Friday 10 July 2020

Switch Review - Cross Code

Retro inspired Sprite based RPGs are flooding the eShop, but ‘Cross Code’ isn’t just the cream of the crop, it even eclipses the adored games that inspired its visuals.

Developed by Radical Fish Games
Published by Deck 13
Released in 2020

There’s a wealth of difference between copying something and celebrating it. Too often today we are presented games that claim to be “loving tributes” or “recapturing past magic” but in reality they are attempting to sell games by an association. “If you loved ‘Metroid’ then you’ll love this” the advertising pitch goes, because simply saying “we’ve copied ‘Metroid’ and changed a few bits here and there” is less enticing. Anyone can imitate, but real greatness is forged when a masterpiece is examined and improved. "I think the most important part is making sure that other games are “inspirations”” says Stefan Lange, lead programmer at Radical Fish Games. “We look at old games and ask ourselves: “What did they do wrong and how can we improve that?”. It’s important to try out new things too. If you just make a turn based system like ‘Final Fantasy’ had back in the days, it might not work because it’s too slow or feels like a “copy”. ‘Cross Code’ isn’t a simple clone of 16bit action RPGs like ‘Secret of Mana’ and ‘Link to the Past’; it’s far, far more than that. It’s quite simply a modern work of art that takes all the things you loved from the titles of yesteryear and improves upon them.

The grandiose and epic feel that oozes from ‘Cross Code’ disguises the games’ humble origins. Created by Radical Fish Games, a group of 14 people who met on a RPG-Maker forum. “We all did some hobby projects of varying size and found each of us through those. This means that basically everyone is from all over Germany. We also have one artist coming from Austria and one from Finland” says Lange. It has been in development for over 8 years, after a small demo first appeared in 2012. “We thought we'd finish the game back in 2016. Things just took much longer than expected” says Felix Klein, co-founder of Radical Fish Games. An IndieGoGo campaign in 2015 intended to bring in greater finances but the campaign struggled to reach its modest 80,000 Euro goal. Despite a playable demo being available for nearly a decade, ‘Cross Code’ has been largely ignored by many larger websites, and has instead found success through word of mouth.

“’Cross Code’ really is influenced by a lot of games that we loved to play over the years” claims Klein. “The SNES influence is most apparent, since the graphics style is more or less directly taken from classics like ‘Secret of Mana’, ‘Seiken Densetsu3’, ‘Chrono Trigger’ and ‘Terranigma’”. Much like ‘Octopath Traveller’, ‘Cross Code’ uses 2D sprites inspired by these classic 16bit RPGs and for fans of the genre there are all sorts of visual nods. The menu font seems to have been taken from ‘Final Fantasy VI’, the view of the protagonist seems to have been lifted directly out of ‘Link to the Past’ and the menu structure will be familiar to fans of the early ‘Tales’ games. “There’s a lot of retro games out there that these days are still very popular” clarifies Klein. “There’s definitely this demand to have this classic old graphic style because there’s a lot of nostalgia connected to it.”  However, while ‘Cross Code’ pays tribute to nineties games, it hasn’t been made within the constraints of the technology from that era. The rich, vibrant and varied colour palette exceeds the Super Nintendo’s and the wide screen resolution is far greater than 512x448.  “In the end we really didn't try to make a very authentic SNES game claims Klein. “We just used the graphics style of that generation and otherwise just tried to make a good and somewhat modern RPG”. There are also plenty of visual flourishes and successful combat is celebrated on screen by blooms and sparks. At moments of triumph the camera zooms in to show the intricate charming character sprites in all their pixelated glory. Dynamic ambient lighting and shadows subtly draw a player's eye to a point of interest or conceals a hidden route.  “You very often have these 16-bit Super Nintendo graphics but then people just put Shadow Maps on them because it looks fancy” says Klein. “That’s pretty much what we did as well, just tried to do it a little bit better”.  Particles drift through the air in the cobweb infested caves, while heat haze ripples through volcanoes. The world of ‘Cross Code’ feels alive, which is ironic since, according to the story, the world within the game is an artificial construct.

A character living a second life in a digital world is hardly a new idea. ‘Tron’ in 1982, introduced the concept. Anime like ‘Sword Art Online’, books like ‘Ready Player One’, films like ‘The Matrix’ and other games like ‘Mega Man Battle Network’ have explored it.  Within the game, the ‘Cross Code’ characters exist in an MMO game called ‘Cross Worlds’; essentially a game within a game. However, ‘Cross Worlds’ is not strictly virtual; it's made from a mix of physical objects and “instant matter” - an electronically controllable substance.  Upon putting on a VR mask participants are remotely connected to this world and play as artificial bodies existing on a small moon devoted to running the game. Because these golems have physical form they can interact with the ‘Cross World’ World, but they can also be damaged by it. This post-modern set up has allowed Radical Fish a free license to explain all sorts of logic leaps that typically are associated with RPGs and the game has a slightly tongue in cheek wit when doing this. Because you’re playing a character that’s aware they are in a game, they never question why certain areas are initially blocked and later opened. They never wonder how lava and ice worlds can co-exist, and even repetitive NPC conversation gets forgiven.

You play as an avatar called Lea, who is initially assisted by a ‘Cross World’ programmer called Sergei. As the game progresses, you’ll quickly build a party of other players such as Emilie and Toby (or the Emilienator and C’Tron to use their avatar names). You never take direct control of your party members, but you can instruct them how best to behave in battle.  True to the traditions of the genre, Lea has not only lost her memories, but she is also mute due to a glitch in her programming. By playing the game it’s believe that Lea will start to recall her life, both within the ‘Cross Worlds’ game and outside of it in the real world. Despite being initially a silent protagonist, Lea is charming and her character portraits are very expressive. She isn’t a blank canvas in the way Crono is, she’s a witty and engaging avatar who you quickly grow attached to. Likewise the party that surrounds her are intriguing and fun to be around.
While ‘Cross Code’ is a single player game, you never feel alone. The digital world is populated by a plethora of randoms, who walk about commenting on the missions they are doing and even chat about life in the real world. Radical Fish clearly know the MMORPG genre well, as their commentary is astute and accurate. Characters will even log off when they’re tired and vanish momentarily when they have to go AFK.

However, at times it almost feels too faithful to the online multiplayer games, as there’s a lot of side quests continually being thrust upon you. “It has a massive amount of content” gloats Lange, “a large world to explore, lots of quests and challenges.” Often it is difficult to even remember what you should be doing to advance the main plot, as you’re so distracted by sub-missions that involve healing random trees, collecting obscure curios or passing messages to specific people who just so happen to live in hard to reach areas.  As a new player in the ‘Cross Worlds’ universe, you start off struggling to even fight lowly hedgehogs, mocked by higher level players that run around you. Like ‘Everquest’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ there’s plenty of weapons to buy and find, more consumable items than you’ll ever need, and a massive skill tree to customize your character. You can join a guild and even go on raids. Even though ‘Cross Code’ is never played online, you’d be easily fooled into thinking you were mingling with real people. “You’ll find players just chilling on the ground with others, meaning people use this VR-Environment to just meet” says Lange.

While exploring it won’t just be other players you see, but also a multitude of enemies that you can choose to battle or ignore. In the over world most wont attack unless you hit them first, but in the dungeons, fighting becomes unavoidable and fairly intense. Fortunately Lea has a range of offensive capabilities. You have a standard melee attack, and a ranged attack via orbs that Lea launches in a full 360 degrees. Imagine ‘Yoshi’s Island’ but from an overhead perspective, in fact this game mechanic was the genesis of the entire game. As you slowly level up, you gain special moves and eventually, you get fire, ice, wind, and electricity elemental attacks too. These, in turn, have their own melee and ranged attacks which can also be levelled up further. Unsurprisingly some enemies are best attacked with certain elements. Anyone schooled in the genre will know you attack ice with fire, and wind with electricity. However, there’s a limit on how much you can use on your elemental attacks, so Lea must continually change her offensive moves, which neatly avoids the monotony of button bashing. Any encounter with regular enemies will likely be fairly straightforward and you recover all your health afterward. However, there’s also a ‘Devil May Cry’ style ranking system that provides better rewards if you keep attacking more enemies before a timer expires. Battling with an S Rank means you get much rarer materials.
However, as you’re not giving your health chance to restore, Lea is in increasing danger the longer she strings attacks together. It’s a fun risk/reward mechanic where playing it safe means you’ll have to spend longer looking for the resources you need.  “While the game looks like ‘Secret of Mana’, it’s mechanics are closer to modern RPGs like ‘Xenoblade’ or ‘Kingdom Hearts’, even though it’s still 2D” says Klein. “Retro-inspired games can still feature very up-to-date game mechanics.” Radical Fish have consciously made the combat harder than many players today are used to, but there’s a built-in cheat system that lets you reduce damage dealt by enemies. At whatever level though, battles are frantic and enjoyable. Quite quickly you’ll find yourself deftly swapping between melee and ranged attacks, throwing out special elemental moves and blocking with ease. At times it even feels like a twin stick shooter, and ‘Cross Code’s joy pad configuration with attacks on shoulder buttons initially feels odd. But, before long you realise how everything is laid out perfectly for function. ‘Cross Code’ is certainly best played with a Pro-controller, but with JoyCon you perhaps get a more authentic 16bit feel.

While this may be an action RPG with well thought out attack mechanics, there’s certainly a lot to explore, and by venturing off the beaten path you’ll find consumables or crafting materials. These can then be traded, or used to forge new and stronger equipment. Taking inspiration from ‘Alundra’ and ‘Land Stalker’, Lea will spend a lot of her time jumping and sadly this is where some of the game’s few frustrations come from. Without a dedicated jump button, our protagonist will automatically leap from one ledge to another of the same height, or to one that’s one tier higher. Predictably desirable items and chests are usually placed at the top of terrain, so the majority of exploration consists of traversing multiple layers to grab the loot. This can be surprisingly tough though, often requiring you to move several screens away then backtrack. As a 2D game it’s somewhat tricky to read the geography and the different layers are hard to interpret. This ultimately leads to a player throwing Lea into ravines, or even more irritatingly watching her plummet back to ground level after failing to make what appears to be a short leap. Annoyingly, as this is effectively the major puzzle type on the over world sections it does get a bit tedious. A teleportation system is introduced later in the game which makes it marginally fairer, but for most of the game it’s the same thing repeated.

Thankfully, the temples are full of much more varied puzzles.  You start off just pushing around a few bombs to get platforms in the right place; nothing we haven’t seen in ‘Legend of Zelda’ or ‘Goof Troop’. However, things quickly get far more complicated with later puzzles requiring you to time things perfectly and keep an eye on multiple moving elements.

In an extreme example, Lea has to freeze a few blocks to make sure her projectiles bounces off them in the correct direction. Simultaneously, while this ball is in motion she will also have to turn reflective glass around and melt blocks that are causing an obstruction. This of course presumes that you’ve already activated specific switches by charging up a ball of electricity, which in turn activates other moving blocks.  Floors in this puzzle room also have to be covered by charging magnets and teleporting them into the correct position.

It’s no exaggeration to say that late game puzzle rooms can take over an hour to solve and figuring out what to do is only half the challenge. The other half is execution. ‘Cross Code’s puzzles get so incredibly complex and some of require a level of orb throwing precision that a JoyCon analogue stick is not particularly suited to.  At times, it seems like your aim needs to be pixel perfect with an orb launch timed to an exact millisecond.  You never feel completely sure if you have the correct solution but aren’t executing it properly, or if you’re simply doing the wrong thing. I found I was referring to guides and online playthroughs far more than I’d like only to discover I was greatly overthinking a simple solution. There is undeniably a huge amount of satisfaction when everything clicks into place. Like an elaborate domino track that involves ricocheting marbles, a correct solution is mesmerising to watch. But to get to this moment of euphoria takes patience and the relief is short lived; you know in the next room probably lays an even more complicated puzzle. There are 7 different dungeons throughout the game, and each realistically takes around 4 hours to complete.

The end of dungeon bosses also presents a puzzle, but this is cast very much from the ‘Legend of Zelda’mould. Typically dungeon progression unlocks a new elemental upgrade and unsurprisingly to finish off the big boss mastery of this new skill is essential. These bosses showcase more than anything ‘Cross Code's beautiful fusion of pixelated graphics and modern effects, but like the game as a whole, defeating them perhaps takes too long. “In the end it’s just a lot of content in general” says Felix Klein.  “People spend up to 60-100 hours to 100% complete the game.” It seems ridiculous to complain that a game is too big, when the quality on offer is so good. If anything, it seems appropriate that such an epic quest demands a big time investment from the player, but it will alienate many. Of course to RPG devotees, length and challenge are appealing traits. “Difficulty is very subjective” agrees Lange. Today it seems that retro inspired RPG like ‘Cosmic Star Heroine’ and ‘Undertale’ forget that the games of yesteryear were difficult and drawn out. ‘Final Fantasy VI’ and ‘Tales of Phantasia‘ are 40 hours, ‘Chrono Trigger’ is 30 hours as is ‘Alundra’. If anything by now being available on a portable console, ‘Cross Code’ has found its true home on the Switch. You can pick it up for twenty minutes and complete a few side quests. Then you can dock the console, settle down on the sofa and devote three or four hours to completing the giant dungeons.  Its transition to console from PC though was not an easy one; not that surprising considering ‘Cross Code’ was built in HTML 5, and includes code thats now 8 years old. “Early plans for a port were based on the Nintendo Web Framework, which supported HTML5 games and was available for the Wii U, but was discontinued for the Nintendo Switch” reports Klein. “[our publisher] Deck13 found a way to compile the JavaScript code base into C++ ahead-of-time and the result is fast enough to run the game with 60fps on the Switch”. It’s not a port without its problems. There’s slow down and frame rate issues when the screen gets too busy, and the game crashed a handful of times while I played it (admittedly for over 40 hours!) One thing that does grate is the brief fraction of a second pause that happens every time you look at your active quests.
It’s something you do a lot, so this pause is noticeable. But if one of the headline faults is a fraction of a second pause, ‘Cross Code’ truly must be a fantastic game.  “It’s all about creating something you would like to play” says graphic artist Thomas Fröse. “If it’s for a niche-crowd, so be it. If it turns out to be for the mainstream, so be it.”

One thing is certain; it’s without doubt a game for me. How many times have you fired up a game that reminds you of a childhood favourite, played it and realised you probably would have had more fun playing the inspiration. This is not the case with ‘Cross Code’, it’s a game so good you’ll finish it and feel disappointed when you replay ‘Link to the Past’. It’s the perfect blend of nostalgia and modern day mechanics, wrapped up in beautiful charming packaging.  It has been ignored for too long, and hopefully on the Switch, ‘Cross Code’ will be given its day in the spotlight to truly be celebrated for the masterpiece it is.  “Back then we dreamed about a combination of ‘Secret of Mana’, ‘Terranigma’ and the likes” says Stefan Lange. “And now we’ve made that. A dream come true!”  

If, like me, you're a fan of games in boxes, physical boxed versions can be pre-ordered from I'm sure you can make room for that beautiful collectors edition!


A copy of 'Cross Code' was provided for review by the publisher. 
They have not seen or had any influence over this post prior to publication.

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