A little over five years ago, a new studio named Radical Fish Games unveiled its dream concept for a new game. Called CrossCode, it promised to merge the RPG trappings and graphical style of '90s SNES RPGs with the world and puzzle design of the Zelda series. An ambitious goal, to say the least, and one that approximately 2,326 backers (who collectively came up with a little over $100k) believed in enough and wanted to see being seen to completion. Luckily for us, it turns out Radical Fish Games made good on its promise, nailing the execution and delivering fans a quirky sort of RPG that hits all the right notes. Although this Switch version notably fumbles a bit on the performance side of things, we can confidently say that CrossCode is a wonderfully engaging RPG that’s more than worth your time.

After a deliberately confusing opening that picks up halfway through the story, the game focuses on an amnesiac girl named Lea, who’s an avatar for a fictional MMO called CrossWorlds. The big selling point of CrossWorlds, however, is the fact that the game does not take place in a fictitious, virtual world, but a real place that’s simply on another planet. The game’s characters, locales, and weapons are constructed from a mixture of 'Instant Matter' and augmented reality trickery, which combine to grant players the most immersive RPG experience ever.

Lea’s struggles to remember her past are a big enough problem for her, but matters are exacerbated by the fact that her speech function is also faulty, which restricts her responses to only a few brief, simple words. Nonetheless, Lea’s best shot at regaining her memories is to explore the sprawling and complex world of CrossWorlds, so she sets out on a lengthy quest through the game’s main storyline which you can probably guess doesn’t quite go the way it’s expected to.

This framing device of a ‘game within a game’ proves to be a unique and interesting way of approaching storytelling, and Radical Fish goes to great lengths to sell you on the concept of being an in-universe player who's playing through CrossWorlds. For example, nearby ‘players’ in one of the town hubs may be discussing strategies to clear a dungeon you’re about to go into, or complaining about a fun gameplay mechanic from an earlier build that’s been cut.

Though CrossCode never quite reaches the level of total immersion – where it truly feels like you’re playing an online game – it’s the little details in the world and the nuances in delineating the ‘real’ players from the CrossWorlds NPCs that make this world a delight to interact with. You’re incentivised to push forward not just to further unravel the mystery of where (or what) Lea is, but to also see what kind of meta-commentary and unique conflicts arise from being part of this game in a game.

Seeing as how the plot is centred around an MMO, the gameplay is similarly structured around that of a standard open-world MMO. Though there’s a primary questline that you should follow to keep the story moving, the real meat of the game is found in picking up loads of side quests from NPCs and exploring all that the intricately designed free roam sections have to offer. Each region is broken up into a series of large zones that are packed with enemies, pickups, and various environmental puzzles that hold treasure chests tantalisingly out of reach.

Although side quests rarely ask more of you than the standard fetch quest or kill missions, they nonetheless get you to engage fully with what each area has to offer, while granting you some nice rewards for your troubles. Alongside the expected money and experience gains, you also usually come into a nice piece of loot to passively raise your stats. Or, if the quest giver is particularly cheap, you’ll instead get items that you can then trade with other NPCs in a barter system that somewhat mirrors the cash economy. Here, you can trade drops from enemies and environmental destruction for new armor, weapons, or other, rarer drops which you can then trade for better armor and weapons. It’s a bit of an odd adjustment at first, but this system adds in a nice quasi-crafting element to progression, offering up a viable alternative to just buying all your stuff.

Combat is handled via a zippy and skill-based live action system, one which favors quick reflexes and even quicker decision-making skills. Lea is a rare 'Spheromancer' class, which means she deals damage by either whirling melee attacks when up close, or rapid-fire energy ball attacks from afar. Enemy groups typically require you to utilize a mixture of both, and they certainly apply a lot of pressure, even early on. On top of those two basic attack styles, Lea also has a series of unlockable skills which have more situational usage, such as applying high damage to one enemy or using crowd control on multiple ones. Things are even further complicated later on as Lea picks up additional elemental modifiers at key story points. These are toggled off and on with the D-Pad, and each one can be used to apply status effects like burning to your enemies. Most enemies have elements they’re both resistant and weak to, demanding that you constantly switch it up as you dodge out of attacks.

All this combines to make for a combat system that is impressively stimulating, as it continuously demands that the player make several mini decisions from second to second. Do you continue hacking away at that enemy, or drop back so you can fire off some balls at the other two approaching from behind? Do you use the flamethrower to try dispatching all the enemies in front of you, or quickly eat a healing item to shore up your dangerously low health? If you’re indecisive in moments like these, CrossCode wastes no time in making the decision for you and punishing your inaction, which applies the right amount of pressure to keep each enemy encounter engaging. Naturally, being close to or above the levels of the enemies you’re fighting will make scuffles much easier to overcome, but we rather enjoyed the depth and fun factor of CrossCode’s combat: it’s a lot more energetic than you’d expect at first glance.

If you regularly engage in enemy encounters and keep on top of your quest log, the level ups for Lea come thick and fast, which both grant you stat buffs and skill points to invest in your skill trees. Yes, trees. Plural. Lea has an impressively sprawling set of skill trees she can bolster as the journey wears on, each of which allow you to further refine a soft build for how you play her. Each tree has a mess of interconnected nodes that offer stat buffs – such as a boost to her aim speed for ranged attacks – and new skills that you can deploy in combat, with deeper nodes offering up the most coveted and powerful boons. The full depth of these trees is gradually revealed to you as the story goes on, which goes a long way towards assuaging the decision paralysis that can result from seeing how many directions you can take Lea.

Bear in mind that there isn’t any ‘wrong’ way to build Lea, and you can always refund the points back at town if you feel you made some mistakes early on. Enemy encounters often retain a fitting amount of difficulty regardless of how you play her, but the agency you have over the skill trees ensures that you feel empowered to play CrossCode the way you want to play it. Moreover, it also adds extra replayability by opening up the potential to approach sections in multiple ways.

When you aren’t out questing or exploring the overworld, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in one of CrossCode’s dungeons, each of which offers up a hefty gauntlet of puzzles, enemies, and environmental obstacles to overcome. Unlike your typical Zelda dungeon, these are rather lengthy affairs, introducing several level gimmicks one at a time and demanding you engage with them in increasingly more complex ways. For example, the first dungeon introduces no fewer than four major puzzle gimmicks that are each introduced in isolation, then used in creative ways later on that encourage you to think outside the box with what you’ve learned about them thus far. There’s nothing truly brain-busting to be found, but we rather appreciated this heightened focus on more complex puzzle design that puts up a little more of a fight than you might be used to.

The ultimate realisation of this concept is found in the thrilling boss fights, which can often act as puzzles in their own way while also demanding you keep up your combat awareness. Each boss usually has a major weakness or shortcoming that can be exploited (sometimes even involving level gimmicks), but it’s the new late fight phases and challenging attacks they bring that make these fights memorable. Again, prepare to be challenged a little more than you’d expect, as the boss battles are sure to keep you on your toes and surprise you a time or two.

From a presentation standpoint, CrossCode manages to nail the feel of the 16-bit aesthetic while adding in plenty of detail that '90s hardware surely couldn’t have reproduced. Sprites and environments are packed with all kinds of detail and colour, while character animations are pleasingly fluid. To be fair, there isn’t much here that massively separates CrossCode’s art style from the deluge of other retro-style indie games which flood the market these days, but it’s clear that the art team has a firm grasp of the 16-bit look it went for. In this sense, you could say that CrossCode is unexceptional, but we weren’t at all disappointed by the graphical showcase on display.

What we were disappointed by, however, was the uneven performance CrossCode suffers from in both handheld and docked modes. We had a moment early on, for example, where the music randomly cut out while we were exploring the overworld, and several minutes passed before it just suddenly popped back in. Meanwhile, when a screen is particularly busy – such as a dense fight with monsters or running through a bustling portion of town – the framerate takes a dive that, while not majorly affecting your gameplay, is nonetheless quite noticeable.

There’s also the more puzzling issue of substantial lag in the menus. Pulling up the main menu itself is as quick as you’d expect, but selecting any of the sub-menus then initiates a load time that can take a few seconds to pass. It may sound insignificant, but given how often you’re jumping in and out of menus to check quest progress, change gear or add new skill points, those little load times can add up to be quite a nuisance. CrossCode is still perfectly playable at launch, and Radical Fish has already said that performance-improving patches are coming, but just bear in mind that the experience feels a bit suboptimal out of the gate.

Conclusion

At its heart, CrossCode is the sort of game that basically speaks for itself. Do you like '90s-era JRPGs? Do you like classic Zelda games? Do you like MMOs? If you answered yes to any combination of those questions, then it stands to reason that you’ll probably really enjoy CrossCode, too. Radical Fish has conjured up an impressive blend of RPG mechanics, engaging combat, and open world exploration here. It may not always run smoothly, but CrossCode is a well-crafted and enjoyable release that you certainly won’t want to miss out on.