Review by Genjuro Kibagami
"Give it away give it away give it away . . . . NOW!"
Mention the words Chrono and Trigger to any SNES fan and there's a good chance they'll start drooling all over their sealed copy of Zelda III. Chrono Trigger really is one of the best RPG you can play thanks to its fascinating cast of characters, awesome magic-combo system, and sweet diversity among environments courteously of one time traveling plotline. If Chrono Cross had expanded upon what made its predecessor so great, it would have been the definitive PlayStation RPG.
But instead Square opted for a bad game.
Twenty years have passed since the events of Crono and company. You begin your quest as a young boy named Serge living in a backwater village. Shortly into the game, Serge's life is turned upside down when he shifts into another dimension, where many years ago he drowned and completely changed the world. And by completely, I mean the characters in the villages change. Yes, where Chrono Trigger thrived with many distinct locations, Chrono Cross force feeds you identical areas only with such minor changes as a barmaid being replaced with a sweaty chef. The plot can't even save the disappointing portal jumping as you'll uncover goofy twists that are never fully explained. Even after finishing the game, I was still scratching my head as to what exactly was going on. The cast of characters doesn't save things either thanks Squares use of blatant stereotypes and ridiculous accented text!
But while Serge's two dimensions aren't very different, the game's battle system is complete deviation from its predecessor. Each character has stamina gauge, which depletes as you act. When selecting the standard physical attack, a small list will appear giving you the choice of three attacks: weak, strong, and fierce. The weaker attacks use less stamina allowing you to perform more of them in one turn. You'll also have the option of attacking once then backing down to save up your stamina for next turn or to perform another stronger action. However, there is another plus to using weak attacks. Numbers next to each tier-attack indicate your chances of successfully connecting with your foe. Weaker attacks generally have higher percentages, so utilizing the stronger attacks early on wouldn't be a brilliant strategy. After acting once, your chances of hitting will steeply increase making the perfect opportunity to execute a fierce attack. On paper, this sound pretty cool, but quickly you'll find a combo that works extremely well for you. From then on you'll probably execute the same weak-fierce or strong-strong combo for the entire game. That's when you have to ask yourself what exactly was the point of combo attacks because it certainly doesn't make hitting an attack command any less repetitive.
Magic was labeled Techs in Chrono Trigger, so Square decided in honor of that classic they'd make up a new name for spells again thus giving birth to Elements. Basically you just find and buy these spells and equip them on characters. In addition, you don't use MP but instead a weird, convoluted method. First, Elements are divided into eight levels based on their strength. Second, Elements are divided into several sets of opposing colors that like red and blue, but this is in actuality just elemental properties like fire and water. Third, you have to earn points through physical attacks to cast each element. For example, to use a level five spell, you'll need to accumulate at least 5 battle points (weak attacks gets you 1 point, strong = 2, and fierce = 3). With the same turn you slashed away with your combos, you can utilize your magic. Unfortunately Elements drain a lot of stamina meaning there's a good chance you'll end up with a negative amount. Come next turn, you'll barely have an opportunity to act thanks to a measly one or two stamina. In addition, Elements can only be used once per battle meaning you'll no doubt have to waste your limited number of equippable Element slots on the same spells (specifically healing spells).
If my description of Elements seemed too complex for simply casting a spell, it's because just casting a spell is too complex. Sure, it may not sound too bad now, but just consider how you feel when you have to start executing combos on bosses just to heal your party!
Oh but wait! Square made it even more confusing! There's also this little thing called the Field Effect. A quick scan of the battle screen will reveal three circles. Each time an Element is cast from either your party or an enemy, one of the circles is filled with the spell's corresponding color. If all three circles are the same color, Elements of that color will be strengthened, and enemies and characters aligned (alignment is preset by the game) to that color will receive minor stat boosts. In theory, this is a cool technique, but in execution the chances of it happening are slim. Just think about it. You're up against a fire-breathing dragon, so you use a lot of blue magic to pump up that Field Effect into overdrive. Somewhere in between your Elemental assault, that dragon will probably usie red magic; therefore, completely negating all your efforts.
Incidentally, you need that Field Effect in full force to use Summons. So if you want you to use the green aligned Genie, you need all green circles. Yeah, it's not happening, buddy.
Fans of Chrono Trigger will no doubt remember the awesome combination Techs. I mean, who could forget Maryle chilling Crono's sword as he slammed it right into a menacing skeleton boss' head to create a gigantic glacier at the point of impact? Each pairs of characters had a rather large variety of team attacks that truly put the hurt on enemies. Chrono Cross' execution of the same idea is pretty pathetic and resembles that of Suikoden far more than its actual predecessor. Only some pairs will have a measly one combination attack, and they usually aren't very helpful. While it's disappointing, I can admire that Square wanted to try something different for the sequel. The unfortunate part is their focus on an overly complex combat system wasn't the best trade.
Although playable and not utterly painful to use, the combat system doesn't really accomplish anything different from any other PSX RPG. The stamina system doesn't replace turns really, Elements are just spells only you're forced to use attacks before using them (not exactly a helpful or sensible innovation), and the Field Effect just doesn't work all that well. Having a no nonsense turn system rather than stamina, MP, and spells that instantly change the Field Effect would have made battle flow a lot smoother. If Square had done that, I would have given Chrono Cross a 7 even with its other flaws.
After you've finally finished a battle, you'll get to dig into gold, items, and . . . nothing else! Experience points are strangely on hiatus for this Square adventure because your characters will only level up after boss encounters. To some, this may sound like a great thing. I mean, no mindless level building, right?! Unfortunately few PSX RPGs truly required power leveling, so the idea that this could result in anything good is ridiculous. Chrono Cross will always have you at just the right level to completely kick the snot out of everything. There were few bosses that gave me trouble, and enemies were just fodder for Serge's double-bladed swallow. In fact, there's little reason to bother with enemies. All encounters are seen on the map and can easily be avoided. Sure you'll miss out on items and gold, but that would only have mattered had this not been one of those games where you're always swimming in gold.
There is some good I can say about the gameplay. The game's dungeons are a lot better than most RPGs of the era. I've had it with new Final Fantasies giving me straight lines with treasure chest right out in the open. At least Chrono Cross's dungeons hide treasure along multiple paths like classic 16-bit RPGs.
But now I have more bad to speak of. There are well over 40 party members in Chrono Cross, which is a significant step up from the first game. But the smaller cast of Chrono Trigger had interesting back stories and depth (even cavewoman Ayla!) and the Suikoden-esque party members you'll find here have relatively no story at all. There are only about two party members in the entire game that will ever develop as the story unfolds, where as everyone else you'll hear their entire shtick right when you meet them. After that, they become a mindless drone in Serge's army. And man, a lot of the character designs are wasted on real hokey stuff. I mean jeez, let's just look at some of these guys: a small-town redheaded girl that clobbers foes on the head with kitchen supplies, a big fat woman islander that yells at her kids, and a make-up wearing goth rocker / black metal star that hurts his opponents by playing the guitar. Damn, I knew black metal sucked, but I never knew it could kill a man!
If there's one thing you have to love about Chrono Cross, it's the graphics. Back in the day, this game was gorgeous. Each polygonal character and enemy is realistically detailed and looks far better than the later released Final Fantasy IX. When exploring, your eyes are treated to vivid, colorful pre-rendered backgrounds of tropical forests, bustling seaside cities, and relaxing beaches. Once it's time to fight, you're transported to those same beautiful locales in full 3D. I can also gush over the graphics so much because I really loved the game's art direction. The bigger focus on the tropics and islands was interesting and something you don't usually see in such big budget RPGs, and even the architecture for the buildings were cool. Serge's world certainly would make a nice vacation spot if you didn't have to also save the world from confusing plot devices.
Your eyes may be in for a treat in battle, but your ears are in for a world of hurt. Chrono Cross has THE WORST BATTLE MUSIC EVER. It starts out with harsh violin assault only to move on to goofy organ and finally ending it with a weird Arabian tune on the fiddle. The rest of the soundtrack is comprised of generic, boring tracks that are completely forgettable except for two: an awesome song taken straight from Radical Dreamers and the amazing opener Time's Scar.
By far Chrono Cross isn't a complete and utter failure. Sure, the plot is bad, the combat engine is unnecessarily complex for the sake of being different, and it's hold your hand easy, but it's still very playable. Plus the gorgeous graphics suck you into Serge's adventure. Holding that creamy white Disc 1 with Serge emblazed in grey, I wanted to like Chrono Cross. Hearing the epic Time's Scar playing as and action-packed montage of CG scenes played, I wanted to call it the quintessential PSX RPG, but I can't. Chrono Cross is a mediocre RPG one that I can see some people falling in love with. Those people are beginners and non-RPG fans that can tune out the terrible plot, foolishly think complexity equals good gameplay, and feel good about kicking ass effortlessly and without having to keep their levels up. Unfortunately for Chrono Cross, I'm an RPG veteran.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 01/23/03, Updated 07/24/06
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