Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Square’s Chrono Trigger impressed many with a riveting event-based storyline, near-flawless gameplay, and arguably the best soundtrack ever composed for a traditional RPG. In fact, a sizable faction of Square fans is of the opinion that to this day, Chrono Trigger remains the popular software developer’s finest work. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Chrono Cross, the long-awaited sequel to Chrono Trigger, has been one of the most heavily anticipated games worldwide since the announcement of its release. The anticipation is fully warranted; the finished product successfully lives up to the legacy of Chrono Trigger and ranks as one of the finest traditional RPGs ever released.
In Chrono Cross, you play as Serge, a teenaged boy who resides in the fishing village of Alni. One morning, Serge awakens from a dream in which he explores a giant tower with some people he has never met in real life. The harrowing nightmare concludes with Serge stabbing one of his traveling companions, a female thief-type character named Kid. Is this dream a vision of the future? Only time will tell.
After Serge wakes up, his mother Margie reminds him that he is supposed to meet up with his childhood sweetheart Lena, who is waiting for him at Alni’s docks. As Serge arrives at the aforementioned rendezvous point, Lena greets him and asks him for a necklace made of Kodomo lizard scales. Serge, being the nice guy that he is, agrees to obtain the requested jewelry and sets off towards the nearby Lizard Grotto, where Kodomo lizards are rumored to exist in abundance.
Slowly but surely, Serge makes his way through Lizard Grotto, combing the area for Kodomo lizards and hunting them down as he finds them. After a while, Serge finally collects enough scales to fashion the coveted necklace for Lena. He heads over to Opasa Shore, where Lena said she would meet him afterwards.
Upon his arrival at Opasa Shore, Serge finds Lena and prepares to present the scales to her. However, he suddenly hears a voice in his head calling out to him, and before he knows it, he’s transported through some kind of mystical gate. When Serge regains his bearings, he sees that his surroundings are unchanged, but Lena is nowhere to be found. A passerby with a pet Kodomo lizard offers no help; he hasn’t seen Lena either. Confused and concerned, Serge decides to return to Alni in an attempt to locate the missing girl.
When Serge reaches Alni, he finds that it has changed drastically. Gone is the fishing theme of the small town, and in its place, flowers are everywhere. Serge decides to continue searching for Lena, and he finally finds her standing at her favorite spot on the Alni pier. However, for some odd reason, she doesn’t recognize him. As a matter of fact, she says that she had a childhood friend named Serge who died 10 years ago. Thoroughly bewildered now, Serge heads home to get some rest.
Home is no relief for Serge, however. Margie is nowhere to be found, and Serge’s 2 pet cats are gone too. Instead, a small dog is making its home in Serge’s living room, and a strange talking Kodomo lizard is playing innkeeper with his bedroom. As Serge leaves, a woman walks in, demanding to know who he is and what he’s doing in her house. To make things worse, she has no idea who Margie is and claims to have lived there for the last 10 years.
Throughout the remainder of Chrono Cross’ storyline, it’s up to Serge to discover exactly what has happened, and, more importantly, why. Like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross is blessed with a complex storyline that, from an event-based standpoint, is brilliantly written. Travel between dimensions is the focus here; although time travel is still a major theme in the game’s plot, you won’t get to do a whole lot of it in Chrono Cross. Fans of Chrono Trigger will be happy to learn that Chrono Cross’ storyline is closely tied to that of Chrono Trigger.
Loosely based on a Chrono Trigger spin-off game called Radical Dreamers, Chrono Cross boasts a strong plot, but its storyline as a whole is perhaps its weakest individual facet. Like those of Chrono Trigger, the characters in Chrono Cross generally receive minimal treatment in the development department. However, with over 40 playable characters in the game, this isn’t exactly surprising.
In addition, Chrono Cross’ storyline is at its most compelling when its shroud of mystery is maintained. In the second half of the game, when much of the mystery is revealed, the plot drops off a bit in quality. And some of the Chrono Trigger tie-ins at the end of Chrono Cross seem extremely contrived, as if the scenario writers just wanted to get some of Chrono Trigger’s loose ends out of the way instead of letting them develop more naturally. This makes Chrono Cross feel at times like little more than a Chrono Trigger side quest, albeit a complex and self-sufficient one.
Chrono Cross is extremely impressive in its visual presentation. Like Square’s most recent blockbuster, Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross features polygonal characters superimposed on prerendered backgrounds. However, the graphics are even slightly improved over those of FFVIII. The backgrounds hold the same amount of painstaking detail as those of FFVIII, but the color choice is a bit better in Chrono Cross. A wide variety of colors is utilized in Chrono Cross, and the colors used are aesthetically appealing as well.
In addition, the polygonal characters are slightly improved over those of Square’s previous prerendered project. Like the FFVIII characters, the Chrono Cross characters are realistically proportioned and drawn extremely well. However, they are drawn with even better detail and animate a little bit more smoothly than the sometimes-clumsy characters of FFVIII. They still get pretty blocky when they animate, but they’re probably the best polygonal characters in a prerendered RPG that anyone has come up with yet.
Chrono Cross also excels in its battle visuals. Unlike Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross carries out its battles in separate screens from the area maps. Fans of the original need not worry, however. The polygonal battle scenes are unprecedented in their level of detail, and blockiness in characters, enemies, and backgrounds is at an all-time low. The spell effects are well improved over those of Chrono Cross’ demo; they’re now every bit as spectacular (though not as time-consuming) as those of FFVIII and FFVII.
Fans of Chrono Trigger will be glad to see that Chrono Cross retains one aspect of its prequel’s visual presentation: the world map. The mostly enemy-free world map is very similar to that of Chrono Trigger, but is vastly improved in its level of detail, number of colors, and magnification.
The CG movies scattered throughout Chrono Cross are among the best yet seen in RPGs. Like the amazing FFVIII CG, Chrono Cross’ movies are smoothly animated and impressive in their detail, with characters displaying ample emotion on their faces. The quality of the movies is high; graininess is at a minimum.
Also noteworthy in Chrono Cross’ visual presentation are the unique character designs. Nobuteru Yuki takes the artistic reins from the Dragon Quest VII-occupied Akira Toriyama, and he seems to have thrown moderation out the window in designing some of the zaniest-looking characters to ever appear in a serious RPG. Many of the character designs are blatantly extreme stereotypes of different aspects of human culture, but on the plus side, they’re radically different in terms of appearance from the characters of most other RPGs. For example, the aptly named Slash is rock star guitarist who looks like a perfect fit for many a late ’80s hair-metal band. Jilbert looks like he should be in the WCW rather than an RPG. And the indescribably cool Lucky Dan looks like a cross between a candelabrum, a bale of hay, and the Pillsbury doughboy.
Even dragons, glaringly overused monsters in the genre, receive memorable treatment in Chrono Cross. The grotesquely obese green dragon looks like a giant winged toad (it’s a wonder how that thing gets off the ground), while the blue dragon looks more like a sea slug than the pedestrian RPG dragon.
If there’s a relative weakness in the visual presentation of Chrono Cross, though, it’s the character art. Much of the character art in the game is too cherubic for this reviewer’s taste. Yuki’s past works (such as Seiken Densetsu 3 and Record of Lodoss War) have featured stronger character art as well.
Although the character designs set Chrono Cross apart from most other RPGs, gameplay is where it truly establishes its unique identity. Although it in principle uses a turn-based combat system and you can see enemies before they attack, the Chrono Cross gameplay shares little in common with that of any currently existing RPGs that come to mind. And Chrono Cross’ battle system is not only innovative, it’s perhaps the best new battle system that has been introduced thus far in the post-16-bit era of RPGs.
Instead of being able to attack once per specific amount of time, your characters are constrained only by their stamina. In battle, characters build up stamina points over time, and each character can hold up to 7 stamina points. As battle begins, each character begins with the full 7 stamina points, and performing weapon attacks on enemies drains the character’s stamina. Weapon attacks can be dealt out in 3 strengths. Weak attacks are, well, weak, but they only cost one stamina point to execute and have the highest chance to hit. Medium attacks are middle of the road in hit percentage and damage and cost 2 stamina points to carry out. And strong attacks deal the most damage, but they miss the most frequently and cost 3 stamina points to carry out.
Like Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross introduces a radical new magic system that completely does away with magic points. However, Chrono Cross manages to steer clear of the more tedious aspects of FFVIII’s magic system, such as having to draw spells or having to manually re-junction individual spells and GFs at several points in the game. Instead, Chrono Cross introduces an innovative foundation for magic unlike any other currently in existence.
Dubbed the “Element” system, Chrono Cross’ magic system revolves around a plethora of individual spells that generally can be linked to any member of your party. Your characters each have multiple levels of elemental attacks; each level contains a certain number of slots that individual spells can be linked to. In addition, each individual spell has its own innate elemental level as well as an elemental alignment. Most spells can be placed into lower level slots than their innate elemental levels, but doing this will cause the spell’s efficacy to be reduced when the spell is cast in battle. Conversely, placing the spell in a higher-level slot than its innate elemental level will augment the effectiveness of the spell. Spells can be found in chests (like items) or gained as the spoils of victory.
In battle, each spell can only be cast once, but all spells are replenished after every battle. To execute elemental attacks (in other words, cast spells), your characters must build up their elemental meters. This is done through successfully hitting with the varying strengths of weapon attacks. The stronger the weapon attack that hits, the more the elemental levels are built up. The corresponding level (or a lower level) of elemental attack can then be performed. As the elemental attack is carried out, it uses up a corresponding number of levels in the elemental meter, forcing you to build up elemental levels again before being able to cast another spell.
Executing an elemental attack costs a full 7 of the aforementioned stamina points, but there’s a twist with elemental attacks that wasn’t present with the regular weapon attacks. Your characters can execute elemental attacks as long as they have at least one stamina point; however, if they don’t have the full 7, they go into stamina deficit. This means that you’ll have to wait longer than usual before they can perform any kind of action at all.
In addition, there’s a field effect meter. Using certain elemental attacks will bestow the surrounding field with a temporary elemental alignment, and the meter helps you keep track of this. Manipulating the elemental association of the field can be crucial, as some of the most powerful spells in the game (such as summon spells) require certain elements to be associated with the field before they can be cast. Enemies can also affect the field with their elemental attacks, so timing is an important component in setting up a field the way you want it.
Items can also be used in Chrono Cross. For an item to be used in battle, though, it must be placed into an elemental slot, thus precluding the use of a spell in that slot. In addition, items tend to be more inflexible than spells in terms of what elemental levels they can be placed in.
Like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross features combination attacks. These are executed in the exact same way that spells are, with the exception that all of the characters involved have to have the required elemental levels built up. Despite the large playable cast, combination attacks don’t seem to be overtly abundant in Chrono Cross.
One nice shortcut that Chrono Cross brings to the table is in healing your characters after battles. Like other RPGs, you’ll find a variety of healing items in Chrono Cross. Instead of having to use them manually, though, you are presented with healing options at the conclusion of a battle. You can choose to heal yourself, expending your healing items in the process, or you can choose to heal yourself without using consumable items, instead relying solely on surplus elemental levels and untapped spells from the preceding battle. You can also opt not to heal yourself at all and do it manually later.
Another major innovation that Chrono Cross presents is the elimination of experience points (at least in the conventional sense). Your characters are still built up through battling; however, attribute bonuses are directly bestowed upon them after certain battles instead of experience points being awarded and tracked through levels.
Like most RPGs, new weapons, armor, and accessories can be bought at smithies. However, Chrono Cross is highly reminiscent of FFVIII in that players will have to provide the required materials, too, before they can acquire the new goods.
Most importantly, almost all of Chrono Cross’ gameplay elements are executed exceedingly well. Chrono Cross’ gameplay is detailed and innovative, but it never gets bogged down in its complexity. The radical new experience point system does a great job in keeping the game’s difficulty balanced throughout its length. The battle system carries no significant execution flaws; even the potentially tedious field effect meter is dealt with quite well here. In battles, strategy holds much more importance than in most other RPGs. Battles can extremely easy if you use the proper strategy and annoyingly difficult if you don’t. Chrono Cross’ experience point system severely limits level-building, but because of the emphasis on strategy, it’s really not necessary to sit around leveling up. Even the more time-consuming aspects of the demo, such as the amount of time it takes to enter battles, have been significantly sped up.
Chrono Cross is fairly nonlinear in its layout, with minor storyline branches and a plethora of side quests. These elements are also carried out very well. In spite of the fact that players have a lot of freedom to travel to many locales, Chrono Cross does a great job of keeping its major events in order, so the plot almost always remains cohesive. The side quests yield useful items, rare spells, and playable characters. They also do a strong job of fleshing out the game’s storyline. Along with the minor storyline branches, multiple endings give Chrono Cross more replay value than the average RPG.
Like its predecessor, Chrono Cross features excellent control. Your characters can move in 8 directions in both the area maps and the world map, and a dash button enables them to move at a quick pace. In addition, your characters can move through mobile townsfolk. This is an excellent idea, since you no longer have to wait for a townie to move out of the way if he or she is blocking your passage to a particular location. The menus are appealing and innovative in their layout and design, and they’re well organized, too.
Control does have some minor weaknesses, though. Your characters have a tendency to bounce off of walls and other objects in the background, which helps them move through areas quickly but makes searching for hidden items and such needlessly tedious. They also occasionally get stuck on objects in the background. Finally, the non-combat menu commands are overtly responsive. A single light press of the confirmation button will sometimes send you through 3 menu screens before you know what’s happening.
Other than its near-perfect gameplay, Chrono Cross’ sound department is its most impressive individual facet. There isn’t any voice acting in Chrono Cross, but the sound effects are strong and full. The real strength of the sound department, however, is a spectacular soundtrack that ranks as Square’s strongest PlayStation musical effort yet. Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, who has lent his exceptional talents to past Square projects such as Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, Chrono Cross’ score amazes with sparse but brilliant arrangements and hauntingly memorable melodies. Highlights include “Chrono Cross”, the stunningly beautiful orchestrated opening theme, and the acoustic guitar-driven “Alni Village Home”, one of the finest town themes ever written. Fans of the soundtracks of both Chrono Trigger and Radical Dreamers will be pleased to hear that several of their elements, including the central melodies from each of their main themes, make their way into the Chrono Cross score. Although Chrono Cross’ soundtrack still doesn’t quite match up to the transcendent Chrono Trigger score overall, it’s perhaps the best soundtrack yet released in the 32-bit era of gaming.
The sound quality of Chrono Cross’ soundtrack is nearly as impressive as its composition. Most of the compositions sound almost as if they were played with real instruments, giving Chrono Cross the best music sound quality heard in a Square game since Soukaigi, which featured a redbook soundtrack.
Is there a weakness in Chrono Cross’ musical presentation? Relatively speaking, yes. Battle themes, ordinarily the highlights of RPG soundtracks, are among the weaker tracks on Chrono Cross’ score. Although they’re solidly composed, they’re not particularly memorable, and they fail to add much emotional intensity to the fights that they accompany. And the final battle in the game doesn’t even have any music accompanying it at all.
Overall, Chrono Cross is a complete success, living up to the lofty standards of its predecessor and firmly establishing itself as Square’s finest 32-bit entry to date. If you’re an RPG fan, don’t miss out on this one. Chrono Cross is one of the few games around that gets my highest recommendation.
A US release is expected sometime in the second half of the year 2000.