**Review copy provided by the publisher**
At first glance, CrossCode looks like another one of those retro-inspired indie games designed to pay homage to an era when watching people play video games involved regular appearances from Sir Patrick Moore and microtransactions were only in arcades. With a few exceptions, these retro-inspired games are far too demanding to have actually worked on 16-bit consoles. That’s also true of CrossCode, however, there’s another key reason this game couldn’t have existed in the mid-90s. CrossCode takes inspiration from more than just old JRPGs; it’s also a fond tribute to MMORPGs, capturing the charm, nostalgia, and occasional tedium often present in the online games that ushered in the new millennium through the likes of Everquest.
CrossCode, developed by Radical Fish Games, spent over six years in development and received funding via an IndieGoGo campaign in 2015, only just about hitting its modest goal of 80,000 Euro.
Despite a playable demo being available for years now, CrossCode received sparse media coverage and even after release, it seemed to be ignored by most major outlets. This is a great shame because CrossCode is truly special, combining an excellent story, frantic combat, and challenging puzzles to create a game that often feels like what I want—and rarely get—from Zelda games, especially the 2D ones.
CrossCode’s one major drawback is that it’s a little too faithful to the MMORPG genre it emulates which results in too much grinding for my tastes. My playthrough came in at 50 hours and it would have been a lot more if I’d done all of the side quests. There’s a hell of a lot to love in CrossCode and it’s a shame it was so overlooked in 2018. Fortunately, CrossCode is getting a Switch release later this year, so hopefully, it will get a boost like the one given to Hollow Knight following the release of its Switch port.
CrossCode is a bit of an oxymoron. It’s a single-player MMORPG. You play as Lea, an avatar in CrossWorlds, which is the name of the in-game MMO that is played via a type of virtual reality headset. CrossWorld takes place in the real world, with the avatars being artificial bodies which play on a small moon devoted to running the game.
Lea wakes up with no memories of who she is in the real world and can’t speak due to a glitch in her programming. A programmer called Sergey keeps in touch remotely to guide you through tutorials and he slowly adds words to her vocabulary, starting with “hi.” Sergey thinks having Lea run through the game will help her regain her memories, so you head off into CrossWorlds and play what in many ways feels like an actual MMO.
The core MMO experiences are all in place. You start off struggling to even fight lowly hedgehogs, while higher level players run around ignoring you. There’s plenty of weapons and gear to buy and find, plus more consumable items than you’ll ever use. NPCs set you tedious fetch quests and there’s a massive skill tree to customize your build. You can join a guild and even go on raids.
CrossCode breaks from convention in a few places. It was rare that anyone commented on my mum’s chosen profession and there’s a lack of griefing, with the exception of Apollo, who takes an early dislike to you.
Despite Lea’s inability to talk, or perhaps because of it, she makes a couple of friends along the way such as Emilie and Toby, or The Emilienator and C’Tron respectively, to use their in-game names. Up to two characters can fight alongside you while on the overworld although you always play by yourself in temples, which is CrossCode’s equivalent of dungeons. XP is split across party members when you play with others, although it also makes things easier and quicker, so on balance, I’d say it’s best to have them alongside you.
While they aren’t real players as such, they do have a surprising amount of personality and charisma. Interactions can be a little sugary at times but their charm and innocence is generally endearing and I enjoyed hanging out with all the characters and discovering their little quirks, such as Emilie’s obsession with the light bridges. They’ll also talk about their lives outside of the game and will logoff when they get tired.
There’s a surprising amount of dialogue during missions, especially from other players that you don’t interact with. It’s cool to see other avatars talking about their recent experiences such as fighting a boss or getting nervous about an upcoming temple.
The story completely sucked me in. It goes to some fairly crazy places, with a few twists and turns along the way. Some of it’s a little predictable—it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the evils of big corporations are going to come into play—but the characters are so likable that you still care what happens to them and I was always eager to see how it would end.
Playing CrossCode is split into two parts: the overworld and interior temples. While exploring the overworld, you can battle as many or as few enemies as you like. Most of them don’t attack unless you hit them first. Combat starts off simple enough. You have a melee attack and a ranged attack via orbs that Lea throws out. As you level up, you acquire special moves for both types of attacks, and eventually, you get elemental attacks for fire, ice, wind, and electricity. These, in turn, have their own melee and ranged attacks and can also be leveled up with separate special attacks. The skill tree is huge and offers plenty of flexibility. Some enemies are best attacked with certain elemental damage types, so attack ice with fire, and wind with electricity. You know the drill. There’s a limit on how much you can spam your elemental attacks so occasionally you’ll have to switch back to standard and let it charge up again.
There’s an in-game reason for Lea ultimately becoming so powerful. Lea is a spheromancer which is an unpopular class in CrossWorlds due to its perceived complexity. However, in the right hands, a spheromancer is a formidable foe, and true enough, once you have all four elements under your control, you can deal some serious damage to those hedgehogs.
Combat can be as challenging or as easy as you want to make it. Any given encounter with regular enemy types will likely be fairly straightforward and you recover all your health afterward so you can take one encounter at a time. However, there’s also a rewarding ranking system that provides higher rewards if you keep attacking more groups of enemies before a timer expires. A high rank rewards you with rarer materials which you can use to buy better gear. You need to be careful not to fall into a loop of playing it safe and therefore not getting good loot, which in turn means you’ll fall further behind or have to do more grinding to get the best gear. On balance though, it’s a great system. You can go for an S rank when you’re in the mood and ignore it if you’re not.
There’s also a built-in cheat system of sorts that lets you reduce damage dealt by enemies to as low as 20% and you can slow down the rate at which enemies attack. Obviously, you should feel free to play around with these settings as much as you like, however, be careful when reducing the rate of attacks because many enemies are only weak when they attack. If you slow it down too much, the fights become a real chore as you wait around for openings.
Combat is frantic but enjoyable. With melee and ranged attacks, plus a bunch of specials on top of that, plus all the elemental variants, you can keep changing your approach which is important given how long the game is. You’ll need to master dodges and blocks to make it through the tougher content.
There’s also plenty of opportunity for exploration which helps you find consumables, crafting materials, or new gear. Lea can’t jump, or at least, she can’t jump at your command. She will automatically leap from one ledge to another of the same height. This means the majority of exploration consists of figuring out how to get to higher areas and then traversing those spaces to find the loot. If you stay at ground level, you’ll miss it all. This can be surprisingly tough, often requiring you to move multiple screens away from loot and then backtrack to grab it. However, as this is effectively the major puzzle type on the overworld sections, it does get a bit tedious. A late-game teleportation mechanic makes it a touch more interesting, but for the most part, it’s the same logic repeated over and over. I also got a touch frustrated at times by not being able to make out exactly how high certain ledges were due to the camera angle.
After a lot of exploration, combat, and gathering in each new region, you make it to a temple. The temples are full of puzzles which end up getting incredibly complicated. You start off just shunting around a few bombs to get platforms in the right place, but later puzzles are practically Rube Goldberg machines, requiring you to quickly switch up elements, time shots perfectly, and keep an eye on multiple moving parts at the same time.
These puzzles get tough. You are typically shooting an orb which needs to pass through activation points before reaching the end to unlock a door. While it sounds nice and simple, what it often entails is frankly insane. For example, in single puzzle that plays out in real time, you have to freeze certain blocks to make sure the orb bounces off them in the correct direction, turn reflective glass around, melt blocks that are causing an obstruction, activate switches by charging up a ball of electricity which you must then get to the right place, which in turn entails moving blocks around to cover up holes which you do either by charging magnets or bouncing orbs off blocks to get them to teleport into the correct position.
Figuring out what to do is only half the challenge. The other half is execution. Thankfully, you can slow these puzzles down in the cheat menu and I’m not at all ashamed to admit I did this multiple times near the end. I also looked at a guide a few times, something I try to avoid when reviewing games. CrossCode’s puzzles get so incredibly complex that you end up worrying about the mindset of those who made them.
The challenge is mostly fair, however, some of the puzzles require a level of precision with aiming your orbs that CrossCode is not particularly suited to. For example, you sometimes have to angle shots perfectly off walls, but can’t always see the wall you’re aiming at due to the camera angle. You end up relying on the built-in path that shows where your bullets will go and that can be incredibly finicky. It’s rare that any one shot will be that tough, but when you have to do them all in a hurry it certainly can be.
At times, it seems like your aim needs to be pixel perfect. There was one puzzle where I had the correct solution but it required such precision that I felt certain I was doing the wrong thing. I had to look to a guide to confirm I was right and then just kept practicing until I could pull it off. I’d have preferred the challenge be more about figuring out the solution rather than executing it with such precision.
The temples have combat scattered throughout, although these encounters often incorporate the puzzles in some way, such as the tubes that can change the altitude of your projectiles which is perfect for hitting flying enemies. There are also bosses at the end, which again are typically puzzle encounters.
If anything, I found the temples a little too long and tough. Each takes upwards of a couple of hours to complete and it can be absolutely exhausting to finally solve a complicated puzzle that requires perfect timing in its execution, only to walk into another room that requires you to do the same thing again, but only harder this time. With this type of game, I prefer to do a dungeon in one go, especially when puzzles are building on one another and getting progressively tougher, however I often had to stop and come back later, because CrossCode’s temples were so huge. Given that CrossCode is already a long game, I wonder whether some of the tougher content might have been better saved for an optional end game challenge. This would also fit in better with the MMO theme.
Still, in most ways, CrossCode is fully devoted to the MMORPG setting, and this can work to its detriment. My gear was often underleveled. I had plenty of money to buy gear from shops, but the best stuff is sold in exchange for rare materials and its nigh on impossible to keep track of who is selling what and where you can get those materials. For example, you might be short one material for a new helmet you need, so you go to the merchant selling that material, only to find that to make that material he needs a different material you also don’t have enough of. Materials can be farmed if you know where to find them. The in-game encyclopedia is sometimes helpful in this regard, but just as often not.
Near the end of my playthrough, I was determined to pick up some cool new gear but I was well short of the requirements. Thankfully, a new system had opened up that let you return to previous locations with higher level enemies to get better loot drops. That’s exactly what I was after. However, to unlock the higher level enemies, you need to find a secret item plus hand over a bunch of rare materials. I already had a fair few of the secret items but was often short the rare materials. In other words, I had to go and grind to find materials to unlock the ability to go and grind at a higher level to find more materials which would then let me buy the gear I wanted. In the end, my patience was exhausted and I turned the enemy damage down a notch to compensate for being underleveled. It’s not the ideal solution, I admit, but doing this let me come out of the game with a far more positive impression overall, so it was for the best.
Ultimately, my main complaints about CrossCode are that it is too long and too tough in places, which is not going to be a problem for all of you. It’s a selling point for some. CrossCode does a great job replicating the experience of playing an MMORPG, however, MMORPGs often aren’t fun to play by yourself and the AI companions don’t quite mitigate moments of tedium in the same way that playing with real friends does.
These problems take the edge off of what is an otherwise superb game with a special story that kept me going even in moments where I was tempted to stop playing, a combat system that remains challenging and fun throughout due to the slow drip feed of the elemental abilities, and puzzles that get incredibly complicated later on. Maybe they are too hard at times, but successfully executing them provides a real adrenaline rush alongside a huge sense of relief.
If anything about how I’ve described CrossCode appeals to you then I highly encourage you to check it out, either now on PC, or when it comes to Switch. It’s not expensive and could end up connecting with you even more than it did me, especially if you’re a little more patient than I am.