Review by Ashley Winchester
"The Scars of Time Bleed Anew"
Pretentious Pedigree, Satisfactory Sequel
Chrono Cross stands as being one of the few game sequels that actually managed to surpass the greatness of the original. This is no easy task I may inform you, as Chrono Trigger (released on the Super Famicom) had a staff of the most talented names in games working on it: Akira Toryiama as character designer (of Dragon Quest/Dragon Ball fame), Nobuo Uematsu on music (of Final Fantasy fame), and Yuji Horii (of Dragon Quest fame) as the scenario designer. Furthermore, Chrono Trigger also served as one of the gaming world's first introductions to the beautiful music of Yasunori Mitsuda (of Xenogears fame) as well as various talents. Trigger featured an epic, time traveling plot line with multiple futures, pasts, and presents. How than could Square actually manage to outdo its finest efforts?
While Chrono Cross did start out as a project that got fans talking, it was hardly in a positive light: the new character designer, the graphical change, and the radically altered battle system all caused massive chaos when first leaked to the public. Gone were the Dragon Ball inspired cast of characters, replaced with the artwork of new designer Nobuteru Yuuki (most notably, of Vision of Escaflowne fame), gone were the detailed 2D environments, now replaced with graphic rich animated bitmaps, and missing was the catchy active time based battle system among other problems. Indeed early talk on newsgroups was that Cross would be terrible, and that Square should be severely reprimanded for creating such a virus to plague a promising franchise. When Chrono Cross released finally though, instead of finding a sea of disaster, players encountered an ocean of paradise.
Chrono Cross is basically a vastly expanded retelling of a Japan only Super Famicom release called Radical Dreamers. Part of the Sattleaview service (basically Nintendo of Japan's version of the Sega Channel), Radical Dreamers was a text adventure in the vein of choose-your-own-adventure novels. The plot centered around three individuals (Serge, Kid, and Gil) as they attempted to break into the mansion of an evil demon named Yamaneko (Mountain Cat, or Lynx' if you will) and steal a magical artifact called the Frozen Flame. Some heralded Dreamers as Chrono Cross 2 when they heard about it, as it detailed what happened to the plucky gang of adventures from the original Chrono Trigger. Sadly nothing more was ever heard of this title until years later when Square sought to re-release it under the name Chrono Cross and expand its universe and scope.
More than just an updated retelling, Chrono Cross seeks to explain just who Serge and Kid are (Gil is missing), as well as add a greater dimension to their quest.
Cross begins with a trip into a strange dungeon with Serge, Kid, and one randomly generated third character (he or she can join your party later however). Upon reaching the end of this dungeon, Serge witnesses the terrifying vision of his subsequently murdering Kid. In his vision, Serge sees a fierce looking giant cat (Dreamer's Yamaneko/Lynx) looming over him as he rams a dagger into Kid's torso. Falling to the ground, Serge then smiles and utters some inaudible word. Then he wakes up, apparently from a nightmare. Foreboding or not, Serge knows nothing of those he saw in his vision and quickly forgets about his dream when long time friend, Leena, asks him to collect shells for a necklace she wants to make. Shortly after completing this task, Serge meets his female friend at nearby Opassa Beach where they exchange a brief dialogue. Before he can leave however, Serge hears a strange voice from nowhere and falls unconscious. When he wakes up, the world looks the same but in fact isn't. Somehow, Serge managed to slip into a parallel universe, a universe whereby he apparently died many years ago. Thus begins a quest that spans multiple continents, dimensions, and even time and the stars themselves. While the adventure will indeed take Serge and Kid back to Yamaneko's mansion and does center on finding the Frozen Flame, the story is hardly limited to the narrow scenario of Radical Dreamer's web. While to say anything more would be to spoil the excellently crafted web of a story, rest assured that Cross will take you to more places than you thought possible, and just because it does not incorporate time travel the likes seen in Chrono Trigger, the parallel universe concept is more than a suitable replacement'. Fans of Chrono Trigger will especially like the last few hours of the game and more than anything else, the ending.
Graphically, Cross is simply resplendent, offering an amazing variety of colorful, detailed, and pleasing environments. Serge's adventures take him through castles, villages, forests, tropical islands, hideaways, pirate ships, haunted towns, deserts, tree tops, poison swamps, a land frozen in time, the center of time itself, and even to the stars. Each environment has its own distinctive look and feel, and each has various elements to interact with (such as rushing water in the forest or quicksand sinkholes in the desert) and span multiple screens each. Populating each location are a variety of characters and monsters (both good and bad) to interact with or exterminate (watch out though, some monsters' are actually good!).
This leads into one of the most expansive elements of Chrono Cross, that of its cast. Cross features a cast of more than FOURTY (40) playable characters, all with different abilities and appearances. While there are draw backs to this (see later in the review as to why), in truth the sheer number of characters means that no two games will ever be exactly the same. And amazingly that last statement is quite true, since it will literally take three playings of Cross in order to get everyone to join your party. (Some characters will not join if others have already). Characters include the friendly, the freaky, and the just plain foreign (as in from other worlds). Those who played the original Chrono Trigger may find nostalgia in human characters such as Glenn, others are entirely new such as a masked pro wrestler, a pirate, and even a dashingly beautiful scientist. Of course then there are the freaky characters (such as a toothless magician or a giant talking mushroom) and the just plain foreign (Star Child, a space alien). All will be happy to help you out of course, provided you accomplish that which they want. Your party can fit three members in at a time, thus the player must decide who they want to bring along with them.
Such segues quite well into the new battle system employed in Cross. Instead of time based battles, Chrono Cross focuses on stamina based battles. In battle, each character has a stamina bar that dictates how tired they are. When the bar is full, the characters are at 100% energy and can attack without hesitation using maneuvers of low, medium, or high strength output. When the bar is low however, only certain strength maneuvers can be performed (as each of the three types deplete a different amount of stamina). When the bar is negative (as in you overexerted yourself), you can't do anything at all. Thus, all characters in battle-that includes monsters-have a stamina reading. Depending on both agility and stamina build up, the game determines attacking turns. This means that there are no set turns; the player can essentially determine exactly when and how frequently they will attack. It all sounds much more complicated than it really works out; after a few battles the system becomes quite easy to understand. The battle system can roughly be compared to that of Xenosaga, Xenogears, or Breath of Fire V (Dragon Quarter), however is still quite different than any of those games.
Tied into this new battle system is the new system of abilities. Unlike Chrono Trigger where characters learned skills solely based on their elemental affiliation (for example, Marle whose elemental power was Water, learned healing spells), Chrono Cross seeks to downplay the elemental affiliation to a much lesser degree and thus allow much easier access to magic; after all, there are over 40 different characters this time around. Each character still possesses an elemental affiliation, however there are limited benefits to this: for one thing, the special skills each character learns are all specific to their element (meaning Serge won't be inherently learning any Fire abilities). Thus, the game employs a new system of magic and ability learning, which is actually a temporary one. Found just about everywhere (be it lying around, from killing monsters, from completing side quests, from purchasing in stores, etc), Elemental Panels are the means to a magical end. There exist hundreds of different Elements which your character can find and equip all of which possess a specific, albeit unique ability. Take for example the Green Elemental series. The panels found in this series are mainly support spells and abilities (for example, the Heal spell) whereas those found in the Red Elemental series are fire based attacking in nature. Each character has an Elemental Grid composed of rows of slots of varying levels whereby one panel can be mapped to it and used once per battle. Gaining levels (more on this shortly) can increase the grid so that the player can place more panels on each row. While each panel has an ideal location for it (such as the Column for Level 1 panels), placing them in columns of higher or lower power will affect the potency of usage. For example, placing a Level 1 Heal spell in a Level 7 column will result in Heal+7, which will heal an infinitely greater amount of damage than Heal+3, or Heal (Level 1). Some panels however, have a set level they must be placed at and can not be downgraded.
Techniques and Training
Those who worry that their team efforts from Chrono Trigger may be forgotten in the newfangled Cross need not concern themselves any longer. Returning to Chrono Cross are the Double Tech and Triple Tech battle commands that made Trigger's battles so fun to participate in. While there sadly aren't nearly as many as in Trigger, various characters can perform a special attack in synchronization with each other, resulting in a combo assault on any given monster ensuing massive damage as a result. Trigger fans will find a touch of nostalgia in Serge and Glenn's X Strike, however there are many new combinations as well.
Leveling up in Chrono Cross is actually fun, for there is a sharp cap towards the process. Unlike almost ever other RPG in existence (especially the Dragon Quest series), fighting monsters until your face turns blue accomplishes little to nothing in terms of development in Cross. Each time you defeat a boss, your Power Level increases one unit as do a select number of character statistics. Thereafter, for the next five or so fights, each battle will yield your characters stat upgrades of varying nature (perhaps Attack + 3 of Defense +5) and then that will be it; your statistics will not rise again until the next Power Level increase. Thus there is no need to spend hours wandering around fighting monsters unless you are searching for a rare element panel. While some might argue that the game is unfair in limiting progression, in truth it's quite the opposite. The developers have balanced Cross in such a way that the stat boosts given are more than enough to get you through the game when coupled with the boosts given via equipping stronger weapons and armor, and by properly using the Elemental Grid system.
Traversing the dungeons of Chrono Cross is also a pleasurable experience, thanks in part to the development staff's brilliant idea of eliminating random encounters. (When one considers the nature of the Leveling Up process however, they begin to understand the necessity of this decision). As with Chrono Trigger, and only a few other games such as those in the Game Art's Lunar series, all monsters can be seen in the field. It is thus entirely up to the player in deciding what to fight and when to fight it. No longer does one need to feel worried about some high level monster ambushing them out of (literally) nowhere and killing them off as they do in so many other games. While monsters will still give chase if they see you, the point is you can see *them* first, and thus can prepare for the encounter. This system is a wonderful addition to the game and is something that all RPGs should in fact employ as it would severely limit the amount of time spent in unnecessary, tedious, and annoying battles. Essentially, the game lets you fight as many battles as you want. While one player may avoid all battles unless they have just raised a Power Level, others may seek to fight everything in their path.
Traversing the actual world of Chrono Cross (which takes place in the same world as Trigger, just in a part of the planet the first game ignored) is another pleasurable experience as there are no encounters whatsoever on the world map. Instead of having a traversable 3-D overworld like so many other Square games, Cross employs the same map format used in its predecessor, in this case a beautifully drawn painting' which you run along on, areas which you can enter indicated by their name on the screen when you approach them. This serves to make traveling the overworld of Cross something the player wants to do, rather than a chore burdened down with potentially dozens of battles between points A and B. It should be noted that both the Real world and the Parallel world have their own maps that, while similar looking, are actually quite different.
The control system employed in Chrono Cross could not be better and takes full advantage of the Playstation's Dual Shock controller. Assaults on your player while in battle will usually result in a rumble feedback of varying nature, and the analog control stick allows Serge to maneuver with ease. (The game will, of course, support the original Playstation controller as well). Additionally, because the game does not use sporadic camera angles like the Final Fantasy series has of late, up is always up and down is always down. Controlling Serge and his friends is a breeze, as is navigating through the various menus on the sub screens.
Because of the rather open ended course you can take through the game, there is no right way to play Chrono Cross, and indeed seemingly everything you say when given a choice can affect how the remainder of the game will transpire. As mentioned earlier, the player must complete the game three times in order to have every character join their party, and thus at pivotal moments in the story, who you choose to go with, what you decide to so, or when you decide to do something may affect not only what transpires, but who will go with you and who you can have join you. Make a wrong decision and character X may very well decide never to join your party during that play through. Additionally, because of the open ended nature there are various methods of solving problems. Sneaking into Yameneko's mansion for example, (called the Snakebone Conservatory in Cross), can be accomplished by scaling the rocks at its Cliffside behind, or by sneaking in the basement via a hidden path in the forest. This particular situation not only determines how you will enter the location, but also who will join your party for that portion of the game.
Related to this, the player can complete many of the side quests in Chrono Cross at their leisure, however some are time specific. The quests themselves can yield anything from rare Element Panels, new characters, new plot details, ultimate weapons, or hidden bosses. Some are quite difficult to accomplish and require a great bit of strategy whereas others may be completing a menial task that presents no challenge at all. Nevertheless, there are more than enough extras for the player to keep themselves busy with should they want to pause the story line and do some housekeeping.
Finishing Chrono Cross results in the New Game+ system employed in Chrono Trigger which makes replaying the game much easier on the player. Instead of forcing the player to go back to square one, selecting New Game+ on a replay allows for all of the weapons, attacks, and armors equipped upon finishing the first game to be available immediately at the start of the next. Adding to the fun, the game gives Serge a glorified remote control, which allows the player to manipulate the real time dynamic of the game. Say someone would like to replay Cross but is a bit hesitant since it takes so long to maneuver around the places. Problem solved: with the push of a button, everything in the game from walking around to battles themselves all will be sped up, putting the game on a proverbial Fast Forward if you will, and thus cut time town by a large amount. Pushing Slow Motion can also be fun however, as words can not describe how cool it is to see the most amazing battle effects and attacks performed in slow motion so that the player can see the exact moment of contact upon the targeted monster or such. Finally, the game allows you access to all the characters you had in your party from the first game (once you reach a certain point however) and thus the player is free to disregard those and seek out all new comrades.
Dramatic Designs and Melodic Music
Having already addressed the new battle system Cross employs, the other two areas where gamers found problems initially, that of the character designs and the music, both turned out to be nothing to worry about at all. While not Akira Toriyama, Nobuteru Yuuki's own unique style of character design adds quite a bit of flare to the game and is just as good, if not better, than the likes of Crono and his friends. Each character in Cross looks distinctly different from the next, and obviously took a great deal of thought and time to create. Yukki's style hardly hurts the game, in fact it only serves to enrich the experience as a whole. Perhaps the most important element of all is that because the character designs are not that of Toryiama, there is a feeling that the characters are actually new and not meant to be alternative versions of those from the Dragon Ball series. (As much as I like Toryiama, truth be told all his art looks exactly the same).
Similarly, the music (which is now composed entirely by Yasunori Mitsuda) is candy to the ears, perhaps even better than the works of Chrono Trigger. As just about any RPG fan will protest, Yasunori Mitsuda is quickly becoming one of the best music composers in videogame history. His scores mix various styles of music, often incorporating celtic themes, and produce hauntingly beautiful pieces which linger in the mind long after the product itself ends. Some tracks in Cross are remixed versions of the themes heard in Trigger while many (most) are brand new and equally as good if not better. Chrono Cross is one of the few games that ALL lovers of music should consider investing in the 3-Disc soundtrack, as it's a true work of art. Even the ending theme (fittingly titled Radical Dreamers) is a masterpiece despite being a song, a format which some gamers adamantly claim should not be present in an RPG. Cross features an excellent soundtrack which (in my opinion) has yet to be eclipsed even by the most advanced Playstation 2 games to date. (Whether the much anticipated/rumored PS2 Chrono sequel-called Chrono Break-manages to prove me wrong remains to be seen. Here's hoping it does however.).
With all these kind words spoken about Chrono Cross, it hurts me to say it but there are a few problems with the game. One of the most obvious and damaging issues is with the characters themselves: there are just too many of them. Chrono Cross definitely succeeds in developing just about all the characters; however there really isn't enough of it. Many members of the cast have short back stories to them and are never truly needed in the plot again while others have reoccurring places throughout the story. It's as if the developers suddenly decided to experiment with the idea of allowing NPCs to join your group. The end result is a product similar in nature to the Suikoden series, and with a similar conclusion reached: in this case less may have actually resulted in more. Some characters are so interesting that it's a shame they could not have had a more fleshed out existence. Adding to this is the fact that despite each character has their own special attacks, this truly amounts to little more than two or three special moves per individual and the remainder the same Elemental Panels everyone else can use.
Another problem with Chrono Cross is that it's a bit overly complicated and quite unfair. While anyone can pick up Cross and enjoy it without having first played Trigger, the game truly only rewards those who *have* beaten Trigger, and (more specifically) know every last detail about it. There exist various points in the Cross story where allusions and references are made to the events/locations/characters of Trigger and thus the only way to get them is if the player is familiar with the original. Perhaps because of a questionable English translation of Trigger in the first place, some references may be confusing to even series fans when they realize that some names or events are differently referred to in Cross. Finally, some aspects of understanding in Cross require an ultimate comprehension of the events that transpired in Chrono Trigger. Indeed seemingly the most insignificant event that took place in the prequel can resurface as a deep plot detail in Cross. Even the new elements that Cross seeks to bring into the game (as recall I said no prior knowledge of the Chrono series is needed) can become overly complicated at times and really need a more sufficient and concise explanation than the game provides. There are just too many questions that are either never answered, or left up to the player to decide and in the end all that does is start various debates over what players think the developers' intent was.
A Definitive Experience
Despite an initially shocked reaction from fans, Chrono Cross proves to be everything that Chrono Trigger was and much more: a fun game. Thought Cross has a few problems with it, the good massively outweighs the bad and the end result is a product that will only serve to provide dozens of hours of enjoyment to the gaming community. *Anyone* who played Chrono Trigger owes it to themselves to play Chrono Cross, as does anyone who likes RPGs, or just plain fun. Currently the game is available under the Greatest Hits label of Playstation games, so not only is this adventure fun for all, but all can now afford to play it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/23/03, Updated 07/24/06
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