Released in August 2000, Chrono Cross is the long awaited sequel to the SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. Before anything else, I should say that this game is NOT Chrono Trigger 2, nor was it ever intended to be. I sometimes wonder if Mr. Masato Kato had said this before Cross' release, would it have received a better reception from Trigger fanboys? Cross was pretty universal praised by reviewers, but Trigger fans were most vocal in their disapproval of plot and gameplay decisions in Chrono Cross.
I mostly remember forgetting about this game until it was released. I saw a demo of it in PSN magazine sometime in 2000, but I wasn't interested. I didn't really play demos back there due to their being difficult to access. So I thought it best to wait for the game's actual release date to see how the game turns out. I guess this allowed me to avoid the built-up fervor that resulted in many a fanboy being inconsolable upon Chrono Cross' release. In many ways, I am thankful I didn't discover video game forums until the Fall of 2000. Moving on.
The story of Chrono Cross takes place in 1020 A.D, roughly 20 years after the events of Chrono Trigger. We first meet the 17 year old silent protagonist Serge in the fishing village of Arni. He wakes up late and is going to catch hell from his girlfriend, Leena. Being a sweetheart, she decides on Serge getting a Komodo dragonscale necklace as a peace offering. Serge goes off to get the scales, and the game begins.
When it comes to graphics, Playstation RPG's always seemed to be the games most capable of pushing the limited graphical power of the system to the max, even as late as 2000, when the launch of the PS2 was imminent. Backgrounds are lush, with a deliberate panning intro before each battle designed to help you take in the environments' beauty. Outside of combat, the world map is very nicely rendered. My favorite initial environment is probably the Hydra Marshes; there are many different kinds of terrain there and they all look great.
Some of the character and enemy designs are kind of pixelated, but still functional. Overall, I would say that the environments do a lot to allay the distortion that is ever present in close shots of the characters. The best part of the in-battle graphics is how enemies have a standard stance and a weakened stance, if they are close to defeat. These visuals are not only expressive, but they are helpful in battle.
Music is composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, who much like Masato Kato, grew tremendously in talent in the interim between the two main Chrono games (the superlative Xenogears, which they both worked on, probably had something to do with that!) Chrono Cross is an melange of tons of different musical genres, including Celtic, Middle Eastern, and even Folk. I'm not great at naming genres, being more of a musicologist, but I can definitely say that the musical diversity in Chrono Cross is unparalleled among video games.
My favorite pieces are Dragon God, People Imprisoned by Destiny, Dragon Knight, and the Two Termina Themes. The funny thing about Termina is the OST titles are not accurate; just a minor quibble though. Dragon God is one of the most epic boss themes I've ever heard, with booming bass and a great choir. I'd love to hear it performed in a concert hall one day. Mitsuda also wrote some remixes of pieces from Trigger for use in this game, such as Victory - Call of Summer and Victory - Spring's Gift, both of which are new versions of Lucca's Theme. Great nostalgic stuff.
Gameplay is completely different from Chrono Trigger, and one I haven't seen in any other games. Cross has no leveling system, no magic system, and no active time battles. All of which are common in Square RPG's. Instead we have Star growth levels, the Element attack system, and stamina based combat.
I'm thinking we should start at the new combat system. Chrono Cross employs a stamina based system, in that every action you take, successful or not, will drain some of your stamina which starts at 7. Successful teammate attacks or choosing defense replenishes it. Finally, a game that encourages defensive tactics! In addition, there are 3 levels of attack: 1,2,3. The higher the number, the greater the damage, but a lesser chance of a successful hit. Strategy requires balancing these attacks, as landing a level 1 raises the success rate for level 2 and 3. The enemies will take their actions at random points, so elements of active time are still present.
Elements are equipped to each spot on your character's grid (which is different for every character) and can be used by saving up points, which are awarded for every successful hit on an enemy. Depending on which level element you want to use, you must have that point level and at least some stamina. Most elements are magical with some being defensive and others offensive. Each character also has 3 tech moves unique to them. Much like C. Trigger, these can be combined with other party members for dual techs, thought they aren't quite as numerous as in the first game. Triple techs are also available, but require some pretty random party combinations, as not all parties have them.
Elements also have a role in the game's menu system, through consumable elements, which can heal status ailments and other ill effects (sprains prevent you from running on the map). Consumables can also heal you in between battles, and are the only way to restore HP outside of inns.
Lastly, elements play into a character's elemental affinity. All characters represent one of the 6 elements, white, red, blue, green, yellow, and black. This allows them to do greater damage in battle to foes of the opposite color and take more damage per the same. For example, Serge is a white innate, so be on your toes if you encounter a lot of black innate enemies.
When it comes to stat gains (I call it this, as characters do not have levels in this game), this can happen in one of two ways. Whenever you defeat a boss or otherwise tough enemy, the party gains a Star level and all party members (no gains for any who remain dead at the end of battle) gain random stats, usually with hit points being the greatest increase.
Regular battles yield random growth as well, but this seems based on how often you fight random battles. Much like Chrono Trigger, most enemies can be seen on the map, allowing you to fight or avoid them. The first time I played the game, I fought every battle and noticed that eventually, I got no gains at the end of battle. For this review, I avoided most of the random battles, so when I did have to fight, I almost always received a HP and some other stat boosts. It's an interesting system that rewards the combat junkie just as much as the speed runner.
Challenge in Chrono Cross is something of a mixed bag. The Element system definitely has a learning curve and repetitive actions will get you into trouble fast. Once you figure out the nuances of healing and combat, Cross becomes quite easy. You can run away from all battles (even bosses) if the battle isn't going quite right for you. This ability was not necessarily designed to make the game easier. Due to the random nature of the element grid and actions taken by the enemy, battles can sometimes play out completely different each time. I know I appreciated this feature when I skipped several optional storylines and struggled against a tough set of bosses. Eventually, I was able to beat them by carefully molding my strategy to their actions. I would say that this is adaptation more than combat ease. I definitely recognize this feature as unique to Chrono Cross' experience, and I believe more RPG's should include this. Anyone remember how Chaos was unbeatable in Final Fantasy if his A.I decided to cure itself?
Replay value is akin to Chrono Trigger, with multiple endings, accessed in much the same way. New game plus also returns, with all the same benefits as in Trigger. There are also some extra features only accessible in NG+, like bonus battles. You also get two new key items upon starting a NG+ that can be change the game in some unique ways. My favorite is the Time Skipper, which allows you to speed up or slow down the game, which is a lot of fun to play with. It is great for making dungeons go by quicker, as well as conversations and in-game cutscenes.
In summation, Chrono Cross is a great RPG and a worthy successor to Chrono Trigger. Please note that it is not a sequel. I remember thinking about the game's title upon release, and knew that the item had to be important; but I definitely didn't think that because "Chrono" was in the title, that it was going to be identical to Trigger in gameplay, characters, and other unrealistic elements.
I suggest any RPG fan check this game out as fans of this genre 1st and Trigger fans 2nd. I'd hate for gamers to end up disliking this masterpiece over a perceived misunderstanding. I'll say it here again: Chrono Cross has elements of the Chrono universe, but ISN'T and was NEVER intended to be a direct sequel. I think that this notion was merely conjured up due to hype and Chrono Trigger's monstrous reputation, but believe me, you do yourself and that game no favors by ignoring Chrono Cross because it wasn't what you MAY have expected.
Play this game, keep an open mind, and you may find yourself liking it just as much as Chrono Trigger; in certain ways perhaps more.
- Ugly Bob