Last week I shared my early impressions of CrossCode, a single-player action RPG about an amnesiac girl trying to recover her memories inside the world of an MMO. I spoke about my initial thoughts on the game’s premise as well as the quick combat, simple puzzles, and puzzle-like bosses. At the time I had maybe 90 minutes to 2 hours in the game and hadn’t even entered the first proper area of the game where you truly get a feel for what the core loop of play is like. Since that time I’ve put in about ten or so additional hours and cleared the first major dungeon of the game. I’ve encountered a lot of new mechanics, gotten a better idea of the structure, and experienced a moment where the game really started to click for me. I’ve also encountered certain aspects of the game that aren’t really working for me. In this article, I’ll be digging deeper into my latest time with CrossCode and sharing the highs and lows of the game so far.
Structurally, your goal in CrossCode is to travel to and visit a series of locations which are connected to a precursor civilization in the setting called “the Ancients.” The world map is broken up into a number of distinct regions with different types of enemies, plants that yield harvestable materials, and landmarks which serve as fast travel locations. The game’s fast travel is pretty robust – all you have to do is open the map and click on a landmark to warp there, making it really easy to pop back into town for something you need to buy or to turn in a quest before heading back to the area where you were exploring. Your character moves relatively fast and enemies don’t bother you unless you initiate combat with them (for the most part – there are definitely exceptions to this). All these factors work together to make getting around the world a relatively fast proposition, as you can warp to the landmark closest to where you want to go and then dash past enemies straight to your destination.
Of course, not all movement is simple in CrossCode. There is a sort of platforming element to this game. When your character Lea runs up to a low ledge, she can hop up to a higher elevation. When you approach a gap small enough to jump across, running to the edge of the gap will cause you to leap to the other side. Climbing and jumping around the environments allows you to reach new heights and adds a lot of complexity to the exploration. See a cool treasure box? The parkour required of you to get there may ask you to jump your way to a higher level, return to a previous area, hop across some platforms over water, and then return back at a new elevation to the screen where the chest was located. These platforming puzzles are fun when executed well, but CrossCode is an action RPG before it is a platformer and the controls for this can be cruddy sometimes. It can also be really difficult to tell what surfaces are at different elevations or whether or not a jump is one that your character is capable of making. Jumping off a cliff you didn’t mean to into water or a bottomless pit isn’t that bad – you take some damage and respawn and if you’re not in battle, that health essentially heals back instantly. Jumping off of a cliff you didn’t mean to back to the ground level can be deeply frustrating when you were close to the end of a lengthy, complicated climb to a point you need to reach on the map.
One of the new mechanics I encountered pretty shortly after finishing my first article was the combat rank. Your combat rank increases by dealing damage in combat. While you are In BattleTM, the combat rank stays steady. Once you’ve defeated all the enemies or run far enough away from combat that they are no longer aggro’d then the combat ranks starts to cool down. After a short amount of time it resets to zero. Having a high combat rank increases the rarity and frequency of drops from both enemies and from plants in the environment. This gives you an incentive to move quickly between enemy packs and take them down without a lot of downtime between fights so that you can get rarer drops. However, your health doesn’t regenerate in combat by default, so staying in a constant state of battle means that you are carrying over your damage from previous fights. You can use consumables to mitigate this but because CrossCode is an action RPG, you have to pop those consumables in real time and you can absolutely get killed menuing if you are not careful. So there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining a good combat rank and healing, which is a compelling risk/reward during exploration. What I found works for me is paying little attention to combat rank when exploring a zone for the first time, but then being more intentional about raising it once I have an area mapped out and am not looking for treasures or secrets.
Another mechanic I encountered pretty quickly after finishing up my first impressions is the quest mechanic. Quests are given to you by various NPCs and require you to complete one or more tasks in exchange for experience points, credits (the in-game currency), and possible crafting materials, consumable items, or equipment for your character. The most common type of quest is the regional survey performed by a recurring scientist NPC. When you enter a new area, you can do research for this scientist by defeating a certain number of each new enemy type, gathering a certain amount of materials from plants, finding all the landmarks, and locating a data probe in a specific location in the environment. Other common quests come from the four main guilds in the setting, who contract with seekers (the players in the game CrossCode within…the game…CrossCode…) to do operations that are essentially mercenary work. These tasks don’t really have a meaningful impact on the game world and you don’t really have ideological ties to any of these guilds. For example, I don’t particular want to beat up “criminals” for the cyber cops, but there’s not really a tool in the game for expressing your views or opposing that faction in any meaningful way. It’s all just ContentTM to experience in return for money and EXP.
The quest system has honestly been the biggest bummer for me with CrossCode so far. Quests give you bigger chunks of experience and credits than just fighting and some of them have high-quality equipment associated with them, so while they are technically optional it feels like skipping them would set you back to where you would need to do grinding in order to keep pace with the main story. However, they are not compelling from a gameplay standpoint. “Go here and kill this, get me 15 of that, chase this annoying NPC all over this convoluted town using this game’s subpar platforming mechanics.” Not every quest is bad; I’ve particularly enjoyed the ones that have their own dedicated areas and puzzles, or that push you to refine your expertise with specific mechanics in the game. But these are exceptions to an otherwise generally unpleasant aspect of CrossCode, which is disappointing because this game is actually quite good at the things it does really well.
One of those good things is the combat, which has really ramped up in complexity since I last wrote about it. This is partly the result of unlocking the main tool for character improvement in the game: circuits. Your circuit is essentially a skill tree that allows you to spend circuit points (CP) earned upon level-up in order to increase your stats, unlock meaningful buffs not directly related to stats, and most importantly to pick up combat arts for your character. There are different combat arts for each of the main combat mechanics: melee, shooting, guarding, and dashing. Additionally, each of those trees has two different branches with combat arts that do different things. On the dashing tree, for example, you can choose a more offensive dash art which attacks opponents or a protective one that puts you in a force field while you dash through enemies. On the melee tree, you can choose a special attack that hits a bigger group of enemies or a short-ranged, focused attack emphasizing bigger damage. You can switch between the different branches on the fly whenever you’re not in combat, allowing you to customize your approach to different situations. Choosing which combat arts best fit the enemy types in your current region and determining when to use them during combat adds a lot of complexity to the battles.
Battles are also made more challenging by the different enemy types, who have different fighting styles which require you to change your strategy accordingly. In the first area there are bull enemies whose fronts are armored – they are primarily vulnerable to melee attacks executed from behind. In the second area a similar goat enemy is totally armored from behind. However, the goat has an additional layer of complexity as you need to look for an opportunity to break them by baiting them into a ranged attack from afar, and then hitting them with melee attacks after their horns have been launched and are separate from their body for a brief window. Some enemies have really dangerous melee attacks that push you backwards and essentially force you to attack from a range, but are more resistant to ranged attacks than melee. Figuring out the best approach for each enemy type and learning to juggle them in different combinations keeps battles fun even when you are fighting lots of battles in a row to keep your combat rank up.
CrossCode’s other strong suit is its puzzles, which grow in scale and complexity as you get deeper into the game. When I wrote my first impressions I had only experienced the introductory puzzles in the tutorial and I described them as quick and simple. That got thrown out the window relatively quickly. In the first area I found a small cavern connecting two areas that had a series of barriers my character couldn’t pass through. You have to platform across the water to find just the right angle to throw a ball and hit a switch, which gives you less than fifteen seconds to get around to the other side and then throw another ball at the optimum angle to hit a second switch and finish the puzzle. Figuring out how to ricochet your shot while under a time crunch is tricky, and that puzzle is still relatively straightforward compared to other challenges I located as I continued on through the game. While the overworld and certain quests present the occasional compelling puzzle, the real meat of puzzle-solving takes place in the game’s dungeons.
The first dungeon is a frozen mine where your goal is to claim the power of the Heat element for your character. The mine is separated into a number of floors which are traversed by an elevator and have lots of rooms where you have to search for keys to unlock new areas. Breakable rocks need to be destroyed by bombs but these bombs only travel a short distance unless they slide on ice. Large movable blocks serve as platforms if you can arrange them into the correct setup around a room. Small orbs of fire charge your shots with heat that can melt ice. Floating platforms carry you over large pits and can be shifted to a new track by hitting a switch at the right time. You encounter these various puzzle types one at a time until you understand the basics, and then they start to work together to make more complicated challenges. A moving block puzzle that you have to solve from a floating platform in order to press down the switch that gets the platform onto a new track, a bomb puzzle where the breakable rocks are behind ice that you have to melt and then bomb before the ice regenerates, platforming rooms where you have to ignite and bomb and them quickly get on top of the platform that the bomb is going to push to a new location in the room – CrossCode truly challenges you to understand your character’s abilities as well as the unique mechanics of the dungeon in a way that makes the location deeply enjoyable to navigate.
I was already loving the CrossCode dungeon experience, but the real “eureka!” moment for me was the point in the Temple Mines where I gained the ability to utilize Heat for myself. This new core mechanic gives Lea the ability to shift her elemental affinity from its standard neutral setting to one of the four other elements it is possible for her to collect throughout the game. While in an element mode, her attacks take on that element and affect the world in new ways. With Heat my attacks could now melt ice without being fired through a fire orb, and I could launch the bombs further distances and even hit them a second time to drastically change their angle and trajectory. With the Heat upgrade came a second circuit board with more points to spend on new abilities, which meant new combat arts specifically for fighting in heat mode. And of course with a new element came a new layer of complexity to fights. Taking out a bunch of heat-weak enemies feels great, but you can overload an element if you don’t regularly switch back into neutral in order to blow off some steam. Some enemies can only be broken and put in a vulnerable state by being overheated. In one upgrade, everything that really works for me about CrossCode – the combat and the puzzles – received a new layer that allowed me to interact both with the world and enemies in different ways and added a lot of fun to the rest of the dungeon.
With the Temple Mine now behind me, I am really excited to hop back into CrossCode and experience the game’s remaining dungeons. I want to see the new unique puzzle mechanics that are introduced, the new enemy types and the tactics to make them vulnerable, as well as the remaining elements and how they add more layers to both of those core elements. That excitement is mitigated somewhat by the knowledge that to get there, I’m going to have to explore more areas with middling platforming and will possibly need to complete some obnoxious quests to make sure my level and gear is scaling properly with the difficulty of the game. I may experiment with crit-pathing the next portion of the game to see how many problems legitimately arise from not engaging with the quest mechanics. My concern is that my ability to enjoy what really works about CrossCode will ultimately be held back by the parts that frustrate me. Hopefully the next time I cover the game I’ll have plenty more positive to say. For now, I am cautiously optimistic about the rest of my journey through the game.