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Cross My Heart

I’ve complained a lot about CrossCode, so I thought I should talk about why I’m still playing it. What I love about it. And that’s the story and characters.

I’ve been holding off on talking about this aspect because I’m not done with the game yet - I’m about thirty hours in (and I’ve seen a couple people say it’s fifty hours long) and later surprises could certainly change what I have to say. But the story and characters have been so consistently excellent that I feel totally safe heaping on some praise.

A lot of what I could say is positive but generic. The writing is good. Characters have distinct and consistent personalities and quirks, and there seems to be a ton of incidental dialog reacting to various enemies and environmental features to make them feel more alive and organic. Characters are likable (except for Apollo, but we’ll discuss him another day). The storytelling is fantastic, giving out answers and asking more questions at possibly the perfect rate and making sure you have reasons to care about things and people before asking you to care about them.

But there’s some more specific praise deserved here as well. The following will have minor spoilers.



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:



CrossCode's Assist Mode

I claimed that CrossCode’s skill tests can block off its story. It is worth noting that the developers did try to prevent this. Like Celeste, CrossCode has an Assist Mode. As the developers explained:

“We have created CrossCode with a certain idea in mind, as a certain experience, defined by us. However, if players do not enjoy this experience, the Assist Mode gives them the option to adjust the experience for them for whatever reason. We are not here to judge anyones skills or feelings and if someone wants a different experience, that is absolutely fine for us. We are not dictating a certain experience although we’d love everyone to play the game as we designed it. But love means that at some point to let go as well. And who are we to forbid players to enjoy certain parts just because they dislike (or can’t complete) other parts?”

I applaud this sentiment (as should not be surprising to anyone who’s read my posts) and want to encourage every game that blocks content with skill challenges to include Assist Modes. And frankly the one in CrossCode helps a lot and is the reason I’m still playing the game at all. I don’t want to come across as attacking it at all - but it’s clear that it was added after the fact and I’m confused by a few things about it.



Genre Crossing

After writing about how conflicted I am about CrossCode, I have decided to abandon the game. Multiple times. And I’m still playing it.

This isn’t a thing that I do! I’m a busy adult with a huge backlog of games (somehow I still have not gotten to Marvel’s Spider-Man, to name just one example sitting on my shelf). When a game loses me, it loses me and I am on to the next.

And CrossCode does so many things that would be instant deal-breakers in most other games. But it turns out I am willing to put up with a lot to spend time with the game’s characters and unravel the mysteries of its story.

So, what are those things I’m putting up with? Fundamentally, I think CrossCode suffers from being three different games crammed into one. If you happen to like all three of them, you’ll have a great time; but disliking any of them can go a long way to ruining the experience for you. CrossCode is:

  1. A character-driven mystery story presented in SNES-like pixel art, a la To the Moon.
  2. A systems-heavy action RPG with deep skill trees and fiddly gear choices, a la Torchlight or Grim Dawn or whatever.
  3. A precision- and reflex-testing 3D puzzle platformer with complex timing and spatial reasoning puzzles a la Portal or The Talos Principle or something.

I already mentioned that some of these elements don’t blend well - in particular, the SNES-style pseudo-oblique camera often makes the 3D spatial puzzles harder than they should be. But the real problem is that these games block each other off and the story is the only part you can skip through.

This is most obvious in the temple dungeons, where you must defeat a puzzle gauntlet and a boss fight in order to be reunited with your party members and continue the story. But it comes up everywhere - sometimes you’ll find that a plot-relevant sidequest leads you to a jumping puzzle followed by a tough battle. Or you’ll do a sidequest that has you solving a sliding-block puzzle, your reward for which is a scene developing some side characters. No matter which of the three games you’re here for, you’re getting all of them, unavoidably and unpredictably.

Don’t care about the story? You can skip dialog and plot scenes. Don’t care for the combat or puzzles? Tough. Like Horace, Catherine, Wandersong, and countless other games, CrossCode might lure you in to its world and characters and then block you off from it with skill tests you find uninteresting or impossible.


Economic Vocal Minorities

On top of all the ethical problems with whale-hunting via loot boxes, there’s also a game design one: it’s allowing the design of games to be twisted by the habits of a small fraction of players.

From Ofcom: Less than 6% of UK children, 4% of adults have purchased loot boxes:

“[O]nly 4% of UK adults who play video games say they have ever bought loot boxes in free-to-play titles, and only 4% have bought them in premium games. Meanwhile, 6% of game-playing children – defined as aged five to 15 – have spent money on loot boxes in free-to-play games, while 3% say they have bought them in premium titles.”

In most cases, it’d be laughable to change a game’s design to significantly worsen it for 94%-97% of its players to accommodate the habits of the other 3%-6%. But when those habits are “spend more money than the 94%-97% put together”, that’s what happens.


Crossing My Mind

I don’t think I’ve ever been as conflicted about a game as I am about CrossCode.

The aesthetic is right out of the golden age of mid-90’s SNES RPGs, highly reminiscent of titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The music and sound effects are well-suited and the world is lush with little details (my favorite being the high-level players that run by ignoring you, or sit and have private conversations in hard-to-reach areas - this is exactly what happens in real MMOs) adding up to a cozy and satisfying atmosphere and a world that’s a joy to inhabit.

The characterization and storytelling are also deeply compelling. Again, there’s such an impressive level of detail here - I adore Emilie’s stories about wildlife that the enemies remind her of and her joyful reaction to laser bridges, for example. And the amount of characterization that comes across with Lea’s aggressively limited vocabulary is amazing.

But then so much about the game’s mechanical design feels horrible to me. Why in the world would you put so much emphasis on jumping puzzles in a 3D space that’s viewed as 2D pixel art, obscuring where surfaces are relative to each other (is that platform taller or just further north)? Why make them so long and complex that they sometimes require backtracking through multiple screens to get where you need to go when it’s so easy to misjudge a jump, fall off, and need to start all over?

Why is so much of this game a puzzle platformer where you need to think several steps ahead and apply precision positioning and aiming with split-second timing - when your aiming device is an analog stick and the 2D pixel art can (again) obscure the required angles? Why create situations where the player is virtually guaranteed to spend frustrating time trying to implement the puzzle solution after they’ve already done the interesting part of figuring out what they have to do?

Why is there so much to keep track of? Why lock the best equipment behind an unwieldy loot-trading system with intermediate levels of otherwise-worthless trade goods that make it harder to see what your actual options are, adding obscurity without adding depth? Why put chests the player can’t open yet in hard-to-reach places, punishing their exploration instead of rewarding it? Why have areas that are so complex and hard to navigate and require so much backtracking for those treasures or returning to spread-out quest givers and then give the player a terrible map that represents each zone as a featureless rectangle?

I spend a lot of time in CrossCode wishing I were done with the current bit (my god the first dungeon drags on and on) and just exploring the multi-level maze of the game’s second town made me want to rage-quit. And yet I can’t stop playing and when I’m not playing I can’t stop thinking about playing. I love being in this world that tickles my nostalgia both for RPGs and MMOs, I love spending time with these characters, and I want to find out what happens to them. I just hope the game doesn’t become completely intolerable along the way.