It seems like I’ve been waiting forever to play CrossCode. A mysterious game that’s been in development for nearly seven years, I was fascinated by everything that I saw teased through Radical Fish’s own website, through snippets on their Indiegogo page, and through the eventual Early Access and full release. Everything told me that this would be amazing: the layout, the concept, and especially the artwork. Too often, retro inspired titles tend to deviate from their own ideas in favor of pandering to the nostalgia crowd OR suddenly flipping the script on what was their mission statement. However, the rave reviews and constant developer presence to ensure that the bugs got ironed out helped to bolster my confidence. With that, I dived into the world of CrossCode, and found a truly fascinating and enveloping world.
CrossCode is the tale of Lea, a young woman who is actually an avatar within the MMORPG of CrossWorlds. Lea is confused about her existence, which is further echoed by the player: prior to “starting” the game, you do a quick prologue where a woman who looks suspiciously like Lea needs to find her brother and appears to mourn over his collapsing death. The powers that watch over Lea hint that she’s something different and special, and not just because she’s a spheromancer (a combat class that fires balls of energy). Lea has no memory of where she came from or who she is, and she cannot speak at first (gradually only getting the ability to speak a couple of words at a time). Still, her existence has attracted the attention of several factions, some who view her as a positive change, others who fear and revile her. As a simple CrossWorlds player, Lea wants to achieve the quests and bond with other players, but you learn, all too quickly, there is something far more important at stake than just grinding for loot and EXP.
CrossCode is an exceptional action-RPG with more focus on later than you might imagine. As you begin the game, Lea partakes on the quest that all characters are focused on: the Tracks of the Ancients, a series of explorations that should enlighten the character about the alien race who lived in CrossWorlds before humanity and, upon completion, should bestow ancient technology upon them. Lea moves forward into the game while amassing a small crew of NPC party members, as well as gradually leveling up and purchasing new equipment through a series of barters and actual coin usage. Each area that Lea travels to is full of rich detail, some complex (but not impossible) puzzles, and plenty of side quests that you can spend tens of hours completing, even passively, while attempting to make sense out of the true nature of the game.
Let’s cover the good of the game from start to finish. First, CrossCode is one of the best looking and sounding retro-inspired games that I’ve played in a long time, and it honestly gave me chills and shivers that took me back to the SNES era. There has been a lot of love and detail given into shaping the worlds and dungeons, making sure that the nature of the 16 bit timeline was preserved and represented well inside of CrossWorlds. Moving off Bergen Trail and into the Temple Mines, or stepping into Gaia’s Garden after surviving Far’jo Temple, gave an equal sense of wonder and appreciation for the pixel perfect design and careful craftsmanship of the layout overall. These beautiful details are only further backed up by a fantastic soundtrack that reminds me of the JRPG orchestra ap scores that used to fuel my hours upon hours of gameplay in my high school days. They have that same dynamic feel of departing one section and heading into the next, getting caught up in a brand new sound and feeling the tone and the atmosphere change as we shift from synthesized horns and drums into gentle, often ominous strings. If nothing else, Radical Fish can be applauded for smacking that aspect dead on the nose.
Thankfully, the game also goes well beyond looks and sounds. CrossCode has a great balance of action in their combat and boss fights, requiring players to learn and advance in their gameplay as the world moves on. Sure, you can grind and keep attacking enemies all day long in order to simply get more EXP (and add more slots onto your skill tree), but it’s more important to literally get good at what makes Lea move and dance, and assigning her party members to better change strategy and approach the enemies as they appear. Being able to really learn a bit about targeting and charging your shots, about when you do a melee attack and when to spin away, about utilizing combat skills and, more importantly, understanding how you take down the massive bosses that inevitably come at you at the conclusion of the different dungeons. Bosses, by the way, that are every bit as detailed and massive as the ones that once plagued the Secret of Evermore or Chrono Trigger, if that evokes any kind of interest you might not yet be experiencing. You will definitely die multiple times and be very thankful that checkpoints and a frequent save system will prevent you from losing a ton of progress.
CrossCode is also keenly aware of the homage it has taken from the source material and keeps that element of the game alive and fresh despite this being an offline, single player experience. CrossWorlds looks and feels like a flourishing, lively MMORPG that just happens to be 16Bit in design, but it never plays as such, nor leaves the player hanging in terms of what could be within the game. You’re constantly seeing random NPCs running around, representing other characters who are deeply in quests and missions of their own, and you can often read snippets of conversation that may or may not apply to what you’ll be doing (or are currently doing) within the world. You’ve got side quests galore, each one worthwhile in the sense of accomplishment, but also in the sense of gathering up materials and EXP to make the progression even smoother and more successful. If you really want to be a hard ass and just smash enemies until you’re overpowered and don’t want to do quests, far be it from me to correct you, but you’re doing it wrong. Embrace the pseudo connectivity of the game, it’s more fun and plays better than you think.
The only real complaint I have about CrossCode come from the Switch port itself, because I haven’t seen this reported anywhere else. For whatever reason, there’s so much about the menus and interfacing of CrossCode that feels slow, and I think that’s just a porting issue. There’s a noticeable delay whenever you attempt to go to a different menu within the game menu, be it the quest list, the inventory, the skill tree or anything else. You push the button to confirm and then just sit there for a moment. You go to select an option from the intuitive and necessary action wheel during combat, and there’s a brief moment of delay. What’s irksome about this is that it doesn’t technically interrupt gameplay: I never got killed or missed an opportunity because there was a moment’s hesitation within the game. But it’s annoying, especially when you need to keep going back into the menu to check on factoids about the game’s lore, or just want to confirm if you have enough of one material to barter for some new equipment.
Yet it’s the overall joy of CrossCode that eliminates the complaints at the end of the day. There are interactions with the characters and the worlds that are funny, poignant, insightful and sometimes shocking. There are moments of dueling that positively tickled me: my resonating rivalry with Apollo was something I looked forward to and was always glad when he returned with more nonsense to espouse and a challenge that left him face down. There are hidden bosses and areas that explain so much more about the game, there are multiple endings, there are an endless number of things to explore and to do and it’s all contained within a game that would have spelled the end of my academic career if this actually came out on the SNES. I’m almost grateful to have found this game as an adult, because I can control myself and remember to go to work, but I’m secretly jealous that someone’s child might be able to lose themselves in the lore that makes up this love poem to a bygone era of gaming. If you’re wondering if you should play it, the answer is a screaming yes. If you loved anything from the 16Bit timeline, or just really have a soft spot for action RPGs, CrossCode will reshape your world.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
An unbelievable trip into a brand new world that feels like home, CrossCode is the missing game that needs to be in my SNES collection.