Last week after finishing my first dungeon in CrossCode, I shared how that dungeon was my “eureka” moment in the sense of realizing just how good the game could be. I also shared a deep frustration with the quest system, which felt at the time like an overly gamified mechanic shoved into the game because it is meant to evoke an MMO. Towards the end of the article I declared that I would try to “crit-path” the next area, ignoring quests and focusing more on the combat and puzzles to see if that improved the experience for me in any way. Since that time, I’ve had two major accomplishments: completing the second main dungeon as well as clearing a mid-game PlotTM sequence that reveals a lot about what is going on within the game’s narrative. Today I want to share my experiences with the parts of the game I have played since my last article and how they influenced where my head is with CrossCode now.
After finishing up the first dungeon I went to the quest hub in Bergen (the village for the ice region) to see how many new quests had opened up in the area. When there were three new quests opened I groaned and rolled my eyes. I was excited after the first dungeon and wanted to get to more of the good stuff. I wanted to explore a new area instead of wasting my time fighting the same enemies I had already fought and doing annoying quests in the same shitty town I had already spent too much time trying to figure out how the hell to get anywhere. With the exception of one quest that actually looked interesting to me (completing a new puzzle trial for the monks at the monastery using my recently-acquired Heat powers), I decided to just move on and not to bother myself with the stuff I didn’t want to do.
The next major region after Bergen Trail is called the Maroon Valley, a desert-themed region with complex geography built around deactivated jumping panels that the player has to reactivate. This usually involves working your way around to the other side of the panel (either the high side for vertical jumps or the opposite side of a horizontal jump), with some of them requiring you to step on a switch or hit it with one of your balls in order to make it easier to navigate the area. While I generally find CrossCode’s platforming to be a bit finnicky and it isn’t always clear what you are allowed to jump on or what the elevation is, I still enjoyed the process of slowly opening up the Maroon Valley and in the end it was satisfying when I could freely run wherever I wanted thanks to all the activated movement devices. While I was trying to remain quest-free for this portion of the game, I did take the research quest for the region since harvesting plants and defeating enemies was an activity I’d be engaging in whether I had a quest for it or not.
When I reached Bakii’Kum, the village on the other side of the desert, I focused only on the mission-critical quests that I needed to do in order to progress the story and unlock my path to the next dungeon. Because I didn’t have that many materials for crafting I ended up simply purchasing the basic equipment available to me at the village’s weapon shop. My level was consistent with the rating of the basic gear, which I took to mean that I was keeping pace with the game in terms of where I should be in order to handle the upcoming challenges. Since I didn’t feel the need to level up, I didn’t spend much time engaging with the local enemies as I completed the mandatory quest to open the next dungeon. In summary, when I approached the second temple I was wearing only basic gear and had my character at a level consistent with the basic gear.
If you’ve played CrossCode before I’m sure you know what happened next, but for those unfamiliar the game: I got my ass kicked.
The first dungeon had been a challenging but manageable experience where I died infrequently and felt competent to take on the obstacles that the game threw at me. In the second dungeon I frequently found myself restarting rooms as tough enemies put me in the ground again and again. This was at its worst with the boss, who I probably fought almost ten times as I tried to learn the patterns while quickly getting roasted if I didn’t manage to dodge or block attacks appropriately. It was during that fight where the realization really sunk in. I wasn’t just dealing with the game’s normal difficulty curve – I had set myself back by approaching the second region with a “crit-path” mentality. When I finally defeated the boss and saw from the upcoming region’s quests that I was about five levels behind the curve – with gear roughly eight levels behind – it was confirmation that I needed to change my approach.
To catch up for the next area, I dedicated some time to going back to old quests in order to clear them out. While any gear from those quests would no longer be the right level for me, they would provide me some much-needed EXP as well as credits I could use to finance some much-needed upgrades to my equipment. Once the old quests were wrapped up, I focused my attention on new ones that had unlocked after finishing the second dungeon. Many of these led me into the next area, where I stopped my earlier practice of ignoring encounters so I could steadily grind up EXP as well as getting materials from enemies and the nearby plants. By the time I finished all the quests and had explored as much of the areas as I could access, I had the materials I needed to craft weapons and armor with special bonuses to replace all of my ordinary gear. I had also leveled up enough to match levels with that specially-designed equipment, finally catching me up to where I really needed to be to stay equal to the challenge level of the game.
So what did I learn? CrossCode’s default difficulty assumes that you are engaging all of the game’s elements. Your character generally needs to be at a level consistent with the best gear available to you locally. Gear that is crafted or earned through quests is going to give you a notable advantage compared to the equipment you can purchase from a store and is important for keeping up with the difficulty curve. To be able to maintain your levels and gear, engaging in the game’s quest mechanic as well as making sure that you are doing the battles available to you in the region you are exploring is important. In my previous article I described the quests as ContentTM, filler to keep you busy rather than an essential part of the design. What I’ve learned by ignoring the quests is that while not all of them may feel essential in terms of story beats, on the whole they are core pieces of the game’s design and need to be engaged as such.
One thing that helped make the difference for me is that the quests (in my opinion) actually improve in quality as you get deeper into the game. Fewer of them are about needlessly engaging simple mechanics and instead give you specific challenges to content with, and a not-insignificant number of these quests have their own dedicated locations with puzzles or combat challenges you would otherwise miss. One quest I did in Bakii’Kum for example has you brewing alcohol by maintaining a brewing machine through an increasingly complicated sequence of timed puzzles, rotating between your Cold and Neutral shots to position and shoot ice at specific vents on the machine while barriers interfere with your efforts. Another quest after the second dungeon placed me on a floating platform over the sea alongside a powerful turret, whose targeting system was calibrated by firing charged shots at enemies. Changing elements changed the type of cannon fire coming from the machine, and conducting a whole combat scenario from a floating platform while also keeping enemies from passing the platform by challenged me to use the core mechanics of CrossCode in interesting new ways.
It was also helpful to put into perspective just how much of my EXP was coming from quests; the game’s statistics menu includes a breakdown of your EXP sources and about a third of mine came from quests. Imagine how many levels lower I might have been with only 67% of my experience points! Ignoring quests isn’t as detrimental as ignoring combat but it does have a negative impact in a measurable way. On top of that, the “skip the quest” mentality compounds the problem further because many quests are locked behind prerequisite quests. I couldn’t have brewed alcohol without first getting parts to fix the brewing machine in a prior quest that required me to revisit the first dungeon. The interconnection of the quests also helps to address one of my other early complaints about them: their story relevance. Many of the early game seemingly-irrelevant quests were actually the first stage of grander plans that now deeper into the game are revealing interesting lore about the setting. I made the mistake of assuming that CrossCode’s quests were generic-ass video game quests because they were so similar to what you might see in other RPGs. But what makes the difference is that this game invests in and expands on those ideas, giving you small doses of big scenarios that span the game rather than presenting you with a bunch of meaningless microscenarios.
I also had to be much more intentional about gathering materials for high-level gear. Finishing the second dungeon unlocks a new region called Autumn Falls where you experience a trial before a major story event. The materials from the enemies and plants in that region were key to being able to make gear that was sufficient to take on the challenges in that area. Completing quests often gave me some of the rare materials I needed, but I also had to be intentional about running through that area with an S-level combat rank and mowing down some bad guys to get the final few drops that quests didn’t take care of. Prior to this whenever I visited crafting stalls I just checked to see whether the names of the items were highlighted in white (which indicates that they can be crafted). If I couldn’t make something I just moved on. This time I investigated further by looking at the required materials to learn why I couldn’t make the items and checked my encyclopedia to see which plants or monsters in the region would drop the things I needed.
Being more intentional about the quests and crafting paid off. I reached a better level with sufficient gear and the challenges that followed once I progressed the story were much more manageable as a result, allowing me to focus more on the enjoyment of solving the puzzles and understanding attack patterns without the constant frustration of dying quickly. When I dismissed core elements of CrossCode on the basis that I wasn’t enjoying how they worked at the time, I created a situation in which I gave myself a worse experience by refusing to engage the game as intended by the design. Once I flipped my thinking and embraced all of the parts of the game, the experience as a whole got better. I stand by my sentiment that some quests in this game feel like empty filler content (I will never be happy I chased a goat all over the most annoying town design in the game), but I now see the value in pushing past that temporary frustration to get to the quests that are worth experiencing and to make the overall game more pleasurable to experience.