Bienvenido and be ready to present your passports as we enter the Principality of Technicality for this, the final Indie Game of the Week for 2020. Y'see, CrossCode is technically a 2020 game (its console debut), but it's also a 2015 game (early access on Steam) and a 2018 game (full release on Steam). I was wary about considering it for Game of the Year purposes, which is why it gets the honor of being a major milestone number for the Indie Game of the Week instead of lumped in with the rest of the 2020 highlights for this year's Go! Go! GOTY! feature. Neither here nor there, really, just the sort of odd scenario that happens more often these days when trying to lock down an accurate release date for one's notes.
CrossCode is a 16-bit-styled top-down action-RPG that's very much in the Ys mold, which is usually a good sign that I'll enjoy it. (Usually. We'll get back to that.) The story follows the adventures of Lea, a fledgling player avatar roaming around the state-of-the-art MMO CrossWorlds. Various interactions with other players suggests that the hyper-realistic (from their perspective; from ours it's a bunch of admittedly attractive pixel art) Virtual Reality setting is to some extent real and actually an Augmented Reality, and this was a discovered alien world that someone bought and terraformed for a video game. The real world outside the game is actually from several thousand years in the future, where humanity - after a massive war with itself for old time's sake - has settled into many centuries of gradual, peaceful exploration of the Milky Way Galaxy and the universe beyond, and taken to social games like CrossWorlds to pass the time and keep in touch with friends and family on other planets. It's thus a little hard on occasion to sort fact from fiction when both are equally out of reach: it's clear most of the ancient alien civilization here, vaguely based on Metroid's Chozo with its beaked lizardpeople and fancy mythology, is a fictitious creation of the game developers but the game has you questioning what is and isn't real on a regular basis. That ambiguous grasp on reality is all part of the story too, of course: CrossWorlds has a hidden side most players don't know about nor will ever see, but Lea ends up fording these secret glitchy waters nonetheless. If you're familiar with .Hack and its exploration of MMO culture combined with a real-world corporate conspiracy thriller bubbling underneath, you should feel right at home.
Despite having no jump button, there is an awful lot of platforming in CrossCode, and I'm more inclined to put it slightly towards the Zelda end of the top-down action-adventure sliding scale despite there being plenty of RPG elements too - stronger equipment, levels, skill trees; the whole enchilada. You'll spend most of your time hopping across raised platforms finding routes to treasure chests or puzzling your way through the game's many dungeon instances, and fighting becomes largely optional once you're happy with your current level as most enemies don't aggro unless attacked first (the dungeons are a different beast, and may indeed have different beasts in them, as most encounters down there are of the "defeat every monster in this arena before you can move on" variety). When you start acquiring elemental powers and discovering the doors they unlock, figuratively and literally, it's an exciting moment and yet another skill tree to demand your concentration. It's an overall compelling balance of disparate genres, one that Ys and precious few others have been perfecting for generations, and the unpredictable twists and turns of the story means you're never quite sure where you'll end up or what you'll need to accomplish next.
So... now it's time for the "but." I hate pulling this thing out as much as you hate looking at it, believe me, yet all the same we have to address that "but." CrossCode is a deeply, deeply obnoxious video game; one that feels like it was designed by sadists who took every lapsed game design concept - long since abandoned for the blatant disregard they demonstrated towards their players, and if you've played a lot of retro games you know the sorts of notions I'm talking about - and incorporated it deep within CrossCode's DNA to an extent where it cannot be excised or critiqued apart from the overall experience. However, it's difficult to explicate the particulars of why playing this game feels like you're getting mercilessly trolled every moment without dedicating half of this review on a big, infantile list of petty grievances.
So let's just go ahead and get started with one of those because I've really no shame left:
There are way too many regular enemies and bosses that constantly heal themselves, typically because you didn't do the one required thing to end the fight sooner possibly because you were too busy spooling your guts back into your abdomen to notice the subtle telegraph hints; there are too many bosses that love to drop waves of adds and go off to be invincible in a corner somewhere while you deal with the nobodies over and over; there are enemies (asshole birds, mostly) that spend 90% of the time in the air so you have to wait patiently for them to deign to put themselves in harm's way before you're allowed to get on with your goddamn day; split-second timing on at least half the puzzles and we're talking real close-to-the-wire, super reflexes-intensive stuff on a regular basis here, no points for just figuring out the solution without some perfect execution to go with it; a giant invisible timer to complete dungeons before your rival and fuck you if you spend over a hour carefully considering the puzzles or going for the bonus chests because then you get to enjoy losing out on an achievement and being gloated to; a punitive cooldown period before you can use your elemental powers again if you abuse them too much that lasts way too long given you usually need those powers to fight certain monsters or complete certain puzzles in the immediate vicinity, so you can just sit there and get helplessly pummelled and think about what you did you naughty little urchin; a jokey side-character turned regular PvP agitator who has the same class as you yet can nonetheless do stuff you cannot and break the in-game MMO's own rules and limitations for no clear reason, the supreme irony being that the character in question is a damn narc and a stickler for the rules; no post-damage invincibility period so you take unnecessarily huge amounts of damage from certain persistent attacks, e.g. a row of icicles that form in front and behind you; stealth sequences! Several of them! And escort quests too! Even slipped some tower defense in there! These are all bad, in case that wasn't clear!; a prominent bartering system that means all gear or healing consumables of any actual value all but require you to farm endlessly; extremely circuitous routes through areas to get to chests or farm the rarer resources, the latter synergizing wonderfully with the previous item on this list; a time skip in the story that puts your party members ahead of you in levels, forcing you to play catch up and feel like the weak link throughout; said skip then leads to a situation where the game's level requirement for story progress/side-quests jumps from 32 to 36 necessitating even more grinding and busywork; and let's not forget that pervasive and highly obnoxious feeling you only get with MMOs (or single-player facsimiles thereof) where it's always made apparent to you that everyone's already seen and done everything in a location before you got there and either want to spoil it for you or else treat you like an adorable oblivious moppet taking their first baby steps into a scawy new pwaygwound. (There's more, but after a point this list gets into annoyances with specific boss strategies and dungeon puzzles, and I'd rather not spoil those more than they've already been spoiled just by existing.) No single one of these kvetches will significantly detract from the overall experience I'll grant you but when they're all chained together one after the other like a grating persistent buzz bouncing around the ear canals (or, if you prefer, the world's shittiest conga line) it becomes an all-too-evident "death from a thousand cuts" scenario; or, as it so often felt the case, a thousand papercuts right in the fleshy junctions between your fingers. We've seen when promising games turn out to less than great because of a lack of budget and time, or the unwelcome interference of a company's marketing division, but it's rare when its own game design is the biggest culprit.
And so, we find ourselves with another case similar to HAL Lab's Part Time UFO from earlier this month where every mechanical aspect of the game feels polished and commendable, where there's a clear aesthetic vision and an attractive conceit for its gameplay loop, where there are systems and features and varied side content galore in which to lose oneself, and a narrative that can be as cute or as mysterious or as sinister as it needs to be without incurring any emotional whiplash, and... I absolutely loathe its guts in spite of it all. Yep, sorry, some games just rub me the wrong way regardless of their near universal acclaim and CrossCode was one of them (to perhaps accompany my apparently inconceivable distaste for Celestetwo years prior).
: 0 out of 5.
(All right, all right, fine, I'll relent - it can be annoying at times, but that's not enough to completely override the quality of the gameplay and the ambitious size and scope for an Indie. Consider this score to be the equivalent of the archetypal movie police chief saying how much he dislikes that loose cannon detective, but damn does he respect him. Hell, I still completed it, even if it was mostly out of sheer spite.)
: 3 out of 5.
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