Ah, the Summer Games drought.
If you’re lazy, you’d look at this decrease in important releases and quiver, but not I! It just means you have to look harder for the gold nuggets, and doing so will reward with much more gratifying gifts than usual. Gifts like Double Cross, which felt like a proper birthday present for yours truly.
This is the sophomore release from Toronto-based studio 13AM Games, a small team who made modest waves in 2015 with the release of Runbow. This debut of theirs was a fun party-game mix, similar to more basic offerings like Knight Squad, SpeedRunners, and #IDARB, but none of my friends liked it. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’ve got Canadian Bacon on the brain.
You play as Zahra Sinclair, a new recruit with the multi-dimensional organization of RIFT. RIFT hosts many an oddity, with their leader being a mermaid with an eye-patch, but the gawking will have to wait, as RIFT is under attack from the inside. After an initial attack, Zahra gets close to the ring-leader, who calls her by her first name, so she deduces that “Suspect X” is someone within RIFT itself. With that in mind, Zahra must follow leads left behind after the attack, and track down conspirators and the big cheese responsible.
Gameplay is another party-bag mix similar to Runbow, but tied down to smaller mechanics and styles. You’ve got the platforming and beat ’em up flavor of Guacamelee!, the grappling hook reminiscent of the 2D Bionic Commando titles, and detective gameplay in the same simplistic natures as the first Condemned.
The detective gameplay was probably meant to blend into the gameplay smoothly, but it does feel like a gimmick more than anything. Clues are simply a reward for completing levels almost all of the time, and from there, you have to find a RIFT agent who is able to analyze the clue correctly. There’s room to guess as well, so there’s no punishment for messing up either.
While the detective gameplay isn’t up to standards, the rest of the game is. The platforming aspect of Double Cross is so pitch-perfect and water-tight, providing constant gratifying challenges relating to combat, traversal, and exploration. Even though there’s only 15 levels, not a single moment was wasted in any of them, with unique ideas and tricks constantly showing up.
Fighting your way through tons of bad guys coming from all directions feels great. There’s always verticality in the arenas, and there’s enough variations of enemies in each world to justify slightly different playstyles with each. You can’t always focus on stun-locking combos, since some enemies won’t be as susceptible as the lower ranks. You do have access to energy that’ll allow you to pull off devastating moves, although these are costly, and are usually best saved for the next big boy who tries to throw you out of the level.
You’ve got three different worlds: Reptarria, The Funderdome, and Gootopia, with all three challenging the player in unique ways, sometimes specifically. Reptarria is your standard platforming beat ’em up affair, filled with various brutish dinosaurs ready to eat Zahra and her stylish uniform. Gootopia is like a 2-D Portal 2, with a new gel– I mean, goo, added into the mix: a red substance that allows you to attach to walls (which was coincidentally cut from the final product of Portal 2… hmm).
The third section is the Funderdome, which is easily the best part in the entirety of Double Cross. Whereas Reptarria and Gootopia focus on providing straight-forward experiences with no real variations, Funderdome feels like a party bag, filled with all sorts of tricks. The first level is a virtual playground, filled with all sorts of different paths and toys to play with. Then there’s Funky’s Arcadium, a gauntlet of random arcade games, testing various feats of endurance, accuracy, and fighting efficiency.
Tolmekia Palace, the third level in the Funderdome, is one of the rare exceptions where a out-of-left-field stealth mission works. When you’re caught, the alarms are only limited to one room at a time, so when you reach the next area, you still have a chance to continue on entirely stealthy, should you choose to. Does this make affairs slightly easier? Obviously, yes, but this shows foresight ahead of time. Nobody enjoys a stealth level in a non-stealth game, so why not take some of the reins off, and let the player be a bit more haphazard like they’re used to?
The bosses in this game feel like an alternate dimension Mega Man X. If you’re used to Capcom’s platforming perfection, then you might feel right at home with the offerings on display, as they’re all unique to one another. Brutish bastards or devilish tricksters help to keep you on your toes with all of your abilities.
The levels are also filled with collectibles: Upgradium, which acts as XP to help level up Zahra and provide you with various upgrades you can switch out on the fly, as well as permanent upgrades. They’re well-hidden, and the rewards for finding a bunch are worth it, even if the only worthwhile upgrade is the shield that blocks one hit.
It’s just nice to see 13AM try and fully flesh out every idea they had while making Double Cross. There’s true initiative and constant evolution seen throughout each level, new ways to mess about with the levels with the tools given, so on and so forth. You reckon Flappy Bird with a grappling hook would work? No one knows until you try.
As stated before, most of your clues are simple end-level rewards, and it’s down to you to return to RIFT HQ and find out who’s going to be able to analyze the clue correctly. It’s here where you’ll be treated to some fairly cheesy (albeit fun as hell) writing, with Zahra and her pals cracking wise and getting shit done with some unique characters and well done development.
The best characters hands down are Helena Lycastia, Sorgina DeLabourde, and V”!!K}~X… no, seriously, that’s its name, and they have the largest character arc in the entire game. A rouge Eldritch monster from another dimension, it sees the peace and civility that RIFT treat them with and so it decides that maybe there’s space for them in RIFT. No spoilers shall be here, but it was genuinely heartfelt.
There’s a radiating air of Saturday Morning Cartoon around Double Cross, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this landed on CBBC or Cartoon Network at some point. The ideas and stories one could have with the mythos and lore presented in the main game are incredible, especially with a lot of the characters shown. Whack this against Teen Titans or something or other,\ and you’d have a cracking double bill.
When it’s not trying to charm your arse off with a bunch of lovable characters and quirky writing, it hits you with some fairly elementary hot takes on human rights. Over the course of your adventure, Zahra will contemplate RIFT’s true stance on whether they should have more of an presence than inter-dimensional mishaps. Maybe they should use their immense power to provide healthcare to much more ill-equipped Earths from another dimension? The morality issues present with such a powerful organization really begin to grab the rookie Zahra are felt with full impact.
It’s quite easy to translate the in-game human rights debate into real world dilemmas, what with healthcare arguments, and basically, Fuck America™. Obviously, 13AM approached the matter with a little more nuance than I, and have actually tied the arguments against big corporations into the twists and turns of the story themselves. They make good arguments, and most of the time, Zahra doesn’t know how or what to consider.
The one massive issue I have with Double Cross is something of an oversight on 13AM’s part, and that’s the chance to have multiple characters to play as. I mean, c’mon! Zahra and her tools are fun as hell, sure, but using Sam Squatch to cling onto walls and ceilings with the grace of a CG King Kong? Ada Lovepaws having hacking mini-games in her levels? Valery Wiseheart having a bunch of swimming levels? You saw how 13AM Games handled stealth levels, imagine the miracles they could perform on water levels!
Maybe that’s something of a possibility in the sequel, because this game sure as hell deserves it. It’s easily the best platformer to be released this year, and it has everything going for it; punchy gameplay, witty writing, a phenomenally fun cast of characters, and an admittedly gripping story. 13AM have made their swansong, and I only pray that they continue on this streak.
This review of Double Cross was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A platformer whose only concern is that you have some goddamn fun with it, and that's exactly what you'll get. One of the best platformers to be released in 2019, thus far, by being more than just the genre-tag.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.