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Into The Spine of: CrossCode

Are you living in the real world?

There was one point in 2019 where a few people on my Twitter feed were constantly talking about CrossCode. It wasn’t everyone, mind – I don’t think it managed to reach that kind of an impact, at least back then. But those who were playing this throwback 16-bit RPG could not stop talking about how good it was. After diving into the Switch port a year later, I can safely say the same.

It’s worth mentioning that much of the nostalgia is just… not there for me. I never played any of the classic Final Fantasy games. I only got around Chrono Trigger for a couple hours on a tablet at least 10 years ago, and never got too far into the story either. I have always admired them for what they are, and I keep telling myself I will play at least a couple of them at some point. I’ll let you know if that happens eventually. But for now, CrossCode has been scratching that itch in some really interesting ways that I was not expecting from the trailers and general info alone.

The story begins with Lea, an android of sorts who wakes up one day without a trace of memory. Typical video game trope. The interesting twist here is that she wakes up inside an MMO, called CrossWorlds, and quickly learns that she simply needs to play in order to regain her past. After a couple first interactions, some characters quickly recognize her, and a mystery begins to develop around who she was, and the impact she had on this virtual world.

I had avoided all bits of story until I sat down with the game, so this was a pleasant surprise to say the least. As a proud member of the group of people who didn’t quite understand why Sword Art Online had that sudden change of direction mid-season, I was quickly sold on the idea of diving into yet another MMO world, without actually playing one, and see it unfold.

CrossCode constantly toys with this idea, and it’s easy to notice the care in small details to support this imagery. As much as it looks like an old RPG, it’s not held back by the limitations of the past era. Start walking around this world and you’ll be greeted by many NPCs – some of them are static and waiting for you to talk to them, as usual, but others feel like actual players.

Every time I wandered in a town or its whereabouts, I always stumbled upon other characters running either alone or in groups. Occasionally, I’d catch a couple of them having a casual chat about their plans for the day, involving lots of grinding in the fields nearby, or just mentioning a relevant piece of information. It’s all scripted, sure, but it’s done in a way that feels organic, as if I were actually surrounded by other players in a server.

The main story is equally enchanting. You begin to meet other characters whom can’t stop gushing about the game’s classes or a feat they have done recently. Over time, they will become available to join your party, maintaining that same grace I mentioned before as they tell you how they’ll be online at a certain time or to just hit them up using the game’s party system and they will show up to help. It would have been interesting to see this play out with a time element of sorts, but I’m not sure if it would have integrated well with the overall experience.

This is a classic RPG, after all, so the story doesn’t take long to recognize into the fact that you’re meant to defeat a lurking evil that is getting closer and closer, but there’s many moments in between that made it stand out, such as this character in the first few hours who awaits you at the end of an area after challenging you for a duel, and then it actually happens. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose (this is to say that I, in fact, lost) which I appreciated, but it was a moment that I took seriously either way. Kinda like a “I need to prove” myself scenario that caught me off guard, but added so much to the world.

As you follow Lea’s story, there’s an array of side quests to hunt and complete. They aren’t that imaginative, often involving fetching a certain set of items or killing a number of enemies for a certain item drop. But they are necessary, as you will need to get experience from everywhere you can in order to survive. CrossCode can be tough, and requires a significant amount of gridding that becomes a bit tiring after a while, unless you are absolutely into the idea of battling the same enemies over and over. If that’s your case, then you will love it, since the combat is fast, snappy, and ever inviting. It’s worth mentioning that, while I didn’t use it myself, there’s the possibility of customizing the difficulty in different ways (tuning the received damage, enemy attack frequency, and puzzle speed for the ones that have moving platforms) – this is present in the very first moments of the game, with a message from the developers that made it a kind gesture, and a welcoming addition considering how few RPGs like this allow for such a thing.

It all just evolves from there. There’s an inventory where you can equip Lea with new gear, a modest skill tree that branches out in four different specialties, and tons of secrets laying around. Dungeons are great, too, and take a considerable amount of time and effort to get through. At times, they have led me to make a side eye to my phone, tempted to just look for the solution on YouTube, but they’re tied with logic and physics in a way that it works, even for someone like myself who isn’t very good at them. During my time with the game, though, I much preferred to be out in the wild fighting against mobs. There’s this one enemy that is basically a meerkat wearing headphones and I loved it, but all of them have their own thing.

It’s easy to get lost in the virtual landscapes of CrossCode. I don’t think the idea would work as well as it does without a compelling set of characters to go with, as well as interesting and tight designed elements that join the experience. For me, the charm lies on how it understands its sense of place – making a world within a world feel alive in unique ways. And who knows, perhaps I’ll become the person who won’t stop mentioning CrossCode anytime soon either, and for good reason.

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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