There is a special sweet spot with combining what you remember to be fun game ideas with what actually are modern-feeling and fun game ideas. Something like Shovel Knight is the prime example of this, combining just enough of the old with the new to transcend into something akin to a modern classic. There is an awkwardness and stiffness that is authentic to nailing that aesthetic, and I think there is a bit of trepidation and certainly challenge in nailing that balance.
There is a specific flavor of PSone game that gets lost in the shuffle, and it’s that too-late-to-the-party pixel art game on CD. That early era of 3D games was full of genre-defining and style-defining games, but some folks were still making top down or pixel-art games, and those titles are very awkward or ancient in their execution, but this turned them into of-the-era indie games, by today’s comparison. They were using older technology on more powerful hardware to manufacture pretty interesting results. It wasn’t just Symphony of the Night; two classics that stand out to me are Alundra and Paper Mario, across the PlayStation and N64 respectively. These two games are in an awkward space, but were some of the earliest 2D games to really push boundaries with style of form.
All of this: the balance of modern and old, comes to meet that lost PSone awkwardness with CrossCode. On a personal level, CrossCode feels like a spiritual successor to Alundra. It’s a top down pixel-based game, and today that’s not really anything to bat an eye at, but this game channels that specific PSone energy I’ve really wanted any standout indie to do for a long time.
It delivers both on being a great mesh of the things I mentioned above, and also the style of world it’s setting provides: an MMO Island full of grindy sidequests and colorful vistas. It has that classic Sega-Saturn style music that gets stuck in your head. It has adorable, familiar, and friendly-made-terrifying enemies like Snowmen with Bazookas and hedgehogs with spikes called Hedgehags. There are layers of Zelda, Phantasy Star, and Alundra all throughout the design, and it all comes across as something original; a cut of its own, more interesting quilt. In a similar way to Shovel Knight, CrossCode makes me want to believe it was released back in 1998 just alongside Alundra, and feels as much like a classic from then as it does today.
In one such specific way does it harken to Alundra so much, and that’s with just wonderful three-dimensional level design. Going through the environment is a treat, just because there are little nooks and crannies everywhere. A checklist in every level is to find all the chests throughout, and these range from out in the open to specific paths that require you to climb and jump across several screens just to be at the right height to make a tricky jump to a chest with very valuable loot in it. This is where that PSone awkwardness comes in, because often it’s hard to tell how high or low platforms are and where you may need to be to get to them, but it’s also extremely authentic. It may seem insane, but it adds a cohesion to the level design; you get it after you play for long enough, and that visual language is classic comfort food. It suspends that loop of running and exploring the world with just the right level of confusion and challenge.
Outside of the design of the overworld, pulling you in every which way to find its secrets, are the really excellent puzzle and dungeon design. The five dungeons across CrossWorlds all focus on different hooks, the four elemental powers you pick up throughout the game. Each dungeon is a dense and thoughtful exploration of concepts through back-to-back puzzle rooms, more a Portal pace than a Zelda one, and most of the puzzles use the same mechanic: your projectile shot that can ricochet off walls. With it, you’ll use angular surfaces, multiple elements, and trick shots to activate switches, move objects, freeze and melt obstacles, and aggravate enemies. There is so much densely packed variety that nothing ever got old, and while it’s tough, I was at the mercy of brilliant and thoughtful puzzle design.
This back and forth, hours of grinding and questing, with usually a couple hours deep in a dungeon to spending a few more doing sidequests, killing mobs of enemies, and grinding out enough materials for the next tier of equipment, all creates a flow. Gameplay loops are the core to a lot of indie titles that focus on ending and starting again, and despite not being a roguelike at all, CrossCode still adds a little of that melting pot magic to its already overflowing combination.
I mention and invoke the name of Shovel Knight very intentionally, because I think most everyone was taken aback and how something new and old game together in that way. It takes a lot of talent, and a special understanding of the level of failure you need to give the player to create an authentic experience. There are modern takes on this with something like Dark Souls, but when combining homage into original ideas finding exactly where that marker lands is even harder. How many hours of sidequests versus grinding enemies to make sure the level you’re at isn’t broken for where you’re going? Somehow CrossCode ends up striking that good enough balance that you never have to ask. And maintains its feeling of a Sega Saturn-induced endorphin rush to make you feel like your grinding in 1998 again all at the same time.
I now have hope that my favorite awkward PSone games and pixel art titles of the early CD era won’t have to feel so forgotten anymore. CrossCode is a warm hug on a rainy day, and a wonderful adventure that gives you a taste of games you may have never heard of. It speaks volumes of games that have trouble speaking for themselves, and for that alone is certainly worth a trip to CrossWorlds.
This game was played on a PlayStation 4 Pro system with a code provided by PR.