CrossCode Review – Virtual 16-bit MMORPG

CrossCode is one of those games with such an infamously long development cycle that you could have been forgiven for assuming it would never be finished. What began life as a tech demo in 2012 eventually evolved into a sprawling retro-inspired action-RPG that would go on to spend 7 years in development, almost half of which was spent in Steam Early Access. So many games with lengthy development cycles end up disappointing, so its only natural to wonder if the wait for CrossCode‘s full release was actually worth it. Luckily, CrossCode turned out to be one of those Early Access success stories where player feedback and a lengthy development cycle resulted in a solid title that shouldn’t be missed by fans of old school action-RPGs.

CrossCode
Publisher: Deck13
Developer: Radical Fish Games
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Release Date: September 21st, 2018
Players: 1
Price: $19.99

After a cryptic opening sequence, CrossCode throws you straight into the fictional MMORPG CrossWorlds as Lea, a mute girl with amnesia. You are greeted by Sergey, a programmer for CrossWorlds, that serves as your initial info dump regarding Lea’s situation. Lea has a mysterious prior connection to the MMO, and Sergey’s plan to help her involves playing through the game to see if it jogs her memory.

What keeps CrossCode‘s story and setting from being another retread of franchises like .Hack is that the fictional game mixes elements of VR with physical locations. Players are directly linked to a physical avatar that is transported to a real planet. The programmers, developers, and support staff all live and work on the planet’s moon, and content updates require actual construction work on the planet below in addition to digital elements like class ability rebalances and new items. It’s pretty confusing at first, but the game gradually gets into more detail about how the entire system works.

The plot of CrossCode takes a really long time to get going. Honestly, the game is a slow burner in general, but luckily the characters and writing are entertaining enough to keep you invested until the story picks up. Early on you befriend the characters Emilie and Lukas, and shortly after beating the first dungeon, you join a guild with them called The First Scholars that are devoted to learning everything possible about the story and lore of CrossWorlds. Your guild is where you’ll meet many of the friends that will accompany you on your journey throughout the game.

CrossCode does an admirable job of simulating an MMORPG world. Towns are bustling with fellow “players” running around grabbing quests or forming parties, and the characters often discuss game mechanics in a realistic way, with lots of MMO terms getting thrown around.

In fact, the game goes a little too far in simulating an MMO. Most of the side quests are extremely bland fetch quests along the lines of the “collect 10 bear asses” meme, especially early on. Characters often comment on how game-y some of it feels, and while it’s cute at first, implementing a trope to poke fun at that trope in other games still means that you are using said trope in your own game.

The main story within CrossWorlds itself deals with players, called Seekers, attempting to rediscover ancient alien technology by going on a quest called the Track of the Ancients. The first half of the game revolves around traveling to four temples full of puzzles, combat challenges, and boss fights.

The reward for beating each temple is mastery over one of the world’s four elements: Heat, Cold, Shock, and Wave. The next portion involves combining your knowledge of the game and its elemental effects to complete the endgame content, including dungeons that no player in CrossWorlds history has managed to complete before.

The dungeons are definitely where the game shines, and they nicely balance combat and puzzle solving. Oftentimes both at once, as many of the enemies you encounter in dungeons are a puzzle in and of themselves. An example of this would be the moths in the second dungeon, which fly too high for you to hit.

Instead, you need to channel your ranged attacks through these tower relays to knock the moths to the ground so that you can quickly finish them off with melee combos. Of course, each major boss fight exemplifies this combination of puzzle solving and combat, and revolves around gimmicks and patterns you’ll have to figure out to win.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, however. The combat is quite simple and basic at first, but gradually gets more involved as you unlock additional elements. Attacks include a basic melee combo, ranged attacks that involve throwing orb-shaped projectiles, a guard, and a dash.

As you play, you’ll unlock special moves that can be activated by holding the right trigger on your controller when you perform a melee or ranged attack, block, or initiate a dash. These moves consume SP, which gradually regenerates in combat. You can have one of each special move type bound at once, and can freely swap between them once unlocked in the skill tree.

The ranged attack is easily the most versatile move in your arsenal. Shots can be spammed for high DPS, or aimed to add a minor stun effect or a status ailment when used in conjunction with one of the elements. Aimed shots have low DPS, but some enemies are vulnerable to the stun and status ailments they inflict. Aimed shots can also be ricocheted, allowing you to hit enemies at odd and unexpected angles.

The fictional game-within-a-game features five classes, each of which are tied to a specific play style and element. Lea is a Spheromancer, a jack of all trades class designed to balance melee, range, speed, guard, and all four elements.

In practical terms, this is an excuse to give you access to five enormous skill trees and the freedom to customize your playstyle however you see fit. You can reset your skill trees whenever you want, but it requires a special item to do so.

As with the story, the combat takes a while to get truly interesting. The depth and intricacies don’t become apparent until a dungeon or two in, which depending on your pace, can easily take you 15 to 20 hours.

Late game involves a lot of juggling between the four elements and managing your heat; using too many elemental attacks within a short period of time will force you to revert to the “neutral” stance until you’ve cooled down.

Your ultimate skills are also locked behind story barriers, so you won’t get to play with them until the latter half of the game. The neutral stance and each element also has their own set of skills, so once you have all four elements you effectively have over 20 abilities equipped at once, albeit requiring an element swap to use them.

Breaks, status aliments, and elemental strengths and weaknesses also become gradually more important as you make your way deeper into the game. Each enemy has a break meter that can be triggered and filled by using specific types of attacks. After breaking, an enemy becomes stunned and temporarily takes significantly more damage. Breaking is less important with many of the early enemies, but becomes vital later on and during boss battles.

Each element has a status ailment, too. Heat inflicts a damage-over-time Burn effect, Cold inflicts a slowing Chill effect, Shock stuns, and Wave inflicts Mark, which makes an enemy more vulnerable to ranged attacks. Obviously you’ll encounter plenty of enemies that use elemental attacks and are strong or weak versus specific elements.

Rounding out your arsenal are consumables. A lot of your damage, defense, resistance, and health regeneration buffs come in the form of food that you can find and craft throughout the game. Eating food comes with a short delay and a cooldown, so you’ll need to carefully plan when you try to apply your buffs or heal.

All this and I haven’t even touched upon party members, either. You’ll collect a lovely cast of allies along the way that will banter as you explore and terminate virtual wildlife for experience and loot.

Since this is a simulated MMORPG, you can invite characters to your party and chat with them via direct messages, but like most things in CrossCode, the party system doesn’t really open up until several dozen hours in.

Most of your early hours will be spent with Emilie, a French-speaking redhaired melee fighter that you develop a fast friendship and friendly rivalry with almost immediately upon entering CrossWorlds. In fact, almost all of the early game will be spent with a small, set party.

Party AI is pretty basic, but generally solid enough that I can’t remember a single time where I found myself yelling about how useless they were. You can issue them some basic tactics, but for the most part they’ll do their own thing and contribute well enough that they don’t get in the way.

As I briefly touched upon earlier, puzzles and platforming play almost as big a role in CrossCode as combat. Even the overworlds between dungeons are full of puzzles and platforming, but in general the dungeons are where the most advanced and challenging examples appear.

A majority of the puzzles are based around your elements and using aimed shots to deliver said elements to a switch or some other object. Many times this also requires you to figure out a ricochet pattern to get to the target.

Using your elements on environmental objects form the basis of many other puzzles, both in and out of combat. Smacking a bomb with a basic attack will activate it’s timer, but shooting it with a fireball will cause it to blast forward at high speeds before exploding.

Water bubbles can be made into steam with a Heat shot, or frozen with Cold. These interactions become increasingly complex as the dungeons drag on, and you’ll need to remember how each element interacts with the world around you.

There’s also plenty of timed jumping puzzles, which I personally feel are the weakest of the bunch. The platforming doesn’t feel particularly smooth or accurate, and the top-down camera angle, combined with the 16-bit aesthetic, can sometimes make it hard to decipher the height of a platform and it’s distance from you.

Most of the puzzles and platforming aren’t necessarily difficult to figure out, but the reflexes and accuracy required, combined with the sometimes finicky nature of the jumping, can result in a few frustrating segments. There is one dungeon in particular that is infamous among the player base, to the point that the characters even comment on it in-game.

One of my other huge complaints with CrossCode is the rather mediocre map system. As you can see above, it literally just shows you the general placement of each area, with no actual details. This is a big problem because most of the levels have an element of verticality involved.

In many cases you’ll need to climb or puzzle your way up to a higher level to get to certain parts in another area, and in these cases it would be great to have a more detailed map to see where you need to go to get on a specific ledge.

On a related note, the problems I mentioned earlier regarding the camera angle and pixel art aesthetic make these segments a bit more annoying than they should be. Misjudging the height of a ledge can result in you have to backtrack an area or two to regain your progress. Sometimes it’s also a bit too hard to see which areas are short enough to climb.

Grinding becomes an issue in the latter half of the game as well, both for experience and items. You eventually hit a point where you’ll need to grind mobs to get your levels up because there aren’t enough decent side quests. The item trading system requires a bit of grinding too.

Outside of the most basic of consumables, most items sold by traders can’t be bought outright with money, you also have to trade in items and materials dropped by enemies and plants. If you don’t enjoy a moderate amount of grinding then you’ll probably have issues with the later portions of CrossCode.

On the bright side though, this means that you won’t be completing CrossCode in a mere weekend without an IV of energy drinks and caffeine.

There is a truly insane amount of content in this game, especially for the humble $20 price tag. The main game with most side quests will probably take you a solid 50 to 60 hours at least. If you want to find every secret and hidden item, expect to reach the 100+ hour mark.

CrossCode‘s visuals, sound effects, and music do an admirable job of capturing the retro look and feel the developers were going for. Pixel art in the indie scene is oversaturated and can be extremely hit or miss, but CrossCode really does look and sound like a game that realistically could have came out on the SNES or Genesis.

I must admit that none of the tracks were catchy enough to stick with me to the degree that I’d actively listen to the soundtrack, but nothing stood out as particularly bad. Soundtrack and pixel art graphics can be very subjective, so your mileage may vary of course, but I think CrossCode looks and sounds pleasant.

CrossCode has some annoying bits where improvements could be made, but if you have any interest in retro action-RPGs along the lines of Secret of Mana, then you really need to add this game to your collection. It takes a really long time to open up, but the mid-to-late game offers players a surprisingly in-depth combat system, very enjoyable characters and story, and some clever puzzles.

Best of all, CrossCode is one of those rare titles that has a demo, so go check it out if you don’t believe me. After 7 long years of development, I’m pleased to say that CrossCode was worth the wait, and well worth the meager $20 entry fee.

CrossCode was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Radical Fish Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 8.5


The Good:

  • Aesthetically pleasing presentation that captures the look and feel of a real retro game
  • Simple to learn combat system with a gradual, well-paced complexity curve
  • Fun and challenging boss fights with interesting gimmicks
  • Great cast of characters and an intriguing story and setting
  • Clever puzzles that make great use of the game’s mechanics and your mastery of them
  • A ridiculous amount of content for the price
  • A free demo!

The Bad:

  • Very slow burner that takes a while to really get interesting
  • Fairly grindy late game, though your mileage may vary
  • Poor map design
  • 16-bit aesthetic and camera angle can sometimes make it difficult to judge distances and height
  • Some of the timed platforming puzzles require a frustrating combination of speed, accuracy, and precision
Frank Streva

About

Niche Gamer’s resident indie expert. Digs through the Steam new releases so you don’t have to. Massive fan of miniature and board games as well.