I didn't know a thing about CrossCode going into playing it for the first time, and I'm so glad it stayed that way. On the surface, CrossCode looks like an average RPG in a 16-bit art style: you roam around an overworld with a party, grinding out monsters and quests for better gear and levels. But there's a sneaky subversive layer undercutting the entire adventure. In CrossCode, you're actually playing a game set within a game.
CrossCode has you playing the part of Lea, a player avatar who awakens in the in-game game of CrossWorlds without a clue who they are. Assisted by characters both within and outside of the game within the game, it's your mission to uncover who you really are, and what the hell you're doing within CrossWorlds in the first place. It's an enticing journey from the start, in part because it's so subversive to what I thought was another old-school RPG on the surface.
CrossWorlds itself is an MMO—think Sword Art Online's nature of a second life as opposed to .hack's sucking you into the game itself. You're dropped into a vastly populated map with other player avatars, where you can join a guild, undertake quests for townsfolk, and additional archetypal activities of an MMO. All the other avatars are actually players who are also playing the game. Yeah, it's pretty meta, but it never properly breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging that you, as the player, are playing the game of CrossWorlds. Instead, it posits that someone else is playing the game within the game, and it's this person that you're controlling. Wrap your head around that.
CrossCode is well aware of this dynamic. It's set at an unspecified point in the future, where players can fully immerse themselves in CrossWorlds by physically jumping into the body of their player avatar. With a setup like this, it's pretty easy to liken the nature of CrossWorlds to stories like Sword Art Online or Westworld, projects that were deliberately conceived within their worlds as the ultimate escape from reality.
Crucially though, CrossWorlds isn't about the wish fulfillment that comes front and center with Sword Art Online or Westworld. The debut seasons of both shows had the nature of another life play a huge role: Westworld had that big saloon that doubled as a brothel play a central role in its story, and Sword Art Online had the protagonist and another player get romantically involved and then raise a child together (that show got weird real quick).
With CrossWorlds there isn't any of this. It's very clear from the start that this is a huge MMO world that players devote their lives to, but it still plays by the rules of an archetypal RPG: you can join guilds, you can undertake side quests for townsfolk, you can raid dungeons with your friends, but there's no outstanding side activities, like marrying other players or building your own house, for example. There's no adventure off the beaten path, as such, and the game still performs well within the confines of just what you'd expect an RPG to do.
Still, CrossWorlds manages to convincingly sell itself as a game within a game without the wish fulfillment aspect. In the early hours of the plot, your player avatar meets up with Emilie, and the two instantly hit it off and become adventuring companions. Not too long after, Emilie mentions having to "log off" from CrossWorlds as the pair of you have been playing for hours at this point. It's just a small remark from Emilie, but it does massive amounts of lifting to remind you that yes, there is actually an in-game world outside of CrossWorlds, and it's still turning while you're adventuring in this MMO.
Then there's your hostile archnemesis. One in-game player reckons you've been cheating after you emerge from the opening tutorial at a higher player level than what was expected. Whether you have or haven't been cheating is irrelevant—this player hounds you as a self-imposed in-game moderator. Hostile self-appointed veterans judging newbies is absolutely nothing new in an MMO: we've all experienced it at one time or another in an online game. CrossCode having an NPC take the form of this in-game judge is a really smart way of grounding you in a game that's set in the far-flung future, positioning you in a very familiar scenario that anyone can relate to.
CrossWorlds also sells itself as a "second life" game without the wish fulfillment in other ways: it grounds itself in the stereotypes of MMOs. Whether your MMO of choice is Final Fantasy 14, World of Warcraft, RuneScape, or something entirely different, you'll always remember the banal fetch quests near the beginning of your adventure. I remember undertaking more fetch quests than I care to remember back in the early days of RuneScape (except back then I was too young and dumb to recognise the quests for what they were), and the same can largely be said of Final Fantasy 14's very early hours.
CrossCode is littered with these typical fetch quests. There's an ice cream vendor that needs ice, for example, and another NPC that needs a brave adventurer to go get him very specific items from the wilderness. All of these quests play into what you'd expect of an MMO, because yes, your in-game character actually is playing an MMO, even if CrossCode itself isn't a multiplayer or online game at all. CrossCode takes what you'd expect of an MMO and uses tropes to ground and convincingly sell itself as an MMO that people would actually play.
The only disappointment is that CrossCode doesn't actually lampoon these redundant quests in any manner. There's no overarching commentary behind these repetitive quests; they're just there to serve the purpose of reinforcing the nature of the CrossWorlds MMO. Although this is obviously the more realistic element of an MMO, it's a shame that CrossCode doesn't actually do something more interesting than ride the worst elements of an MMO to sell itself.
I had very little idea what to expect going into CrossCode, but it certainly wasn't this. What I largely expected was a pretty straightforward, old-school RPG with some neat bullet hell-like combat. What I got was a game that subverted all my expectations in the best way: a game with a game that exists within a larger futuristic society, telling two stories at once. One where your in-game avatar is adventuring around a huge open world, and another story where your in-game player character is trying to recover their lost memories.
CrossWorlds sells itself as a game within a game without needing to fall back on wish fulfillment. Emilie and your in-game nemesis are really convincing as avatars that have an agenda from their in-game players, allowing CrossWorlds to function as an in-game MMO on a very human level.
It's impressive, and makes CrossCode all the more memorable for it. After an eight year development journey through crowdfunding and a release on PC in 2018, CrossCode finally launches for the Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One today.