I’ve tried a few different times in my life to jump into the world of Massively Multiplayer Online games. The first time was when my brother and stepfather began their journeys in the D&D MMO called Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). I tried to join them in that journey, creating a character alongside them and playing through some of the early game missions. I bounced off of it pretty hard though because the customization options had a lot of limitations compared to other D&D inspired games I was playing at the time like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights. I would try again in college with the DC Universe MMO, creating a Batman-esque hero to hang out with my college friends online. But again I found the creativity lacking, the quest structure frustrating, and the mechanics to be too reliant on team play to keep me engaged when I didn’t have all my pals nearby.
While I’ve never found the MMO that genuinely speaks to my sensibilities, I understand why folks are so drawn to them. The appeal of a shared game world you explore with your friends, the opportunity to build new friendships using the game as a spark to light up those connections, and having a character who you’ve spent years customizing over the course of an ever-expanding storyline all make sense to me. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t care that much for actual people, and the likelihood of running into assholes is too off-putting for me even with the promise of meeting some really cool people. I also tend not to enjoy the mechanical aspect of MMOs – inflated damage numbers, cooldown timers, and endless stacks of buffs and status conditions don’t speak to my playstyle. Add to that some nasty UI elements with all the chat boxes, player names, and quest markers hovering all over the damn place and you can see why I might not be drawn to the formula.
Enter CrossCode, a single-player experience presented as an MMO because it is about an MMO – called CrossCode, of course. You play as Lea, a player with amnesia who has history in CrossCode but does not remember it. Her unusual circumstances have made her of interest to the staff who run the game, who support her in her efforts to discover the truth about her past while playing the game. The concept certainly deals in common video game tropes, right down to Lea’s inability to speak. But the game finds interesting ways to play with those tropes or otherwise do something to make them less hackneyed. The game has a prologue of sorts where you play as a powerful player who in all likelihood is Lea before her amnesia, giving you some information outside of the game that your character does not have in-game. Lea’s silence is also explained as a technical glitch in the game itself, and over the course of the game one of the programmers working alongside her slowly expands her vocabulary with new words to say. If you’re a veteran RPG nerd, these moments serve as fun in-jokes that show CrossCode is willing to have some fun at its own expense.
Mechanically CrossCode is an action RPG. Your character moves around and fights in real time but also has stats, equipment, and a skill tree that gives you some customization options for your playstyle. The game is topdown so you can move up, down, left, and right through the space. Vertical movement is contextual – if an object is low enough for Lea to jump on top of it, she will, and you can use this to climb higher in a space. Similar to a Zelda game, she’ll also make jumps contextually if you run towards a gap that she is able to clear. This opens up room for some simple platforming challenges that are paired with your other abilities to create one of CrossCode’s core mechanics: puzzles.
Puzzles in CrossCode are relatively simple and consist primarily to serve as obstacles to physically progressing through a space. Solving a puzzle will remove a barrier, extend a bridge, or otherwise create a way for you to cross through a room so you can make your way to the next one. Many puzzles involve switches that you’ll have to figure out how to hit using one of Lea’s primary powers: the ball. While this has a more technical in-game name, Lea has the ability to create and throw balls as projectiles which she can use for combat or for puzzle solving. Balls can activate switches from a distance and ricochet off of walls to reach places that Lea can’t go physically. There are also different barrier types, some of which the balls can pass through even when Lea cannot. A typical puzzle will involve finding the ideal position for throwing a ball to hit a switch that then lowers a barrier to you can pass through to the next battle or puzzle. None of the puzzles are tricky enough to write home about (at least in the first couple of hours) but they are satisfying to solve and their quick pace fits well with the style of the game.
For battle, Lea has a few other tricks up her sleeve. Her melee attack allows her to deliver short-range but wide swings of her weapons to deal big damage to opponents. Against a small number of weak enemies, pressing the offensive can prevent them from attacking and make quick work of foes. When facing larger groups Lea will need to use dodging and blocking to deal with attacks. Dodges can be done up to three consecutive times before needing a very short break to recharge, while blocking can be maintained indefinitely as long as the attacks that hit your shield aren’t too strong and you’re okay with remaining stationary. Some attacks need to be blocked while others are better to dodge, so finding the balance between the best type of defense (blocking versus dodging) and offense (melee versus ranged) for the situation is key to harder encounters. Boss fights – or at least the two early game ones I have done so far – are a mix between standard combat and puzzles, requiring you to learn attack patterns and look for weak points and possibly challenging you to change the environment as you fight. This gives some of them a bit of a Zelda feel, although your stats still have a role to play in terms of influencing the outcome.
Your stats increase gradually as you level up, with level ups based on experience points earned while in combat. Lea has four main stats: health (how much damage you can take before dying), power (which influences melee damage), defense (which reflects your ability to resist damage), and focus (which influences a lot of factors like ranged attacks, movement, and charge time for abilities). While these stats increase as part of leveling up, they are also influenced by the equipment you wear as well as your choices on your character’s circuit board – the CrossCode version of a skill tree. You have a tree for each main stat which require a small number of CP to buy advances while asking for larger amounts of CP for brand new abilities. These abilities allow for upgrades to major mechanics like dodging, blocking, throwing, or melee, so depending on what playstyle you want to emphasize you can invest your points accordingly.
So far I am interested to see where things are headed with CrossCode. The simple puzzles and quick-paced battles work together with the light-hearted atmosphere and gaming in-jokes to create an experience that feels like a love letter to RPGs. I know there are mechanics I am not experiencing yet (there’s an element system plus the fact that I haven’t recruited any party members yet) so I’ll be looking forward to checking those out as well as learning more about the story and villains. MMOs may not really be my thing but luckily CrossCode is here to help me experience the joys of online gaming from the comfort of a solo playthrough.