Though it certainly occupies a niche, it’s tough to dispute the level of clout and influence held by Arc System Works. The studio positively thrives on 2D fighting games, with franchises like Guilty Gear and River City being among its more well-known work, and its 30+ year lifespan has seen the introduction of plenty of new games and franchises. As a sort of love letter to the fans that are familiar with many of these franchises, Arc System Works has opted to create its own sort of take on the Super Smash Bros. formula with Code Shifter. Rather than delivering this crossover as a straight up 2D fighter—as many would likely expect—the company has instead endeavoured to go with something a little more unique by making Code Shifter a light platformer with heavy beat ‘em up elements. Unfortunately, the final result of this concept is something that fails to prove itself as more than the sum of its parts, even if it does have some genuine moments of enjoyment.
To start off, the story proves to be an oddly significant part of Code Shifter, arguably taking up just as much time as the actual gameplay. The narrative follows Stella, a thoughtful and hard-working programmer for the fictional Awesome Rainbow Corp, which is in the process of shipping an in-universe crossover fighting game called “Colorful Fighters”. The game-within-the-game is close to going gold, but a sudden onslaught of some mysterious bugs drastically sets back development time. Not one to be beaten by a challenge, Stella chooses to counter this by creating a virtual avatar named Sera, who she can use to fight the viruses directly in digital datascapes.
We rather enjoyed the ‘meta’ nature of this framing story, as it provides some interesting insights into game development culture while having plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to real world parallels. Moreover, it’s a fresh idea. Typically, franchise crossover games like this will use some tired and contrived version of inter-dimensional travel to hand-wave away why various characters are suddenly interacting, but couching the crossover in the idea that all the characters exist as the IP of a fictional game company is a brilliant way to naturally allow for everyone to show up alongside each other. It’s a bit of a shame that there aren’t any scripted interactions between the characters—everyone is essentially just a silent fighter—but we still appreciate the concept of this story.
That being said, the execution is far less delightful. Most of your co-workers are shallow, one-dimensional people that don’t do much to draw you in to their plights, and the nuances of their office drama just aren’t all that interesting. This would be a bad enough problem on its own, but it’s made worse by the fact that there’s such an overabundance of cutscenes that it drags down the overall pacing of Code Shifter. Each stage is only a few minutes long, and then it’s back to the office again for more filler dialogue about the shy colleague doing a poor job of hiding his feelings for Stella, or some other equally banal sub-plot. Code Shifter’s main strength lies in its gameplay, and it would’ve been much better if the developers saw fit to cut the fat out of the overwritten script so that it would stop getting in the way of the actual game.
When you’re not being bogged down in another watercooler moment, most of your time with Code Shifter will consist of going from level to level with Sera in 2D platforming stages that each represent a different file on someone’s computer. On your journey to the end of the stage, your job will be to punch all the bugs and viruses you encounter along the way, oftentimes in segmented arena-style fights. Sera herself proves to be perfectly formidable in battle, but the main draw of these 2D stages is found in the various Arc System Works characters scattered throughout each stage that you can use in battle. A few dozen of these characters are directly controllable, with each given their own slightly-unique moveset, while the majority of them are included as limited use ‘support’ characters that can augment your fights in some helpful way, such as offering healing or an extra attack. Depending on how effectively you clear each stage, you are then graded on your performance and—assuming you managed to achieve an S rank—you’re given an equipable skill that can boost a number of stats.
The level design of the stages in Code Shifter proves to be the weakest part of the gameplay, as each stage is almost wholly indiscernible from the one that came before it and there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty to be found even in harder modes. Most stages consist of mindless jumping across generic moving platforms and boxes, with the odd environmental ‘puzzle’ thrown in to mix things up. This could take the shape of an ice wall that needs to be melted by a character’s attacks, or a dead switch that can power a nearby platform. It’s never difficult to figure out what needs to be done, and a character who has the ability you need is almost always close by, which turns these less into puzzles and more into inconvenient walls that only mildly annoy. Though some new stage gimmicks are introduced at a glacial pace as you progress the campaign, Code Shifter rarely does anything particularly interesting with them, which feels like a massively missed opportunity given the abundance of potential that such a diverse cast of characters brings to the table.
In combat, gameplay fares a little better, but it still ultimately devolves into mostly mindless button mashing against a limited variety of enemies. No matter who you play, each character has a basic, upward, and downward attack, and a separate special attack that chips away at your health a little bit with each use. Some characters have a little bit more range, such as those that wield magic or firearms, while others hit a lot harder due to their size or strength. The simple controls, then, are matched by equally simple enemy encounters; most viruses pose almost no threat on their own and can be dispatched in a few hits. Though there is a satisfying feel to attacks connecting and to general traversal with most characters, it’s tough to dispute that it doesn’t feel like there’s something missing from the formula here.
Code Shifter is not a particularly exciting game at the start, but perhaps its biggest shortcoming is that it fails to introduce anything meaningful along the way to hold your interest or otherwise create a sense of investment. Most games take a few hours to ramp up and introduce the more interesting content and game mechanics, but that ramp up is nowhere to be seen in Code Shifter. It’s the sort of game that doesn’t really get any better or worse, it just kind of continues along a flat, straight path to an unfulfilling end. Sure, you pick up new characters along the way and there’s fleeting moments of interest as you see how the different movesets and abilities work out, but the lack of challenge or varied gameplay ensures that nothing really gets too far off the ground. Then there’s the smaller, weirder inconveniences to consider, too, such as the baffling decision to not use the D-pad at all or how the traditional uses of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons for confirming and cancelling have been swapped. Things such as this pop up from time to time in Code Shifter, and all you can do is wonder why.
For those of you that prefer playing with others, Code Shifter does have a few local multiplayer options to consider. After a certain story point, you can bring a second player into each platforming stage and take on the viruses together, sharing everything from characters to a health pool. The main draw of multiplayer, however, is the ability to play “Colorful Fighters” (the fighting game Stella and the crew are working on) between levels. New characters for this mode can be unlocked by playing through special levels, and you can play with up to four at once in what amounts to a simplified and rather forgettable take on a competitive beat ‘em up game. Still, it’s a rather neat inclusion to have this game-within-a-game, and it’s good for a few minutes of fun every now and then. You can play it alone against bots, too, if you wish, although the steam runs out a lot quicker this way.
From a presentation perspective, Code Shifter lands firmly in middle of the road territory, neither impressing or disappointing. The contrast between the baseline art style and the 8-bit characters is jarring, but in a charming way, and neat little touches like 8-bit renditions of songs that play when you’re controlling a character help to keep things interesting. The layouts of both the office environment and the digital stages aren’t particularly compelling, but offer up enough diversity and detail to be satisfying in their own way. It would’ve been interesting if stages from various Arc System games were represented in the main campaign (rather than just a few Colorful Fighters maps), but what’s here is at least decent.
Code Shifter is basically a playable version of an unenthusiastic sigh. There is platforming. There is fighting. There is a story. Each of these things is there, but all of them feel underdeveloped or underutilized in their own way, and never really come together all that well. This is the sort of game that fails to leave any meaningful impression whatsoever, relegating it to being little more than a forgettable take on what’s ultimately a great idea. Merging together all those different Arc System Works franchises into one game is something that could go down extraordinarily well, but Code Shifter sure isn’t the release to even come close to realizing that kind of potential. If you’re a die-hard fan of the studio, then perhaps Code Shifter is worth a look if you find it on sale someday. Otherwise, there isn’t much to see here.