Perhaps one of the most popular console RPGs of all time is Squaresoft’s SNES classic, Chrono Trigger. Released in 1995, it became an instant classic, with great graphics and music, an intriguing yet lighthearted plot, fun gameplay, and amazing replay value.
When Square announced that they’d be creating a sequel to Chrono Trigger, many were skeptical. How could they take one of their most beloved properties and make a sequel? Would they use the same characters? How would it integrate with the Chrono mythos? Would it be any good?
Chrono Cross was released in mid-August to much fanfare – possibly the most anticipated Square RPG in months. Was it worth the wait? Definitely.
Chrono Cross tells the story of Serge, a teenage boy living in the village of Arni. He awakens from a hideous dream, unaware of his future. While talking with a friend on a nearby beach, Serge discovers himself transported to a world where things were different – where events ten years prior permanently altered the path the world was to take. Meeting up with an adventurer named Kid, Serge sets off on a journey that will ultimately affect the fates of two worlds.
The plot is one of the strongest aspects of Chrono Cross, and fans of Chrono Trigger will not be disappointed at all. In fact, if you haven’t played Chrono Trigger, make a point of doing so before you pick up Chrono Cross – having knowledge of the events of the first will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the game. While the relevant aspects of Chrono Trigger are explained within the game, it’s a case where prior knowledge is best.
The characters are generally memorable. Rather than limiting the cast to a small number, however, there are a total of 43 playable characters. It’s impossible to recruit all of them during one trip through the game, which adds a lot of replay. Furthermore, most of them are useful, and worth experimenting with. While the total number of characters leads to a lack of real development for many of them, it’s nice to give players the choice as to which they want to use.
There’s only one problem with the plot of Chrono Cross – the pacing. There are some incredibly memorable scenes during the game, but they’re spaced out. There are several instances where there’s a major plot point followed by some generally mundane tasks to accomplish. The last few hours of the game are also noteworthy – so much plot information is given at once that Chrono Cross rivals Xenogears in this regard. If the plot had been spread out more evenly, Chrono Cross would be perfect, plot-wise – but as it stands it can be quite overwhelming if you don’t take time to think about how things are relating to each other. It’s not a huge deal, just slightly over the top.
Dialogue deserves a special mention. The translation is perfect – I can’t recall seeing an instance of something being badly translated or incorrect. Even more impressive is how the accents were translated – each character has their own way of speaking, or their own dialect, which is consistent throughout. Whether it’s Kid’s Australian accent, Harle’s French accent, or Poshul’s lisp, you can often tell who’s speaking simply by their choices of words. Even more impressive is that each character has unique event dialogue. Kudos to the translation team – they’ve done a wonderful job.
Nobody can accuse Square of neglecting graphics in their PlayStation games (as many critics have pointed out). Chrono Cross again redefines what can be done on the aging PlayStation hardware, and is a feast for the eyes – even after playing games on Dreamcast or PC. Colors are extremely vibrant – very few areas are anything but well lit and colorful. Dungeons look nice, and the overworld maintains the beautiful simplicity that was one of Chrono Trigger’s trademarks.
Rather than fighting battles on the field, like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross uses the typical circular arena found in recent Square games. The amount of detail in the arenas is very impressive, though. The character models, animation, and enemies are all extremely well done as well. Weapons look different as you upgrade, some looking truly fierce. Character animation is great, with multiple attacks, a few spell animations, and individualized techs. Spells carry on the Square tradition of being fun to watch; yet they generally take less time than in recent games – greatly helping the flow of gameplay.
FMVs are also extremely good, though they’re actually quite limited – they only take place during important events, generally aren’t that long, yet still do their part.
The music is another area where Chrono Cross excels. Yasunori Mitsuda has produced yet another amazing soundtrack. For the most part it stands alone, yet many songs are reminiscent of songs from Chrono Trigger, and some songs even include bits and pieces of the old songs. The instrumentation is amazing, and pushes the sound capabilities of the PSX to their limits. It’s a truly astonishing soundtrack, with only a few flaws. A few tracks were disappointing, such as the normal battle music, but overall it’s one of the best soundtracks on the market.
Sound effects are also very nice. Weapons have distinct sounds befitting their natures – crisp sword slashes, resonating frying pan blows, and even harp notes. Spells also sound nice, and feature a nice contrast between bass and treble. Footsteps ring out, the sound of water flowing and birds chirping, and other ambient noises help to augment the beauty of the music. Overall, it’s a superb effort.
No game would be complete without good gameplay, though, and Chrono Cross doesn’t disappoint – even though it includes some radical gameplay changes.
For starters, there are no experience points, and no levels. Instead, there are “growth levels”, which are represented by a star. When you fight battles, afterwards you gain HP and possibly some other stat upgrades (strength, agility, accuracy, etc.). There are limits, though. When you defeat a boss, you gain another star, and your maximum values go up slightly. In this manner, you become more powerful as you go through the game, without the hassle of having to level up. It’s an interesting design decision, and works out wonderfully – since the designers know about how strong you’re going to be at any given point, they can design enemies and bosses that will challenge you, but not overwhelm you. Furthermore, all characters – not just the ones in your battle party – get more powerful as you progress, so you’re not forced to stick with certain people just because they’re the only ones you’ve powered up.
The “run away” command has also been modified from other RPGs – no matter what you’re fighting, you have a 100% chance of running away. Taking a pounding in battle? Need to change your element grid or swap in a different character? Just run away, do what you need to, and come back. Moreover, there are no random battles – all enemies are visible on the map, and you can avoid them if you wish.
As such, fighting normal monsters is almost unnecessary. If you don’t want to fight regular enemies, just avoid them and run away if you want – it’s your right. You’ll miss out on having slightly better stats and always be low on cash and items, but it’s viable to do so.
Weapons and armor are handled similarly to Final Fantasy VIII. Aside from finding items in treasure chests, you go to blacksmiths to forge new weapons and armor. All you need are the proper materials – which can be found or earned from enemies – and some cash, and you can get a new weapon or piece of armor. Furthermore, when you’re done with a piece of equipment, you can disassemble it to get the base materials back for use in other equipment. It’s a system that works wonderfully, particularly given the number of characters – if you need to switch to a character and they don’t have a good weapon, you can make one for them and take it apart later. The only limiting factor is the amount of money you have. Naturally, the best equipment uses extremely rare materials and is extremely expensive, so it’ll require some work to get them.
There are six intrinsic attribute colors in the game, forming pairs – black and white, red and blue, and yellow and green. Each character has an intrinsic color, as do all spells. A white attribute character will do best when equipped with white elements, and do the most damage to black attribute characters – but are also more vulnerable. As such, it’s often necessary to shift your party around to take advantage of the attributes of enemies, which is quick and easy.
Elements are new here too. Elements are the blanket term for spells and character techniques. Each character has an element grid that gradually gets bigger as you go through the game – there are 8 levels, and one character may have many low level slots, whereas others may have few low level slots and many higher level element slots. Furthermore, each element has a particular level and range. An element that is level 4, + or – 2, can go in any element grid slot from 2 to 6, with a corresponding boost or drain of power depending on their positioning. In this manner, you can make certain spells more powerful than they normally are if necessary. High level elements and summons can only be used by characters with the same color attribute as the element, which prevents one character from becoming a jack-of-all trades – diversity is needed for the best results.
Elements can only be used once per battle, however, which means careful planning is needed – for a strong boss, you may need to give your characters multiple healing elements, and be wary of running out. To compensate, there are also “consumable” elements – they’re gone when you use them (whereas normal elements recharge between battles), but you can stack 5 consumable elements in a slot as opposed to just one. Another special type of element is the “trap” element, which is designed to capture a specific enemy spell. If they use a spell that you’ve trapped, you steal it from the enemy for your own specific use. Traps are a great way to augment your element collection, and also have strategic value in preventing enemies from using some of their more powerful spells, but must be used wisely.
In battle, you also need to consider the field. When elements are cast in battle, the field indicator in the upper left corner will change colors to reflect what spells are being cast – the last three are kept track of. If three elements of the same color are cast in a row, the field becomes a solid color. This boosts all elements of that color, weakens those of the opposite color, and has one other major impact – summons. Summon spells are by far the most powerful spells in the game, but they can only be cast when the field is solid. It’s actually very difficult to use summons, because the enemies are also using elements, which can shift the field in their favor and prevent you from using summons. It’s something to consider.
Battles play out differently than in other RPGs. Rather than taking turns, each character has 7 stamina points. Like Xenogears, there are three types of attacks – weak, strong, and fierce. Each uses up varying amounts of stamina, and have different hit rates – fierce attacks miss much more often than weak hits. However, successful hits raise that character’s accuracy rate, so it’s common to use weak attacks to make sure your stronger ones can hit. When you hit an enemy, your element power level raises, and you can cast elements when your power level is equal to or greater than the element’s level (so a level 2 element can be cast rather quickly, but level 8 elements require several good strikes before they can be used).
Furthermore, so long as a character has at least 1 stamina point, you can use them. You can switch between characters with adequate stamina at any point, which eliminates the turn-based nature of many console RPGs. For example, you could have a character use up all 7 of their stamina points to fill up their element gauge, let someone else attack once, then immediately switch back to the original character to fire off a powerful attack element. By allowing you to use characters as needed, Square has greatly increased the flexibility – and fun – of Chrono Cross’s battle system.
Each character has three special techniques unique to them – level 3, level 5, and level 7 techs. The level 3 and level 5 techs are gained naturally as you progress through the game, but each character has a different method for gaining their level 7 techniques. Some are gained naturally, whereas others require specific tasks to be completed. As in Chrono Trigger, some combinations of characters have double and triple techs, which combine their various unique techniques into more powerful versions. They’re much less common than in Chrono Trigger, but they’re fun to look for anyway.
Finally, there are also Key Items. You gain them as you progress, and each has a certain use. You can use them at any time, but they only work in certain locations. One key item may help you recruit a character, another may get you a reward, and others are required to progress through the game. By letting you use them for yourself and experiment, Square has given the key items an adventure-game feel that’s fun to play around with – it can be hard figuring out where to use items, but it’s rewarding nonetheless.
Aside from the pacing issues covered within the plot section, there are a few other minor problems with Chrono Cross.
Some bosses seem extremely difficult because of a few particular spells. Instant-death spells and attacks are alive and well, and with revive elements being extremely few and far between, it can be very annoying when one spell wipes out your party without warning. It’s not extremely common, but can be a problem.
Moving equipment and elements between characters is generally time-consuming. The auto-allocate feature for assigning elements works great, but most players will want to fine-tune what’s been assigned to their characters, so you need to go through your element grid, find spells that were put in that you didn’t like, replace them, etc. It can get time consuming trying to re-arrange your elements every time you need to make a character swap – for whatever reason.
Talking to townspeople is also generally unfulfilling – I expected more in this regard. Walking into the village of Arni late in the game, you’ll find a bunch of people saying the exact same things they were saying when you first started. Sure, if you talk to everyone you can get some items, or possibly trigger side-quests, but for the most part, it’s something you’re doing because you’ll be rewarded, not because it’ll be fun.
The bottom line is this – Chrono Cross is the best PSX RPG we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s got amazing plot, wonderful graphics, an innovative and fun battle system, and a huge number of extras.
Replay value is incredible due to the branching plotlines, the number of characters to recruit, and – of course – the return of Chrono Trigger’s amazing New Game + feature. Yes, folks, you can replay the game to find new endings, do things differently, and even speed the game up in the process – all with your pumped-up characters. It’s a feature been sorely lacking in many games, but Chrono Cross’s design works perfectly for it.
What else can I say? If you loved Chrono Trigger, you’ve probably bought this game already. If you never played Chrono Trigger, try to find that first, and then play Chrono Cross.
Hell, just get Chrono Cross regardless. Get it now.