Cross-Phase Challenge

CrossCode’s aggressive combination of genres also results in a particularly brutal challenge profile.

I previously wrote an article defining four “phases of challenge” - in short, preparation is getting ready to deal with challenges (research, practice, grinding), strategy is defining a framework for handling challenges (making plans, choosing loadouts), tactics is making choices in response to specific situations (game state awareness, choosing what to do in the moment), and action is communicating the choice back into the game (hitting the right buttons at the right time).

Different players have different tolerance and interest levels for the different phases, which has implications for a game’s potential audience. Having high tactics challenge, for example, limits a game’s audience to people who enjoy that kind of challenge. Having high tactics challenge and high strategy challenge limits the audience to people who enjoy both, which is a smaller group.

CrossCode has high challenge in all four phases. Here’s the breakdown as I see it for the game’s main loops of exploration, combat, and puzzles:


  • Exploration: Note the location of quest givers, not-yet-openable chests, not-yet-passable obstacles, and other features you may need to return to later.
  • Combat: Understand the wide range of build options in the skill tree. Gain levels to boost stats and get skill points. Learn the behavior and weaknesses of a variety of enemy types. Navigate the trading economy to figure out how and where to get good gear and items - and farm the required trade goods.
  • Puzzles: Understand the interactions between all your neutral and elemental abilities and the variety of world objects that make up puzzles.


  • Exploration: Determine possible paths through an area to reach chests and other locations that are accessible through parkour. Decide when it’s time to return to previously-inaccessible chests or areas.
  • Combat: Pick a skill build that complements your play style and accommodates a plan to use your abilities against the combat challenges you’re likely to encounter. Consider the many fiddly stat- and modifier-based trade-offs of the available gear options and decide what to optimize for. Recognize the behavior and weaknesses of enemies and adjust your approach accordingly. Be aware of enemy locations so you can chain battles and maximize your combat rank (which is necessary for getting the best trade goods). Decide when it’s time to return to previously-too-difficult side battles.
  • Puzzles: Understand the through-line and implicit goal of each individual puzzle and make a plan using your abilities to accomplish that goal.


  • Exploration: Recognize which platforms are reachable through parkour and will bring you closer to the area you are trying to reach.
  • Combat: React to enemy positioning and behavior and use the right skills and the right attacks at the right time. Switch to the right elemental attacks at the right time, but keep an eye on your elemental overload gauge and switch to neutral attacks at the right time. Recognize enemy telegraphs and avoid their attacks so you don’t fail the fight and can continue your fight chain to increase your combat rank.
  • Puzzles: Watch the current state of the components of each puzzle and apply the right ability at the right time to advance the state toward the goal.


  • Exploration: Position and aim yourself to successfully execute parkour jumps.
  • Combat: With split-second timing, precisely position yourself and aim your attacks to damage your enemies and avoid taking damage yourself.
  • Puzzles: With split-second timing, precisely position yourself and aim your abilities to execute the correct action to advance the puzzle state.

To be clear: it isn’t just that there’s challenge in every phase - it’s that there’s high challenge in every phase.

Exploration preparation is difficult because the maps are very low-detail, your ability to mark them is limited (you can, for example, stamp that an area contains a chest, but not whether it’s a normal chest that you haven’t found a way to reach, a chest that requires a key you don’t have, or a chest that requires multiple keys you don’t have), and the need to backtrack comes up frequently (through chests you can’t open yet, barriers you can’t pass yet, the need to find and return to spread-out quest-givers, and quests that you probably can’t really handle at the time you can first take them). Combat preparation is difficult because enemy types have differing behavior and weaknesses that you can really only figure out through experimentation and the best gear comes from the labyrinthine trading economy (with a huge number of spread-out traders offering gear that often requires intermediate trade items that you may have to trade for elsewhere, making it hard to understand your actual options, and which sometimes require trade goods that only come from completing battles with a high combat rank, which makes farming more difficult). Puzzle preparation is difficult because there are so many factors from the wide number of tools at your disposal and the high number of puzzle elements with their own interactions.

Exploration strategy is difficult because parkour paths can be quite long, often extending through multiple screens, and there are no waypoint markers. Combat strategy is difficult due to the wide array of build and gear options with fiddly stat trade-offs which make far more difference to your combat effectiveness than your experience levels and the variety of enemy behavior and weaknesses that are vital to being able to deal and avoid damage efficiently enough to win. Puzzle strategy is difficult because puzzles can become quite long and require many different interactions to complete, to the point where it can be hard to even understand the goal of the puzzle you’re working on.

Exploration tactics are difficult because the 2D pixel-art rendering can obscure where platforms are relative to each other, making possible jumps seem impossible and vice versa. Combat tactics are difficult because enemy behavior can be difficult to read (again, the 2D pixel-art rendering can make it unclear when an enemy is above your line of fire or in it), you often need to fight several enemies at once and keep track of all of their behavior, some enemies can only be damaged by elemental attacks (which charge an overload meter, so you need to keep an eye on that and switch to useless non-elemental attacks periodically to decrease it, lest you fully overload and lose the ability to do elemental attacks for longer). Puzzle tactics are difficult because they can have a high number of moving parts that require very different interactions, and again the 2D pixel-art rendering can obscure the position of the elements relative to each other.

Exploration action is difficult because many parkour jumps are just at the edge of possible and require precise positioning and aiming, and failing often means you have to find your way back to the start of the parkour path and retry the whole thing. Combat action is difficult because it’s fast-paced and many enemies require speedy reactions with precise aiming to make use of their weaknesses and stand a chance of victory (often while you are also dodging their attacks), significant fights are often long and multi-stage and must be fully restarted if you fail - and for some reason, even the basic melee combo is hard to use efficiently, as it has a significant delay at the end unless you use your dash as an animation cancel. (You are told about this cancel very early in the game and are clearly intended to use it.) Puzzle action is difficult because it often requires performing a lengthy sequence of varied actions with precise timing, positioning, and aim with very short timing windows, and messing up any one of them can mean having to start the whole thing over.

Personally, I’m making use of Assist Mode to reduce some of the pressure. I’ve got the enemy damage slider down to its minimum 20%, meaning I can afford to pay much less attention to the trading economy and complex gear/build options and I have more latitude to learn and execute on exploiting enemy weaknesses. And I’ve got the puzzle speed slider down to its minimum 50%, giving me more time to execute the precise positioning and aiming I need to solve puzzles (though I still need to figure them out just the same). And that helps a lot but it doesn’t put everything exactly where I want it.

There’s a lot going on here that’s hard in different ways, and all of these elements show up intermixed with each other in the game’s main path. This creates a powerful selection effect on the game’s audience. The number of people who enjoy all four phases of challenge and enjoy all these types of gameplay and are capable of the performance the game requires in all of them is small. But the people who can get over that barrier to entry are likely to love this game, to be proud of their skill at it and resistant to changing it. I’m thus not at all surprised that there are plenty of people in the game’s Steam forum who complained about the addition of Assist Mode. But without that Assist Mode letting players optionally reduce some of the pressure of the game’s brutal challenge profile, the number of people who could enjoy the game would be far smaller than it is. And it would definitely not include me.