Review by Relle

"It's great, but where's the airship?"

It's possible someone somewhere out there bought Chrono Cross without having played its prequel, Chrono Trigger. It's possible someone out there doesn't know the overblown hype this game had to endure, the name and legacy it had to live up to. It's possible. Not too damn likely, but possible. Assuming that person were to play this game, on its own merits and not compare it to Trigger at every opportunity, they would find a game able to hold its own among a flood of PS1 RPGs, with a unique battle system, a wide cast of characters and a story just convoluted enough to be a Chrono tale of temporal and dimensional paradoxes gone wrong. Or right, depending on how you look at it. Just don't think about it too hard. You'll get a headache.

In the beginning, there was the universe. Then the earth cooled. Then Serge, a young boy from Arni village, goes exploring on the beach and falls into a portal to a parallel dimension where he (Serge) died ten years ago. Your quest begins to find a way back to your world, and eventually to right several wrongs that come about as a consequence of dipping into this parallel universe. That's not the end of it, though, no-sirree. What follows is a plot that ties in quite well with Chrono Trigger, but is still a story all on its own.

When I say 'understood,' I'm using the term loosely. As I rambled earlier, trying to make sense of the plot is a rather daunting task, especially since not every question is answered by the end of the game. Naturally this leaves the series open for another sequel, but you'll likely want to throttle Square for not getting around to it sooner. It helps to have played Chrono Trigger first, but even if you don't get the references to CT, you'll be able to enjoy the game just the same.

I know a lot of people were either shocked, underwhelmed, or just plain offended by the new battle system. I liked it. Like Chrono Trigger, there's no battles on the world map and no random battles in hostile territory. You'll (almost) always be able to see the enemy, though like in Trigger, you'll be ambushed or otherwise surprised into battle at times. Bad little hiding enemies! Bad!

Battle, battle, who's got the battle? Square tends to go into weird and unusual systems rather than find one they like and stick with it, and I admire them for trying new things. You'll find it's very reminiscent of Xenogears, though. Rather than have one attack per person, you're given seven action points. You're able to perform a weak, medium, or strong attack, taking 1, 2 or 3 AP respectively. This means, of course, that you can deliver seven weak attacks per round, or any combination you can think of. A nice little addition is you're shown the to-hit percentage for each attack so you can more easily choose the best course of action. Casting spells is costly in terms of AP, and can even dip you into the negatives, in which case you will either start with a reduced AP or even skip a turn entirely until you're back in positive numbers. It makes you think a bit more than your average RPG, since that one wasted turn could mean your life.

Of course, if that were all to the game, it wouldn't be much fun, would it? Well, it might, but still. The magic system is where the real innovation and complexity lies. Instead of just learning spells then tossing them out at the expense of MP, you're given a magic grid and must assign your spells to it in order to use your arcane powers. It's a simple system. Level 1 spells can be set anywhere, level 2 spells must be set at a level 2 or higher grid slot, etc. While there's an ‘auto-set' command, it's not that great and you would be better off customizing it yourself. At first the grid small, pitiful, insignificant. Just like your character(s).

There are no experience points in this game. Whew, took me long enough to get to that bit. Instead, when you fight and win battles, you gain boosts to your stats directly. Buying new weapons is your other way of getting stronger, but like FF8, you must first find the proper materials and bring them (and money) to a blacksmith to be forged. Unlike FF8, you can de-forge weapons to regain the raw materials and then use them to create different weapons. Aside from this, you can just fight monsters to get stronger. However, don't think you can just fight weak enemies and become almighty. Because there's no experience points, Square has wisely decided to balance the game by limiting your stat gains. Like with other RPGs, you can only fight so long before the stat gains vanish (much akin to a paltry XP gain). The solution? Fight a boss.

Defeating boss monsters serves a dual purpose: you will once again garner stats from normal battles, and the above-mentioned magic grid will expand, gain magic levels and allow you to use better and better spells. However, the higher you go, the harder it is to get good magic. If you don't want to wait till the very end of the game, you'll have to catch your own magic. This is slightly more complicated than it sounds.

For magic levels 5 to 7, you'll need to take it directly from the enemies. Not unlike the Draw system of Final Fantasy 8, you can buy ‘traps' for specific spells. These serve a distinct and often useful purpose: if a monster casts a spell that corresponds to the trap set on it, the trap will absorb the spell and you will then be able to set it in your grid. Unfortunately, without the benefit of a strategy guide or one of this site's many FAQs, you'll be hard-pressed to know which monster casts which spell, which can translate to several wasted traps before you capture a spell, if at all. Fortunately, if you do know ahead of time which monster casts which spell, you can laugh and enjoy the futility as the beasties have their magic taken away.

One last bit about magic, and that is the elemental system. The standard fire/water/air/earth elements are there, along with light/dark (white and black) spells. Each character has an elemental affinity, meaning if Serge, who is of the white affinity, casts a white elemental spell, he will do additional damage. As well, casting spells of an opposing element (fire against water, light against dark, etc.) will cause an increase in power as well. This is something of a double-edged sword, because even when Serge casts a white element spell against a dark-affined monster, that same creature can counter with a dark element and do increased damage to Serge.

Add to this summons. Yes, summons. They're handled in a rather odd way. Instead of just selecting the creature to bring about and cause havoc, you must first make sure the ‘field' is of one element. Meaning, to summon a water creature to flood the battlefield, three blue spells must be cast in a row, without any spells of another color cast in between. Summoning gets especially hard since an enemy spell will act the same as one of yours in changing the field's color. While it's tough at times, the visuals and damage done are worth the trouble. This in addition to the AP system and all that mentioned above gives battles a mark of strategy not often found in RPGs.

A truly notable difference to Chrono Trigger is the exponential increase in cast size. There's over 40 characters to get, but much like Suikoden, quantity does not equal quality. Only a select group of characters out of the forty are a cut above the rest in terms of ability. The others are ones you won't bother using unless you happen to like that particular character, and given how little you know about some of them, there's not much chance of that. Of course, there are a few you wouldn't want to live without, and those characters are truly a joy to have as they smite evil with a big ol' finger in the air.

Final note: techs. They have returned. Double techs: also returned, but they're harder to pull off. Triple techs: same as double, increase the difficulty, flashy special effects and the resulting damage. While I miss the ease of use with the techs (as you well might) considering the damage they do, it was probably for the best. Still, seeing as the combination of techs was one of the big plusses for Trigger, I wouldn't have minded having the damage reduced and the ease of use increased.

Hmm, I've gone all this time without mentioning the visuals. Good for me! Oh, you probably want to know something about them. Well, fine, be that way. While Akira Toriyama wasn't part of the art design for this game, the FMVs are some of the most beautiful you'll see on the PS1, and the game's graphics are up to par with Square's best work in the 32-bit generation. Unlike the Final Fantasy series, FMV is used sparingly, but when you see it, you'll know it's worth the wait. The world map is once again drawn to scale rather than the expansive planet of the Final Fantasy games, and quite frankly, it's tiny. Much smaller than most games I've played, but the duality of the game's world means it's much larger than it appears to be.

Now, while Toriyama didn't grace the game with his art, Yasunori Mitsuda, the music composer for Chrono Trigger, returns with a score that is nothing short of fantastic. Time's Scar especially will hook you right from the start, and the game never grants a moment of mercy. The music and gameplay gang up on you, draw you in, move you along, and at times slap you silly and make you beg for more. Because you're a naughty little gamer, aren't you? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.

As I wind down and fizzle out, I feel I must speak of other things. Endings, perhaps. Yes, Chrono Cross does have an ending. In fact, it has several. Like Trigger, once you beat the game you're able to start over with the series' own New Game+, retaining your stats, weaponry, magic grid, etc. You're also able to challenge the final boss at any time during the game and thus view one of many specialized endings. It's a welcome holdover from Trigger, especially one particular ending that happens to be my favorite. I won't say which one, though.

While Cross is not the hardest game around, it has its moments. Certain bosses will throw you for a loop, especially if you happen to have a party rich in opposing elemental affinities. Summoning is a challenge in and of itself, and managing the 40+ characters may drive you to grumbling, but I can't stay mad at a game that manages to pull off most of what it set out to do. Cross has managed high marks in every department, and while it may not be remembered with such fervor and passion as Trigger, it is a wonderful game in its own right and deserves to be recognized as such. Happy trails, world-crossers.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 07/07/04

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