Review by twiggy_trippit

Reviewed: 11/07/06

A solid, but flawed RPG experience that does not live up to Chrono Trigger's legacy

In a nutshell:

Pros: Stunning visuals for the original Playstation console. Great music. Some excellent plot twists. Enemies are visible (and avoidable, sometimes) on the exploration map. Brilliant experience system based on achieving major milestones in the game rather than bashing mindless enemies. Some interesting perks to the combat engine. Good interface in general with some new ideas.

Cons: Convoluted Elements system. The need for gold dropped by enemies negates the benefits of the game's innovative experience system. Awful loading times make repeated battles tedious. Combat becomes redundant and frequent despite it's avoidable nature. Storyline suffers from mediocre pacing and uninteresting yet mandatory sub-quests. Uninspiring cast of playable characters, despite its impressive size. Enemies lack dynamic A.I. Simultaneous combination attacks are mostly absent from regular gameplay. Town exploration is boring and detracts from gameplay.

Detailed review:

Released in 2000 on the original Sony Playstation in the later years of the console, Chrono Cross is a "traditional" (I use the term loosely, given Chrono Cross' many experimental features) Japanese console role-playing game developed by Square Soft as a would-be sequel to the luminary Chrono Trigger. Developed by a "dream team" whose membership consisted of Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the Final Fantasy series), Yuuji Horii (creator of the Dragon Quest/Warrior series) and Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame), Chrono Trigger is often regarded as the best console RPG ever made: it was fun, fast-paced, straightforward, spectacular and it featured a lovable cast of time-traveling heroes.

Chrono Cross is a difficult game to review, as a would-be reviewer must constantly decide whether the game should be compared to games and console RPGs in general or to its predecessor, Chrono Trigger. However, given the boldness of tagging the name Chrono in a Square title, I will not hesitate to evaluate how Chrono Cross stands in regards to the original game. Chrono Cross is one of the most solid console RPGs released in 2000. It's a game that features interesting innovations along with gorgeous aesthetics. However, it suffers from many of the flaws inherent to most RPGs from this era, which focused more on good looks rather than fast and intuitive gameplay. Also, most of the time, its designers failed to grasp what made Chrono Trigger work so well in the first place (in this regard, Skies of Arcadia, which was released on the Sega Dreamcast the same year and re-released three years later on the Nintendo GameCube, is a much better achievement despite its issues with unavoidable random battles).

The visuals for Chrono Cross are stunning. The 3-D characters are detailed and well-animated and the environments are lush and gorgeous, especially during battles where they are in 3-D instead of the pre-rendered CG graphics seen on the exploration maps. It definitely is one of the best looking titles on the original Playstation console.

The musical score composed by Yasunori Mitsuda is also excellent. Although some of the pieces are not memorable in their own right, the more emotional or action-oriented themes are powerful and involving. Most of the time, the exploration themes also do a great job of conveying the game's atmosphere. The game's score remixes some of Chrono Triggers classical themes, but also boasts it's own unique flair. Mitsuda shows once more that he is one of the best in the video game industry.

The game universe is beautiful and interesting, succeeding in making the player want to live and breathe in the archipelago where the game's storyline takes place. The story's basic premise of parallel universes that evolved differently based on a critical event that happened in the protagonist's (Serge) childhood is also very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not exploited to its full extend and fails to be as clever as it could have been. The storyline often ends up being convoluted for convolution's sake. There are some very powerful moments in the story that make the game worthwhile. However, most of the time, the player is sidetracked with uninspired yet mandatory sub-quests which severely hamper the story's pacing. I got high on the good parts of the story, then almost got bored out of my mind with the sub-quests, until another important event took place and revived my interest in the game. However, these ups and downs are consistent throughout the entire story. Also, non-combat areas (towns, castles, etc.) hold a lot of NPCs which have little to say that is relevant to the player. However, a few of those hand out items that are important for side quests, so the player ends up being rewarded on one hand for being thorough in town exploration, yet punished on the other hand with trite flavor text. This is an issue that has grown more and more present in the recent history of console RPGs.

Also, as a silent protagonist, Serge is poorly done and does not much involve the player emotionally. Although the player can actually make story decisions that impact on the game's development, the player seems to be rewarded with better playable characters for acting like a jerk towards Kid, the game's most important secondary character. Most of the game's 45 playable characters also fail to be interesting, although they each have their own side quest. However, obtaining the full roster of playable characters requires multiple playthroughs using the game's New Game Plus option. This feature allows the player to restart the game with all of the upgrades and most of the characters that were obtained in a previous completed play. While some may find that this adds replay value to the game, many players might feel frustrated that they cannot acquire everything in a single round of playing the game. Chrono Trigger also boasted such a feature, but its main purpose was to allow the player to see the multiple "what if" endings that varied according to the moment in the game where the player chose to trigger the final battle (that could now be won early in the story, thanks to the team's higher level), and not to obtain previously unaccessible characters or items.

Characters in Chrono Cross are fairly customizable. They can equip a weapon, a helmet, an armor and an accessory, which give the player some leeway in compensating for a character's weakness or emphasizing a strong point. Each character also has an Elements grid which expands as the character grows more powerful, in which the player slots in elemental spells. Most Element spells can be used only once in each battle, but they refresh at the end of every fight; the same goes for each character's preset signature moves. Some Elements can be used many times over in the same fight, but they are discarded after a limited number of uses. Spells and signature moves do not require the use of expendable "magic points"; higher-level Elements become available in combat as the character executes successful attack combos.

The Elements grid gives player a lot of flexibility on assigning specific roles to each character. However, as the grid expands, assigning Elements becomes longer and tedious. Even though the player can choose to let the game automatically fill a character's Elements grid, this automated assignment is often flawed and requires the player to go over it and re-assign multiple Elements. Compared to Chrono Trigger's very straightforward Techniques that were preset for each character, the Elements grid bogs down gameplay and contributes to making characters blander, as their roles easily become interchangeable. Players that enjoy micro-management of character customization will find something with the Elements system with which they can play. However, others who would rather simply select the right character for the right task and not bother assigning individual spells will find this feature unpleasant.

One of Chrono Cross's most intelligent feature is its experience system. Whenever players complete a boss battle, the entire character roster levels up automatically. Combat with lesser enemies will only yield very limited upgrades. This ensures that the characters are always at a level where boss battles are challenging but feasible, preventing the player from grinding mindlessly to bypass the game's challenge. Unfortunately, money to purchase equipment is still obtained from lesser enemies. Money is rather scarce in the game and keeping the characters' equipment up-to-date is essential to progress, which makes fighting a lot of lesser enemies a necessity. This deplorable design decision offsets many of the benefits that should have derived from Chrono Cross' brilliant character progression mechanic; even though the player can avoid many battles, the monetary requirements in the game punishes the player for doing so, even though grinding experience is no longer necessary.

As I've mentioned above, many battles in the game can be avoided, as enemies are visible on the exploration map and can be dodged. Contact with an enemy will trigger a battle, which takes place in a separate view, unlike the original Chrono Trigger. Combat is semi-turn based: players can take as much time as needed to ponder their actions. However, characters receive Stamina points that allow them to perform attack combos and use Elements. These Stamina points refresh as other characters and enemies perform their own battle moves. Attack combos are customized on the fly as the player chooses between fast attacks that are more accurate and less costly in Stamina, but less damaging, and stronger attacks that carry a greater risk of failure and cost more Stamina, but inflict far higher damage. Successfully chaining quick attacks improves the accuracy of stronger attacks, so most combos will start off with weaker attacks and will progressively build up to stronger moves. However, even though the player has some leeway in customizing their attack combos, many games have managed to use similar combo systems that had much more flair (namely, Legaia and Square's own Xenogears). Successful hits with an attack combo build up the Elements meter which let's the player use higher-level Elements and signature moves. Most of these can only be used once in each battle, which makes combat more than just repeatedly using a character's most powerful attack over and over again. Also, the character has the option at the end of battle to use leftover energy in the Elements meter to heal characters with unused Elements, a very nice feature.

Elements also have elemental affinities (as the name for the game mechanic implies, unsurprisingly). When the same elemental affinity is used many times over in succession by any participant in the battle, every attack in the fight associated with this affinity becomes more and more stronger and attacks of the opposite affinity become weaker (this game mechanic is called the Elemental Field). Later on in the game, players gain the possibility to summon one of the elemental dragons after three spells of the same element are used in a row. However, this is unlikely to happen, as this requires using the same elemental affinities than the enemy, which are usually less effective and strengthen the enemy's attacks; this can lead to attacks capable of wiping out the player's characters even if they stand at full hit points. Most battles will instead have the player using an elemental affinity that is opposite to the enemy's to decrease its offensive abilities and improver the player's own. Since, this is the obvious strategy, the whole Elemental Field system is not as deep as it could have been, although it does make proper timing of Elements more important in battle. If the Elemental Field had other tangential effects (such as a Red field improving everybody's attack power or a Blue field causing everybody to regenerate periodically) beyond merely making spells of the elemental affinity stronger, this would have led to more strategic battles.

While combat is fun in the first few hours of play, battles with lesser enemies eventually become repetitive, bog down exploration and involve rote use of the same tactics over and over. The combat pace is much slower than in Chrono Trigger, as the game's gorgeous graphics come at a price: each battles require at least 10 seconds of loading time, not-so-cleverly hidden by camera sweeps over the battlefield, characters and enemies. Players will spend a fair amount of the game's 40-hour length waiting for combat to start. Moreover, attack animations are sometimes lengthy, which the attack combo system accentuates. Finally, enemy A.I. is lackluster, re-using the same attack patterns over and over, reacting to player action only in a very simple and limited fashion. Developed A.I. has never been a strong point of traditional Japanese console RPGs, so in a sense it is unfair to name this as Chrono Cross' flaw when the flaw belongs to the entire genre. Yet, this is an obvious area where Chrono Cross could have easily outshined the competition if its makers had been a bit bolder.

Also, Chrono Trigger's fights were unique, as enemy positions for each fight were different and scripted. This made use of the miscellaneous areas of effect each attack technique had to encourage the player to use different moves in each battle. On the other hand, in Chrono Cross, once the player has figured how to defeat a specific set of enemies, using the same strategy over and over again will always lead to victory, making combat eventually stale in the present game area. Even though combat is avoidable in Chrono Cross (although combat cannot be prevented on many occasions due to the speed of enemies and narrow pathways on the exploration maps), claiming the game has no random battles is a fallacy: the game's battles are chosen randomly through a limited selection of encounters for each area, which eventually leads to repetitive combat.

Finally, a last but nonetheless important issue with combat is the virtual absence in the game of simultaneous combination attacks involving multiple party members, one of Chrono Trigger's key features. Don't get me wrong: there are simultaneous combination attacks in Chrono Cross. However, there are few of them and they are well-hidden secrets that involve having the right character combinations in the party, not a small feat given the large cast of playable characters and the fact that many of those that are capable of simultaneous techs can easily be missed in a playthrough. Many players will most likely not see any simultaneous attacks on their first run through the game. Sadly enough, my roommate once commented that he had seen ten times as many combination attacks in a few hours of playing Suikoden 3 than in a complete Chrono Cross playthrough. Considering that dual techs and triple techs were a staple of Chrono Trigger, it is a huge disappointment to see the developers pay only lip service to this feature in Chrono Cross.

In the end, Chrono Cross is one of the best RPGs released in 2000. It is a beautiful, decent game in its own right with its strong moments, plot-wise. However, it suffers from classical flaws that have been omnipresent in most console RPGs that were released on the consoles that have dominated the market in the past decade. Square Soft's habit of designing RPGs that feature convoluted character customization systems is also present, which can put off some players. While it has a few brilliant features, namely its milestone-based character progression mechanic and the ability the evade many battles, many of the good things these ideas bring are short-circuited by other design flaws. In the end, Chrono Trigger's claim at being the best Japanese console RPG ever made remains undisputed, even by its own sequel.

Grade (out of 10):

Graphics: 10
Audio: 9
Interface: 8
Gameplay and pacing: 7
Challenge and replay value: 7
Storyline, characters and setting: 8
Recommendation: 8

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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