A few hours in
I regret to inform you that I do not, in fact, have much of a better handle on the CrossCode experience.
Or rather, I do understand how to play CrossCode. And I have something of a grasp on CrossCode‘s primary story. But its secondary story remains vague, and its tertiary story hasn’t really gone anywhere yet. Thirteen hours in, and I’m still mostly unclear about who I am, why I’m here, or why I’m doing almost anything I’m doing.
Confused? Yeah, me too. Welcome to CrossCode! It’s an interesting game, that’s for sure: An action-RPG with a surprising focus on platforming and parkour, a fake MMO with people I’m already more attached to than some people I’ve played real MMOs with, and a triple-layered story that isn’t so much ‘going in circles’ as that it’s ‘confusingly doodling all over its own narrative space’. Every part of it exudes a sense of comforting familiarity, and I can trace its roots and choices to handfuls of disparate other games, yet as a whole it’s unlike anything else I’ve played. And if you asked me to summarize it in seven words or less, I’d say ‘you must be new to Indie Wonderland’.
CrossCode is honestly a little hard to summarize, as it pulls from a lot of directions and influences at once. Stay with me now, as I give it a shot; if the next section reads more like disjointed rambling than usual, I want to establish that I told you so right here.
If you came in from the previous page, you already have a good idea of what lies at the heart of CrossCode‘s gameplay: A real-time isometric top-down action-platformer with RPG roots, wherein you’ll spend a lot of time attacking enemies with melee and ranged attacks while blocking and dodging out of the way of directional attacks.
Fighting enemies and jumping across gaps doesn’t sound very RPG, but CrossCode‘s combat is undergirded by a seemingly simple, but fairly robust stat system. Lea has four basic stats: HP, Attack, Defense, and ‘Focus’, which measures things like critical hit chance and special attack buildup. There are four resistance stats, corresponding to the four elements of Cold, Heat, Shock, and Wave. And then there are the hyper-specialized stats, includes such example as ‘aim quicker’, ‘inflict more knockback on charged attacks’, or ‘reflect damage when blocking’.
Stats are modulated in four ways. First, Lea’s base stats are determined by her level. Yeah, that’s right, there’s experience in this game, and leveling up makes Lea a little bit better at anything. Second, there are consumable ‘food’ buffs, which provide opaque buffs to certain stats for a small amount of time. Chili makes you hit harder for ninety seconds, that sort of thing. Third, there’s gear: Lea can equip one hat, one vest, one pair of boots, and two ‘weapons’. Each has an associated stat line, and almost all of them add some resistances and/or specialized stats as well.
Finally, fourth, there’s the Circuit system, which should probably be shown instead of described.
Lea earns one Circuit Point on each level-up, and these points are used to unlock nodes on the Circuit Grid — initial nodes cost 1 CP, later nodes cost 2 or 4 or more. Some nodes give straightforward stat increases, ‘+6% damage’ or ‘+12% melee damage’ or ‘+4% HP’, you get the idea. Other nodes award the same types of special stats also found on gear, allowing you to specialize without being totally reliant on your shoes or diversify. Finally, a handful of nodes unlocks special ‘charge’ attacks, as seen in the tutorial. Charge attacks are tied into your four basic actions: There are charged melee attacks, charged ranged attacks, charged dashes, and charged guards. There are two charged attacks for each type, of which you can have one active at a time. Do you want to fire a spread of small bullets, or one large ball that passes through enemies? Do you want to do a wide sweeping attack, or a more powerful attack right in front of you? Do you want to parry and retaliate incoming attacks, or reduce all damage for a short time? Those sorts of trade-offs.
Surprisingly, CrossCode actually allows you to switch between these attacks at almost any time: You can ‘swap’ the ‘branches’ on your Circuit Grid very easily, allowing you to experiment with new attacks or adapt your build to certain challenges. Non-branch nodes are a little more locked, but you will still earn ‘circuit override’ items fairly regularly. It’s not nearly as punishing as I was worried it would be, which is always a good thing.
All in all, the Circuit Grid is an interesting system, if a little small. It’s fairly easy to have all four special attacks unlocked by the time you get to the first real major fight, at which point it can start to feel like you’re just buying upgrades for the sake of buying upgrades. There’s a small extension to the grid locked behind some key story items, but even that doesn’t feel like it’ll sustain things for very long.
And then you unlock your first elemental mode, and the accompanying elemental circuit.
After obtaining elemental circuits, Lea can swap in and out of the accompanying elemental mode at any time. In this charged-up state, attacks deal elemental damage and take on elemental properties, necessary for defeating certain enemies and solving puzzles. Your charged attacks are also replaced by new elemental charged attacks. The downside is that doing any damage in elemental modes nudges you towards an ‘overload’, locking you out of elemental attacks for a few seconds… unless you ‘cool down’ by switching back into neutral again. Since the stat increases and bonuses you get from the elemental grids count no matter what mode you’re in, it’s less a matter of ‘being in Heat mode is objectively better’ and more a matter of ‘Heat mode and Cold mode and Neutral mode all have different special attacks with different application scenarios’.
Oh, and don’t worry about having to choose: Each new elemental grid comes with its own type of Circuit Points, retroactively calculated as if you’d been earning them from level 1.
On a slightly higher level, CrossCode plays like the MMO it pretends to be. CrossWorlds is a fairly large world made up of contiguous-feeling zones, mostly closed off at first but gradually opening up (and sometimes locking down again) as the story progresses. You’re usually free to wander through that world at will, and you can teleport to any major landmark you’ve visited.
Mechanically, there are basically three types of zones. Most zones are adventure zones, wherein you fight enemies, solve platforming challenges to get to bonus chests, open up new paths and shortcuts, and chop down plants and rocks for resources. Some zones are dungeons, an instanced collection of puzzles and battles and doors with keys that lead up to a boss fight.
And then there are towns. Towns are non-combat zones filled with NPCs (and ‘other players’, more on that later). Towns are mechanically valuable for two reasons. One, you can get new gear here, most of which is obtained through trading, like so:
And two, you can get quests, like so:
Remember that CrossCode purports to be an MMO, and its quests are modeled on that idea. Specifically, they’re modeled on the more Eastern genre of MMO: You only get a small handful of (relatively short/simple) quests at a time, and ‘just’ doing quests and killing the monsters you encounter directly will probably not get you enough experience to become as strong as the game expects you to be. Don’t expect World of Warcraft-style bounding quest chains here; generally, you’ll get four ‘faction’ quests per major milestone, along with some scattered quests around town or in adventure zones. All of these quests are optional, except for the ‘main’ quest line — except that’s less of a quest and more just CrossCode‘s storyline playing out.
And on that note, let’s back up a second. I just spent a good sixteen hundred words telling you about the specifics of how CrossCode plays: Combat, platforming, circuit points, resources, quests, the works. I haven’t really talked about what CrossCode is like, or what CrossCode is about.
Turns out that part is even more difficult to get right.
The thing is that CrossCode has layers.
On its most base level, the story of CrossCode is the story of CrossWorlds, and the story of CrossWorlds is a story about interstellar human settlers accidentally disturbing ancient alien ruins during their initial settlement. The planet Shadoon (I think) was originally inhabited by an advanced alien race, though now only the tribal Shad remain. Humans accidentally found remnants of the ancient technology of yore, and have founded an organization known as the ‘Track Walkers’ who intend to explore the alien ruins and find the secrets hidden at the end of the ‘Track of the Ancients’. The player takes on the role of a Seeker, a specialized operative that’s able to access this ancient technology and draw forth its elemental powers. They move through the world following the Track of the Ancients, while also supporting several other Human and Shad factions with the further colonization of Shadoon: Gathering resources, establishing inter-species trade, learning more about the world, and delivering frontier justice to bandits and outlaws.
A good 75%, 80% of your time is spent playing CrossCode on this layer, as you immerse yourself in the world and the quests and the mysteries of the ancients. And this generally works fine. The main story is fairly simplistic and the quests aren’t staggering, but the gameplay is engaging and the writing is good, with fun dialogue and the occasional clever twist. It really helps that CrossCode is really pretty, assuming you’re not put off by the PS1 pixel art aesthetic. The world is crisp and colourful, different areas have distinct visual and aural palettes that each of them pop, and the focus on three-dimensionality doesn’t just extend to platforming, but is often used to show off enormous enemies or gorgeous vistas.
My principal complaint about this layer of CrossCode is that it feels like it relies on grinding more often than I’d like: Lots of side quests are about amassing large numbers of resources, which semi-randomly drop from enemies and plants, and trading for actually good gear requires both that you grind common resources and grind or hunt for rare stuff. The Bestiary and Botanics menu options help you keep track of which enemies can drop which item, but that doesn’t make the core idea less boring. And then there’s the fact that each type of plant has three very slightly different variations.
Some of the boring grinding is inherent, but CrossCode does ameliorate a large part of ‘grinding out enemies for exp and profit’ with its combat ranking system. Engaging enemies in combat starts what’s basically a combat performance counter: Every enemy you kill contributes to increasing your rank, from D to C to B to A to S. When you’re out of combat, the counter slowly ticks down, but if you get back into combat before it’s fully out, you resume from where you left off. Fully ending combat with higher ranks gets you more bonus exp and gold, and certain enemies will only drop certain items when you’re fighting them at a certain rank; you can only loot top hats from snowmen if you’re rank B or above. This system encourages you to rush from combat to combat, loading up more and more enemies to chase that high… but your health only automatically regenerates to full out of combat. And now you’ve got a rudimentary risk-reward system going: You can try to heal mid-combat by eating food (which takes time and can be interrupted), and you can try to avoid taking damage, but if you die, you’re reset to your last safe place. Which, if you didn’t transition screens at all during your chain (which is something you can do) means that… I hope you weren’t too attached to that last minute of progress.
It’s straightforward and rudimentary, but engaging all the same. If this was all CrossCode was — the fighting and the looting and the questing and walking the Track of the Ancients — I would have called it limited in scope, but otherwise fine. A focused action RPG experience for players with a craving.
But there’s a second layer to CrossCode: Remember that CrossWorlds is actually an MMO, an enormous Westworld-style theme park on an alien moon populated by AI NPCs and players that log into fake bodies, constructed from ‘instant matter’. The whole colonization and exploration and Track of the Ancients story is explicitly fake… unless it isn’t, I’m sort of expecting that as a twist. The story as told thirteen hours in still maintains it’s all fake, an illusion; the preferred pastime for bored nerds and people dodging responsibilities in the future.
Mechanically, what this means is that CrossCode revolves around ‘other players’. The people you get emotionally attached to aren’t CrossWorld’s NPCs, but the characters representing other players. Emily, Schneider, Apollo. The meta-story of CrossCode revolves around you meeting these people, befriending them, and playing the game with them. I just joined a guild, how cool is that! Some characters can ‘join your party’ and run around the overworld with you, helping you with grinding and providing colour commentary on the game, their lives, and your tendency to rack up A- and S-rank killchains without stopping.
It’s not strange that CrossCode would focus on this layer. ‘Looking at an MMO from the outside’ is a popular niche genre: Look at your Sword Art Online, or your .hack, or your Overlord. And while I wish CrossCode hadn’t stuck to the gameplay limitations of MMO games so closely, I do like how it handles the conceit narratively. Emily gets engaged in the game to such a degree that she forgets an important meeting. The First Scholars guild is a niche guild of lore nerds who don’t have the capacity to do raids yet. Apollo styles himself a player arbiter, accusing you of cheating and challenging you to PVP duels — interesting mirror matches, since he’s the same class as you.
Even cooler is that the game world is littered with other players. Some of them are sitting around, talking to themselves where you can overhear. Others run across the same adventure zones you’re in, ignoring you and your battles the way other players would ignore you. It’s actually pretty clever how CrossCode uses this visual touch as a gameplay helper: Some zones can be hard to get around, but if you wait for long enough, you’ll eventually see some ‘other players’ take the right circuitous path to get to the next place.
If CrossCode as a straight RPG feels functional-but-light, CrossCode as a meta-MMO has just that little bit more spark and atmosphere. It allows the game to revel in its MMO idiosyncrasies, poking fun at its own silliness while simultaneously keeping that silliness right in view. It actually goes a little far in this, sometimes; there’s a Bob Ross NPC, an Avatar NPC (the four elements one, not the blue-skinned one), and even an 8-Bit Theater reference.
But then there’s a third layer to CrossCode, the layer where Lea is actually a defined character: A strange woman with amnesia and speech issues who plays CrossWorlds in hopes of regaining her memories. This level of the story is probably connected to the odd opening, and it ties into the backstory of CrossWorlds, and there are dream sequences in-between ‘play sessions’…
…and this is also kind of where CrossCode started losing me a little.
I’m not saying that the Lea story is bad, per se, but… It’s just hard to split your attention and engagement over so many story layers. I’m playing an MMO, except that I’m playing that I’m playing an MMO, except that I’m playing that I’m playing that I’m playing… The whole thing raises more immersion-damaging questions than it answers. Since Lea is the one playing CrossWorlds, there are moments where she ‘logs off for the day’. Except that means nothing, because you’re right back in the game minutes later. What does that signify? And what does it signify if I log off? Lea has amnesia and speech issues, which seem to serve to make her a good blank slate, except the writers then go out of their way to give her a clearly-defined personality that shines through in spite of the former.
Side-note to this, actually: I’m extending incredible kudos to both the writing team and the character artists for pulling this off. Tell me this screenshot doesn’t show everything you need to know about the relationship between these two characters:
I won’t deny the allure of a mystery to keep me playing, and Lea’s strange memory loss story definitely qualifies. But CrossCode already has a mystery storyline, in the Track of the Ancients. And it already has a human connection, in the other players and the guild you join. The third story layer is usually so tangential to the overall CrossCode experience that I tend to forget it even exists, and the moments where it moves to the fore are brief and quickly forgotten. I don’t doubt that it’s going somewhere, I just… can’t see what it’s building towards, and I can’t really find myself care too much.
I mean, again, I do care. I’ve enjoyed my time with CrossCode, and there’s a good chance I’ll want to play more down the line, just to see where things are going. But I’m thirteen hours in, which is more than enough time for mere-exposure effects to take a hold in my psyche. I’m plot committed now, even if I don’t think the main plot is all that. I still want to see what’s at the center of the Track of the Ancients. And I want to see if Emily manages to achieve a good work-life balance. And if she has to fight any more horrible dungeon bugs. And I want to beat Apollo’s ass a third time in a row, just because he’s literally asking for it.
Re-reading the above, I’m still worried I haven’t conveyed CrossCode very well. I don’t actually know if I can. The surface action-RPG platforming game is easy enough to grok, but by divorcing it from its narrative context, you’d make it out to be much dryer than it is. Except it is pretty dry, in places. The different story layers each have their draw, my own dislikes notwithstanding, but so much of the game is spent in the first and second layers that I almost have to wonder what the point of the third layer is. In fact, I wonder if I’d like CrossCode more if it was ‘just’ a game about playing an MMO, with Lea as an actual blank slate who’s just here to make friends and have a good time.
But then we wouldn’t have met captain Jet and his jetpack. So, who can tell where the truth lies.
What I can tell you is that CrossCode is definitely an interesting experience. It’s mostly engaging to play, with fun action combat and pretty interesting puzzles, really pretty and well-put-together, and populated with interesting well-written characters, and it takes the basic conceit of ‘Lea can’t talk’ to interesting places without making her an ableist caricature. I particularly love how NPCs are programmed to ‘assume’ that what you said to them makes sense, so Lea just ‘Hi!’s and ‘Bye!’s her way through whole conversations.
And did I mention it’s only twenty bucks on Steam?
CrossCode definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of that I have no doubt. If you prefer streamlined experiences, sensical narratives, and/or art that isn’t made of pixels, there won’t be much here for you. But if you’re interested in checking out a fun triple-layered narrative about pretending to pretend to pretend to play an alien space MMO with a bunch of bored college students, CrossCode might fill that niche better than any other game I know of.
Jarenth remembers his loot-grinding days like they were yesterday. Because they were yesterday. Share drop rates with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?