I emerge from below decks of a shipping barge and face the shimmering, sparkling ocean. It extends outward in all directions and touches the pale blue sky in the distance, tiny reflections of the sun dancing on the water. Seagulls cry as they circle overhead and the air smells of salt water. I turn to the bow of the ship and see shining spires of glass rising up out of the verdant landmass ahead. There is a feeling of serenity and hope in this beautiful moment, and an excitement about the potential that lies directly ahead of me. Predictably, the moment is interrupted by a mysterious and powerful interloper who is looking specifically for me, and the situation quickly turns from serene to severe as I have to fight for my life and find a way to escape the ship to the safety of the literal game world waiting for me on the mainland.
Editor’s Note: CrossCode is currently only available digitally, but physical copies can be pre-ordered at https://crosscode.inin.games/
All of this is rendered in lovingly detailed pixel art meant to evoke the style of big budget SNES RPGs (with added depth and fidelity, of course), and it very effectively plays to my nostalgia without necessarily patronizing me. There is a certain magical quality possessed by the JRPGs of the 16-bit era that is seldom recaptured today, and it isn’t purely nostalgia. For all of the incredible graphical fidelity, immersive realism, and excellent voice acting of contemporary RPGs, they don’t hold a candle to the classics of the mid to late 90s. Enter CrossCode, an Action RPG that seeks to tap into the essence of the SNES and Genesis’ most memorable JRPGs and re-imagine them for today’s audience.
A big part of what made titles like Final Fantasy 6, The Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger so memorable was their ability to pair rich, lush depictions of worlds with impactful character interactions in a way that gave your mind the framework for expanding upon what was on the screen and filling in more of the details yourself. These games didn’t just put it all out there for you, they engaged your imagination directly, and in doing so forged a strong connection between the player and the game itself. CrossCode understands this well, and leans into that concept heavily to root itself into your head as you play, and it does an extremely effective job of making you care about CrossWorlds, Lea and her friends, and the high stakes all of them are up against.
The early moments of CrossCode have major Evangelion vibes (which I am certain is not an accident), as the contrast of extreme threats against the backdrop of an idyllic setting makes a strong impression. Truthfully, the first hour of CrossCode is full of imagery and narrative beats evocative of 90s sci-fi, video game, and anime culture. This could be a dangerous path to tread as there is risk of becoming too derivative, but CrossCode handles this gracefully by wearing its influences proudly and using them to create a scenario and a world that is uniquely its own.
CrossCode takes place in the very distant future when technologies like generating matter on demand and teleportation are readily available, to the extent that a person can hook up their entire consciousness to the internet and inhabit a physical avatar to play an MMO that exists in real life. CrossCode is something of a meta experience, as the game largely plays out in that very MMO, CrossWorlds. Lea, your character, is an avatar of a player in that game who has been freshly created at Level 1, but who is in fact a CrossWorlds veteran and something of a chosen one archetype. Trouble is, of course, she has no memories of her previous life in CrossWorlds, or of whatever abilities she has within the game that makes her so uniquely special, or why she’s been created in secret in the bowels of this shipping barge. As it happens, she is also mute and thus highly limited in her ability to communicate her thoughts and feelings.
The opening hour of the game is centered around setting up Lea and her circumstances, and setting her off on her quest to relearn who she is, what she’s capable, and why she’s being hunted by a mysterious blue-skinned demigod player avatar with powers way beyond what should be possible. Spoilers: she does make her escape to the safety of the tutorial area of CrossWorlds, where she can begin her journey to regaining her powers and memories. It’s a well-paced, strongly executed chapter that does a great job of giving you a whole lot of information about the world and how to play the game without totally overloading you, which would be really easy to do considering how much CrossCode throws at you.
Because this is an Action RPG, there’s no turn-based battling, but rather real time brawling with a variety of abilities at your disposal. Enemies have generous health pools and you are encouraged early on to get familiar with your own ranged and melee abilities so that you can effectively juggle them to handle a variety of enemies and situations. At the outset, your abilities include close-up melee slashes, a ranged attack that functions similarly to a typical twin-stick shooter (plus the ability to bounce projectiles off of walls and charge your shots), a shield/guard ability, and a powerful “special” spin attack. Used in conjunction with your evasive dodge, this suite of abilities allows you to dance and dodge your way around overworld aggressors and attack when openings present themselves.
As a result, the combat flow is very dynamic and engaged, and the battle system rewards you for chaining encounters together to stay in “combat” state longer with greater XP and rewards when the between-encounters timer finally runs out (or is manually terminated by you) and the battle state concludes. Experience feeds into a fairly standard leveling system, and each level gained gives you an ability point that you can use to unlock nodes on the game’s ability grid, so you can customize the way your character evolves and specialize your skill set to match your preferred play style.
Exploration of the world is something more like what you’d find in some older JRPGs with environments broken up into multiple map screens, and the game is full of puzzle dungeons that feel like a futuristic take on the dungeons you would find in Legend of Zelda games, requiring to use your abilities to unlock doors and open pathways to make your way toward treasure and new unlockables.
Being that CrossWorlds is an MMO, the game is full of NPCs and other players to talk to, loads of shops and vendors and interact with and nooks and crannies to explore. The world is truly dense, and there is an absolute wealth of things to do with hundreds of quests to carry out, special areas to explore, and people to meet. In many ways, you really are playing CrossWorlds as you play CrossCode, and the world of the in-game MMO feels extremely fleshed out and full of content to engage with.
To that end, CrossCode does an admirable job of nailing the complete package. The character artwork (both sprites and portraits during dialog alike) are rich and full of life with lovely animation. The game world is painstakingly detailed and feels truly populated and buzzing with energy as other “players” in the game make their way through quests and battles, leaves on trees rustle, enemies amble about while idle, and environmental effects make the locales feel more dynamic. Nothing in the world of CrossCode is static, everything on screen is active and busy without being overwhelming.
The game’s writing and character dialog is great, with characters feeling alive and unique in personality, and the way the dialog is delivered in the in-game UI both during story sequences and more passively as you navigate the world is really nicely handled. Detailed character portraits bring life to the words on the screen, with a wide variety of facial expressions and reactions built in that go well beyond the typical “white text on a colored dialog box” treatment that JRPGs of the 90s were capable of. The music is also wonderful, sporting an original soundtrack full of period-accurate instruments and melodies that are simultaneously evocative of SNES-era games (think Chrono Trigger‘s harmonic chimes and airy notes) and wholly unique to the game’s atmosphere and themes.
CrossCode is a massive game, and sometimes the weight of its scope can feel a lot on the player. Combat is demanding of skill and attention, and thus enemies only a few levels greater than your own can be too tough to take on. Grinding out XP and engaging with the battle system ends up being a pretty hard requirement, and thankfully combat feels good overall, but be aware that the grind is as real in CrossCode as it was in the RPGs of the 90s. CrossCode also is extremely deep and broad in its systems, and even over ten hours into the game it still layers new concepts and ideas on. The onboarding experience never truly feels complete, as a result, and while I appreciate giving the player time to learn and internalize new mechanics, it’s hard not to wonder how necessary all of these elements were to include, especially because you do need to engage with most of them in order to make meaningful progress.
I also felt that for much of the time, the focus of CrossCode ends up being more on playing through CrossWorlds than it is on progressing the actual story of the real game itself. That isn’t to say there isn’t story progression or advancement throughout, because there is, but there is a strange struggle between the metagame of CrossCode itself and the act of playing through CrossWorlds as you go. There are thematic reasons for this of course, but at times the pacing of the main story gets a bit slow and I would have liked to have seen a bit more playing around with the concept of breaking the laws of CrossWorlds in service of enriching the overall experience of CrossCode itself. The focus of the game is really more about gameplay systems than anything else, which is fine as most of the gameplay is fun enough, but I think there could have been more room to play with expectations in this regard.
As far as the game’s performance on Switch goes, it’s mostly pretty good. The artwork looks great in handheld mode and on the TV while docked, however performance is noticeably better when the Switch is docked. CrossCode sports a tagline of “butter-smooth physics,” which is certainly mostly true on the big screen, however I experienced regular frame drops in handheld mode any time I was in a moderately busy scene. The game engine’s performance clearly takes a hit at lower clock speeds when there is a lot happening on screen, and while this doesn’t typically impact combat too negatively, you will notice the impact when navigating towns and large outdoor zones. I don’t think this is enough to categorize as there being “major” performance issues, but be aware that this game plays best on Switch when the system is docked.
CrossCode does more than merely pay homage to the sources of inspiration; it honors their legacy and demonstrating what can be done with those concepts on today’s gaming hardware and with the sensibilities and lessons learned from decades of game mechanics evolution. If you have ever had the question “What would it look like to make a 16-bit era JRPG today?”, CrossCode is perhaps the best answer I have yet found. The going can get a little slow at times and there’s a lot to get your head around, but the experience is fun and joyful, and overall this is one of the better RPGs I’ve played in a long while.
A Switch eShop code was provided by the publisher for review purposes