CrossCode: Secret of Mana and 2D Zelda on Steroids

If there’s one variant of RPG I haven’t done much of, it’s the types like Secret of Mana, where you actually have to move and physically strike enemies to deal damage. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gave me PTSD with any RPG that has only one party member throughout the whole game. But, you know what, Sticker Star sucked. So today, I’m going to cover a retro RPG that gives a lot of bang for its buck: CrossCode for Nintendo Switch (I started playing this game before I got Steam)!

After a confusing opening sequence where you play as some angsty chick, CrossCode starts out when a girl named Lea logs into the high-tech MMO, CrossWorlds, in hopes of recovering her lost memories. CrossWorlds is set on an actual alien planet called Shadoon, and players have to travel the Track of the Ancients, in order to discover its secrets. If you’ve seen SAO, you know things are gonna get ugly.

This game sure knows how to hook players! They throw the intrigue right at you when some weird spaceman, who claims to know Lea, attacks during a tutorial. After that, however, it’s chill city as a lot of the early game is just getting acclimated to CrossWorlds itself. While I don’t normally care much for story in games, I must say that CrossCode nonetheless has a great story. It’s pretty straightforward, but is consistent at throwing you curveballs.

The story in CrossCode wouldn’t mean anything without its phenomenal writing. There’s your usual witty banter, but an indie game wouldn’t be an indie game if it didn’t break the fourth wall! As you can expect, CrossCode makes fun of RPG and videogame tropes. In fact, it even comes up with an actual justification for Lea being a silent protagonist! Since it’s an MMO setting, the meta humor feels much more natural in the context of the story than most indie games I know.

If you’re familiar with me, then you would know that I don’t care if there’s realism, especially when it comes to characters. However, CrossCode actually makes me proud to say that the characters are great because they’re realistic. Due to the setting, all the characters are, well, gamers. From the main cast, to random NPCs, the dialogue feels like how actual videogame nerds would discuss videogame stuff amongst one another, and it creates an intimacy with the player unlike any game I’ve played.

As mentioned before, Lea is a silent protagonist, and is one of the best I have ever seen. I’d dare say she’s the best next to Link himself. Over the course of the game, her friend who basically plays the role of Navi gradually unlocks more words for Lea. Despite her limited vocabulary, the writers give her tons of personality and emotion with what little they have to work with. Speaking of that Navi—i.e. Sergey—he’s also awesome. He’s smart and rational, but also has no shortage of quips.

The others are great as well. Her friend Emilie is a raucous tomboy who is just adorable when she’s dealing with her phobia of bugs, and her love for laser bridges. Along with her is C’tron, a nice, introverted boy who likes making fun of the game’s tropes. There’s also the egomaniac Apollo (who you’ll come to hate for gameplay-related reasons), and his down-to-earth partner, Joern. Even the Navi wannabe, Sergey, is a very likeable character. Unfortunately, a lot of characters don’t have enough eggs in their baskets. Most NPCs have their own stock designs, and even then, some named ones—specifically those involved in side quests—have no personality. It’s a real shame, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Before getting to gameplay, I must praise the graphics. The game is beautiful and vibrant, as expected of a lot of pixel art games. The spritework is so good, some characters—like a giant whale you fight at one point—look three dimensional. CrossWorlds itself brims with life as you observe other players running around and doing parkour alongside you. It really helps the game feel like it’s set in a real MMO, but without the toxic fandoms and newbie PK’ing of actual MMOs. Somehow, this thing was made using HTML 5, and apparently, this made it very difficult to port to the Switch. It works fine, but can lag a bit during weather effects or if there are a lot of large AOE attacks going off at once.

The gameplay is, of course, the most important part, and CrossCode gets it right. The game has your typical skill tree, with several branches, each containing different abilities that you unlock by spending CP, which you earn on level up. It’s the usual stuff. However, you’re only able to outfit Lea in this game, and that’s because your party members aren’t always going to be there. While you can use them all you want when exploring, things like Dungeons and PvP are done solo. More on those mechanics later.

CrossCode handles Quests really well. There’s tons of them, but they make it really easy to cycle through them. You can favorite a Quest by pressing Y on them, which will display the tasks for it on the HUD. But the best part is that you can favorite multiple Quests at once, and cycle through each one by pressing the Left Analog Stick. It’s a phenomenal way to manage tons of Quests that most RPGs don’t do. The only real issue is that you can’t favorite them at the initial prompt when receiving it.

Quests are nice, but it wouldn’t be a true RPG if there weren’t a million things to do. The other monstrosity is the Encyclopedia, which fills up by talking to NPCs, playing the main story, and learning about the world. This is basically Character Notes in a Falcom game… with additional notes regarding in-universe terminology. I didn’t bother getting 100% on this because of Trails of Cold Steel PTSD, but like in that game, I assume that entries are permanently missable in CrossCode. Additionally, plants of all kinds populate CrossWorlds, and there is a whole section in your Encyclopedia called “Botanics” that records data. Getting an item drop from a given plant is what moves analyzation along, so don’t be afraid to spend hours and hours violating the ecosystem.

Before covering combat, I must praise CrossCode for having an amazing overworld. It’s not just beautiful, but it’s chock full of stuff. You will have to really study the land to figure out “Just how am I supposed to reach that?”, and it’s really fun to do. Every area is full of puzzles, some of which extend to adjacent rooms. Other than some specific instances, it’s pretty easy to get a grasp of planes of the z-axis despite the 2D graphics. But when you can’t, you can always use your projectile attack to get a feel for the depth. Also keep in mind that Lea’s jump is NOT to be underestimated; it puts Link to shame!

Speaking of Legend of Zelda comparisons, the dungeons in CrossCode are among the best I’ve seen in any RPG. CrossCode utilizes its mechanics to create an explicitly Zelda-like experience when going through them. They have seriously tricky puzzles that make use of all of the game’s mechanics, as well as the dungeon-specific mechanics that are taught to you organically with no intrusive textboxes. 

There are a couple of issues I have with them, however. While the puzzles are really great, a lot of them are extremely fickle, requiring pixel-precise setup. This leads into the other issue, which is Emilie’s addiction to racing you through the dungeon. Although it doesn’t seem apparent, you can actually try to win somehow. Unfortunately, if you’re going through the dungeon for the first time, as well as trying to get all the treasure before the boss, you’re NOT going to win a single dungeon race. Even if you were to speedrun it on a repeat playthrough, I imagine every single puzzle is a run-killer; it wouldn’t be an indie game if there was no “Hey do this thing with constant frame-perfect timing, please” BS. Since I’m a filthy casual, I have to accept being an absolute loser at everything.

Combat is a whole different story. When playing, you have your usual melee attacks, but Lea also has projectiles. To use projectiles, you have to move the right analog stick to aim while ALSO moving. Plus, there’s a dodge, but ALSO a guard. The latter won’t make you invincible from damage, but—naturally—there is a perfect guard that allows you to counterattack. Things can get ugly fast if you aren’t adept at all this. 

There’s also Combat Arts that are used with ZR. However, they work very strangely in CrossCode. Your arts aren’t mapped to ZR + a face button, but to ZR + a specific action. They come in four types: Melee Arts, Ranged Arts, Dash Arts, and Guard Arts. Pretty self-explanatory which is which. Note that you can only have one Art set to each action at a time. But fortunately, the skill tree allows you to freely switch between different branches with no CP loss, so there’s no consequence in learning an Art that you’re not sure about. As you find MacGuffins, you unlock further branches of the skill tree, which allow you to learn stronger Combat Arts that cost more SP.

As if things couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Elements. In CrossWorlds, players gradually acquire mastery of the Four Elements. As you unlock them, you can freely switch between them to give your attacks that property. This is great when fighting enemies with different resistances, so you’re not “Oh great, I’m fighting something weak to this and I can’t go into my inventory to equip my weapon with this attribute!” However, there’s Element Overload to watch out for. Basically, too much attacking with an element active can force you back into neutral for a while. It’s also important to know that attacking with no Element active will make your Elements cool down much faster. Each Element found opens up a new section of the skill tree, with their own Combat Arts (which means you’ll be able to have up to FORTY of them active once you gain all four Elements). The thing to notice is that each upgrade is only applied in that particular Element mode. For example, if you give yourself a bunch of base defense ups in Neutral, you will lose it when you switch to another Element. This needs to be kept in mind as you fight.

One mechanic that makes the game extra fun is Combat Rank. This is basically a combo system; defeat enemies in quick succession to increase your rank, which makes them drop better items. I only recommend it if you’re specifically grinding for rare drops, since the adrenaline rush can make you ignore loot your first time through an area. Fortunately, you can press minus after defeating all nearby enemies to end combat immediately if you don’t want to get that combo going. However, whenever you decide to go on a killing spree, Combat Ranks make it feel really good. It gets even better once you acquire equipment with the Botanist property, which causes plant item drops to be affected by Combat Rank. Thanks to this mechanic, I had more fun grinding for materials in CrossCode than in most other games I’ve played in my life.

There are also a lot of nuances that take much learning to figure out. The NPCs are very helpful in that regard, but there’s still some stuff you gotta figure out on your own. For example, when an enemy is glowing red, that means they’re charging up an attack that you can break them out of with a charged projectile attack. There’s also the dash cancel, where you use your dodge in order to prevent yourself from using a melee combo that has recovery lag in favor of continually dishing out damage, and more importantly, hit-stunning enemies repeatedly. Also, parrying with your guard ability becomes crucial if you want to be really good at the game.

You will need to learn these skills quickly; like most indie games, CrossCode wants to be on par with Dark Souls in terms of difficulty. Fortunately, unlike other hard-ass indie games, CrossCode actually considers EVERY POSSIBLE PERSON playing it. In the settings, you are able to freely tweak the amount of damage you take, as well as the frequency of enemy attacks and the leniency of puzzles. That last modifier is really good because you can mitigate the ridiculousness of the puzzles; you’ll still have to figure it out, but execution won’t be as much of a chore. Of course, these are at max by default. I had each setting one tick lower than max and it still gave me a consistently rough but fair time (maybe I just suck).

Despite how rough it was, I rarely felt truly frustrated. The game’s tough, but somehow, it makes the challenge feel fun. However, nothing’s perfect, and there are some specific points that can get VERY frustrating. One example is the case of Elite Quests. Most of them are harder versions of earlier quests. MUCH harder. For instance, the hard versions of these sadistic platforming gauntlets require the kind of frame-perfect perfection that most indie games have come to expect from gamers. There’s also some quests that have interesting ideas, but next-to-no leeway and require memorization of enemy formations. It’s also very easy to be walled by any of the game’s PvP battles. You can’t use items, and even if you could, your opponent is very capable of overwhelming you instantly, and tries various strategies built around stun-locking you until you go from full health to dead. It’s meant to teach you these strategies, but doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement yourself!

If that wasn’t scary enough, don’t get me started on the Arena. Late-ish into the game, you unlock the ability to challenge a preset of mobs from each region, as well as every single fixed encounter, miniboss, and major boss battle that you’ve been through. Beating the challenges is doable enough, but it’s getting the best scores that are insane. You need serious reflexes and ability to pay attention to multiple onscreen entities at once. And assuming you get platinum on each challenge? Well, guess what; you’re also going to have to do it again, but this time in Rush Mode. This is—you guessed it—every challenge within its given bracket in a row with limited healing. Yes, you’ll have to worry about getting platinum on this, and it’ll naturally be even worse to screw up.

I would’ve had this review out faster if it weren’t for the game’s long-awaited DLC: A New Home. It took until early 2021 to drop, and the wait for console users was even longer. However, it’s a bit complicated. The DLC, A New Home, is CrossCode’s post-game (I am unsure what happens if you beat the game before buying the DLC). To unlock it, you need to get the Good Ending. Now, before you assume that they pulled a Falcom by having a Good Ending in a long RPG, lemme reassure you: the sole condition that needs to be met is close to the end of the game. They’re very upfront once it comes up, so it’s not hard to miss. The problem is doing it right. I, thankfully, had managed to get the Good Ending in one try without even knowing that it was such an important thing. Fortunately, if you get the Bad Ending, you can warp right back to the start of the final chapter, retry the event, and then warp straight to the final boss at the point-of-no-return spot.

A New Home unlocks new quests, a new region, the true final dungeon, and resolves many unanswered plot twists. The new region, while beautiful, is kind of a disappointment considering how long I waited for it. It’s easily the smallest area in the game, and is very linear. On the plus side, you unlock special “ascended” equipment, whose base stats grow with Lea’s level, making them objectively better than anything else you can wear. A lot of these are upgrades from stuff you already have, so it’s easy for you to prioritize certain kits based on your playstyle. Also, the superboss at the end of the dungeon was probably the hardest fight I’ve experienced in my life, and taught me that my heart isn’t physically capable of handling that level of difficulty.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with A New Home. For completionists, you will need an excessive amount of materials found in the final dungeon in order to get all of the equipment. However, due to how dungeons work versus the overworld, you can’t take advantage of combat rank, making it one of the worst grinding spots in the game. Also, if you consider reaching level cap part of completion, grinding XP will be hard toward the end. The plus side is that the least amount you can earn is 1 per enemy, so finding a spot with a lot of enemies is the best strategy… but even spots with many enemies don’t exactly expedite this process. Also, the game doesn’t resolve EVERY plot twist, possibly intentionally so; it definitely baits a sequel, and there just so happens to be a very CrossCode-looking game, currently known as Project Terra, under development right now (that I hope has customizable difficulty and only one ending). Also, the final-FINAL segment is a bit anticlimactic. It doesn’t even take half an hour to get through despite the big buildup. Maybe it would’ve been better to have the final dungeon after it, since it’s a much better end to your journey. The cherry on top is that the game does the thing where it resets to right before the cutoff point after beating it, which is really arbitrary since not enough changes after finishing the DLC to warrant this.

How have I gone this long without talking about CrossCode’s soundtrack?! It is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a videogame, and perhaps the best I’ve heard in an indie game. There is so much variety when it comes to atmospheres and moods. I could rock out to any of the awesome battle themes, or chillax to the serene tunes of Autumn’s Rise.

Final Verdict: 9.95/10

CrossCode is awesome. I’d give it a perfect ten, but some of the puzzles really do feel excessively savage. Ah screw it!

Actual Final Verdict: 10/10

CrossCode has become my favorite indie game of all time, and is sure as heck up there with my favorite games of all time. I recommend it to anyone who loves JRPGs, puzzles, pixel art, great story, and phenomenal gameplay.

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