By William Haderlie / June 6th, 2019
|Developer||Radical Fish Games|
|Publisher||Deck13, WhisperGames, DANGEN Entertainment, Mayflower Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 21st, 2018|
|Age Rating||ESRB T for Teen|
I’m happy to finally be able to review CrossCode for Operation Rainfall. While I was too busy to play it at the time of release, it was a game that had my immediate interest. The Action-RPG combat style combined with an MMORPG story had me intrigued. And the pixel design definitely did nothing to dissuade me, reminding me of the fantastic Cosmic Star Heroine. But I had to hold off due to time commitments. What finally convinced me to jump in was watching speedruns of the game. As someone who is fairly involved in the speedrunning community I like to keep up with hot new entries, and CrossCode has had one of the most active running communities for a new game not developed by FromSoftware (shout outs to The Messenger community as well). I don’t personally speedrun the game, but I have played through it casually twice and have watched at least a dozen speedruns. I was a little surprised that we didn’t cover the game at the time of release, but now is a great time to cast some more light on it, especially with the recent release of the major 1.1 update.
There are two different narratives that are occurring along the same timeline during CrossCode. One is an MMORPG story within the game world. The other is a story about the game world, its creators, and what role the player’s character plays in the overall story. There is an opening scene where you will have no idea what is going on. Then after that, at fairly frequent intervals, there will be scenes flashing that give more of a theme than any real answers. These occur when Lea, the character you play, ostensibly “logs out” of the game world. It becomes quickly suspicious that instead of seeing her enter the real world to eat or sleep, you only see these short flashbacks. Within the game world the only things that make Lea really stand out are that she gets attacked by someone very powerful claiming to know her and that her speech functions do not seem to work.
One of the early plot points that rears its head is how virtually impossible it is to tell the difference between the AI NPCs and the PCs. In practice, the only real way to tell is usually how invested they are in maintaining the structure and narrative of the game world. But you could also easily imagine RP gamers (role players in an MMORPG) taking on those same tasks even in the current generation of games. So the story and the game world work on multiple levels, both as a faux MMORPG and as a commentary on the genre itself. Because of the way you build up your character and the world opens up in traditional games of this genre, it provides a ludonarrative structure that keeps you invested in both the game’s story and Lea’s progress in discovering who she is and where her memories have gone.
If these multiple layers of story sound like a whole lot to take on in one game, you are not wrong. One of my minor complaints about CrossCode is that it tries to do so many things with the story that none of them end up being as fleshed out as they could be. Each element is good in their own right, but never quite reaches the level of great. As you would expect with an MMORPG, even a faux one, there is a whole lot of optional dialogue that can help flesh out the world. But because they are trying to do both things, even that dialogue tries to work on both a narrative and meta-narrative level. The only other issue I have with the story is the giant digression that happens midway through the game. It halts the game world story entirely and goes on for at least an hour too long. Granted, you do learn a whole lot about what is actually going on with Lea and the game world during that time, but it is far from a smooth transition. To make the disjointed pace even more apparent, the last half of the world story seems a little rushed as compared to the first half. This is particularly true when it comes to dungeon and world design.
Wandering around the CrossWorld is fairly open, with large discrete sections of the map having multiple exits into differing sections. In that way, as well as some of the artistic design, it is strongly reminiscent of Secret of Mana. However, there are obstacles and gates that are blocked off by either keys or abilities that you will have to come back for. In that way, it also has a pervasive element of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Where CrossCode truly stands out from those two games is the parkour element of traversal. Lea will automatically jump a certain distance when you step off the edge of a drop. You cannot jump up, only horizontal or down. This is an important part of traversal and will be required for dungeon navigation as well as optionally required to obtain very nice treasure chests scattered throughout the world. The only good way to avoid grinding for parts and money to upgrade your gear is by mastering the parkour locations that are on almost every map screen.
It is quite unnecessary to grind for levels; you really only need to do so in order to get items to trade in or to complete side quests. In speedrunning even that is unnecessary. There are two reasons you don’t need to grind for levels, like you do in most actual MMORPGs. The first is that the required fights in dungeons, and particularly the bosses, give you more than enough XP to ensure you are a high enough level to beat the game. The other reason is because levels only give you Circuit Points (CP) and a little bit of power. Most of your combat power comes from the equipment you find or purchase. In particular, the modifiers you see below your general and resistance stats above will factor into your damage quite a bit. The 25 percent assault damage bonus on the vest I have equipped will make that item useful well past its level 13 label.
The Circuit Board, where you spend your CP, is one of my favorite parts of CrossCode. It reminds me a bit of Final Fantasy X and Path of Exile, in that it is a very large chart that features multiple routes through it. One of the differences is that the chart is split into five sections, and each section has multiple routes which do not cross over between them. The sections are split according to the five different elemental attacks that you will gain access to. The initial Circuit Board is for non-elemental attacks and for baseline character stats. Along the path of the world story you will also gain access to new elemental Circuit Boards in the following order: fire, ice, thunder, and wind. Each element takes advantage of a particular monster weakness as well as providing certain traversal benefits, whether that is melting ice, creating paths through lava, powering electronic devices, or teleportation (the less obvious wind function). Thankfully you can spend all your CP independently within each Circuit Board, so there is no reason to hoard them. As soon as you unlock the next element, you will gain all the CP for that board that you had for the others. Additionally, at any time you can go into the board and swap sections of the skill tree that are labeled swappable (like you see above) in order to change the active combat skills to suit your current needs. In other words, some are more focused on single-target combat while others are far better for large groups.
While an action RPG with these elements is not particularly surprising, where CrossCode begins to set itself apart is with the variety of puzzles involving the Ricochet Shot. In combat most enemies are better defeated in melee, but some require the use of your long-distance shots. In dungeon puzzles, however, you will be using almost exclusively your distance shots to either time switch hits well or to ricochet to somewhere out of reach, or even to add elements onto your bullets using dungeon-specific devices. Maneuvering platforms into place and then getting the correct angle and timing in for shots will end up being the lion’s share of your gameplay. And in that way, above any other, this is not a game for everyone. In my opinion they overdid it a little with the shot puzzles. They certainly display some inventive ideas, but they are an extreme pain point which will cause many players to simply give up on the game. While the game does have options to make it easier, it is nigh impossible to effectively change the puzzle difficulty other than slowing down the bullet times more than they already have in the patches post release.
My last minor complaint is that there weren’t more dungeon bosses. There are several mini-bosses that help prepare you for that final dungeon fight, but you still only have the major Ice Dungeon boss, the major Fire Dungeon boss, and then the Thunder and Wind Dungeon boss are combined into one fight. Other than that there is one large main story boss, but that only really left me wanting even more. But to be clear, the bosses are so well designed that it was a want for more fun rather than a major complaint about lack of content. But that is my last minor complaint. The pixel art is wonderful to look at even after having played and watching it being played so many times. Also the music is consistently really good and memorable. I never felt the need to mute it while playing through the game even when I was replaying it this time for capture footage.
Last year was such an amazing year for indie games that it felt like CrossCode got a little lost in the shuffle. I would strongly suggest people who missed out on the game initially check it out now. The 1.1 update added some free content including a major arena mode that adds even more longevity to the game. Casually it can run you between 10-20 hours depending on how much of the sidequests you want to engage in. While the NMG (No Major Glitches) records are currently hovering just above two hours, it’s also a fun game to just take your time with like you would in a real MMORPG, and for $19.99 that is frankly a steal. While there are obvious comparisons to be made (story-wise) to the massively popular Sword Art Online, the gameplay was a whole lot tighter. As a result, with a whole lot of practice, Lea feels much more like a real badass who responds exactly to how good you are at the game itself.
Review Code Provided By The Publisher
CrossCode is part of the ID@Xbox program.
Action RPGCrossCodeDANGEN EntertainmentDeck13Mayflower EntertainmentMMORPGPCRadical Fish GamesSteamWhisperGames