Back in darker times for Nintendo during the lifetime of the Wii U, the eShop was characterized by enormous content droughts where few worthwhile games were popping up between the major first-party releases. This opened plenty of space, however, for previously unknown indies to get a larger share of the spotlight, giving their releases the opportunity to generate a cult following. One of these successes was 13AM Games’ Runbow, a fun competitive platformer that featured a memorable colour-switching mechanic. Now, 13AM has produced its follow up, Double Cross, which drops the multiplayer focus in favour of a single-player platforming experience that pulls from a variety of genres for its inspiration. The final product, however, doesn’t quite live up to expectations, offering up a decent but flawed experience that falls short of greatness.

Double Cross follows the story of Zahra Sinclair, a peppy, Shantae-esque agent working for R.I.F.T. (Regulators of Interdimensional Frontiers and Technology), a sort of governmental organization that maintains order across the multiverse. After another routine day on the job, R.I.F.T. headquarters are attacked by a mysterious terrorist called “Suspect X” and it’s soon after revealed that the attack was orchestrated by somebody within the organization. Not entirely sure who to trust, Zahra sets out on a mission to learn the truth, while also neutralizing the unrest and conflicts in the dimensions she visits.

It’s certainly a fascinating premise and the writing, though often keeping to a lighthearted and humorous tone, can sometimes surprise with the depth that it reaches. At key points in the story, the idealistic Zahra comes to realize that R.I.F.T. isn’t nearly the shining beacon of justice that it’s made out to be, and moral shades of grey are filled in where her enemies are shown to have understandable cause for their actions. These moments do a great job of showing how morality isn’t always as cut-and-dried as we’d like it to be, and while that element of the storytelling is notably strong, the individual characters leave something to be desired.

Zahra herself is an interesting enough character, but the supporting cast is filled with a relatively forgettable lineup of cliché heroes and villains that seldom rise above the obvious functions that they serve in moving the plot forward. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would be more forgivable for a sidescroller, but Double Cross clearly makes an above-average effort in its storytelling, yet it still falls a little short. What’s on offer here is fine, and serves its purpose well enough in providing adequate context for all the action to follow, but it’s unfortunately nothing particularly memorable.

Gameplay could most closely be likened to a Mega Man X game with the combat system of Guacamelee; levels are laid out in a non-linear fashion and allow for a fair bit of exploration, even as they more or less keep you on a single path. Zahra’s signature ability can be found in her ‘Proton Slinger’, a handy tool that functions like a grappling hook which can affix to various points throughout the levels. It takes some getting used to, but the Proton Slinger feels wonderfully organic once you get the hang of slow-motion slingshotting from point to point. It can also be used to snatch certain projectiles out of the air, creating seamless sequences where you can launch Zahra across the screen while dispatching an enemy or two mid-air with dexterous movement.

Unfortunately, the combat that typically accompanies this movement system doesn’t hold up nearly as well. Opting for a close-quarters focused combat style, Double Cross comes off as feeling a bit like a watered-down Guacamelee in how battles play out. Zahra has a series of punches, kicks and rolls that can be chained together to put enemies in the dirt, and each felled foe drops energy orbs that can then be used to fuel a few special moves that bolster Zahra’s offensive capabilities or offer up some on-the-spot healing. All the elements of a solid combat system are in place, but they never quite come together to form something that’s more than the sum of its parts; combat is okay, but the pacing of fights is rarely exciting and encounters pop up a little more often than we’d like.

On the flipside, level design in Double Cross is remarkably strong, with each new stage introducing a new gameplay gimmick or hazard to keep things fresh or interesting. One stage may have you playing around with different forms of bouncy goo while another has you being pulled along by grapple points attached to rails; there’s no predicting what gimmick may come next and even within a level, the developers find ways to surprise you with how that stage’s unique feature can be implemented. Levels are conveniently marked by difficulty, and the curve is exceptionally well judged; usually, the gimmicks introduced in the first three levels of a world are combined in the fourth level, demanding that the player apply everything they’ve learned in a final gauntlet before the boss at the end.

To add in some much welcome replayability, each stage is also littered with ‘Upgradium’ fragments that act as the main driver of character progression. These little rocks are almost always hidden in secret side-caves or at the end of a particularly difficult platforming section that’s separate from the main path; you’re almost sure to miss several of these in your first run through each level, encouraging you to go back and scour every corner. Upon completing a level, all Upgradium is dumped into Zahra’s upgrade path, with each new level gaining her a new skill or combat ability. When you get back to R.I.F.T. headquarters or to one of the many generous checkpoints scattered throughout the level, you can then choose to equip any three of the skills on offer, giving Zahra a range of potential ‘builds’ to run with. One ability helps her recover health faster, while another bolsters her energy reserves for special moves; though we would’ve liked to have seen a little more depth in the skills being offered, there’s still enough here to allow for plenty of mix and matching.

Though there’s potential in this idea, the skills system is sadly undermined by the weak combat mechanics; it’s neat that you can spec Zahra according to your playstyle, but the relative easiness and monotony of combat makes the differences in builds feel marginal. This, in turn, makes the overall character progression lose its allure; unlocking new upgrades by levelling up isn’t very exciting when you’re not feeling a noticeable bump in power or ability. The more we experimented with this whole RPG-lite system, the more it seemed like Double Cross would’ve been a much stronger game had it focused on pure platforming; these combat and skill systems are okay, but they don’t really add much to the experience and feel a bit out of place.

Speaking of 'out of place', there’s a rather forgettable investigation system underlying your progress through all the levels that feels tacked on and hinders one’s active enjoyment of the game. Upon completing most levels, Zahra will find some sort of item or document that offers up a clue about Suspect X and whatever conflict is happening locally in that dimension. That object you find must then be shown to one of the support characters back at headquarters to trigger a conversation that expands more on the item; after you’ve done this three or four times, the case file is complete and you unlock the boss level for that world.

It’s a cool idea that has some potential, but the implementation feels half-hearted and the concept is rather awkward in an action platformer. Considering there aren’t very many characters at headquarters to begin with, completing a case file usually becomes a simple game of trial and error where you show the item to characters that you think might have something to say until you finally find the right one; it doesn’t feel very rewarding, and it just gums up progression. For context, imagine if you defeated all the Robot Masters in a Mega Man game, but before you could take on Wily, you had to go to the lab and solve an easy but tedious puzzle segment centred around several dialogues with Roll, Auto, and Dr. Light. It’s a concept that could potentially be interesting if it had been fleshed out more as a side mode or as a separate game, but it feels jarring and ill-fitting in a title that clearly isn’t focused on that slower, more methodical pace.

Presentation is another aspect that disappoints somewhat, landing squarely in the realm of “good enough, but not great”. Though 13AM deserves credit for trying something other than the pixel style that so many indies are enamoured with these days, the existing art style could have used a bit of a tune-up. Though characters are strongly drawn, animations are choppy and environments feel lifeless and uninspired; we can’t think of any moment that Double Cross wowed us with its visual flair or sense of style. Like much of the rest of the game, the art style isn't terribly memorable; even if it doesn’t do anything that looks outright bad, there isn’t much here that sticks out in one’s mind. The same goes for the soundtrack, which consists of a rather bland, '80s-sounding sci-fi inspired set of tunes that adequately match the action, but without making much of an impression.

It bears mentioning, too, that we noticed some particularly rough performance issues, bugs and general blemishes that make Double Cross feel a bit sloppy. We ran into several instances (docked and undocked) where the framerate stuttered considerably, even when the action on screen didn’t seem to justify such a noticeable drop. There were a few instances, too, where we found ourselves trapped in a wall or some other level geometry and had to back out of a stage altogether to escape. It’s little problems and things like this, none of which are too significant on their own, that come together to make Double Cross feel rough around the edges.

Conclusion

We’d be lying if we said that Double Cross wasn’t disappointing; after the raucously enjoyable platforming offered up by Runbow, this is an underwhelming follow up that never manages to hit the same highs. Though Double Cross has an interesting premise and some exceptionally well-designed levels, it’s weighed down by a series of ho-hum gameplay elements that aren’t adequately fleshed out and give the overall experience something of an identity crisis. We’d give Double Cross a light recommendation for those of you that have enjoyed the likes of Mega Man 11 or Shantae: Half-Genie Hero; this is still an enjoyable side-scrolling adventure with some genuinely thrilling moments, but don't expect it to live long in your memory after you've finished it.