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Capsule Review - Chrono Cross

Title Chrono Cross
Developer Square
Year 2000
Platform PSX
Capsule Rating
Capsule Review:

When Chrono Trigger was released for the Super Nintendo in 1995, it was almost instantly recognized as one of the all-time pinnacles of the RPG genre. Thus, when Square announced plans for a sequel, excitement ran high among gamers, all the more so because Chrono Cross (as this sequel was named) was to take place in the same world as Chrono Trigger, and even feature some of the same characters in certain scenes. Instead of time travel, however, the game would concern dimensional travel. It was very promising, and we couldn't wait. After all, what could be better than a new game that had the vibrance, fun, and creativity of Chrono Trigger? Well, in 2000, the wait was over. Chrono Cross came out, got some pretty good reviews (the GIA, then the leading RPG news site, gave it a perfect score), and sold a bunch of copies, even reaching number one on the video game sales charts. Unfortunately, even though Chrono Cross offers some decent gameplay, it is a great disappointment.

The gameplay in Chrono Cross is centered around the "Element" system. One Element is basically equivalent to one cast of one magic spell. So, if you have a Fireball Element, and you equip it on a character, then that character will be able to cast Fireball once per battle. Give the character two Fireball elements, and you get two casts. You get the picture. Elements are distributed among six colour-coded categories, generally corresponding to the usual RPG magic categories: fire, ice, lightning, and so forth. This introduces a bit of strategy into the game, which usually consists of having to decide which Elements to give to which characters. Some Elements are more compatible with certain characters than others; in fact, certain Elements can only be equipped on certain characters. This is a pretty good system, with a reasonable balance of individuality and customizability.

The problem has to do with the speed at which the game plays. Chrono Trigger was far more fast-paced. If you recall, the battles in that game took place on the same screen as exploration; furthermore, when characters were ready to attack, their menus would pop up right next to each other, allowing you to move between them faster; battles took no time to set up, the results took about two seconds to display, and the action itself moved along swiftly. Not so in Chrono Cross, which does away with the most distinctive gameplay element of Chrono Trigger by making battles take place on a separate screen. This means that every time you encounter an enemy, you have to watch an animation and a bunch of flying camera angles as the battle begins, then once you're done, you have to listen to a victory fanfare and go through a few screens of results, much like the recent Final Fantasy games. This slows down the game somewhat, as do the various battle animations themselves; though the spells don't take as much time as Final Fantasy's summons, they can be fairly tedious to sit through if you're watching an enemy casting the same spell multiple times in a row.

Chrono Cross's solution to this problem is to make regular battles all but optional. You don't gain levels in this game; instead, your stats are increased after each boss fight. You can still get minor bonuses by fighting a few regular battles from time to time, but often, you can just avoid all the enemies you see and not miss out on much. That works pretty well, but the flip side is that, when you are forced into a regular battle, it's all the more tedious because you know that you won't be getting anything out of it. Also, the game ramps up the difficulty on the boss battles as a result, usually by letting bosses use three Elements in a turn or something like that. This can draw out the running time of the battles, but shouldn't present a problem to the seasoned gamer.

In addition to the Element system, the game has an equipment system like most other RPGs. It's pretty complicated, too - your weapons and armour require certain "materials" to make, and you can't buy these materials, you have to find them or win them from enemies. The thing is, there are so few different levels of equipment that it's a little hard to understand why they bothered with the whole thing - you can make Ivory, Bronze, Iron, Silver and Stone equipment, and if you spend a little extra time looking for special materials you can make Rainbow equipment, but that's about it. The same goes for the money system: you get money after each fight, but there's not too many uses for it, because you can't buy any of the most powerful Elements, and you won't be making equipment often enough to spend most of what you earn.

So what's the game about? Let us recall that the plot of Chrono Trigger revolved around time travel, between such periods as 2300 AD, 600 AD, 1000 AD, 12000 BC, and 65000000 BC. The end of the world was meant to take place in 1999 AD, but luckily, the time-travelling heroes of the game managed to alter history and prevent the Apocalypse. Well, time travel is also involved in Chrono Cross, with the added complication of dimensional travel. This complication makes for an overabundance of trivial detail, and man oh man, does Chrono Cross love its trivial detail. Consider the following. Part of the plot concerns a certain scientific laboratory which was "summoned" back in time all the way from 2400 AD. The trouble is, this allegedly happened before the heroes of Chrono Trigger altered history, so the world was already in ruins by 2300 AD, a full century before this laboratory was created. The game's explanation for this is that the laboratory was summoned from another dimension in which the world was never destroyed. If that sounds nonsensical, well, the beauty of stories about time travel is that their plots can be manipulated into any device without the need for a rational explanation.

The main character, Serge, is important to the story because of his connection to something called the Frozen Flame. The game never really adequately explains what the Frozen Flame is, but presumably it has all kinds of super powers, making Serge a very significant individual. Apparently, as a result of his relation to the Frozen Flame, Serge becomes the only person on earth capable of fixing the supercomputer in that futuristic laboratory. It needs fixing, you see, because it was equipped with a rogue circuit that enabled it to rebel against itself. I don't see why the supercomputer was built in such a way as to be able to hinder its own operation, but then again, I'm not sure exactly what the purpose of the supercomputer was in the first place. I think it was supposed to prevent the end of the world, which is strange, because it had been built in a dimension where that had never been an issue.

If your head is hurting by now, then surely you see my point. I'm sure that someone more attentive than myself could write up the plot of Chrono Cross in an understandable manner and explain to me that everything makes sense and is internally consistent. I'm sure it does make sense. I just think that, when a plot consists of so many paradoxical and technical details about how the supercomputer and its rogue circuit were summoned back in time, it just doesn't matter whether it's internally consistent or not. All of these plot points aren't relevant to anything. They're presented as dramatic revelations, but there's no actual drama in them, just a bunch of meaningless and pretty dry details. There's nothing dramatically compelling about the fact that the supercomputer was summoned back in time. If it had been summoned forward in time instead of backward, it would make no difference to the player. There's nothing wrong with extremely contrived plots, but in a good story, an extremely contrived plot is used as a vehicle for some emotional content. For example, in Chrono Trigger, time travel and magic were vehicles for the personal stories of Frog and Magus. The plot wasn't interesting because Magus travelled in time, but because of his personality and enigmatic manner. Chrono Cross doesn't have that, so it tries to interest you by spinning this incredibly tangled maze of plot points.

The presentation of the plot is just as muddled as the plot itself. For instance, the game opens with a dream sequence in which Serge, the protagonist, runs around a fortress looking for Lynx, the main villain. Of course, at this point, the player doesn't know what this fortress is, or who Lynx is, or who the people with Serge are, or why Serge wants to fight Lynx. Eventually, Serge finds Lynx, which leads to an FMV of Serge grinning evilly and looking down at a bleeding body. The player doesn't know who the body is yet, or why Serge or Lynx would kill that person, or anything about what is going on. This sequence is revisited later in the game, when it makes more sense, but as the opening sequence of the game, it conveys no information, because the plot hasn't even begun yet, and thus fails as foreshadowing. Unlike the opening of Xenogears, it isn't self-contained; because the sequence deliberately omits certain details that would allow one to understand what the hell is going on, there is no coherent dramatic progression. Unlike the opening of Final Fantasy VII, the sequence doesn't have much speed or intensity, either, so it fails as action, too. Thus, it could easily have been cut, and the game could have started with Serge waking up in his room.

The game does stuff like this all the time. Characters talk about somebody's "plans," oblivious to the fact that the game never really bothered to lay out a coherent explanation of what those plans were. At one point, Serge is told, "We... No... Everyone worked to save the planet's future for nothing... It's all because of you! You killed it! You...!!! So many lives were supposed to be saved... This planet was to be healed with love, hope, and dreams...!" The thing is, from what I can make out of the plot, Serge didn't kill "it." And what is "it," anyway? And how did Serge kill it? The game doesn't explain.

In addition to the vagueness, the game often adopts a philosophical air. The trouble with that is that its way of being philosophical is to repeat empty sentiments over and over. Take this monologue, for instance: "I have been waiting an eternity... just for this very moment... Meaninglessly hurting one another... The disappearing life-forms... The words that become deleted... The thoughts that become buried... The pool of cells that slowly evaporate... The echoes of consciousness that slowly fade... Love to hate... Hate to love... Why are we born? Why do we die? Evolution? The 'survival of the fittest?' What is there to be achieved from harming one another... killing one another..." First of all, this is pretty bad from a purely stylistic point of view; I have a hard time taking a metaphor like "the words that become deleted" seriously. But more than that, it's completely meaningless. Quick, try and tell me what the thesis of the monologue is. What is "the pool of cells that slowly evaporate" supposed to be a metaphor for? The fleeting nature of life, perhaps? What do love and hate have to do with that? What evidence is there to suggest that we "love to hate" and "hate to love"? And, okay, why are we born? The writers appear to think that stating a question is the same as actually exploring it. And that bit about "harming one another" is repeated multiple times throughout the game, usually before whoever says it tries to kill you.

To be fair, Xenogears and Vagrant Story did stuff like this fairly often, too, and those are excellent games. However, I would submit that both games compensated for these moments of inanity by a brooding atmosphere and a large amount of memorable characters and settings. Xenogears particularly took painstaking care to develop its characters and let them interact among each other. Not so Chrono Cross. The designers opted to follow the path of Suikoden by putting a total of 44 playable characters into the game. Most of these are fairly useless both in battle and out of it - you're not likely to use the mermaid Irenes, the housewife Macha, or the vegetable knight Turnip very often. Perhaps it could have been worthwhile to make these characters NPCs; then they could have added colour to the world of Chrono Cross without weighing your party down. As it stands, though, they all have battle animations, and special attacks, and portraits, and yet no effort is made to flesh them out. They have practically no lines aside from what they say when they first join you. Hell, even the very central characters are like that. Initially, Serge is shown as having a love interest named Leena, but then he meets someone named Kid, and later, the sage Radius has a line implying that Serge is in love with Kid. Now, this could have been grounds for some character development (a love triangle a la Lufia 2, perhaps), but the game just doesn't bother. There is a grand total of ONE occasion when Serge and Kid sit down to talk to each other outside of a battle context, and even that sequence is short and easy to miss. Prior to Radius' comment, there is nothing to suggest that Serge and Kid are more than strangers to each other. Sure, Serge displays some concern for Kid in some plot points, but it makes no sense that he'd do that because they never come across as being close. Compare that with Final Fantasy VII, which featured several scenes where the characters could just sit down and talk about their lives.

Granted, Chrono Trigger didn't have much of that either, but it did have very distinct personality types. And even it had a scene where the characters camp out in a forest and talk about their journey together, which happens to be one of the best scenes in the game. Chrono Cross has some potentially interesting characters, too. It just goes nowhere with them. For instance, early on, you meet a knight named Glenn, who is worried about his family and joins you because he wants to look for them. This seems to point to some character development, except he has no lines in the game after that. He seems to be interested in a woman named Riddel, but they only have one brief exchange which goes nowhere. (Incidentally, Riddel is one of the most developed, and thus most interesting, characters in the game. At the very least, she gets a few flashbacks showing some of her past.) There's a fellow named Guile, who bears a few similarities to Magus. Unfortunately, after you help him win a wager, he says nothing of consequence ever again. There's a scientist named Luccia, who appears to be a friend of Lucca's. Ah, you think, this could lead to some awesome plot threads in which we learn more about her and get to see Lucca again! But no, she just tells you that she used to know Lucca, and that's it. You get the idea. Every character in the game is a wasted opportunity. The funny thing is, the localization of Chrono Cross is extremely good. Not only is the dialogue translated well, but it's translated into numerous different dialects (so, Kid talks with an Australian accent, Luccia with a Russian accent, Glenn speaks very formally, Fargo talks like a pirate, and so on). It's the reverse of what it used to be: games like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears were awkwardly translated, but had interesting characters, whereas the characters of Chrono Cross all have distinct accents, and yet have nothing whatsoever to say. True, Suikoden didn't develop all of its 108 characters either, but then again, Suikoden concentrated on certain themes about history and loyalty, whereas all Chrono Cross has to offer in that regard are those empty monologues.

Since I brought up Lucca, let's talk about the connection between Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger. After all, I'll bet that that's what the Chrono Trigger fans were mainly concerned with when they got this game. Well, most of Chrono Cross is pretty irrelevant to Chrono Trigger. You don't even get to revisit any of your old stomping grounds. The setting of the entire game is, instead, the "El Nido Archipelago," a small group of islands separated from the rest of the world. These islands didn't appear in Chrono Trigger, so it's like you're in a totally different world. The game does throw you a bone once in a while in the form of familiar names, like Zenan, Porre, and Guardia, but it never explains what happened to any of these places. This makes the world of Chrono Cross seem extremely small; it consists of just four towns (one of which is a tiny fishing village) and a bunch of little unpopulated islands. These islands are affiliated with six elemental Dragons. This plot device has no relation to Chrono Trigger (although the game makes a half-hearted attempt in the end, which involves more tedium about stuff being summoned from the future), and in fact appears to have been plundered straight from the LUNAR series. As in LUNAR, you have to go from dragon to dragon at one point to receive their "blessings." There is no point to this other than giving the player something to do; it is the archetypical fetch quest. So not only does it have no bearing on the world of Chrono Trigger (which presumably is the same as the world of Chrono Cross), but it doesn't add much to the game.

Despite these departures, the main plot point of Chrono Cross is taken straight from Chrono Trigger. It is the long-awaited resolution to the story of Schala, the Zeal princess who disappeared without a trace during the confrontation with Lavos that occurred in 12000 BC. This is revealed in a special ending which you can only get by beating the final boss of Chrono Cross in a certain way. Unfortunately, it's the game's biggest disappointment, and only highlights the aesthetic differences between it and its predecessor. So, for instance, it turns out that Schala somehow managed to clone herself, and you meet this clone during the game (I won't reveal who it is). Unfortunately, this is not presented in any even remotely convincing way. See, in Chrono Trigger, Schala was in a way the emotional centre of the whole game. When we all witnessed the destruction of Zeal Kingdom in Chrono Trigger, it was Schala that elevated that scene from a plot point into the realm of genuine tragedy, because her gentleness and kindness provided a counterbalance to Zeal's arrogance; she exemplified the human, sympathetic qualities of Zeal. Because of her, we weren't just watching cartoon bad guys get their just desserts; we were watching a refined, educated civilization, capable of greatness as well as malice, meet its death. Schala's subsequent disappearance gave further emotional weight to the game because it tied in to the inner torment of Magus, Chrono Trigger's compelling antihero. But in Chrono Cross, Schala's clone is the antithesis of Schala, and lacks all the qualities that made Schala such a vital figure. In fact, the clone has a downright crude and irritating personality, made worse by the lack of character development. You have no idea how much it pissed me off to learn that this was really Schala. Look, I know it may sound silly to discuss the "plausibility" of plot points in a game about dimensional travel, but it is simply not believable that these characters could be one and the same. Thus, equating them is meaningless, and carries no emotional significance. Bringing Chrono Trigger's plot up like this is just a way for the designers to score a few easy nostalgia points with older gamers, at the expense of the older game, without bothering themselves to try to equal that game.

Other old characters make appearances too. For instance, during some scenes pertaining to the futuristic supercomputer, we meet Prometheus, a name that all of us remember from Chrono Trigger. At the very least, this is less unpleasant than Schala's appearance in the game, because even though Prometheus only gets two lines in the whole game, both of them are fairly in character; you could imagine the old Prometheus saying stuff like that. However, the game deals with him in a perfunctory manner, like it only needed him to say his two lines so we'd all get the Chrono Trigger reference. In some way, it serves to invalidate the role of what was a poignant and memorable character in the old game. Lucca also figures in the plot; her end is never explained, but she's given an even more cursory treatment than Prometheus. Masa, Mune and Doreen come up, too, but they only say a couple of lines; you never even get to see the guys, and there isn't any interplay between them like there was in Chrono Trigger. (A pity, since Doreen's only monologue in Chrono Trigger was much more witty, and substantial, than anything anyone ever says in Chrono Cross.) The Masamune also makes an appearance, except in Chrono Cross, it's a murder weapon and a sword of "negative" energy, id est, the exact opposite of what it was in Chrono Trigger. Even in a small detail like this, the game is out of character.

The soundtrack is by Yasunori Mitsuda, whose career got started on the strength of the Chrono Trigger score. Unfortunately, sometime between the two Chrono games, game music underwent a change in aesthetic. Once, RPG soundtracks were built around short but highly melodic loops, with distinct instruments and musical phrases. Toward the end of the PSX era, however, RPG music became more dependent on the game setting; it consisted of vague, formless but pleasant sounds that acted as a sort of auditory filler. So, while running around an environment, the player would be aware of hearing something that sounded appropriate to the environment, but didn't really stand up on its own as music; RPGs began to incorporate ambient sounds into their scores a lot more, around this time. Well, Mitsuda's Chrono Cross soundtrack is more from the latter category than the former. For instance, the battle theme has an appropriately "orchestral" sound, but doesn't really have much of a tune; it just sort of bangs along, to raise one's adrenaline. It pales next to Chrono Trigger's propulsive, concise, bass-driven electronic battle theme. The same goes for the softer tracks, too. They're all soft and pretty, no doubt, but there's nothing as peacefully melancholy as the ending theme of Chrono Trigger, nothing as unworldly as the theme of Zeal Kingdom, nothing as serene as the overworld theme from 1000 AD. There are, however, a few decent moments, like the surprisingly catchy theme of Gaea's Navel, and of course, a few remixed melodies from Chrono Trigger pop up, forming the highlights of the soundtrack.

Is it fair to give Chrono Cross a negative review on the grounds that it isn't Chrono Trigger? Yes and no, I would say. On one hand, it's true that Chrono Cross is a stand-alone game, of course, and it may seem inappropriate to condemn it based on some qualities of a totally different game. However, Square did make a conscious choice to associate this game with Chrono Trigger. This was hardly necessary: change a few cutscenes, and Chrono Cross could easily have been released as "Serge's Quest." By putting "Chrono" in the title, the designers knowingly placed their game in a series with one of the all-time great RPGs. The reputation of Chrono Trigger assured heightened attention toward any new game under the Chrono name. The designers deliberately made use of that name to attract that attention; moreover, they even dug up plot elements from Chrono Trigger and used them in their game, in order to strengthen the link between the two games. If so, I think it's only fair to also bring Chrono Trigger into consideration when evaluating Chrono Cross.

If you're new to RPGs and haven't played Chrono Trigger (ten years have passed since it came out, after all, so it's sadly all too possible that the newest generation of gamers is unfamiliar with the classics), I'd advise you to play Chrono Cross, then get an emulator and play Chrono Trigger; I think it'd be instructive to observe the vast difference between the games. If, on the other hand, you're someone who grew up on Chrono Trigger, then I'd advise you to preserve your memories and stay away from Chrono Cross.