Mix-ups and Mayhem in El Nido
Looking Back Again on Chrono Cross
I am not the biggest fan of Chrono Cross. My review of that game was pretty scathing, and I don't think my ill feelings towards that game will ever change. However, with the remaster of the gaming having recently come out (here in the grand time of 2022), it did seem like it was time to look back at Chrono Cross, to see if there was a game within the game that was worth redeeming. Did this sequel (that wasn't a sequel but still somehow was a sequel) to the glorious Chrono Trigger deserve its lackluster reputation.
To start, let's not that not everyone hates Chrono Cross. There is a vocal contingent Online that will stump for the game. They'll talk up it's graphics, its music, its non-traditional mechanics, that show the developers were attempting something new and different. All of this is true, and I don't disagree. Chrono Cross doesn't play like other RPGs of the era, and it especially doesn't play like Chrono Trigger. This is a game all its own, so linking it directly to its predecessor does seem unfair to the game.
This is a fact the developers would agree with, having stated in interviews that they don't view Chrono Cross as a sequel to Chrono Trigger; it's its own game. That might be their opinion, and while I do want to give the benefit of the doubt to the creators of the game, I also can't help but feel like there's a certain amount of "justifying a game after critical complaints". It's also entirely possible they were simply too close, and too in love, with the game they created to see the obvious flaws with it (as a creator myself I can understand how that goes sometimes -- no one likes to hear complaints about something they made).
The first thing, then, we should really address is whether this game really is a sequel to Chrono Trigger, and the answer is "no... but absolutely yes." See, in basic construction this follow-up works nothing like Chrono Trigger. The battle system is different, the characters are different, and aside from little nods here or there that it takes place on the same world of Chrono Trigger (locations mentioned in passing, events noted as historic), very little of this game relates to the first title. They could have called it something else other than a "Chrono" game and most people wouldn't have even noticed (and, in fairness to Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming., the have done that before, such as with the world of Ivalice showing up first in Final Fantasy Tactics, and then Vagrant Story, before becoming a recurring location).
I do think having the name "Chrono" put a lot of pressure on this game that maybe wasn't deserved. Yes, being a Chrono game meant the title came with a built-in fan-base. But, if it hadn't been called "Chrono" it would have been better able to stand on its own, sink or swim, like the designers apparently wanted. Who knows, maybe they would have been fine calling it Radical Dreamers (just like the visual novel that came out only in Japan which served as the basis for this game's story). But then, that likely wouldn't have sold as many games, so from a corporate level this game had to be associated, I'm sure.
The thing, is, though, that once you get far enough into the game Chrono Cross absolutely becomes a sequel to Chrono Trigger. For those that don't remember: hero Serge was attacked by a panther demon years earlier and, to save his dying kid, Serge's dad took the kid on a trip to the Land of the Dead, which just so happened to be the double-secret home for a rift in time and space. Within that rift in time and space was Chronopolis, a city of the future designed by Balthasar (a wise man from the first game) and Lucca (a heroine from the first game) that helped push forward the technology and science of the world. Unfortunately, part of the tech they were using was tied to the Earth-devouring demon Lavos, and, as expected, bad things happened. Because Serge was taken to these hidden away ruins he was somehow now connected to Prometheus (Robo in the first game), which was now an A.I. controlling the city.
Oh, and then Serge nearly died a second time later and this somehow caused the timelines to split in two. Now there was a world where Serge was dead, and one where he was alive (the alive one is his "home world", but it's also a world that shouldn't exist and the other, "another world" is the real world... maybe). This also caused tension on the timelines, which only exacerbated the results of the war in the future-past between Chronopolis and an alternate world city built by technologically advanced dinosaurs, Dinopolis. Oh, and because of everything that's happened -- the war, the connection to Serge, the split in worlds, and the events of the game -- now Lavos is coming back and, wouldn't you know it, Schala (from the first game) is somehow bonded to him and has to be saved.
If that all seems like a lot to take in, bear in mind this all comes up in the third act of the game. It's also not handled gracefully, instead being done as looooooooong info dumps that stop the momentum of the game in its tracks. It's pretty clear from all of this information that the writers had a really complex backstory they wanted to tell that worked as a sequel to the first game, this just didn't have a way to work it all in gracefully so they didn't even try. The game goes from two acts of Serge battling a cat-dude named Lynx (who, as we learn in the third act, is apparently his father?!) to suddenly having this massive other story take over, suddenly nullifying everything we'd just done and totally shifting the course of the adventure (arguably not for the good).
When I talk about Chrono Cross, the biggest complaint I have about it is that the game is absolutely bug-nuts crazy. It reminds me, to no end, of Final Fantasy VII whee you have this adventures trying to fight an evil corporation (swap in the City of Porre here for Shinra and you get the same effect) until suddenly, at Act III, the game has to stop and explain it's entire crazy premise and, man, is it really insane. Every time I try to sit and remember what happens in Cross (or VII, for that matter), I hit this wall where I'm like, "and now the insane ravings of a mad man take over, but at least we get to fight some shit."
I honestly think the developers and writers on the game needed to just pick one course of action. They either needed to commit to this game being a sequel, or they needed to keep the references to the previous game to an absolute minimum (leaving the explanation for how this game connected to the first title for a three-quel down the road). Personally I like the idea of having this game be a full sequel. We could start with Serge, as we do, exploring his world and falling into another dimension. But instead of having Lynx steal his body at the end of Act II, we should have had Lucca or Robo show up. Then, the game would cut to years prior, with Lucca and Robo at Chronopolis, exploring that city before the inevitable destruction that was to come. They could run experiments in cross-dimensions travel, make some new friends, venture into a land of Dinosaurs. This could hen kick off the war with the Dinos, and the inevitable destruction of both cities (which causes the last Act battle against the Dinos and their tech).
What a rewrite would do is, first, tie the game to the first entry in a more satisfying way. We actually get to play as some of the heroes and they aren't just all killed off screen before this adventure picks up (and, in the process invalidating everything they did in the first adventure). And second, it would allow the story of Chronopolis (which was clearly the real story of this game, even if we didn't get to it for two-thirds of the game) to grow organically this way. The first act develops the confusion of what's going on, dropping in ideas like alternate dimensions and the Frozen Flame, and then the second act gives it all clear context without having to just do a long, arduous info dump.
Another thing I'd do is either get rid of Schala from this game or actually make her story matter more. The easiest way to do this would have been to make Guile, a dark wizard in the game that acts like Magus and was meant to be Magus, into Magus. He could show up in the first act, as he does, and he'd give connection to the first game through this first act while also helping to ease players into the world of Trigger and Cross. In the process his search for his sister could have been expanded upon and it would have become a necessary plot line for the title.
This brings me, then, to another major gripe I have with Chrono Cross: it's characters. While most JRPGs of the era had a small selection of characters, usually between six and ten (Trigger had eight), Chrono Cross had 44. That is a lot of characters for any game, and while some series have managed to make the collecting of characters and fleshing out all roles in a party work (the Suikoden series is famous for it), the downside of that many characters is that you simply don't get to know any of them in any detail, not so that they actually feel important to the game.
When you play through Chrono Cross there are absolutely characters you love, characters that make an impact on the story and become essential to your party. These characters include Serge, Kid, Guile, Glenn, Lynx, and Harle. Watching their stories play out makes up the meat of the game. But then there are a good 30 or more characters that don't add anything of value to the events. Does anyone really care about Poshul, or Zappa, or Grobyc? If I hadn't just said those names would you have even remembered (or known) they were characters in the game? Most of the characters are so inessential to the events of the title that you could skip them and they wouldn't matter in the slightest. Hell, I'm pretty sure that, after playing through the game three times back in the day, I was still missing five characters and I simply didn't care to find them.
The way Chrono Cross handles its characters is that, outside of the essential few that are required (and forced into the party) are certain points, the rest are made interchangeable. Because the game can't predict which character(s) will be with you at any point, your "third slot" characters are all given generic dialogue. They each speak with their own accent so their lines read differently, but the actual meat of the dialogue remains exactly the same no matter who says it. None of these "third-slot" characters get to have any soul because they're absolutely interchangeable. with everyone else. When Korcha, Funguy, or Mel could be in your party at any given time, none of them get to be developed in any meaningful way.
When you compare this game to Chrono Trigger, you can absolutely say, "yes, this game has over five times the characters of the first adventure." At the same time, though, the game maybe has the same number of essential characters, if not less. Had Cross cut out all the inessential characters and focused fully on the few characters that mattered it could have developed them, made you care about this new band of friends the way you cared about the heroes in the first game. You wanted the heroes of Chrono Trigger to beat Lavos and save the day because you watched them grow together, bond and become friends, go through love and loss, and come together when it mattered most. By comparison, you played through Chrono Cross because you'd spent 60 bucks on the title and had nothing better to play.
What makes his even worse is that the game itself starts off trying to get you to appreciate certain characters, making it seem like the stories you follow and the choices you make matter. An early split in the game comes when you have to sneak into Viper Manor. You've given three ways to do it, following either Guile, Glenn, or Pierre, and choosing one cuts you off from the other two (thus, to get all the characters you have to play through this choice three times). Following the attack on Viper Manor, Kid gets poisoned and you have to decide whether to save or or leave here while you pursue other matters. This choice also cuts you off from characters, depending on what path you choose, while giving you other characters to collect. The choice mattes little, though, as Kid will get healed whether you help her or not, and then she rejoins your team regardless.
And then, after this, the choices stop. These both come early in the first act, and then afterwards you're never presented with choices that matter again. It's like the designers really wanted you to feel like you had say in the linear progression of the game, but then gave up when they realized doing these are regular intervals would take too much time. Instead, the game makes you think you matter, when you really don't, and all the options are dropped like they were never there at all. yes, you have to play through the game three times to get everyone, but that just drags out and bloats the game without any real payoff to make it matter.
While these are the flaws of the game, and they're bad enough that I simply can't ignore them, there are parts of the game that I do legitimately enjoy. From a purely mechanical perspective Chrono Cross is quite playable. It's tight, with solid controls that feel responsive. It's battle system is odd, but it works in context. While the characters are interchangeable in battle, too (the magic system makes everyone basically play the same) there is a simple mechanical pleasure to the way battles work. You never feel overwhelmed and you know that with the right spell load-out you can take on anything that comes your way.
I can also appreciate that the game tries to get away from the standard level grind of other RPGs. There is no experience in the game, just Stars you get off boss fights, and when you get a star your character levels up (one star per boss encounter). You can fight a couple of enemies after to buff those level ups a little, but quickly they stop giving you stats and you're better off waiting for the next boss encounter to fight again. It helps to keep the game more focused on the story and the setting than on just murder hobo-ing your way through the game.
All the mechanics are interesting, but I will note they feel a little shallow. No one is special, nothing is really unique, and at the end of the day battles feel rote because there's no real benefit to 95% of the encounters in the game. Not having experience is cool in theory, but this game doesn't quite nail it in practice. it was perfectly playable, and I never hated the mechanics of the game while I was in it, but I also don't have fond feelings for the battles in the game the way I do with Chrono Trigger.
The best part of the game, though, is its soundtrack. From it's first chords of "Scars of Time", through the overworld songs, the dungeon themes, and the beautiful strains of its closing numbers, this game has a killer soundtrack. It's weakest number is sadly the one you'll hear the most, the rather dissonant main battle theme, but the rest of the soundtrack is absolutely loaded with bangers. I probably won't ever go back and play this game again but I do have multiple tracks from the soundtrack permanently loaded in my playlists.
At the end of the day, though, we have to just admit that this game is a pretty bad extension for the series. If it had more focuses characters and a better story it might just have been a winner. If it was mechanically more interesting that also could have seriously worked in the game's favor. Hell, if it could have done all of that, while maintaining its lovely graphics and awesome sound, this game might have rivaled Chrono Trigger. Instead it came out as a confused mess that didn't know what it wanted to do, and everything it tried ended poorly.
While I am a fan of the first game, I went into this sequel hopeful for all it could do. I didn't judge it because it had new characters and a new setting, and I even kind of enjoyed the early goings of the game. I was intrigued by its choices, I liked that I could easily skip past battles and just enjoy the experience. Hell, when the second act twist kicks in and suddenly I'm playing as Lynx, that made my teenage day. But then the game goes on, the characters become less and less interesting, and once the third act revelations come out, my brain completely lost interesting in the adventure.
Buried in Chrono Cross are some real pearls. This is a game that was clearly lovingly constructed, and I can see why some people do enjoy it for what it is. When I play it, though, what I see its is failed potential. It could have been an interested sequel, but it also could have been an interested stand-alone title. What we got, though, was neither, instead being sold a mangled beast attempting to serve way too many masters without doing anything really well at all. The game is lovely to look and, and listen to, and it's fun when you see it as a speed-run that someone else has to suffer through. But as a game to play (or buy in a remastered edition) there's simply not enough to Chrono Cross that makes me want to touch it ever again.