CrossCode is a game that’s remarkably difficult to define. It’s an action-adventure RPG that takes place inside a fictional MMO. The story is simultaneously sci-fi and fantasy, the writing light-hearted and deep. The main controllable character is an avatar, but not the person behind it. The art style, soundtrack, and many of the story beats are straight out of ’90s Super Nintendo and PlayStation games, but with a very modern polish. It’s a game for retro fans, but also a game that leans into newer jokes and references. One thing I can say for certain is that CrossCode is an incredible experience, and I’m going to spend the next thousand words telling you about it.
But be warned — Switch may not be the best way to experience the game yet.
The setting of CrossCode is a moon orbiting a gas giant on the far edge of the galaxy, thousands of years into our future. A game company uses its sole continent for the game CrossWorlds, where people from all over the civilized universe can log in and use their avatars to explore and solve the mysteries of an ancient alien civilization. You play as Lea, an avatar with no memory of her real life and a malfunctioning speech module. She has a remote partner who helps sneak her into the game, and things get more intriguing from there.
The gameplay is reminiscent of titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana, with puzzles and enemies that strongly evoke these classics. There are interlocking character building systems, with skill trees, equipment sets, and consumable items. Lea’s class in CrossWorlds is a jack of all trades, and you can focus on melee, range, defense, or all three. You’ll also be able to choose party members later in the game to help reinforce the areas you’re lacking in. The environments are constructed to make full use of all Lea’s abilities, turning every single area into a puzzle that can be solved as you explore. A big part of the appeal is finding ideal routes and secret areas using multi-level platforms.
While the gameplay and mechanics are tight, however, CrossCode truly shines through its story. Without spoiling anything, the premise and setting are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, posing the question of whether a person is their avatar and vice versa. Following Lea as she regains her memories and unravels the mysteries of the game you’re playing and the MMO she’s playing is a unique experience. The characters are full of charm and personality, driving forward the plot whether they know what’s going on or not. Likewise, the story is deep and full of twists, contrasted with the somewhat dull and lifeless CrossWorlds plot.
CrossCode gets so much right when it comes to what makes an excellent video game. The main character is immediately lovable, communicating mostly through impeccably utilized facial expressions. She’s not exactly a silent protagonist, as her partner hacks a handful of words into the system so that she can say simple things. Lea uses these to full effect, with punctuation, capitalization, and even timing used to further refine her meaning. It feels silly to talk about a feature like this, but it will bring out emotions you didn’t know you had. I was constantly laughing and tearing up, often within the same scene, thanks in part to Lea’s reactions.
The gameplay is incredibly satisfying, especially when you gather new elemental abilities and further customize them with the skill trees, consumables, and equipment. When you forget about any of these things, the game helpfully reminds you that they exist, usually by overhearing other characters talking about them. Even still, you will die. A lot. Luckily reloading is quick and painless, and you’re meant to use trial and error to figure out how to overcome the tougher boss battles. If all else fails, there’s a handy slider menu that lets you adjust various difficulty settings.
CrossCode‘s story is insanely well-written, up there with the greats like Chrono Trigger. It doesn’t go where you expect it to, and the central themes — corporate apathy and misanthropy, our role in the universe, and the nature of humanity — evolve throughout the course of the game. It also doesn’t feature many dull stretches, allowing you to fully appreciate Lea’s journey even as you’re fighting dozens of samurai insects.
The soundtrack is likewise incredible. Just like the rest of the game, it takes ’90s RPG music as a base and gives it a modern sensibility. While that’s usually in the form of retro synth, you can also hear some interesting construction in certain pieces, like Emilie’s theme. I still have a couple of the tunes stuck in my head, and I know they won’t be leaving anytime soon.
As great as CrossCode is, there are a couple of things that stick out and get in the way of the experience. While the controls are tight, it can feel like Lea can do too many things. You will mix up dodging and shielding in the beginning, (They’re mapped to the same button.) and R and ZR do two different types of attacks, both of which are necessary but in different circumstances. Ranged attacks were one of the game’s major selling points, but as well-implemented as the mechanic is, sometimes it can be difficult to line up angles properly, especially when in a timed puzzle or a heated battle.
Finally, and most importantly, the game’s performance on Switch is abysmal. There are constant frame rate drops. Sometimes it’s not so bad, but sometimes you’ll miss a tricky jump or combat will slow down to a crawl. Worse than that are the crashes. During my playthrough, it completely crashed 10 times, once during the ending. Considering I’d been fighting and dying against the final boss for two-to-three hours, I was terrified that I’d have to do it all over again. I asked the developer about a stability patch and will hopefully have details soon. (Update: A patch did finally come.)
CrossCode is a game that forces you to think. It takes classic science fiction concepts and makes them incredibly personal. It makes a puzzle out of exploration, combat, and, yes, puzzle-solving. But the story is a mystery too, and it also keeps you guessing as to who Lea truly is, what’s going on behind the scenes, and what really happened to bring this person to CrossWorlds.
It also provides contrasts at exactly the right moments. After a few mind-bending puzzles, the game will lob an easy one, just so you can have a break and feel clever without having to work too hard for it. Some characters have mysterious backstories and motivations, while others are exactly as they seem and will loudly remind you of that fact.
With its high-quality story, gameplay, and delightful protagonist, I want to tell everyone to play CrossCode. However, without a stability patch, the experience is noticeably worse on Switch. At the moment it’s an amazing game, but one plagued by bugs and crashes. Just like every MMO in its opening days.
A review code was provided by the publisher.