The problem with Steam's Early Access program can best be summed up with Forrest Gump's aphorism on life being like a box of chocolates: "You never know what you're gonna get."
For the impatient, Early Access can be a godsend. Instead of waiting for a game to reach its final form, we can now check in periodically as features are added, systems are refined, and more assets find their way into a production gradually working its way to a finished state. At the same time, showing too little too soon can leave a bad taste in the mouth of consumers who invested their money, presumably, to eke a small amount of fun out of an early build. It's a tricky balance, and one that Radical Fish Games' CrossCode gets completely right.
CrossCode's Early Access release isn't an incomplete version of the full experience; instead, Radical Fish presents three highly-polished vertical slices that might not occupy too much of your time, but still provide some idea of the bigger picture. "Story" gives players a taste of the game's premise, and a basic tutorial for the controls, "Exploration" offers a chunk of overworld to expand more on combat, customization, and character growth, and "Puzzle" presents a Legend of Zelda-style dungeon that focuses on environmental puzzles that mostly make use of the protagonist's projectile weapon.
It's an interesting approach for Early Access, and even if these segments are presented with no real context, each mode does a great job of showing just how well these different elements of the game work in the small doses presented. And even though there's only a few hours of content to speak of, what's on display in CrossCode's Early Access version doesn't feel incomplete. Even though I'm absolutely used to seeing sprite graphics in indie games, there's an uncommon level of polish and attention-to-detail here I found legitimately impressive--and not all of it is immediately noticeable. As you tour the overworld, for example, unseen clouds float above, creating a patchwork of shadows on the ground.
CrossCode's combat is fast and melee-focused, reminding me a bit of my brief time with Hyper Light Drifter. Even the weaker enemies hit fast and hard, making dodging a necessity. Of course, you can outfit your protagonist from head to toe with armor and accessories to make the going easier, but she can also switch to one of four elemental affinities on the fly--which can help you cruise through battles once you pick up on enemy weaknesses.
Even if you won't be doing more than slashing, dodging, and firing projectiles, there's a lot to think about once you're in the moment, and CrossCode's bosses do great job of emphasizing this. One doesn't lower its defenses until you've dodged incoming projectiles for a prolonged period of time, while another tasks you with keeping shields around the battlefield activated--shields the boss can deactivate with its own projectiles--so you have some means of defense against its powerful blasts. Each of these boss fights feels completely distinct from each other, and took me a few tries before everything clicked, so I'm hoping this trend will continue in CrossCode's full version.
Puzzle mode offers a small preview of CrossCode's dungeons, which focus mainly on projectile and block-based puzzles, with a few enemy encounters thrown in to add some variety. Most of the puzzles entail ricocheting a projectile so it hits a certain number of switches all in one go, an idea I know I've seen before but can't quite remember where. Still, they do a great job of playing with the game's different levels of depth, which provide enough visual information to read properly. I'm not sure how much Radical Fish intends to expand on these puzzles, but the ones presented here build off of each other well, and definitely make you feel clever for figuring them out.
I feel a little guilty for not paying attention to CrossCode until now--then again, there's so many indie-produced retro homages, sometimes it's hard to know what's what. Thankfully, you don't need to invest in CrossCode's Early Access version to try out the content I mentioned above; since the game is written in HTML 5, you can play the three demos (even with a controller) by going right here. And if that gets you hungry for more, I'm sure Radical Fish wouldn't mind you taking the Early Access leap via Steam.