I only learnt about CrossCode pretty recently, despite the game being around for a fair while on PC. The game hit Steam in 2018, after development started in 2012. Now it has hit consoles and it was time to hop into this 16-bit inspired RPG.
What is a CrossCode?
CrossCode has a look and feel that anyone that enjoyed the 16-bit gaming era will recognise. It plays a lot like Chrono Trigger, with your character moving around and fighting in the same area, without a transition to battle screens. It is part RPG and part puzzle game. If you could imagine Legend of Zelda but with a full inventory and stat-lines, you would be close.
You play as Lea, a girl who is having memory problems. You are told that an MMO called CrossWorlds could help you regain your memory, so you head off on an adventure into a wonderful next-gen MMO. In the future, people play games with hyper-advanced VR setups that offer feedback across all five senses. To accommodate this, one gaming company turned a moon into the setting for their game, where players connect to Avatars made of Instant Matter, who then go around these areas of the “Playground” playing the game. It sounds amazing, and it results in a pretty layered web of stories. One layer is the MMO you are playing, with its accompanying lore and quests and the like, and then there are the players you meet, who range from roleplaying lore hunters to overhearing the players complaining about real-world issues or when the next game update will be. Then you get Lea’s story and how she copes with all she learns and hears and her battle to find herself. There are other layers at work too, that weave an intricate story, but I won’t detail them as there are a few big moments I don’t want to spoil.
To make things worse for Lea, her Avatar’s speech module is faulty. She is only capable of saying a few words, meaning she has to get her point across with facial expressions and pointed pauses, or the smattering of vocabulary she has. Despite this limitation, Lea is really expressive and gets her point across pretty well. As time passes you learn to understand what her various expressions mean, with the help of other characters filling in the blanks. As far as the silent protagonist trope goes, Lea still does a lot of heavy lifting in conversations, so even though the other characters are filling in a lot of the space, it never feels as stilted as those one-way conversations that video games fall into with silent protagonists.
Lea is curious, often butting into conversations of other players to learn more about CrossCode or the world at large. Her enthusiasm bubbles through and others react to it, sharing more information about the world. Between that and the various encyclopedia entries, you start to discover a lot more about this amazing game and the society that exists outside of the game.
The game you play is an MMO about adventurers trying to uncover the secrets of a precursor race that built a complex system of challenges to test themselves. This pilgrimage is collectively known as the Track, and most of it is still active today, thanks to advanced technology that allows the Track to repair and defend itself. Humans initially found it when mining a section of Track, which eventually turned hostile to deter the mining. That was when Project Trackwalker was founded, a research unit that tries to complete the Track with as many candidates as possible, hoping to glean more understanding of its myriad systems as well as its final purpose.
Project Tracwalker boils down to a large system of travelling from town to town, finding a ruin/temple/mine and plumbing the depths to discover a new element, before defeating the final challenge and being blessed with the knowledge of the ancient gods. These dungeons are very much large puzzles, with every room requiring something to be done in them. As like in Legend of Zelda, acquiring a new element makes certain impossible rooms suddenly possible, and almost always extends on the intricacy of the puzzles you are presented with, culminating in a final boss fight that requires you take what you learned and apply it as quickly as possible, all while avoiding attacks.
I am unsure if later temples were easier, or if my brain levelled up during the first few dungeons as I slowly dismantled them.
CrossCode is puzzle heavy, with many fights feeling like puzzles once you unlock the various elements. In fact, the combat doesn’t feel quite right until you get your first element, which lets you apply status debuffs and hit an elemental weakness. But the temples are the crowning jewel here. I loved having to push myself to solve the puzzles, using every element in the room to bypass new challenges. Your character’s ranged attack plays a big role in this, as a charged attack with ricochet a few times, allowing you to activate a far away switch, or hit a bomb at the correct angle to blow up a weak spot in the world. At first, I couldn’t believe how many puzzles were being thrown at me and how many different ways the same puzzle elements were being used in new ways, forcing experimentation and a few head scratches. I am unsure if later temples were easier, or if my brain levelled up during the first few dungeons as I slowly dismantled them.
These puzzles aren’t just about brainpower, though. Some of them require great accuracy and amazing reflexes to beat them, especially the ultimate puzzle of a temple, which often threads all puzzle elements together into a chain that needs to be activated all at once. Thankfully the game does offer some help if you find yourself unable to keep up with the pace that is required. In the settings menu there are three sliders to assist players, should things get too much. Two of these are for combat, letting you decrease the damage that enemy attacks do, and how frequently they attack. The latter doesn’t really work on bosses, whose attacks are part of the puzzle element in some fights, but the damage drop can really help out until you learn all the steps to the various phases.
The one that really got me thinking about puzzle design was the puzzle speed slider. You can slow down elements of a puzzle to help you solve it much more easily, giving you time to get into position and get your aim perfect, launching that ricocheting projectile right into the correct spot. Not everyone will need it, but when you find you can’t solve a puzzle just because you cant run across to another point in time to hit the object you just smacked off its pedestal before it detonates or slides off the edge of the level. Yeah, my hands actually hurt a bit while playing this game due to its many intense and precisely timed movements.
CrossCode’s mix of compelling story and that feeling of satisfaction that comes from solving a complex puzzle results in a journey you can’t help but see through.
For those who prefer physical versions, boxed editions can be pre-ordered over here.