I believe that we video game enthusiasts often take game developers and the work that they do for granted. Making a game, even a small one, is an enormous task. First, you need an idea of what kind of game you want to make. What is the story? Is there a story? What will it look like? How will it control? What will the player do? Now that you have made all of those decisions, you have to actually bring them to fruition and create the game. This is done through the different language of coding. From my time as a student of software engineering, I can tell you that coding isn’t easy. All of the coding a game maker would have to do is made much more difficult by the fact that you have to destroy bugs in the program with a blade-wielding avatar named Sera. This may not be how every game studio does their thing, but it is how you code in Code Shifter.
You control Stella – a game developer working on the latest game from the company “Awesome Rainbow Corp”. Your journey begins right after Stella finishes creating a sophisticated “code shifter” program that will hopefully eliminate the plethora of bugs the studio has been dealing with lately. After explaining all of this, Stella starts up the code shifter and you assume control of the program as an avatar named Sera. Your task is to traverse a multitude of platforming stages to slash bugs and coding errors out of existence. In between each stage, you’ll meet more of Stella’s coworkers and learn the menacing origin of the game’s bugs.
It’s an interesting premise. I’ve personally never played a video game about creating a video game, and I was excited to view the world of a game developer according to game developers. Unfortunately, Code Shifter is all over the place with its writing and character dialogue. This is due to a severe case of WeDontKnowWhatOurToneIs-Itus. One moment, the characters are talking about events the player never witnessed with next to no explanation or description, and the next they’re discussing something as simple as how to move when playing the game, with Jules Verne levels of detail. Stella will start talking about all of the crunch time she’s had to endure as the game is getting closer to release, making you think that the game is going to give thoughtful commentary on the rougher parts of game development. But then she claims to have redone the entire game they’re working on by herself in an afternoon. A coworker that barely talks eventually divulges depressing, personal info to Stella for apparently no reason. It’s like a weird button keeps getting pressed that transitions the game between an upbeat, cutesy title about making games, and overly serious drama for drama’s sake.
Speaking of drama, it sounds like there might be some drama going on at Arc System Works. They are the studio that developed Code Shifter, and I’m thinking we might need to send someone over there to check on them. I say this, because one of the game’s characters is the game director Greig (I pronounced it Greeg or Grey-ig, because there is no way on earth that arrangement of letters says Greg). Literally every other character in the game has negative things to say about Greig. They mock him, curse him and treat him like he has no idea what’s going on. It’s not entirely clear why they have so much animosity toward him. I mean, he who lives in a glass house and all that. None of the game’s characters are particularly likeable. Their personalities are stereotypical and shallow. There’s an inevitable moment where the slightly dorky/shy guy named Mozzie hits on Stella and I rolled my eyes so hard that they fell out of my head.
I wouldn’t normally harp on the writing so much (oh, yes I would) if it weren’t for the fact that 75% of the game is focused on reading what the characters are saying. The other 25% are the stages where you control Sera. This part of the game delivers some pretty solid and fun stuff. As previously stated, you move through some light platforming challenges and fight some computer bugs and viruses as you go. Sera has some basic attacks for exterminating baddies, but they have a nice sense of combat flow and weight to them.
She also has the ability to transform into an enormous variety of famous Arc System Works characters. The special appearances range from the River City series to BlazBlue, Guilty Gear and more. This is easily the best part of the game. While Sera feels fine to control, each character you can transform into has a set of lovingly animated and unique moves to use that’s wrapped up in an adorable 8-bit style. I was worried that the 8-bit designs for each character would feel too different from Sera and the rest of the game’s aesthetic, but it feels and looks great. Not to mention each character has their original theme songs 8-biticized as well. The stages are all short and pretty uninteresting in terms of level design, but hunting through each level for new characters or some of my favorites like Potemkin or Sol Badguy was a fun motivator.
Other than uninspired platform challenges, the actual gameplay sections of Code Shifter are slightly soiled by a few nagging details. There is some super odd hit detection as it’s not always 100% clear what enemy attacks will hit you and which won’t. There’s also the baffling decision to have enemies deal damage if you come in contact with their bodies. For most platforming games, this is standard fair. However, for a game that relies heavily on melee combat and is created by one of the most recognizable names in fighting game development, it feels like an enormous oversight to have the player take damage 50% of the time that they’re attempting to fight and play the game. Additionally, the game demands perfection. This is true at least if you want to acquire upgrades that help you along your way. These upgrades that can boost your health, damage, speed and so on are locked away unless you complete levels with an S rating. The earlier levels are easy enough, but it feels wholly undoable as the game progresses due to those frustrating hitbox issues.
Code Shifter on Xbox One is definitely an interesting game. The gameplay doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s solid enough to entertain you through each stage. The hitboxes can be frustrating, but not so much that you’ll lose any sleep over them. The story isn’t terrible, and it isn’t going to shatter your belief that video games can tell good stories. However, it’s definitely not going to support that case either. The biggest strike against Code Shifter is that it thinks its story is the main reason you’re here. Due to the bizarre tonal shifts, unlikeable characters and huge exposition dumps, this just isn’t the case. It may not be the game to showcase life as a game developer, but it certainly feels more fun than actual coding.