Chrono Cross (PlayStation) review
"...a fine example of how to push a console to its technical limits and players to their emotional ones."
Let it never be said that the talent at Squaresoft doesn’t know how to begin with a rollicking introduction. It’s hard to go wrong when the beginning of your Japanese Role Playing Game features top notch 3D rendered cutscenes, intensely memorable music and a fascinating opening set piece. I’m not sure how Yasunori Mitusuda does it, but the opening introduction always churns a mightily wistful melody - and I’m not ashamed to admit I tear up listening to it.
Mitsuda’s talent is rare, and it’s clear that Squaresoft - before the merger with Enix - was trying for a repeat of the dream team that developed the timeless classic, Chrono Trigger. There are so many reasons why this top drawer production fails to achieve the acclaim of its predecessor. Well, there is the SNES Japanese only release Radical Dreamers, but that’s more fascinating for its lore, aesthetic choices and music than anything else. It too was doomed to obscurity.
My Mom and I were hot off the heels of Final Fantasy IX, which I’ve lovingly covered in the past. That pinnacle of success overshadows Chrono Cross for as many reasons as it stands out, which I’ll get into shortly. Mainstream appeal is - in my humble opinion - the art of balancing the new and the innovative which is no mean feat. Unfortunately Chrono Cross fails in this regard, but before we get into why that is, let’s look at the premise and game mechanics.
Understand that your favourite tropes can be found here; there’s a girl who - in spite of being a world renowned thief - ends up needing your help, as the young male protagonist. Chrono Cross inherits some of Trigger’s qualities, such as a voiceless hero, which can feel awkward, but is actually cleverly played into the story. Hint: You know things aren't right when he starts talking. Chrono Cross has all kinds of narrative tricks up its sleeve, and it’s worth playing just to learn from them.
You are Serge, a rambunctious seafaring islander who has a penchant for acquiring allies and serving as a link between dimensions. That’s the “Cross” in the title. Instead of travelling through time to "Trigger" events that have consequences that affect specific instances, you are the nexus where possibilities intersect. In Cross there’s no landscaping or building of bridges, since the focus of consequences is the interactions between peoples and races in this world.
That aforementioned cute girl is Kid, and once you’ve locked in the name for the hero, you’re introduced to a curious tower that looks like stacked slabs supported by carved dragons on each face. From there you get to know Kid and a third, randomized character chosen from a selection of 45 potential allies. If it sounds like too much to manage, just try and imaging there being another twenty and a selection of 120 possible endings.
Intersecting and intertwining paths is Chrono Cross spectacular hook: A character tree with more branches than you can shake a stick at. The two main characters are fixed, as mentioned, but during your journey a plethora of interactions with objects, people and the world will decide which characters you can recruit into your party. It is overwhelming, honestly. I never had the heart to abandon Kid in the beginning, so Leena never became an option - ever. That's just one example of how one loses access to recruitable party members.
That said, Cross doesn’t shy away from tough choices, or brutal consequences. There’s one early on that isn’t too spoilerific if you’re curious about it - and could well peak your interest, so I’ll get into it, but I’d like to address combat, since it’s one of Cross’ shining - or defeating - moments of innovation, depending on your perspective. Reset your expectations, because this one eschews typical combat almost entirely.
Like Final Fantasy VII and others before it, Cross has your character running around an overworld that has three layers: The world map, small locations such as Cape Howl and the Hydra Marshes, and then combat, which takes place in a fully polygonal space of decidedly third generation console fidelity. The Playstation’s limited polygon budget has a tendency of tipping its hand where interactables are concerned. If everything in the room is smooth except for the chin of that dragon statue, chances are you need to figure out what role it plays in your progress.
The developers were - naturally - versed in the PSX’s peculiarities, so they’ve planted a number of false positives when the situation is relaxed enough that it doesn’t break the tension. Likewise, key events are always fixed, but usually reached with multiple paths that involve making choices about who you’re going to recruit in order to accomplish said goal. For instance, in order to sneak into Viper Manor - for answers, not treasure you cheeky thief, you - choosing from amongst two allies is your first taste of world shifting consequence. There's Pierre, the conceited swordsman or the suave magician Magnus.
Pierre’s plan for entering Viper Manor differs from Magnus’ plan as you storm the gates instead of climbing treacherous, treasure laden cliffs where boulders hurled by the watchmen might send you tumbling to the bottom. Why your presence doesn’t raise alarms is puzzling, but it does speak to Cross’ misanthropic relationship with cause and effect. For instance: With forty-five characters to chose from, how many of them have an impact on the outcome of the game?
None. A handful of them unlock access to materials you’ll use to craft top tier rainbow weapons - no joke - but otherwise the only reason to unlock characters is to see how events change when you do. The dimensions I mentioned are just two, and for the most part mirror each other by reflecting different outcomes of military power. As such you can recruit the double of one character and have them meet their mirror self. This can be amusing, but doesn’t extend far beyond “You are a Norris from another world.”
Nice observation there, blondie, but ... now what? Narratively, those dead ends mean most characters aren’t worth acquiring because the story isn't going to stray so far from those key events, previously mentioned. Not to say there aren’t a few gems: Pip is the trademark adorable puffball and actually changes appearance depending on what elements you have him use.
Oh yeah, combat. See, it’s this high degree of branching complexity that loses players, because honestly, who can keep track of so much, even when motivated to do so? Combat, on the other hand, is actually easy to master and I quite enjoyed it. There are three components you need to keep track of: Health, elemental level and field effect. Quite a contrast to the overblown roster of choose-your-questionably-applicable-hero.
I can’t really understate how elegant the balancing act of managing the risk vs reward system is in combat, once you get used to how things work. In a nutshell, you choose from three levels of attack. Think ‘soft, medium, hard’ where the first always has the highest percent chance to do damage. Each attack has a numerical value that you use to build up the level charge for casting elements, which are your items and spells.
Mastering combat is undoubtedly the most enjoyable thing to do in Chrono Cross, and even presents the challenge of figuring how to obtain the highest level elements. This means learning the field system in which the colour of the field is changed in three ringed sections according to the order and colour of the elements cast. With six elemental colours to manage, it does require some strategy when you encounter even mid-level bosses.
That’s another thing: You can’t grind for levels here, instead your heroes just level up in small amounts as necessary when fighting tougher enemies. Bosses also give you a substantial boost and stars to use for top-grade special summoning elements. As a result you can encounter areas that are too tough for your party, but I found that to be a very minor issue that I could plan my way out of. There are also ways of acquiring weapon materials ‘early’ to give yourself an advantage, for a little while.
Now that we’ve covered Chrono Cross’ strengths, I wanted to get back to that not-so-spoilerific example of consequence quandary. Most of the time consequences in this game make sense and don’t seem out of place, but this rather harsh instance does. It’s actually a sore point with fans, as well. Sigh. Enough prevaricating.
When Kid, in dire straits, needs your help you have but one means of saving her. It’s a key event, and the story won’t progress until you do this. I name dropped Hydra Marshes for reason, since it’s where you obtain the necessary curative. A beast that is extinct in “Another World” is alive and well in “Home World”, where Serge originated from. Naturally, you’ve got to slay the beast and bring its fluids back to restore Kid to health.
This is where things get ugly. What I didn’t mention was the dwarves who defended the Hydra, who block your path. So, you all but wipe them out in order to achieve your goal, and they declare vengeance. Except, here’s where it gets questionable. They apparently swim on over to an island of faeries and proceed to enact genocide upon them all. This was harrowing for my Mom and I, and we spent months searching for a way to prevent it.
The short answer is "you can't."
As a writer I understand the rationale, but I definitely don’t agree with its implementation. There are too many failures in logic for it to be feasible, and it comes off as social commentary more than a natural consequence of poor choices. Logic in a dimension hopping game? You must be mad! Look, either cause and effect is universal, or its trivial. How would I have done it differently? That’s not an easy one to answer, because ultimately the player portrayed as being in the wrong.
I see this question as a largely cultural one. How fair is it for us to survive when others die, if all life is precious? A reasonable question that can only be answered personally, and the perspective of this story doesn't jive with my belief that everything has a purpose. In terms of story execution, the point is forced and heavy handed, because there never was a peaceful option for the player.
We never get to see how it could have gone differently and thus the player's heroics are damned as thoughtless and even destructive folly in spite of its hopeful resolution at the end. Why bother saving time from the Devourer if all you can do is crush and destroy? Absolutely yes violence is horrible and even senseless, but these consequences would have had more impact if they had branched that path instead of extending it for the legions of forgettable characters who exist for almost no reason at all.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic I have to ask: Is the point really that the only way the faeries can live is if the dwarves don’t?
Alright, enough of that noise. The very fact that Chrono Cross raises these questions speaks to its status as a classic. It wasn't a rarity in its heyday, and I find it difficult to recommend by virtue of combat, graphics and music alone. Artistry of this quality serves a platformer well enough, but an RPG needs a solid payoff for me to declare it worthy of revisiting, or even taking on for the first time. The accent system underlines the third wheel character dialogue, which in turn becomes interchangeable mush that renders the beautifully drawn cast into a largely forgettable haze.
Is it perhaps ironic that it is maintained by opportunity over other RPGs that better deserve the spotlight? At the time no one did branching paths as well, and it was a technical achievement experienced only on platforms such as the PC. If you do choose to dive in, you can pick this one up cheaply for digital download on the PS3 and PS4. Alternatively, it can be easily emulated for higher graphic fidelity, or gasp played on authentic hardware. However you slice it, this controversial example of the genre continues to be a fine example of how to push a console to its technical limits and its players to their emotional ones.
Community review by hastypixels (November 24, 2018)
At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.
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