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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Deck13 Interactive
Developer: Radical Fish Games
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2018

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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PC Review - 'CrossCode'

by Chris Barnes on Feb. 20, 2019 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

CrossCode is a love letter to 16-bit RPGs with modern action and puzzle mechanics.

I've never really enjoyed the MMO genre. The mission structure and quest design bore me to tears. The hundred different players doing the macarena on picnic tables kill the high-fantasy immersion the story tries so desperately to create. Grinding for 18 hours during a weekend to get a limited-time piece of armor doesn't sound like a fun use of my time. Yet despite my criticisms on the MMO genre, it turns out an action RPG that follows the story of a specific character within an MMO is a much more fascinating experience. A few weeks ago, I would've scoffed at such an idea. Now, after nearly 50 hours of gameplay, my tune has changed tremendously. With CrossCode, Radical Fish Games has crafted an absolutely delightful action RPG with satisfyingly snappy combat, an emotional rollercoaster of a sci-fi story, and a progression system that's constantly rewarding the player with useful and interesting skills.

While playing CrossCode, I was constantly asking myself, "How am I going to review this game?" I can't spoil the absolutely breathtaking moments that gripped my heart. I'd be lying if I said I was skilled enough of a writer to capture the magic creativity that Radical Fish Games has weaved into the story. With feelings of stunned bewilderment and speechless amazement, it's tempting to just say, "Stop reading this review right now and go buy this game." But I signed up for a full review of the game, and that's what you came here for ... so here we go.

Imagine a world in which video games could exist in a more physical form for players to explore. That is CrossWorlds, an MMO created by a handful of brilliant employees within the Instatainment Corporation who felt that flat-screen televisions weren't enough to satisfy gamers. They sought a playground in which players could control their avatars within an actual, 3D playground filled with dungeons, monsters, puzzles and other fellow avatars. In many ways, one can draw some parallels between CrossCode and the hit HBO show "Westworld," but instead of actual humans throwing themselves into the delights of a fictional world, they instead carry out all their actions via avatars. Like so many of the wacky characters we've grown accustomed to within video games, these avatars sport flashy armor, spiky green hair, and helmets that seemingly serve no purpose in combat.

As the player, you control Lea, an avatar whose memory is disconnected from her real-life human counterpart. Moreover, her avatar's speech module is defective (an unfortunate glitch within CrossWorlds that Instatainment still hasn't fixed for some reason). In some ways, this is what makes CrossCode so charming and clever. Most games with a silent protagonist struggle to convey a truly emotional story. Within those games, NPCs are often telling the controlled character why they (and transitively, you, as the player) should feel a certain way. It's a common pitfall that's often irked me about silent protagonist games.

Because CrossCode's fourth-wall-esque plot allows for the acknowledgement of video game tropes, Radical Fish Games cleverly embraces this and makes Lea's silence an integral plot point. She can utter a few simplistic words, and over the course of the roughly 40- to 50-hour story, you'll join up with a colorful cast of characters who are more than willing to put up with your taciturn nature. The various characters are charming, and I felt a growing connection with them while we slayed various monsters and grinded for that sweet, sweet loot. Some annoyed me (as intended), others made me smile, and a couple of them had me hiding my misty eyes from my wife in the other room. The amount of emotion Radical Fish Games has captured within the game is downright remarkable. Despite a few pacing issues in the beginning and end points of the game, CrossCode throws a handful of gut-wrenching plot twists that are some of the best moments I've experienced in an RPG in quite some time.

The early-game pacing issues are mostly related to the downfalls that plague every other MMO. Go slay 10 of those things. Collect 15 of these things while you're at it. CrossCode pokes fun at the boring nature of MMO-style questing in the early game, and it had me rolling my eyes. Great. The developers recognize that the quests aren't fun and poke fun at their grindy nature within the dialogue, but they're still making me do them anyway. It was a bit worrisome. I knew I had over 40 hours of questing ahead of me, and if this was all there was to the game, I'd be in for a long, boring ride — even if it poked fun at itself.

Within a couple hours, CrossCode quickly shifts its focus. You'll spend a lot of time digging into each little nook and cranny of the map, finding platforms that are just within reach of Lea's jump distance. At first, I wasn't into the platforming because there's no jump button; Lea just automatically "jumps" when you reach a platform edge. After a couple of hours of playing, you learn what is or isn't a jumpable gap. Devoting some time into exploration of the map serves as a huge benefit. Instead of grinding for various materials by killing monsters to craft the best gear in each level's shop vendor, hidden treasure chests often reward the player with the items required for crafting.

You won't spend all your time jumping from ledge to ledge, though. CrossCode offers a number of abilities that make for a fun and engaging combat system that goes beyond mashing the "X" button to reduce enemy health bars. Lea, being part of the "Sphereomancer" class within the CrossWorlds universe, can shoot orbs at enemies or deflect them off surfaces. She also comes equipped with a shield, a dash-based dodge, and a number of melee abilities that are much more powerful than the standard attack.

Over the course of the game, you're tasked with unlocking the four major elements in CrossWorld: fire, ice, shock and wave. Enemies often have a certain elemental attribute with a weakness to its counterpart (fire beats ice, shock beats wave, etc.). These elements are unlocked by completing a dungeon that is often opened up after you've completed the main quests in a town. Dungeons are comprised of a bunch of rooms that may contain puzzles, enemies, and (typically) an epic boss battle at the end. Puzzles are often completed by bouncing orbs off walls at special angles, moving blocks to unlock gates, and using the various elemental abilities to affect specific objects. Other puzzles within the dungeons also demand skillshots and quick reflexes. Between all of these elements, the dungeon-running loop in CrossCode is satisfying, albeit a bit draining. You won't complete the dungeons within a couple of minutes. Clearly drawing inspiration from The Legend of Zelda series, each dungeon is a memorable experience that's an integral part of CrossCode's overall DNA.

After you unlock a couple of elements, the combat starts to shine. Not only are you bouncing back and forth between the various elements depending on which enemy type you're fighting, but you can also upgrade each element's abilities. As you level up, you gain upgrade points that can be spent on character attributes (10% more damage, 4% more HP, etc.), or you can choose to unlock higher-tier versions of the attacks, which do a ton of damage and reward the player with epic animations that look cool. For example, a higher-tier fire attack hits the enemy with a ton of sword strikes while simultaneously summoning flaming meteors from the sky.

While the animations are my favorite aspect of the visuals, CrossWorlds also sports bright, pleasing, pixelated graphics that are vastly different between each of the worlds. CrossWorlds consists of more than five areas, each with its own style and climate. Players traverse icy mountain ridges, blazing hot deserts, lush jungles, and more during the 40-hour adventure. At first, I was underwhelmed by the visuals. There are a number of characters that are nothing more than a gray outline portrait when you talk to them. As you progress and realize the size and scope of the game, this makes more sense considering the size of the developer, Radical Fish Gaming. Still, it's a minor blemish on a game where every other little facet is instilled with so much care and charm.

CrossCode's charm is underlined by the exceptional soundtrack crafted by Deniz Akbulut. If you've ever played Stardew Valley or Pokémon, you'll understand how easy it is for a 16-bit-era song to slap an instantaneous grin on your face. CrossCode is no different in this regard. Each area features its own music, and each one fits so well with that particular climate. The sweltering heat of the desert map feels like a hazy, mirage-filled dream because of the music you hear as you stumble across the various ledges and gaps for loot. The darkest sections of the map are highlighted by nefarious bass lines that sound like they're echoing out of a blown-out speaker. The track "Lea" couldn't sum up my feelings toward the character I've learned to love during my journey. Despite her limited vocabulary, Lea is charming, complex, and wistful — and the song named after her captures all of that so perfectly.

It may sound crazy to call a character "complex" when her most commonly used words are "Hi," "Bye," and "Wait," but I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The plot revolves around that very nature of Lea in such a unique and thoughtful way, it's hard to envision any other developer doing a better job. CrossCode is bold, confident, and definitive with each and every step it takes. Every word, sentence, ellipsis, and moment of silence is brilliant.

I have a handful of minor qualms with the game. Some dicey platforming controls and early-game pacing issues are things others will surely nitpick as well, but I can't stress enough just how much I enjoyed CrossCode. This is not just a standard action RPG with satisfying combat. The puzzle-based dungeons are exceptionally designed, the story is engaging, and Lea is one of my favorite video game characters in recent memory.

CrossCode shows that the size of a developer and its overall budget doesn't determine the quality of the game. AAA developers can sink all the money in the world into a title, and it may still lack that "special something." That isn't the case here. Radical Fish Games' CrossCode is a masterpiece action RPG by a small-scale studio, and it's damn-near perfect in nearly every way.

Score: 9.5/10

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