Review by MSuskie

"It doesn't suck."

When I recall the time I've spent with Chrono Cross, I think of sunny beaches, quiet seaside villages, gorgeous islands, lush forests with trees swaying in the wind, busy port cities, ominous fortresses, towering mountains, colorful coral reefs, and vast oceans, all with beautiful tropical music playing in the background. Cross is far from the greatest RPG of all time, but it is most certainly one of the prettiest.

And what a game it is, too – spanning two discs and around fifty hours of gameplay, complete with branching paths, dozens of playable characters, an enormous overworld and all the sidequests and hidden secrets you could imagine, Cross is yet another example of why Square is the master of every corner of the RPG universe, and its constant innovation and attention to detail is astounding. Whether or not Cross can hold up against its SNES little brother, Chrono Trigger, is a question of taste. I wouldn't rank Cross with what I consider to be the greatest RPG ever made, but it's nevertheless another masterful achievement in Square's long-running line of successes. It's one of the more pleasant and fond memories I have of the PSX era.

Though Cross is a sequel to Trigger, it's not directly related, meaning that it takes place in a different world and follows the paths of different characters. No matter – part of the fun of Cross's story is figuring out how it all fits together, and whether or not all the ramblings about time and space have any meaning in relation to the series' history. It all happens in a sunny and colorful set of islands, and the main character is Serge. He's another one of those silent protagonist guys. Anyway. Ten years ago, an incident occurred that caused the world to be split into two alternate dimensions – one in which Serge is still alive, and one in which he is dead. Serge stumbles upon a rift that allows him to travel between these two worlds, and since he's the center point and at which these worlds are connected, he has to come to the bottom of this phenomenon, and possibly reconnect the worlds.

Serge gets a companion, named Kid, whose past is just as mysterious as his own. She starts off as a major character, but kind of fades into the distance as the plot thickens. You also have a villain by the name of Lynx. He doesn't get a whole lot of screen time, but when we do see him, we get a pretty good feel for just how sinister he is. This is one guy who is most definitely not screwing around.

Surprisingly, as weird and nonsensical as the plot seemed at times, it never really got past the point of being “dreamlike.” I've played games in which I've been enraged by their ridiculous, convoluted plots. But with Cross, it's somehow different. There will be times when you won't know exactly what's going on, and certain things never really get explained. But you just kind of go with it.

Anyway, the plot is smartly configured into the gameplay so as to not become overbearing. The focus is clearly on playability, and in that area, the game exceeds in simply being so open and deep. It's a linear RPG, but you almost wouldn't know it. There are branching paths that drastically alter not only the direction the story goes, but where the game takes you. There are countless side quests as well, and story objectives are often times made intentionally unclear so as to push the player into exploring and delving deep below the crust. Just go give you an example, there are nearly four dozen playable characters in Cross, and most of them are optional and found only through some careful exploration. No way in hell are you going to even find them all in one play-through, let alone utilize their strengths.

(Of course, having so many characters means that very few of them are well-developed. Most of them just exist to speak a few lines every now and then. Some characters actually start out major, and then disappear as soon as they join your party. Serge is really the only guy with any depth to him, and he doesn't talk, so…)

For that matter, it's really amazing how much you miss even after beating the game once, or twice, or three times. I've played through Cross several times, and with each run I've noticed numerous things that I didn't notice before, be it characters, items, quests, or story-related bits. Square designed Cross so that while you're essentially playing along a linear path, you'll feel like you're carving your own unique adventure.

Now, the battle system can make or break any RPG, and Cross has one of the most diverse and open-ended turn-based systems the developer has come up with. Well, for one thing, battles aren't random, which is a blessing. They play out with kind of an altered version of that active-time thing that Square utilizes in a lot of Final Fantasys and Chrono Trigger. You can choose between attacking and casting magic – nothing new – but it's balanced in a peculiar way. Your magical spells – called “elements” in this case – are organized, by you, on a grid. The weaker spells start off on the left, and as they go to the right, they get stronger. Simple enough.

Here's the thing: In battles, you've got to attack to unlock spells. Attacks are divided into three variants – strong, medium, and weak, kind of like Xenogears without combos. With each successful hit, you'll open up a column on your grid. The more consecutive hits you land, the more the grid opens up. When you decide to cast a spell, your grid is reset, and you have to start off with another attack chain. This method of balancing attacks with magic is quite effective, especially since there's no magic meter to speak of. You can even break off an attack chain and cast a spell in one turn, which is nice. I think you can get a lot of fun out of this system.

For added depth, Square added color coding into the mix. There are six colors, each with their own opposite – red to blue, yellow to green, and black to white. Each spell type is effective against its opposite, while lousy against itself. Each character and enemy comes with its own innate color. If Serge has a white innate, it means that he's good with white elements but bad with black ones. On the other hand, he's strong at resisting white-based attacks, but weak against black ones. Furthermore, the last three elements used at any time are added up and displayed in an oval at the top of the screen. If this oval at any time gets filled with a single color, it can greatly affect the battlefield, leading to things like summons.

Unfortunately, Square's attempts to avoid RPG conventions lead to Cross's one major downside: Its experience system. There are no experience points in Cross. Instead, it works something like this. Every time you defeat a mandatory boss, you raise by one “star level,” in which your party receives some major status bonuses. In between bosses, killing smaller enemies results in a few random stat upgrades, such as an increase in strength or HP. Thing is, after about five or so battles, your characters will stop getting stat upgrades until they've reached their next star level.

Now, no matter how you look at this, it just doesn't work. Vagrant Story had a similar system, of course, but that game's real-time battles meant that any enemy could be overcome at any experience level if you had the patience and skill. Here, it's all turn-based, meaning that the player's power should be proportional to the amount of time and effort they've spent. Unfortunately, if Cross is ever too difficult, you never have any control over it. You can't simply level up until you're able to take a boss out. If the game is too hard, you just have to get lucky. It also means that when you don't get stat-ups, battles become pointless. It's pretty annoying when I defeat an insanely difficult optional boss only to get no real payoff.

But that's my only big complaint. Cross looks fantastic – technically, sure, but also considering that most of Cross's pre-rendered environments are just so beautifully designed. The pleasant, tropical locales are naturally fun to explore, I mean to the point that I wouldn't mind living in some of these places, if they existed in real life. Sound is wonderful as well. Had it not been for the grating battle theme, I'd probably say that this is Yasunori Mitsuda's best soundtrack yet – every selection fits perfectly, and some are extremely catchy. (The Another Guldove theme is easily among my favorite videogame tracks of all time.) The game looks and sounds near-perfect, which is just another way in which Square was able polish this game into yet another classic in their enormous library.

Pros

+ It's the sequel to Chrono Trigger! Yay!
+ Interesting, through-provoking story.
+ Expansive gameplay – huge and loaded with secrets.
+ Great atmosphere.
+ Battle system is pure genius in more ways than one.
+ No random battles!
+ Looks fantastic.
+ And sounds fantastic, too.

Cons

- The experience system (or lack of) is the work of evil.
- The characters aren't too well-developed, since there are so many.
- That battle theme is really starting to get on my nerves.

Overall: 9/10

Chrono Cross is not the best RPG on PSX as I've previously stated, but it's close. It's got the looks, the sounds, the story, and the fun to make it one of the most compelling games on the system, and it might just rank among my all-time favorite RPG's. I've always been a bit surprised by the game's unpopularity with Square fans, despite much critical acclaim… I mean, I knew the experience system sucked, but was it really enough to ruin the entire game? Square wanted Cross to be a departure from standard RPG fare in many ways, and it works for the most part. If nothing else, it is one of the most artistically beautiful games I've ever played, and that's gotta count for something.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 08/28/04, Updated 12/05/06


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