IMPRESSIONS: Code Shifter

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

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By all rights, I’m the last person at oprainfall that should be covering Code Shifter. Not cause of any existing bias against the game or team behind it, but because I am woefully inexperienced with the library of Arc System Works and Technos. I know who they are, but don’t have much experience actually playing their titles myself. I haven’t played any BlazBlue titles, nor Guilty Gear, and haven’t touched a River City game. Hell, the only games in the vast roster I have firsthand familiarity with are Double Dragon and RADIO HAMMER STATION. So you may be asking – why am I writing up Code Shifter? The reason for that is the same reason this piece is so late. I tried in vain to find another taker at the oprainfall site, and had no luck. So it ended up in my hands. Thankfully, though I’m not experienced with Arc System Works, I am an old hand at platformers. So let’s see if this plucky platformer made a convert out of me.

Code Shifter | Logging In

The first thing about Code Shifter that stuck out to me was the candy colored aesthetic style. It’s an attractive game that almost has a Pixar vibe to everything. You play Stella, a programmer that made the titular program, Code Shifter, in order to debug viruses. When you’re trashing viruses, your avatar is a powerful hero named Sera. She’s able to double jump, slash and generally bounce around each stage with impunity. At first I really liked how quickly Sera could get around, but I soon discovered her fatal flaw – Sera is about as physically intimidating as a bag of kittens. That’s not to say she can’t deal with foes, but rather that it takes plenty of rapid fire combos to deal with most serious threats. Thankfully, there’s another option to combating foes – transforming into hero codes you find in stages. These are pixelated representatives from many games from the Arc System Works library, and I recognized a few of them. They’re delightfully old school, and most of them pack a much more powerful punch than Sera. So letting her utilize them does help with her general weakness somewhat. Hero codes also can manipulate the environment a few ways. Some can trigger electrical devices and others can break boxes. This is actually indicated by the icon next to their name, a handy feature I discovered about an hour into my experience.

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Other than using the power of hero codes, Sera can also equip skills before taking on a stage. You get these by beating any given stage with an S rank, which is a lot harder than I expected. You essentially have to beat a stage as quickly as possible while taking very little damage. If you lose one life, the best score you can get is an A. I actually found myself wishing that a score of A could provide one Skill, and a score of S could get another. But unfortunately that’s not how this system works. You can get more skill parts by beating stages on higher difficulties, but frankly Code Shifter is plenty challenging on Normal. What frustrated me most about skills is that most make a very slight difference to your stats. Many of them do things like increase attack power or jump range, but to a minuscule degree. They’ll boost you, but only by like 5%. And honestly, it’s hard to comprehend how much of a difference these boosts actually make. The skills that helped me the most were ones that enhanced my loadout of available hero codes, since initially you can only hold one at a time.

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Another factor that can help you a bit are hero assists. These are ones you summon to the field for a variety of effects, from dealing damage to boosting Sera’s stats to healing you. This is cool, but the cooldown to use them again made them a feature I typically ignored, especially during boss fights. Overall the combat in Code Shifter is fine, but it lacks finesse. Sera has no dodge or block move, which makes most battles a frenetic scramble with enemies trying their best to stampede you. This is problematic when you’re transformed into a larger hero code, which makes you a perfect damage sponge. Another issue is that when you lose a life, you’ll lose all your hero codes with it, other than assist summons. And though I appreciate how the game displays Sera’s moveset from the pause menu, along with assist abilities, I found it odd hero codes you directly control don’t display their movesets anywhere. It’s really too bad, cause there’s a lot of speed and flexibility to the combat in the game. It just lacks the tightness and balance of a truly great example of the genre.

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Besides the basic combat, there’s a mini game in Code Shifter. It’s called Colorful Fighters, and it features tons of pixelated reps from Arc System Works games. You start out with a handful, and can unlock more by beating EX stages. I like that in theory, but to do so you have to defeat demonic versions of the characters first, and they’re frankly more difficult than the regular bosses in the game. I managed to beat one, but since that stage featured a couple and required me to beat both to unlock either, I’m still working on making serious progress. Thankfully you can play with just the default characters, and Colorful Fighters is a chaotic scramble. It is 4 v 4 insanity, and it’s like a manic Smash Bros. I can’t say there’s much strategy to it, but it’s a fun diversion.

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Now, despite my issues with the combat, I did find Code Shifter a moderately fun experience. There’s actually even a halfway decent plot here that might go someplace interesting. It’s all about a company getting a new game ready to launch when suspicious viruses start delaying progress. I’m not sure if this indicates an industrial espionage angle or what, but it’s fun watching things progress with Stella and her coworkers. The only downside is how they all speak. They sound like horny metal squirrels copulating. Normally I don’t mind gibberish talk in games, and have enjoyed it in Banjo-Kazooie and the SteamWorld games. But here it’s super irritating. Also annoying is moving about the office. It’s really easy to bump into invisible geometry and get stuck. Luckily you can pause to select a location you want Stella to move, and thus have her go there instantly.

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Despite issues with combat, the platforming is actually pretty fun in Code Shifter. It’s basic, but there’s some tricky maps to navigate as you hunt for viruses to slay. The game makes use of disappearing platforms, warps, air vents and more to keep things interesting. And most areas don’t overstay their welcome, only featuring a handful of story stages and optional EX ones. Again, the big issue I ran into was how unbalanced and loose combat felt. Especially since the game inexplicably forces you to use the joystick to move around, instead of allowing that and D-Pad. Which is odd, since you can use the D-Pad to navigate sub menus. Altogether this made challenging parts of the game a real slog. I almost gave up entirely at one miniboss, who kept spamming a revolving shield. Eventually I got past it with a summon assist, but the lack of clear strategic options in the game doesn’t help matters. It’s never clear which heroes you should keep and which you should toss aside, other than ones you need for getting to the stage exit. And while I wish I could say I loved the bosses I’ve faced, they were just as awkward as the rest of the combat. On the plus side, the visual flair of the game is nice and the music is better. Each hero code you play as has an accompanying soundtrack, and that really livens things up.

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Sadly Code Shifter didn’t quite pass muster with me, though it did make me curious about exploring more Arc System Works titles. There was a lot of potential here, but the ideas didn’t quite mesh enough for it to make a deeper impact. But if you’re a fan of platformers and want something different, Code Shifter might be for you. Especially since it’s available on many consoles. For everyone else, this one might not be worth your time.

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About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.