I have a confession to make. I’ve never played an MMORPG. Pretty much everything about the genre ticks the boxes that appeal to me: a broad story; addictive gameplay loop; interesting quests; playing with friends. Despite this, I’ve studiously avoided WoW, Everquest, Ultima Online and Final Fantasy XIV even though I love the single-player titles of some of those franchises. The very features that I think I’ll enjoy the most are the same ones that would undoubtedly suck me into a vortex of compulsion, forcing me to play for hours, days, weeks on end. My bloodshot eyes would recede into hollow sockets and my body would wither, its meagre constitution sustained only by Walkers Sensations poppadoms, whisky and Turkish delight. In short, I think I’d love to play them, but they’d likely kill me.
CrossCode is what I imagine a 16-bit MMORPG would look like if it had been developed in the 90s and released on SNES. It isn’t actually a multiplayer game, but the character you play is in one. If that sounds confusing, you’ll need to wait about fifteen hours until you actually get told what the hell is going on. And, to be honest, it won’t matter. You’ll have been pulled into the game’s clutches at that point and no amount of struggling will release you.
As a spoiler-free intro, though: you play as Lea, who awakens on a cargo ship as an avatar in a game called CrossWorlds. She has no memory of who she is or how she got there, but is informed by a contact in the real world (via the game’s messaging system) that she needs to play to regain her memories. The blue-haired amnesiac hero (who is relatively mute thanks to a convenient gimmick) is nothing new in RPGs and at first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that CrossCode is just another derivative JRPG knock-off. As soon as I entered combat, all thoughts of that nature dissipated and by the time I entered the first puzzle temple I was thoroughly hooked.
Put simply, CrossCode is quite possibly the best non-Zelda Zelda game I’ve played in decades.
Gameplay can be split into three distinct sections: town exploration and quest collection, world exploration with combat, and temple exploration with puzzles, combat and bosses. The game jives seriously with its MMORPG flavouring and you’ll soon be staggering under the weight of quests you collect as you wander around the different hubs which make up the game world. Quest-givers are easily identified by exclamation marks and lead to tasks from simple “Kill ten creatures and collect items” to “Track down a missing person”, and beyond.
The cast of NPCs is vast and a number of recurring faces pop up to offer you new ways of obtaining credits and materials. It’s to the game’s credit that they are all engaging, but many of them also have their own uses. Weapon and item shops are a given for an RPG, but CrossCode also throws in a meaty trading system which lets you swap items you pick up from monsters and chests for more powerful equipment. Market traders litter the towns and often the best gear can only be obtained by finding the rare items they want in exchange. You could spend hours simply scouring the lands just to collect materials from downed enemies or chopped bushes (in another nod to Zelda).
It’s just as well, then, that the combat required to scavenge these goods is sublime. I can’t recall the last time I played a non-Link hosted action-RPG, or an action game in general, that nails the satisfaction and difficulty curve of combat so utterly perfectly.
Lea starts out as a weak Level 1 player who struggles with even the simplest of foes, but progression shows real tangible improvements in her repertoire. Aside from a guard and basic range and melee attacks, Lea moves on to dash attacks, guard ripostes, charged sword blasts and more through a comprehensive — and frankly daunting — skill tree. You spend CP (Circuit Points) on a skill tree to pick between several different skill paths, and each skill uses a different button combination. But when you discover the element of ice, a second entirely different tree appears with its own CP counter, which uses the same moveset but with different elemental results when you activate it. And then you’ll uncover a second element unlocking a third skill tree, and a fourth…and a fifth.
All of the attacks are different. All of the effects are visually distinct. If you are a person who struggles with decisions, this progression suite is likely to give you hives. For everyone else, it’s wonderful. You can micromanage the way you play the game entirely through these trees; if you’re not a fan of melee attacks and prefer zipping around the screen, shove all your points into the various ranged skills. If you want to tank up, purchase a load of attack and defense bonuses. I wasn’t a fan of blocking, and was still able to progress even though I barely used it. And if you change your mind about your path, you can reset your skill trees with the use of an item and try a completely different approach.
There will, of course, be trade-offs and compromises since every new enemy — of which there are dozens, most with secondary variants — has a different set of moves to react to and counter. But the sheer flexibility of customisation is a wonder to behold, and even if you don’t want to get deep into the stats, the interface offers a very simple solution: green numbers are better, red are worse.
The story, too, is engaging. Despite the game primarily focusing on action, CrossCode manages to keep you hooked with a twisting narrative that is almost impossible to predict. You’ll flit between light-hearted meta commentary on the nature of MMORPGs to a deeply philosophical analysis of existence itself, but the segues between the beats feel organic and there are plenty of surprises and shocks — many of them moving.
The characterisation and gameplay is so good that the areas where CrossCode stumbles are even starker in comparison. There is no jump button, which in some games is an excellent design choice, but feels awkward here. If the game wasn’t 2D, this might have been a minor issue but the faux-3D scaling to simulate depth means that it’s nigh-on impossible to judge the height of the platform you’re on in comparison to those around you. In mountainous regions, this is incredibly frustrating as you push forward expecting to leap across to the next cliff, only to tumble into the depths. Sure, you’re placed back where you started and the health hit you take is almost immediately restored, but this irritation wore my teeth down through constant clenching.
Pacing is another problem. CrossCode is a long game, especially if you want to see everything it has to offer. As such, having your companions tell you that they want to backtrack to a mission HQ to have a chat with the NPCs there can be infuriating, especially when all you want to do is head out to the next temple and hit things. Similarly, while the majority of the temple puzzles are incredibly well designed, a few of them — I’m looking at you, magnets — require such pinpoint timing that you could quite easily spend half an hour in one room trying to work out the specific path the developers want you to take.
Yet even with these bugbears, the game does so much right that I was able to forgive its annoyances. Boss fights, for instance, are split into segments, each of which has a perfectly pitched learning curve. You’ll die hard and often, but careful analysis of their patterns will let you progress a little further each time. It’s tough, but it isn’t a FromSoftware game. The atmosphere is jovial for the most part and the camaraderie between the protagonists is always engaging. You’ll see other simulated “player” avatars moving around towns and countryside areas too, strengthening that feeling of being in an MMO — as well as providing useful pathfinding examples, should you get lost among the shrubbery of the expansive world. The soundtrack has enough earworms to fill a compost bin and they rarely outstay their welcome.
CrossCode deserves to be played by anyone with an interest in action RPGs. It’s a game that has been thought through with more care and consistency than dozens of AAA titles, its systems are deep yet accessible, and the gameplay is simply sublime. While it may have benefitted from more stringent editing in places, players who fall in love with Lea’s story may have the opposite opinion: that fifty to sixty hours in the realm of CrossWorlds isn’t nearly enough.
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