself that the other ‘players’ weren’t actual players.
This worked particularly well when it came to your fellow party members. Like most RPGs, CrossCode has you meet a varied cast of characters along the way that you can recruit into your party. The neat thing is that, while you have no memories, your party members are written as characters who are playing an MMO.
This leads to a lot of fun fourth wall breaking through excellent writing. I would be close to revealing a key memory of Lea’s when one of my party members would have to log off because they had work in the morning. During quests and dungeons companions would often complain of school or other real world responsibilities. There were characters who were very into the role play and then, as in real life, other characters who mocked them for taking the game so seriously.
There was also the character who never wanted to log off, despite the protests of their comrades. These interactions were frequent and well written enough to get me to believe that these people had actual lives outside of the game. This went a long way towards selling me on the concept of the game and getting me invested in Lea’s life outside of CrossWorlds. I wanted to help her get out, and the only thing I knew how to do well was to fight.
One thing that stood out instantly was the quality of the game’s combat. Lea has four basic actions she can do at any time; a melee attack, a ranged attack, a shield, and a dash. The neat thing about these abilities is that they can be modified using an upgrade tree called the Circuit Board. On this board special abilities can be tied to each action. For example you could have an area of effect special melee attack coupled with a special ranged attack that deals big damage to one enemy. There are multiple paths for each action so you can really customize your playstyle to what you are comfortable with. This circuit board system becomes even more customizable when Lea unlocks elemental abilities.
Early on, you are told that the best way to regain your memories is by playing CrossWorlds, so that’s what you set out to do. Your task is to follow a mysterious Track of the Ancients and obtain four elemental abilities; Heat, Cold, Shock, and Wave. These four elements are assigned to the four cardinal directions of the D-Pad and can be switched from one to another instantly.
When Lea unlocks one of these abilities, she gets a new circuit board dedicated to that specific element, and that is where combat customization really goes bonkers. Normally, I’m just a player who likes filling out the upgrade path. Give me points, I spend them, Brian happy. CrossCode wouldn’t let me do that.
Instead, I had to choose very specific paths on how I wanted each element to play. Did I want my heat dash ability to be one that sets a trap for my enemies or dashes through them in a fiery blast? Was I better off using an AOE icicle spell for my cold melee ability, or would I rather spin in a circle like an icy death merchant? I am not someone who usually engages with a combat system on a granular level like this, but CrossCode got me to go deep by requiring me to be a master of all four of these elements.
What’s great is that it worked. By the end of the game, I was seamlessly switching between these elements knowing exactly what build I had in each slot. I was preying upon the weaknesses of my enemies like it was second nature, which was good because by the end of the game I was required to have my act together as it got quite challenging. I am not one to get micromanage-y about my combat style but CrossCode’s systems are deep enough that I couldn’t help but get invested. I found it a delight to tinker with.
The elaborate combat system is then used while exploring dungeons. The aforementioned four elements must be gained by completed dungeons along the Track of the Ancients.
These dungeons are elaborately designed and this is where most of the Legend of Zelda comparisons will be made because the layouts of these dungeons feel familiar. These dungeons are filled with a series of puzzle and combat rooms that usually lead into a mid-boss fight, with an eventual boss fight at the end. There are keys to unlock to open doors and there is even a big gold key to unlock the boss door. The similarities are there and it would be easy to think that it is just a Zelda-like when looking at them on paper. Yet, these dungeons manage to set themselves apart due to careful design and sophisticated puzzles.
The puzzles in these dungeons are my favorite kind; a kind of puzzle that makes you almost tear your hair out before you realize the solution was standing right there in front of you. Most of the puzzles involve hitting switches to open up doors or new paths lying in front of you. These types of puzzles have been done before, but I’m not sure they’ve been done quite this well.
Dungeon puzzles will often start simple, letting the player dip their toes in and see what will be expected of them in that specific dungeon. By the end of the dungeons, I found myself solving puzzles that simultaneously tested my wits and my skills with the elements. It’s hard not to make this comparison so I’m just going to do it. These dungeons and puzzles are of Nintendo quality and I felt in some cases, even more accomplished.
Each dungeon took anywhere from 45-90 minutes to complete and I found myself settling in with a cup of coffee and a renewed sense of resolve each time before tackling one. I found myself always looking forward to the next dungeon, chasing that sense of accomplishment of completing one.
The dungeons themselves are also paired with some memorable boss fights. Boss fights are something that I find a lot of games struggle to strike a balance with. I found CrossCode’s bosses to be challenging and fun across the board, even including the final boss which tested my skill and my patience with a marathon of element switching and puzzle solving tasks.
The quality of the combat and the sophistication ot the puzzles are impressive, but there is so much more to be said about why this game is special. The world itself is so vibrant. In an era where there are more gritty games than I can shoot my obnoxiously large guns at, this is a game of pure color. Pinks and purples, oranges and blues, yellows and reds sing from the world’s foliage. There is a wasteland area that is bathed in a somber, pulsing red that just perfectly encapsulates the theme of that area’s story. It is just so pretty to look at. Marry that with an excellent SNES-style soundtrack and the world just comes to life before your eyes and between your ears.
Earlier I mentioned that I wasn’t going to spoil the story and I still won’t, but I was surprised by how much it affected me. What started out as a story to reclaim lost memories turned into a story about friendship and loss.
Themes of self sacrifice, jealousy, and overreaching desires led to a couple of purely heartwarming moments in this game that I won’t soon forget. And the amazing thing is that for a game that is all about creating illusions and living in a fantasy world, the story felt surprisingly grounded and real.
CrossCode was an absolutely wonderful experience. I’m still kind of in awe at how deep it got its hooks in.
I am, without a doubt, the audience for this game, an RPG fan who is old enough to have fondness for the 16-bit era. Still, this hit in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
The combat system forced me to tailor my playstyle in certain ways I’m not used to and I benefited from it. The dungeons and puzzles were of such high quality that they pushed the envelope of what to expect from a 2D action RPG. And then, to bring it all together was the story, the story of Lea and her quest to find herself. CrossCode rises above being just another 16-bit style game. CrossCode is a game that stands firmly on its own merits and succeeds in nearly everything it sets out to do.
Brian played CrossCode on Xbox One having been provided with a code by the game’s PR. A physical boxed copy of CrossCode (Retail Edition for PS4 or Switch as well as Steelbook and Collector’s Editions for PS4, Switch or PC) can be pre-ordered from https://crosscode.inin.games/