CrossCode PC Review
While I don’t find myself partaking in Early Access – because I’m a person who often doesn’t replay games due to time, so I like to see the game at its most finished – I do like the concept. It’s an option for developers to give players an early look at a game during development and give feedback to them. There is obviously a fee behind this, and that money is used to help continue development of the game. Some games have short Early Access lifespans, while others can go on for years. CrossCode is one such title that jumped onto Steam Early Access back in May 2015, some three years ago, but now developers Radical Fish Games can celebrate getting the final version out. I’m happy to say they have managed to release something that perfectly captures the retro inspiration, but feels fantastic to play in the modern day.
CrossCode takes a narrative that has become a bit familiar for fans of Japanese anime and games, which is setting a story inside a video game, more specifically a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). CrossWorld is a virtual space where players use created avatars, but this isn’t just a standard MMORPG, since technology has advanced in CrossCode to the point that all five of the human senses are active though some clever VR hardware to give a much more engrossing gaming experience. Players take control of the lead character, Lea, a blue haired female avatar who has been brought back to life through reanimation, but has lost not only her memory, but also the ability to speak through the avatar. Luckily, she was brought back by a friendly group of people who want to help her, and so is told to relearn CrossWorld in hope that all her memories and abilities will return.
A silent amnesia protagonist is nothing new in video games, but it manages to be a joyful journey here, because Lea technically isn’t a silent protagonist. Thanks to the fun the developers have with the idea of technological bugs, it is actually Lea’s voice module that has corrupted, and one of her companions manages to hard-code words into her avatar, which limits her vocabulary to single words like “Hi”, “Why” and “Lea”. It’s incredibly charming seeing the artwork portrait of Lea’s emotions when characters try to interact with her and she can’t quite get her message across. Even her simple nod and shakes are rather adorable in the fantastic sprite artwork for not just Lea, but for all the key characters that get screen time with her, whether through the many comical light-hearted moments or when things start to get emotional and dark. It’s a pleasing story to witness from both Lea’s view and the story within the virtual game CrossWorld, even if it’s a little slow at showing its more serious roots.
Radical Fish Games are as open as can be about their inspiration for the game. Clearly advertised on Steam is the quote “A retro-inspired 2D Action RPG” and “ CrossCode combines 16-bit SNES-style graphics with butter-smooth physics”. The Legend of Zelda is the one that comes to mind while playing CrossCode, as while this game is based on being an MMORPG, the camera perspective, the fast-paced combat and the puzzles give it a vibe like A Link to the Past, plus after every new area visited there is a dungeon to conquer. It’s once again a familiar structure, but simply boiling the game down to that isn’t doing CrossCode the justice it should have. Inspiration is one thing, but Radical Fish Games have not only taken the visuals and base design from the games that inspire it, but have managed to capture what makes playing those old games still so good today, having gameplay that is simply fun and well thought out.
Combat is one thing players will be doing a lot of – it is simulating the idea of the MMORPG after all – so a lot of the open areas are filled with enemies. The virtual game CrossWorld does feature a few classes that the game avatars can choose from, but for the actual game CrossCode, the player only gets to play as Lea, who is created as a Spheromancer, a class that has become unpopular in CrossWorld due to the difficulty compared to other classes. What this means for gameplay is that combat is based around both range and melee attacks. This being an action RPG, the combat is done in real time, similar to The Legend of Zelda, but much faster, say something along the lines of the older Ys games. The sword is used for up close, offering a few combo swings by tapping a button, while long range attacks come in the form of shooting out rapid fire orbs. The orbs can also be charged, which enables them to bounce off surfaces to deal more damage to enemies. There is also a block and a dodge, which the latter is helpful for extending melee combos or for quickly getting out of harm’s way when an enemy is about to attack or another enemy is firing in your direction.
After finishing up the tutorial and making it to the main island of CrossWorld (hope you are keeping up between CrossWorld and CrossCode), combat begins to show some of its strengths, and it keeps on building on this as players get deeper into the game. Fighting never felt mindless, as enemies often have a pattern to decipher. Even the starting enemies that look like hedgehogs (called Hedgehag) take more damage when they aren’t ready to do a very suspicious looking spin dash that a blue hedgehog is often known for doing – this gives them added armour for defence. Hedgehags are easy to take down when on their own, but they often come in groups and will happily come at you at once with spin dashes. Dodging or blocking becomes key early on in the game, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by foes and take enough damage to be killed. There is something to this frantic combat through its responsive controls and the engagement it offers that keeps players interested in it until to the end of the game.
Netting experience enables Lea to level up, which gives her a predetermined permanent stats increase to basic things like health and strength. Levelling up also earns circuit points to put into a circuit diagram to unlock additional perks and pathways to more skills on the circuit. This is a mechanic featured in a few Japanese RPGs, and in CrossCode it offers the same features to increase core stats or unlock new combat arts – the game’s special moves for Lea to cast in battle. Lea gains the ability during the course of the game to switch between neutral and four elements (Heat, Wave, Cold and Shock), which also act as four circuits, giving each element its own skill tree. Players are never locked into these circuits because the game enables them to be switched in the menu, giving the option to be creative without having a penalty for exchange between circuits.
Outside of combat, there is a world to explore that is full of life, thanks to the MMORPG simulated world. Just like in those games, where you see players participating in many activities, the developers have tried to represent that here by having characters running around the world, jumping around platforms, fighting battles and other general happenings. Of course, these are just scripted events programmed in the game, but it puts a convincing feeling that this world is full of people enjoying the MMORPG together. The key characters that Lea becomes friends with do join her throughout the story, even fighting alongside battles where the player can give them simple instructions to alter their behaviour, but most of the time these friends are good at surviving on their own. A lot of effort has gone into capturing the spirit of an MMO, from dungeons and raids to PvP and the many side quests available from NPCs that fill the need to bring across some of the mundane quests from online games, such as gathering, hunting or fetch quests. It nets easy experience though, and it’s something that is all optional.
The last biggest note for the game are its dungeons, something that makes up a large portion of the game’s main story, and are also the area where The Legend of Zelda makes its most impact on this game. Dungeons can take a while to finish, because they are not only places where enemies lurk and boss fights await, but each one is packed with keys to find and many puzzles to solve, some easy and quick, like finding the correct jumping platforms – there is actually quite a bit of jumping involved in CrossCode, but it’s all auto jumping (think The Ocarina of Time) – while others are imaginative and might need time to think (or save and come back later) to over come them – there are some real head scratches here that test your knowledge about the game’s various enemies and mechanics. Dungeons will often bring in new mechanics and have players learn the use of them throughout the dungeon, getting more challenging as players get closer to the boss.
I already mentioned some of the stellar artwork in CrossCode‘s character portraits, but it applies for the whole of the game’s presentation. The world is bestowed with beautiful pixel art that appears to come from artists who knew how to capture the SNES era and inject it with some much rich colour. It can be gorgeous at times, and while I look at it and think “yep, this is SNES graphics at its finest”, I am probably seeing it through nostalgic memories, and there are probably some tricks here with the art that cannot be done on real SNES hardware, not that it matters, since it achieves what it needs to do while looking beautiful doing it. It might not be pushing the graphics enveloping in terms of AAA titles, but this is one of the few games that tries to look old school where I genuinely was taken back by how visual pleasing and coherent it is. It doesn’t falter on the music side as well, with a fantastic score across the board that compliments what is happening on screen. Plus, the battle music is catchy – just what you need in a game that features a lot of fights.
It might have taken a long time to arrival in its full form, but the developers have made the wait worthy. This a title that superbly captures its inspiration of early 1990s games, but modernises it through design and mechanics. CrossCode is a fantastic package that sits as one of 2018’s best indie games. In a year that launched Celeste, Dead Cells and Into the Breach, it’s no easy award to give, but CrossCode achieves this thanks to its great action RPG gameplay set in a believable MMORPG world, beautiful visuals, additive, responsive and challenging combat, smart dungeon design and some wonderful music. It’s a complete package that is bold enough to take the clichés of the genre and run with its own spin on them, and it isn’t going to burn holes in anyone’s pockets with its nicely priced £14.99, which gives players a lot of bang for their buck, top quality bang at that.