CrossCode Finally Sees the Light

Man, just where do I start with CrossCode? This is a game that has been on my radar for some time leading up to its full release. I watched it go through Early Access and I know its development stretches beyond that. I always thought it had a lot of promise, which is why I didn’t play it until its final release. Playing unfinished games typically only ever leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I didn’t want that here.

CrossCode is a labor of love. It’s a unique type of game that doesn’t come around all that often. The setting of the game is a simulated MMO experience. I’m not new to this as the Dot Hack series is one of my favorite media franchises out there. It’s actually a setting that I quite like, which was one of the things that caught my attention about the game.

CrossCode takes this whole concept a little further than before. See, the characters in this game are still controlling avatars in an MMO world, but that world actually exists in a real place. There are actual buildings, bridges and other parts of the environment built into an area on the moon of a faraway planet. The game inside the game is called CrossWorlds and the areas that players explore is the Playground.

The avatars that the characters control are made of a special sci-fi material called Instant Matter. This is a type of matter that can come together instantly, but isn’t very strong. Significant impacts, as well as water, can bring an end to it. To get around this, the avatars attack with balls that are actually part of an Augmented Reality program. This and the weak nature of Instant Matter ensures the Playground is never damaged by its players. It also keeps the Instant Matter avatars from falling apart at the slightest bit of combat. Avatars can also naturally see these AR attacks, but anyone that is actually in the world physically needs to wear special googles for that.

With all this in mind, CrossCode plays a little loose with these rules. At the very start of the game, Lea, our heroine, is given the opportunity to fight against the captain of a ship carrying here to CrossWorlds. The game makes clear that Lea is the only avatar on the ship. Plus, the captain puts on AR googles to see her attacks. The two never fight, but it also isn’t really clear how exactly they were going to in the first place. It’s shown later in the game that it doesn’t take much for a real person to push an avatar around.

There are also these blocks that, well, block the player’s path. The player can use the AR balls to destroy them, which implies that they too are just an AR construct. However, early in CrossCode the player is tasked with cleaning up some of these blocks on the starting ship. In fact, one character even complains about being told to do it, which is how Lea gets stuck with the task. It seemed strange to me that they would complain, when these blocks shouldn’t even actually exist. They could be Instant Matter, but that wasn’t really made clear.

Maybe I’m just nitpicking at this point, but the first couple of hours did a lot to break my immersion with the game. Some of the terms aren’t clear and it just made it a bit confusing when adding it to the idea of an MMO that actually exists in a physical space. The game is also filled with so many references that it loses some of its own identity to them. These are mostly from anime and other games, but also include mentions to media such as The Nightmare Before Christmas. It all feels a little too cringe and makes me think of 16-year-old me walking through Hot Topic in the mid-2000s, and those memories are better left buried in the past. A reference or two is fine, but CrossCode  is chock full of them. Either way, let’s talk about the story of CrossCode.

CrossCode is all about Lea’s adventures in the Playground as she works to regain her memory. There’s actually a bit more to it than just that, but the game has a few twists that I don’t want to spoil. Granted, they’ll likely be obvious to players with a keen eye for detail and familiarity with this unique setting.

To progress forward with regaining her memories, Lea must explore CrossWorlds and the Playground. The idea here is that it may help her remember some of her past. This means that she needs to play through the story of the MMO. This is where I have a bit of a complaint with CrossCode. In a game like this, both the story of the game, as well as the story of the game within the game, must be interesting. CrossCode succeeds at this with its normal story, but the story of CrossWorlds is generic and boring. It also isn’t complete. The game cleverly hides this behind the MMO still receiving updates and patches, but it still felt a little unsatisfying to not be able to see both stories through to the end.

Speaking of not being able to see the story through to the end, I’ve got a another complaint with the final part of the game. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here, so don’t worry about that. Basically, there are two endings to CrossCode. The first is a bad ending and the second one is a goodish ending. The bad thing here is that the game does little to let the player know about the extra side quest needed for the good ending. I went through a lengthy gauntlet of a raid, dungeon and boss battle, which was about an hour by itself, to get to the end. I was given next to no reward and was told to come back after exploring the world more to unlock some post-game content.

Not to be deterred, I went back and did the last chapter of the game again and completed that one side quest. CrossCode allowed me to skip the raid and final dungeon, but still forced me to do that final boss fight again. I thought maybe there would be an extra form or something to it, but it was exactly the same as the first time around. The end was admittedly better, but only changes a couple of lines dialogue. To top it off, the game then told me that the post-game content promised to me wasn’t actually available yet. That’s right. This game is out of Early Access and is technically complete, but the true ending is still missing from the game. It makes for a major letdown. Especially after spending more than 50 hours on the game to reach this point.

My game time may seem a bit ridiculous to some, so let me make some things clear. First off, I went full bore into CrossCode. I did just about all of the side quests available to me. There were only a couple that I didn’t finish. I also spent a fair amount of time exploring the various areas of the game and fighting loads of enemies while doing it. Here’s the kicker. I still never felt like I was more powerful than my opponents when progressing through the game. Heck, there were actually plenty of times where I saw that I was actually below the level that my enemies were at. Imagine playing a game, grinding and doing all the side quests, but still not being the same level as your enemies. That’s a bit ridiculous, if you ask me.

One the subject of being ridiculous, let’s talk about the grind that is CrossCode. I’ve already talked about the levels, but there’s also getting rare drops to craft better gear. The best way to get rare items if by fighting groups of enemies non stop to fill a bar. This bar goes all the way up from D to S. At the highest rank, there’s a better chance for rare drops. Chaining enemies like this is fun and adds a great feeling of excitement to the game. Unfortunately, those rare drops still don’t show up much. I rarely ever crafted the best weapons available due to a lack of materials. Despite me spending plenty of time in combat and exploring the world of the Playground.

While running around throughout the various different areas of the Playground, players will notice chests of ledges and hidden by other obstacles. There’s always a way to these chest and it typically involves lots of jumping puzzles. These distractions can require quite a bit of thought to complete and are a welcome addition to the game. They helps break up the combat and other puzzles players will have to solve to make for a nice gameplay flow.

Let’s talk about those other puzzles now. These mostly have to do with hitting switches to unlock new paths. Sometimes they lead to chests, but other times they give players access to secret areas. There are a fair few in the overworld, but players will really experience them when they start taking on the game’s temples.

The temples in CrossCode are basically giant collections of puzzles that players will have to solve to reach a boss fight at the end. These puzzles start out fairly simple, but quickly ramp up in difficulty. It’s less of a curve and more of a wall. It also only gets more complex as players complete more temples and unlock more elements. These elements can be applied to both melee and range attacks. Range attacks are mostly used in the temples to solve puzzles.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but CrossCode is way too heavy on the puzzles. It isn’t uncommon for each room in a temple to have between two and three puzzles to solve. These puzzles also require complete mastery of the game’s mechanics and give next to no room for error. I couldn’t help but feel fatigued by the end of each temple. It isn’t surprising for them to go on for a couple of hours, or more, depending on how quickly you can solve all the puzzles.

Not to beat a dead horse here or anything, but it really is crazy just how much the temples in CrossCode demand of the player. I got to the end of one temple and it hit me with one last puzzle before the boss. It wasn’t just any puzzle. This one took up about four screens worth of space. It was at this point that I experienced something that has never happened to me while playing a game before. My brain just shut down. The complexity of the puzzle, combined with the fatigue from solving the previous puzzles, simply caused my brain to stop processing. I stared at the puzzle for about 10 minutes before finally turning the game off. I obviously came back and beat it later, but I just had to take a break.

I’ve also got to bring up a small complaint with CrossCode and its pacing. At first, the game is good about separating out the temples into different areas of the map. This gives the player a break between them. It lets the player recharge their mind with some simple puzzles and combat in the overworld. They also get more freedom to explore, which the temples obviously can’t offer. That’s all good, but near the mid point of the game it hits the player with three temples back to back. It was an absolutely draining experience on me and I made sure to take long breaks, as in days, between the temples. I have no idea what the developer was thinking by doing this, but it was a mistake.

Now we can finally get into the combat of CrossCode. If you’ve seen any trailers for the game, you may be wondering why it took so long to start talking about this. After all, the high-speed and flashy combat in the trailers seems like a selling point. Well, don’t expect anything quite that grand. I’d actually go so far as to say that the trailers do a wonderful job at misrepresenting the combat in the game.

CrossCode gives players a basic combo that they will use all throughout the game. Players can also add to this combo with additional arts. There are base arts available, as well as arts for each of the four elements. These each have four types of arts: melee, range, dodge and block. The trailer would have you believe that you can quickly jump from one art to another to create grand combos, but that isn’t the case.

See, the arts require SP to use. At the end of the game, the player only has about 4 SP to use. The biggest arts require this much SP. The only way to get more than the max SP is to hit enemies with basic attacks. This means players can spend one battle just doing those basic attacks and it will allow them to do all those grand combos in the next fight. Then they have to build those extra gauges up again.

All of this really just makes the combat much more simple and not nearly as fun as it could be. During my time with the game, I barely ever used anything other than melee arts. Nothing else ever seemed as good, and that’s disappointing. The same also seems true for blocking. I couldn’t help but feel like the game was pushing me toward dodging. I’m very much a stand-my-ground type of player and this was disappointing for me.

One thing I have yet to touch on much is that CrossCode is an action RPG. That means that players will collect experience to gain levels. Each time they do this, they gain a CP they can use to increase stats or gain additional arts. This all takes place on a grid. The player uses CP to move through this grid and power up. Players can also switch between some paths on the grid, which is nice for changing up play styles mid game. Additional grids also unlock with every new element that the player gets. These grids get their own CP to work with. That means players are earning 5 CP per level after getting all the elements, with those CP being spread through the five different grids. It’s a unique twist on skill trees that the game executes well.

I’ve also got to take some time to talk about the controls in CrossCode. Players have two options available to them. This includes a mouse and keyboard, as well as a gamepad. Both of these have pros and cons. For example, the puzzles are much easier to complete with the mouse and keyboard due to the better accuracy with balls. On the flip side of this, the platforming elements are better with a gamepad because of the joystick.

Another negative aspect about the controls in CrossCode is that the player isn’t allowed to alter them much. After spending some time with the game, I wanted to change around some of my buttons on gamepad, but the game doesn’t include that option. I looked online for some answers about this and found a Steam forum on the issue. In that forum was one of the developers basically explaining that it wasn’t an option because they didn’t want players to mess up their controls and hurt their experience. To that I say: “bullcrap.” Never should a developer exclude this option and tell the player it’s because they know what’s best for them. This is doubly true when the game, like CrossCode, features buttons that perform the same tasks as others.

If there’s one area where CrossCode really shines, it’s the graphics. The game uses sprite art, but doesn’t slouch in the least. There are plenty of small details and care given to each area of CrossWorlds and the Playground. Best of all, there are several different areas. Players start in a typical forest setting, move on to a snowy mountain, experience a hot desert and more. The variety is nice and keeps the game environments feeling fresh all the way through. There’s also a lot of portraits for the various characters that appear in the game. Lea in particular has some great ones, but that makes sense due to her semi-mute nature. The developers make up for it with plenty of exaggerated expressions.

Not to get too sidetracked, but the characters themselves are another great aspect of the game. Lea is a wonderful protagonist and her many allies bring much charm with them. The same can’t quite be said about the villains, but I wouldn’t say they were poorly done. Just not very believable.

The music in CrossCode is another strong point for the game. The tunes for each of the different environments perfectly match up with the visuals. The battles and boss fights sound epic as well. The sound effects are also well done with each of them matching up with the events taking place on screen. If we were to just talk about aesthetics, CrossCode is a masterpiece.

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CrossCode is about like this review: longer than it should be. It is by no means a bad game. I would easily say it’s a good game. It even ventures incredibly close to greatness, but its long length does more damage than good. There is too much grind in just about every aspect of the game. That does indeed make it last longer, but at the cost of stretching enjoyment thin.

I’m giving CrossCode 3.25 GiN Gems out of 5. We don’t really have a way to display this at GiN, so I’m rounding it up to 3.5 GiN Gems in the score box. This is a rare case and not something I plan to do again. I just really find the game to not be worthy of a 3.5, while at the same time not being a 3, either.

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