There are a slew of indie 16-bit-inspired JRPG-likes available on the PC, but a lot of them are pretty barebones, leaving much to be desired. This is hardly any independent studio’s fault–these games were very much at the forefront of the success during the days of the Super Nintendo, and part of the reason was because they had huge staffs working for them. It’s much more difficult now to make a good JRPG these days, especially with everybody so focused on large AAA experiences.
CrossCode is the latest of these Steam gems to make it to modern consoles, and while this one aims to bring us back to the golden age of JRPGs, this might actually take enthusiasts back to even further depths.
What Is It?
Developed by Radical Fish Games, this small studio in Germany initially got its start with CrossCode as an Indiegogo campaign. That campaign maxed its goal at 112% before going into early access for a few years prior to its full 2018 release on Steam, where the game currently boasts over 94% positive reviews. After a couple years, the game has finally made its way to modern consoles in hope of finding even more success with a larger audience.
CrossCode mostly takes place in CrossWorlds, an MMORPG, and puts players in control of Lea, an avatar in CrossWorlds’ spheromancer class. Your typical, she actually has her vocabulary grow throughout the game–after all, she’s programmed into a game (a game within a game!), as she also tries to get her memories back.
CrossCode‘s progresses slowly but when it picks up, the action becomes unlike any JRPG I’ve played before it, and that’s where the game really shines.
Why Should I Care?
In typical amnesia-at-the-beginning-of-the-story fashion, Lea’s a shell of her former self and doesn’t understand what happened. It’s here where you gradually relearn the abilities she had, and they’re awesome.
If I were to compare the action in CrossCode to anything, it would be something along the lines of Secret of Mana and a twin-stick shooter. You’ll be dashing at enemies getting Lea’s melee strikes in, but you can also attack from a distance while moving using Lea’s spheromancer skills. Aiming is done with the right stick, while you use the right shoulder button to fire, and your melee strikes are also performed with the right trigger just as long as you aren’t aiming the reticle. You have a shield (that can break) as well as a button to dodge attacks (which becomes less effective when spammed). Learning the system and the controls can take some getting used to, but it’s a fluid combat system that’s as easy to pick up as it is difficult to master. Eventually you’ll find your niche, and you’ll be pummeling enemies enemies easily.
That said CrossCode can be grindy, especially if you don’t really know how to level up effectively. Proper leveling up isn’t as simple as finding enemies and killing them. Nearly every monster you’ll see in the wild can be avoided, and you’ll learn early on that you’d be best served not to fight everything you see.
In order to really level up effectively, you need to string in battles. So if you kill a group enemies, and go into another battle immediately, you’ll build up the Tier Gauge. Starting from D going all the way up to S, the further you bring that gauge up, the better the loot you’ll find. If you wait too long between battles, the chain ends and everything is added up your stat total while you get healed automatically. If you die, you lose all those points and you don’t even get the experience earned from all the enemies you killed, so going after that big tier isn’t worth it especially if you find yourself underleveled.
The game utilizes a system similar to Final Fantasy X‘s Spheregrid called the Circuit to manage your progression. The Circuit is basically a chart for the abilities you learn and the eventual buffs you earn. Each plot on the Circuit is activated with Circuit Points (CP) earned from battles and leveling up. This is what essentially allows you to customize Lea to a fighting style that better fits your comfort zone. If you’d rather fight enemies head on, you can allot more of your CP to attack skills rather than for Focus skills which are essentially your magic projectiles. Defense and HP branches, along with sub-branches for each, round your Circuit arsenal out.
As with any other JRPG, there’s a fair share of loot that you’ll find simply through exploration and doing various quests, leaving you with plenty to do. You also still have your gear to worry about that you’ll want to upgrade by trading with merchants as you come to different towns.
As unique and involved as the gameplay method is, they actually pale in comparison to what kind of world and gameplay loop CrossCode possesses. Its MMO-based world is beyond vast and its dungeons are deeply detailed. Each city and its various paths take up more than a few screens, and they’re absolutely littered with NPCs, enemies, loot, and quests.
Since battles are mostly by choice, the game leaves quite a bit to explore even when you first start. While there are some areas locked upon early progression, it’s still easy to get lost in the game’s various layouts. To help with this, quick travel is available from the get-go, and it’s essential because the tons of sidequests the game throws at you will have you going back and forth a lot. Most of them are fetch quests, and the fact that you get EXP from them is kind of cheap as far as fluffing the game with filler, but it also provides for a nice touch of world-building.
The funny thing about getting lost easily in the game’s huge cities is the fact that CrossCode‘s dungeons are actually easier to navigate. That said, just because you know where to go doesn’t mean you’ll know how to get there. It’s pretty clear that CrossCode borrowed a lot from Zelda as far as layout goes, but what sets CrossCode apart is the fact that the majority of the puzzles in the game rely on both your ability to think on your feet as well as make swift adjustments using the tools you have.
For example, the training section in the game boasts the auto-jump system that a lot of top-down JRPGs lacked in this era. A lot of the puzzles in the game require some light platforming and parkour, and the beginning of the game really does a great job showcasing the game’s parkour mechanics in addition to moving blocks to the right place to create paths to jump through.
The difficulty of dungeons spikes as early as its first real dungeon, which features the use of bombs to open up new paths. Unfortunately bombs aren’t a weapon of yours; you’ll have to use them from the environment and they can only be moved with your gun and depending on the gun you use, the bombs can only travel so far.
Dungeons even test your knowledge of weapon and game movement because a number of the puzzles will require you to bounce projectiles off the wall to hit objects, so you’ll need to be sure that your shots are accurate and well timed. You’ll also eventually be able to power up your abilities with different elements, which in turn affects battle strategy. It’s all impressively intuitive and thought provoking, which brings us to perhaps the coolest thing about CrossCode‘s dungeons.
Much like Zelda, each dungeon comes with a boss fight, and they mostly test your skill at using newfound abilities or resources from that dungeon. Unlike Zelda, though, it’s not as easy as hitting a weakness three times. It’s also not like Monster Hunter or Diablo either where just hacking and slashing typically handle the situation. Studying the boss’ movements in addition to finding the weak spot to break their defense before going ham with the attack buttons is key. Much like a Souls game, you’ll probably dodge and block more than you’ll attack. Fortunately, the developers were decent enough to include the boss’ health bar which leads to more intense battles psychologically as the thrill of overcoming a boss while only having a sliver of health becomes all the more satisfying. You’ll come across a giant mechanical crab, a turret built like a dome, what looks like Metal Gear REX, a bomb, a giant whale that looks more like a shrimp, and so much more if you have the skill. Just be sure you fight them when you know you’re calm and don’t plan on throwing your hardware out the window, because they’re all insanely difficult, so don’t be ashamed of bringing the difficulty down a notch if you have to.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
CrossCode looks, sounds, and feels absolutely fantastic, and that’s pretty much everything you’d want from a good JRPG. Still, it’s worth noting that the overall quality of the console ports could leave much to be desired depending on what platform you’re playing the game
If you’re playing the game on Switch, especially in handheld mode, I don’t think the game can possibly look better on another platform simply because the art style lends itself well to a smaller screen. That said, it doesn’t play better than its PS4, Xbox One, or Steam counterparts because of the Joy-Con sticks and whatever is up with the menu system. First off, if you’re playing in handheld mode, as dumb as it may sound, I’d also advise you to use a Pro Controller because the Joy-Cons aren’t shifty enough, and this game will probably increase the rate of Joy-Con drift. I’m not saying that as a fact, but those sticks have ongoing build quality issues. On both docked and handheld mode, the menu takes almost two seconds to load after hitting the + button, and with a game as long as CrossCode (40-80 hours), you don’t want to see that kind of delay anywhere it doesn’t have to be.
The PS4 and Xbox One (available day one on Game Pass) versions of the game don’t suffer from that menu problem, but if you’re playing this game on a big HD or 4K TV, there really isn’t much of a need to because the pixel art style just doesn’t translate well. If you have all the platforms, I would recommend playing the game on PC because those problems don’t exist. After all, the PC is where it came from. But if you have to play a console, it really depends if you prefer the game looking its best (Switch on handheld) or the menu screens performing well (PS4/X1).
As made known throughout the review, CrossCode is hard and it was made with challenge in mind, but if you absolutely need it, the game also comes with Assist options. The Assists allow you to adjust sliders for damage received as well as the frequency of enemies attacks. Since a lot of the puzzles are timing-based, their sliders can also be adjusted. The default setting on the Assist sliders are all at 100 percent. Since the game’s been out on Steam for a while, it’s easy to look up YouTube videos for guidance, but a lot of the strategies you’ll come across are hard to perform even with the visual help, so the Assists can really be a lifesaver if you need it.
It took some time for me to warm up to its core loop, but once I got there, the game found a way to keep me engaged. The bottom line is CrossCode does so much right, and if you can get over its difficulty hump, you’ll find a game that’s as good in 2020 as it would’ve been in 1995.
CrossCode isn’t just a love letter to the golden age of JRPGs, this German-made gem might actually belong there.