CrossCode Review: On the Line
Kalvin Martinez / Sep 2nd, 2020 No Comments
What if we’re all just in a simulation? It’s the Matrix, dude! We know kung fu? CrossCode takes that fanciful conversation you have with your buddy while high or working minimum wage subsistence living and turns it into an inventive game.
CrossCode has a lot of positives: gorgeous retro inspired graphics, great combat, superb dungeon and world design, and a complex roleplaying upgrade system. Where it suffers is in its story.
Who am I?
Lea wakes up in a world unfamiliar to her. Not only does she not know where she is, she doesn’t know who she is! To make matters worse, she finds she is unable to speak. Fortunately for the mute amnesiac, a handler, Sergey fills her in on the situation. She is trapped in a MMO, CrossWorlds.
In order for her to figure out who she is and what happened to her, she has no choice but to pretend she is simply another player in CrossWorlds. By playing through the game, Sergey hopes it’ll jog her memory.
A few NPCs in the game know her situation, but all the other real players just think she is a normal player with a busted speech module. Then there is the whole mysterious man of it all who knows Lea is an anomaly within this world.
As Lea plays the game, she learns more about herself and her condition in the real world. More importantly, she starts having random memories from outside the game. Who is she? Why is she trapped in this game? How did you get into this position? These questions push the story forward.
The tragedy of CrossCode’s narrative is the MMO wrapper takes center stage. While a necessary evil, it does get tedious when you only want to learn more about Lea and what’s going on with her. While the core MMO story could be cool at face value, it is hard to find it compelling when you know it is a game. Your ability to suspend disbelief is ruined when you know that it is a game within a game, and the real stakes aren’t grinding it out in Rookie Harbor.
It is a fine line to walk to be sure. After a while the game is mostly playing an alright MMO as a B story with a weird improv game of not revealing Lea’s true nature and identity. The characters who are real players within the game that Lea runs into and befriends aren’t particularly interesting. Since they don’t know her plight, they act as a beard to make her seem like she is another player in the MMO. You’re mainly tolerating them as you wait for the A plot to move forward and wait for things to heat up.
What makes CrossCode’s shortcomings in its narrative even more stark is how good its combat puzzles and dungeon design are. While gameplay leans into the MMO trappings, it doesn’t become overbearing like the story. Where CrossCode suffers the most from the MMO conceit is the weak side quests. They feel trivial and indulge the worse of MMO fetch quests all in the hopes of verisimilitude.
Outside of the MMO of it all, the overworld and its dungeons are designed superbly. The overworld is complex with plenty of traversal puzzles and pathways to open and discover. It makes navigating engaging rather than a simple A to B scenario.
A sub quest that requires Lea and company to chase down a bunny illustrates deftly why the overworld design works so well. It turns a typical chase quest into something dynamic.
By requiring players to learn how to interact and manipulate the environment to their benefit in order to make forward progress, it adds a puzzle element to exploration. Like learning you can walk along the tops of thin walls to shorten a too wide gap.
This creates depth and discovery allowing players to feel accomplished when they finally track down that bunny and continue along the main quest.
The overworld design is only a small taste of the sense of discovery and accomplishment in the game. The actual main quest dungeons are huge, multi-part mysteries to solve. They are full of clever puzzles that play off Lea’s unique characteristics as a spheromancer; the ability to materialize and shoot spheres from her fists.
There is some awkwardness in shooting spheres at first. However, once you get used to the particular nature of the spheres, it becomes second nature. That doesn’t mean puzzles get easy when you get used to the learning curve. Figuring out the right angle and positioning will always be the main challenge of CrossCode’s puzzles.
CrossCode smartly builds on that inherent challenge of shooting by adding in new obstacles and elements. Core to the story are different elemental properties players must earn as they complete the Track of the Ancients.
Lea gains the fire elemental during her first dungeon. As she progresses through additional dungeons she adds more elements to her arsenal. These elements become core to solve puzzles.
Knowing what elemental to use and how they work are key. Like knowing when to use fire elemental attacks to blow up a bubble into a stunning steam or when to freeze that same bubble into an ice buck to knock around the room. Or when not to use any elementals to position the bubble properly with neutral attacks.
Main quest dungeons function as one big puzzle with each room and smaller challenge allowing you to complete the whole picture. Sometimes it is a room puzzle where Lea has to shoot spheres just right or it is a combat puzzle where Lea needs to beat a certain number of enemies before moving forward. Regardless of the type of puzzle, besting them is satisfying.
The sweet taste of discovery culminates in challenging boss fights. Boss fights aren’t simply beating down larger versions of base mobs. They require mastery of what helped you solve all the puzzles up to that point.
Often the boss’ major weakness is based around the catch for the puzzles in the dungeon. By exploiting that, the boss becomes vulnerable allowing you to beat the stuffing out of it.
CrossCode’s main quest dungeons are the highlight of its gameplay because it leans into the game’s retro influences. Where the game succeeds in terms of roleplaying is the complex upgrade system. As Lea levels up she gains points to upgrade her combat abilities.
It starts off basic with upgrades to neutral attack style, but opens up as you gain more elements. Eventually, you can upgrade five distinct paths allowing you to tailor a fighting style to a particular element. It adds depth to the game’s hack-n-slash combat and varies up combat.
CrossCode has a lot of things going for it. Sadly, its achilles hill is where it decides to lean toward in its influences. The MMO trappings of the game it leans way too heavily into, which makes it very mileage may vary. It is a shame because the retro influences of the game’s aesthetic, puzzles, and gameplay are huge positives.
CrossCode was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer.
tags: CrossCode , CrossCode Review , CrossCode Switch , CrossCode Switch Review , Switch