Everyone can use some joy, and StarCrossed provides a little respite that is so desperately needed. Developed by Contigo Games, StarCrossed has you travelling the universe with a band of loveable heroes as you fight evil scientists and prevent them from separating all civilizations in society. What you would think is a fairly quaint story quickly escalates into an emotional journey for some of the main characters. And with a unique structure allowing for up to ten variations of this journey, there is more than enough content to warrant the cheap asking price.
The game starts off with what essentially amounts to a beautifully drawn and transitioned slideshow introducing all of your characters. From there, a terrible tragedy strikes and both the Idol and Hero characters wake up to find that they have been chosen by the Harmony Crystal as its guardians. As a result, they are sent off to travel the universe with the help of their star.
This star is the crux of the gameplay. It will constantly bounce back and forth between your two chosen characters, and whenever that star hits an enemy, they take damage. This is where Contigo Games puts their spin on the bullet hell genre. Intended as a cooperative experience, each player takes control of their own hero, constantly positioning themselves and weaving in and out of fire to allow for the star to smash through enemies. By hitting the right/left triggers at the correct moment, you can perform what is called a Starboost and the benefits are two-fold. First your star will pick up speed, traveling quickly between the two characters. This makes clearing wave after wave of enemies that much easier. Yet it also helps to build up your ultimate meter. You see, each character has a unique ability to help clear the screen. Some are more helpful than others, particularly the “Weapon” and the “Princesses” abilities, but they all are more than worth using. This ultimate state also makes you invulnerable, so it becomes almost indispensable when fighting against bosses.
You’re also offered a single player option where you control both characters with your two joysticks, or you can play co-op on a single controller. While this definitely makes the game more challenging, especially when it comes to the sometimes brutal boss fights, for the most part you become accustomed to it. It always helps that StarCrossed has one of the most generous checkpoint systems in any game from recent memory. Whenever a character takes three hits and dies, you are put back to the most recent wave. Since waves are often cleared within 5-20 seconds, you can fly through sections before you know it.
The developers were also nice enough to randomize the spawns each time you die, that way you aren’t constantly stuck banging your head against a particularly rough layout. In many situations, including the boss fights, your ultimate charge persists as well. This takes away the frustration of losing everything you worked towards, while also preventing you from completely getting stuck at a boss. While this helps to ease frustrations, it would have been nice to see some extra balancing done for single controller playthroughs, as disorientation can come frequently. It becomes particularly difficult when the characters are on complete opposite sides of the screen or, even worse, flip sides. When this happens, it can best be compared to playing a game where the sticks invert suddenly. But with practice as well as learning the enemy types, you can avoid being thrown into those situations for the most part.
While the gameplay works well, and occasionally shines, I truly think that the story and character interactions are the bright spot in this gem of a game. Despite crafting such a short experience, often finished in 90 minutes or less, Contigo Games have managed to fill all the heroes and even the main villain with such character. A large part of that is due to the fantastic artwork done by Oriana Carletto. They have gone for and absolutely nailed the “magic girl aesthetic”, and that only helps to accentuate the queer undertones that pop up throughout. In order to get the full experience, StarCrossed is best played multiple times, and with a rather short runtime it’s something that is extremely doable.
Each playthrough allows you to choose between five different characters to play as. And while my fundamental understanding of math is rather shoddy, that can lead up to ten unique pairings between all of those characters. While the main story beats are the same no matter who you play as, it is those in between moments where characters are given some time to grow and, in some cases, go through emotional events. It’s here where the writing team is able to flex their stuff and give an enjoyable if cliched personality to these characters. Between the reserved princess, the excitable hero, or emotionless weapon, all of these characters that you get to play as get the space to actually grow and evolve. Out of all of my playthroughs, the Hero and the Outlaw’s pairing was by far the strongest to me. And between the emotional highs of their flirty interactions to their more serious story beats, the writing is always exceptional.
It’s funny how a story about keeping the universe together has released as everyone has been told to isolate. But that irony almost makes this game just what is needed. As your unlikely group of heroes go out and save the universe, they also manage to spread a sense of warmth and joy that permeates across nearly all aspects of StarCrossed on Xbox One. And while I was left wishing there was more content for these characters to interact with, I felt satisfied in a way that few games in recent times have managed to achieve.