With all the hype that surrounded the games in Square’s Summer of Adventure lineup I was expecting pretty great things from all three games, but none so much as the long-awaited Chrono Cross. The sequel to the popular and highly acclaimed Super NES title, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross had much to live up to. Would it be a true sequel, or would it merely be a new game under a popular license, such as Legend of Mana? After playing through this game, I have to say that, not only is the truest sequel to any Square RPG I have ever played, but it is the best RPG I have played all year, and perhaps longer.
Before I begin the review, however, a bit of non-spoiler backstory is in order. Chrono Cross was based on a digital novel called Radical Dreamers which was available as a Satellagame in Japan. Satellagames were almost like Nintendo’s version of America’s Sega Channel, in which the subscriber would pay for a device which linked them to a Nintendo satellite and allowed them to download and play games on their Super NES. Radical Dreamers followed the adventures of Serge and Kid, two members of a thievery group known as Radical Dreamers, as they hunted down the evil Yamaneko. The plot of Chrono Cross borrows heavily from RD and there are places in the game in which reference is made to RD, though it is not vital to know about the game to enjoy CC.
Knowledge of Chrono Trigger, however, while also not necessary to enjoy Chrono Cross, makes the story hundreds of times more satisfying. I suggest to all readers that, before playing Chrono Cross, you go out and find a copy of Chrono Trigger and play it, if just for the enjoyment CT would give you on its own.
That all being said, Chrono Cross’s story takes place twenty years after the events of Chrono Trigger, in the archipelago known as El Nido. The game begins as “silent protagonist” Serge, Kid, and a third random party member are assaulting a strange fortress to seek revenge on a man named Lynx. As the party makes their way through the tower to the top, the player gets some battle training, in the form of easy combat. When they reach the top, Serge opens the giant double doors and, in a beautiful CG sequence, has some sort of vision of Kid lying dead on the ground and Serge holding a bloody dagger. Serge then proceeds to wake up.
When he goes downstairs, his mother, Marge, tells him to go apologize to his girlfriend, Leena, who is baby-sitting on the pier in their little fishing town of Arni. Serge, more a man of action than words, goes and apologizes for being late at which point Leena demands that he get her three Komodo Dragon scales so she can make a necklace. Ignoring the obviously demanding personality and poor animal-rights political correctness of his miffed sweetheart, Serge travels to Lizard Rock to kill three Komodo Dragons and retrieve their scales. Though it takes a bit of know-how to actually capture the animals, (as well as a rather easy boss battle upon completion) Serge obtains said scales and travels to Opassa beach where Leena said she would meet him.
As they sit staring at the lapping waves, reminiscing of their childhood, a voice to calls Serge, and before he knows it he’s swallowed up by a tidal wave and finds himself face down in the sand. Fortunately a villager from Arni wakes him up, but doesn’t seem to recognize him. In addition, Leena is nowhere to be found, Lizard rock is populated by strange fish creatures, and the entire village of Arni has no clue who Serge is! Upon talking to Leena (who, yes, also doesn’t know him) he learns some rather shocking information, and winds up going on a quest to discover what’s going on. Can’t ruin the plot for you.
Simply put, I loved the story, not just because of all the Chrono Trigger references… well, mostly because of those, but also because it was a great mystery with some really trippy concepts that aren’t your run-of-the-mill RPG plot staples. As the title implies, you’ll deal with the concept (though not really the application) of time travel, as well as cross dimensional travel to parallel universes. Sci-Fi people, have I got your attention yet? What’s even better about the plot is that you get some character development for every playable character (that’s 43 to be precise) and many of them interact with other PCs and Serge to resolve conflicts between themselves and, thanks to the magic of dimensional travel, themselves! Add to that the fact that each character has his/her/its own dialect thanks to an Auto-Accent Generator™ created by the translation team, and you’ve got instant personality.
What’s more is that there isn’t just one storyline: depending on which actions you take, who you talk to, and what you say to them, you can pursue a few different paths to your final goal (which in and of itself can take a couple different forms). That means that you could have a very different game the second time or third time around (and trust me, with Chrono Cross, there are many more reasons to replay the game!) It all adds up to an impressive story with solid and original elements for an RPG. It can even get a little philosophical at times. And, of course, it’s got many, many references to CT!
There are a couple of downsides to the plot, however. Number one is an at-times lack of direction. There are some places where the answer of what to do or where to go next is far from obvious. You’ll have to do a lot of talking to villagers and backtracking and exploring to find the next goal, and sometimes it doesn’t quite make sense, but the problem isn’t too terrible. A quick glance at a FAQ or strategy guide now and then will keep you on track.
The other problem has to due with pacing. In the beginning the plot advances at a good pace, but towards the middle it tends to slow down a lot, with your party generally completing certain fetch quests and dungeon crawling to advance the story. Then, as if they had a certain amount of “plot points” to allocate, they certainly make up for this lull by cramming in as much exposition, revelation, and general back story as digitally possible into the last few hours of gameplay. And then they decide to throw in one of the biggest plot twists anyone has EVER pulled out of their pieholes and proceed to surpass that by putting in an even BIGGER one at the VERY end. We’re talking super piledriver plot whammy here, people. It’s almost too much to handle all at once, and if you’re a Chrono Trigger fan, your mind may just explode from all the revelation energy that is released at once. Of course you’ll die happy.
Now, we, most of us, understand that an RPG can’t really stand alone on a great plot (though it does help) so that’s why Square decided to throw in superb gameplay, graphics, and music. Y’know, just in case.
Chrono Cross’ gameplay is surprisingly simple while allowing for a lot of experimentation and customization. You travel from place to place in the same fashion you did in CT, namely moving your characters from set location to set location on the overworld map. This may seem a tad straightforward, but trust me, the overworld map in both dimensions have enough secret areas to keep you explorers happy.
The location maps are pretty much the PSX standard, with prerendered cityscapes and dungeons that your characters move about in. In towns you can talk to villagers to find clues, buy elements for use in battle, forge new weapons and armor, and recruit new characters if you’re so inclined. It’s really nothing new or original, but hey, you know it, you love it, right? In dungeons you can see your enemies, so you have a chance to avoid them or fight them. No random encounters here. Again , pretty standard RPG fare.
Now let’s get to the non-standard: battle system and element system. The battle system is relatively easy to pick up. You have 4 commands: Attack, Element, Defend, Run Away. Attacking takes on a new persona in CC. Instead of just attacking *wham* you have three levels of attack: weak, medium, and strong. Each level of attack comes with a certain percentage chance to hit your opponent inversely proportional to its strength. That just means that you’re more likely to hit with a weak attack than a strong one. However, as you successfully land attacks, your chance to hit for all levels of attack goes up, so you may want to start with a weak attack, then use medium, then strong so that your chances to hit go up for all of them.
Then there’s stamina. At the beginning of battle each party member is allotted 7.0 points of stamina. As you attack you drain your stamina, and once you’re below 1.0 you can’t take any more actions. Strong attacks use 3.0 points, medium use 2.0 and weak use 1.0. As you defend or as enemies or allies perform actions, your stamina regenerates itself. Depending on your hit rate and stamina, you need to decide on how you want to attack, so there is definitely an element of strategy that a lot of RPGs lack as far as basic attacking is concerned.
The real meat of battles, however, come in the form of the element system. The element system is difficult to explain, but easy to pick up while you’re playing. Elements are like spells in the world of CC. There are 6 element colors: yellow, red, green, blue, black, and white (for people who have beaten the game, yes I know). Yellow deals with lightning and earthquakes, red with fire, blue with water and ice, etc. Throughout the course of the game you will buy or find elements that you can allocate to one of the slots on your element grid. The element grid goes from level 1 to level 8 for most characters, though you have to work up to level eight by gaining Star Levels. Each Star Levels adds another space to your grid, either horizontally or vertically, meaning you’ll either get another space to put an element on level 3 or you’ll finally be able to put an element in level 4.
Now each element has a different range within which it can be placed. For instance, Uplift is level 1 +/- 7 which means it can be equipped on anywhere from a level 1 slot to a level 8 slot. However, Inferno is 5 +/- 3 so it can only be put in a slot on levels 2-8 (not 1). Also, some elements can only be put in a slot on a specific level of the grid, and some can only be equipped by a character with the same innate element color, which I shall explain next.
Each character has an innate element color, meaning that they can use elements of their color much better than characters of other innates. For instance, Kid is red innate, so when she casts fireball, it’s more powerful than if Serge cast it. However, each element color has its opposite: red and blue, green and yellow, white and black. This means that Kid would be least effective using blue elements. This also means that Kid would take more damage from blue elements cast at her than others would, but would also take less damage from red elements. In an odd twist of fate, every enemy also has an innate element color, so using elements of the opposite color would hurt them more, and using elements of the same color would be less effective.
You also need to take into account the field color. At the top of the screen is a little oval with three sections, each of which is a color. As you use elements in battle, the color will be added to the rightmost section of the meter. As elements are used, the previous color will be pushed up to the center section and then the left section and then will disappear. By turning the field all one color, you can enhance the effect of all elements of that color and decrease the effect of elements of the opposite color, though this is easier said than done.
This all allows for a great deal of strategy, but you may be asking, “How do I use elements in battle?” The answer is pretty simple, really.
As you successfully land attacks on an enemy, your element bar goes up, sort of like the inverse of the stamina bar. A successful weak attack increases the gauge by 1, medium by 2, and strong by 3. As each level of the gauge is highlighted, spells you have equipped in that level and below become available for use in battle. So long as you have at least 1.0 points of stamina left you can use an element of any level (though using any element takes off 7.0 points of stamina, and you CAN go into the red). However, as soon as you use an element, your element gauge goes down by that level, meaning if your gauge is at level 5 and you use a level 2 element in your turn, your gauge will drop to level 3. Oh, and you can only use each element once per battle, so after you use your Uplift in the top slot of level 1, for instance, you can’t use that one again until next battle. However, nothing’s stopping you from putting another Uplift in the second slot and using that.
Then there are tech skills, which are usually learned at a certain star level. Each character has a tech skill of his/her/its innate color with its own function. Aside from one character, each PC has a level 3, 5, and 7 tech, though frequently the level 7 tech must be found later in the game. Techs work exactly like elements, except that you cannot unequip them.
In addition to permanent elements, there are some consumable elements such as tablets and capsules, which function a lot like healing items in other games. You can allot up to 5 of them in any slot of their level and use them just like elements, except that once you use one it’s gone until you find another one. It’s a nice twist on the old item system and I like it.
Finally, there are the summons. I mean, c’mon, what’s a Square game without summons? Summons are elements that you either have to win or find in order to use. Each Summon can only be equipped on a character of the same innate, and only in a level 6, 7, or 8 slot. To use a Summon, you have to have the entire field be the color of the summon’s element, as said before, not an easy task. Summons are impressive, graphically (surprise) but they also pack quite a whollop, especially against foes of the opposite innate. What’s more, if you defeat enemies with a summon, they leave behind “shiny” materials which you can use later in the game to forge powerful weapons and armor. The only strange thing about summons is that they temporarily drop your Star Level, meaning your magic attacks are slightly less powerful. This can be remedied by sleeping at an inn, however, and since it’s very difficult to actually use a lot of summons, it’s not something to worry about really.
Before getting off of the battle system, there are a few more elements to it: the experience system and running away. The experience system worked well, I must say, though it was quite ambiguous. As you defeat enemies you don’t gain tangible experience points. Every now and then you’ll increase some of your stats such as HP or defense after defeating enemies (usually bosses) but there really doesn’t seem to be a consistent rhyme or reason to it. On the other hand, I was never at a loss for stats, and as long as you remember to defeat all the enemies in your path (or at least most of them) it’s pretty much fire and forget.
The other aspect I mentioned is running away. Now why is this so interesting? Mainly because you can run away from bosses! That’s right, if you don’t feel prepared for a boss fight, you can run away and prepare for it, hell even go back to town and rest up or fight some more enemies. It’s even possible to run away from the final boss, which makes Chrono Cross one of my favorite games right there. I love this ability and it has saved me more than once, so remember it.
The penultimate aspect of gameplay I want to address is the weapon and armor system. It’s actually not a “system” per se, but creating new weapons and armor is. It’s a lot like Legend of Mana in which you forged weapons and armor using materials you found or purchased, only it’s a lot less open. You don’t have room for creativity as there are a set of weapons and armor that you can have forged at the story. It’s a lot like just buying stuff, except that the currency is gold as well as bone, fang, eyeballs, iron, etc. It was a little annoying at first, but I think it was a clever idea, all things considered.
In the end, the gameplay came together quite nicely to form a coherent whole. The battle system never got lame or tired, though finding more powerful elements after a certain point was dern near impossible. The whole summons system I felt was waaaay too difficult to use effectively or even slightly often. Maybe Square got one too many angry letters about FF8 or something. Other than that, though, everything worked surprisingly well together and managed to be original without being annoying.
Okay, so now we know that CC has a great plot and great gameplay, what’s next? Great graphics, of course! Simply put, Chrono Cross has some of the sweetest graphics any polygon-lover could hope for on the PSX. On the maps, the characters move almost as smoothly as sprites, especially in some of the cutscenes and flashbacks. Out of battle fight scenes had so much detail in the movement of the characters that I almost thought it was hand drawn animation. The characters performed physical actions that I have never seen RPG poly-people do before, from sword fights to calisthenics. The only problem with the characters is that you’re often looking at them from far away and overhead, so their true detail doesn’t show as often (maybe that’s the point?)
Next you’ve got the in-battle graphics which were quite impressive. Serge wields his swallow weapon beautifully and he’s so detailed and his movements so fluid that I was really dumbfounded. The other characters animate quite smoothly as well, regardless of their proportions. Enemies are designed quite well, and the bosses are HUGE when they need to be. Elements attacks are nice, for the most part, though nothing incredible. The only real exception are the summons which are impressive to say the least. I personally like Saints myself. The pyrotechnics department went all out on summons, and I guess it’s easier to appreciate when you’re not bombarded with them every five seconds (and when they don’t last for hours). Oh, and just make sure to notice the use of light and shadow in battles: it’s niiiiice.
The backgrounds are all prerendered areas and they all are unique and have their own feel. The Dragonian fortress is eerie, while Termina is as much a thriving port city as Dalton or Meribia are in Lunar. Most indoor locations can convey a sense of grand space without being unreasonably huge, and most outdoor locations are bigger than a breadbox, which is good, but they should have been larger, if just to give a proper sense of scale to everything.
But of course, we have to discuss that one aspect that Square is so famous for: CG cutscenes. Though they’re not as frequent as in some games, they are not so sparse as they were in Xenogears, and each one is a masterpiece to behold. The animators made the panther demon look so real, and the direction in the movies was generally very good. However, some places in the game could have used more cutscenes (and maybe a voice actor or two, hmmm?) but otherwise no complaints.
But wait, there’s more! The music, that oh-so-important part of the RPG experience, is wonderful in CC. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda whose previous works include Chrono Trigger and Xenogears (two of my favorite soundtracks of all time) once again brings us fabulous compositions that range from light and festive to dark and depressing. Radical Dreamers, the music in Fort Dragonia, and of course, the Home World overworld music, which was remix of the Chrono Trigger main theme, were all just great and I’m sure that they’ll become new classics in the near future. The only downside was the battle music, which, while nothing bad, just got tired after awhile. If there had been a different battle theme like they did in Wild ARMS 2 and Grandia I would have been happier, but the rest of the music made up for it in spades.
The quality of the instruments was quite good too. The piano sounded authentic, and I just had to like Nikki’s electric guitar, but maybe that’s because I remember hair metal bands of the 80s. I’ll get the OST, most assuredly, and if they come out with something arranged, I’ll get that too. Chrono Cross ala Brink of Time would blow me away.
The sound effects were neither good nor bad. They love a good tinkle sound effect, I can say that much. Battle sound effects were above average with each weapon having a different effect. The swallow slashes differently than the knife. It’s definitely nice, and, on a final note, they make good use of echo in desolate areas and battles.
Before I get to my overall assessment of this game, I want to mention a little something about the controls. First of all, I don’t have a dual shock controller, so I can’t rate the dual shock function. It’s there, however, as the game allows you to choose it. Overall the control is average, but the one sticking point for me was searching the background. You really have to be right next to something facing right at it to get the proper results. This can range from looking at a pot to jumping on a lilypad, and I just wish that the controls were a little more forgiving when it came to that. Also, in battles, targeting is a little difficult since when you move the pointer, it alternates between characters in your party and the enemy party. So by accident you may cast an attack element on your friend, a healing element on your enemy, or just target the wrong enemy that turn. Control could have been simpler there.
So what’s the final analysis of the final title of Square’s Summer of Adventure lineup? Damn good, I must say. With a killer plot, good character development, loads of references and connections to Chrono Trigger, tons of elements and secrets, great music and sound, great graphics, and, of course, multiple endings through a New Game + option, this has probably been my favorite RPG since Xenogears, and you KNOW I don’t say that lightly. Outside of the control, Chrono Cross is damn near perfect, and I sincerely recommend it to everyone who has played and enjoyed Chrono Trigger, and those of you who want a little something new in your RPGs without sacrificing playability. Definitely one of the best games of the year.