Radical Fish Games has risen the bar of quality in terms of the experience you can get in a retro-inspired indie game with CrossCode.
Having initially passed on the PC release of CrossCode back in 2018, when it was announced that this indie title from Radical Fish Games was coming to consoles, I knew I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Having now seen it through, boy, oh boy, am I glad I didn’t skip out this time around because CrossCode is without a doubt one of the most expertly-crafted retro-inspired games I have ever had the pleasure of playing.
The alien world of Shadoon plays host to players of CrossWorlds, a futuristic melding of an MMORPG, LARPING (live-action role-playing), and Disney World. Players who log-in, take control of a body, known as an Avatar. You play as Lea, an amnesiac, and mute Avatar seeking her past while working to discover the secrets of the Ancients of Shadoon. Lea won’t need to uncover the mysteries, though, as she will be able to party up with a cast of endearing and bombastic characters to aid her, both inside and outside the game.
I loved the one-sided small talk between Lea and your first party member, Emilie-Sophie de Belmond, a Pentafist (think a Monk/punchy class) who goes by the character name Emilienator. Even though Lea has a limited vocabulary in which to respond, Emilie has no issue going on about whatever is on her mind, from beating you in races through dungeons or how she got chewed out at work for being late to a meeting. Who looks in their spam folder in their email, seriously? I also found the justice-seeking Apollo, a fellow Spheromancer that strives to keep players honest and punish any that may be cheating in CrossWorlds, to be hilarious. He’s your stereotypical exaggerated hero of justice, but Radical Fish Games’ writing prowess takes him so much more fun than his similar archetype peers. He will challenge Lea multiple times throughout the story, pushing Lea and making sure she stays on the up-and-up.
The supporting cast I enjoyed just as much as the main party. Sergey, who acts as your support from the real world, helps to repair your voice module, adding in new keywords for you to use and interact with your new friends. Whenever he would randomly pop-in, more often than not, I would find myself chuckling at his remarks and quips. Rather early on, you will find yourself a member of a small guild, the First Scholars, whose aim is to be the first to discover the final secrets of the Ancients. Run by the sweet and motherly Hlin, and her stoic second-in-command, Beowulf, I was surprised how much I came to love these characters the more I spoke with them and learned their stories.
CrossCode does a good job making the in-game world feel like a popular hustling-and-bustling MMO, even though it is a single-player experience. NPCs of various classes are often running around the different areas in the wild, while cities and other social hubs are packed with vendors and other faux players to further sell the vibe. You can also join a guild, tackle tough bosses, and make friends with exciting characters.
Much like a real MMO, there is plenty of side business that you get yourself into in-between your dives into the game’s various dungeons which further plot. Townsfolk and other NPC Avatars offer missions that range from your standard fair of fetch quests and monster-slaying tasks to logging the local fauna of Shadoon. Crafting in the traditional sense is absent in CrossCode and in its place you will be trading items at specialty vendor stalls. You can expect to spend time running through the wild cutting down plants and hunting down enemies, which is reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda series. Luckily the rewards for trading are worth it, as the gear you can get is far superior to the stock you can find in the shops proper.
CrossCode gameplay balances between fast-paced hack-n-slash combat with intricate puzzles. Encounters with even generic enemies in the wild can become tense clashes as mobs can consist of five or more at a time, each trying to kill you. In some of the more frantic matches, finding the narrow passages between the bullets and dodging my way to safety reminded me of a SHUMP.
Lea, as a Spheromancer, is far from being powerless and has plenty of options to fight back. As you progress throughout the game, you will unlock multiple skill trees that let you improve your stats and unlock new skills and abilities for your close-range, long-range, and defensive moves. A particularly cool aspect is that you have you can quickly swap between specific sub-trees and unique move options from the menu system, without the need to spend your points on both.
There is an added sense of intensity and urgency in combat with the inclusion of a ranking system. As you defeat enemies, a small bar will fill and once you fill it you will gain a rank. The higher your rank is ( which goes all the way to S-Rank), the more chances you’ll have to gain rare loot from enemies. This rarer loot is incredibly valuable as many quests and the gear you can trade for at the vendors, require them. As soon as a battle ends, a timer will begin counting down, and when it runs out, you lose your rank and have to start over. This means you will have to grind items and it’s a good idea to plan out a route around an area that will let you hit as many enemies as you can, as fast as you can. A trick I found particularly useful was to leave one enemy and start scouting out the next mob while your AI companions deal with the final enemy. This will give you some extra time to explore and track down more foes.
To throw another little wrench into the situation, increasing your rank and farming for items you will also be tempting fate. As long as you have a rank and are stringing encounters together to build it, you won’t have any access to the experience you are gathering and you won’t be auto-recovering between fights. Will you risk taking on that larger mob, netting a bunch of good drops, or should you call it quits and get that level-up that’s waiting for you? It’s a nice mechanic that just adds another layer to an already rich combat system.
When you aren’t fighting snowmen, hedgehogs, and bunnies, there is a good chance that you will be hopping around the landscape or racking your brain to figure out the solution to a puzzle. Before playing CrossCode, I wasn’t aware of how prevalent puzzles would be, but color me surprised when I realized that not only were puzzles a big part of the game, but they are very well-done. Most of the puzzles I found to be the perfect balance of challenge and inventiveness, thanks mostly to incorporating mechanics that involved bouncing balls off the walls and mirrors to hit targets. Running around the open-world has an aspect of puzzle-solving, too, as you will see various chests and items out of reach, and you will have to figure out how to reach them by jumping over pits and navigating walls and plateaus of varying heights. This incentivizes exploration in a fun way, and there’s a sense of satisfaction and surprise when you’ve found that hidden route or you discover a secret area that just appears when you get close to it.
For as good as the puzzles are and as tight as the gameplay is, what blew me away the most with CrossCode is how breathtaking the sprites and pixel art are. Players familiar with the RPGs from Square Enix’s golden age on the Super Nintendo will recognize the much of the inspiration here, stemming from titles like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. You will explore scorching deserts, wintery mountain peaks, dark, dreary mines, and advanced technological laboratories. Each location’s visuals are all done with such expert craftsmanship, that you could take a snapshot and hang it in your room, and it would look fantastic. Monster designs, especially the screen-filling bosses, are finely detailed and exude such personalities and charm. You’ll find yourself saying “awwww” the first time you see the cute bunnies before they then pounce to destroy you.
As you play, you will find more and more cute nods to other franchises that the developers clearly love. Items like the Phoenix Feather that come with descriptions that are a clear homage to the popular Final Fantasy curative item. Another that may seem familiar is the Salty Ice Cream that is, “Best enjoyed at sunset on top of a clocktower.” My personal favorites of these are the Metal Gears that are, “Just gears made out of metal, yepp,” and the Masterball, which “Heroes once used this device to capture legendary fiends.” I’m not going to lie, skimming the item descriptions turned into one of my favorite pastimes in this game, so be sure to check them out as you go, too.
The love that Radical Fish Games has put into CrossCode has resulted in a game that will be talked about as critically and with as much praise as other masterpieces like Shovel Knight or The Messenger. CrossCode’s mix of exciting exploration, chaotic yet tight combat, vast skill trees, and clever puzzles that all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful pixel art in the past decade is an experience any fan of RPGs should partake in. Some of the dungeons do go on a bit long, and I found it to be a little annoying at times (the first dungeon having ice physics was a bold choice). I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the exchange system with the item vendors and found myself wishing for a more traditional crafting system, but these small gripes did little to tarnish my overall experience. Every new area I found myself in or new items that contained a nod to pop culture or games from the past put a smile on my face.
In short, Radical Fish Games has raised the bar for retro-inspired indie games. You owe it to yourself to uncover the secrets Shadoon and CrossWorlds with Lea and friends in CrossCode.