Let me begin by admitting that Chrono Cross is an okay game. Its greatest flaw is that it sits in the shadow of its predecessor, Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger was and remains a revolutionary RPG. It included complex consequences of time travel and revolved around interesting characters from different eras all working together to prevent the end of the world in 1999. It introduced a simplistic but addictive battle system centered on character combos. It can also be cited as the first game to really popularize New Game Plus mode, which allowed players to revisit their choices in the game and access the fourteen-or-so different ending with characters leveled in previous playthroughs. Chrono Trigger is a jewel in the crown of the most heralded RPG games alongside titans like Final Fantasy VII. It wasn’t until 1999 that players saw a long-awaited (however unnecessary) sequel to Trigger, and it came in the form of Chrono Cross on the Playstation. While Cross is full of ambition, artistic talent, and creativity, it falls short of Trigger in almost every way.
The humble seaside village of Arni sets the stage for Serge, our silent, headband-wearing protagonist. One day, while reminiscing on a beach with a lifelong friend, Serge is transported to another world seemingly identical to his own. In this world, however, Serge perished in the sea as a boy. When Serge discovers that he can travel between the parallel universes and that a mysterious figure named Lynx seeks to use this power, he begins his quest to seek out the truth about himself, his worlds, and (in some measure) all existence. I feel begrudged to put a spoiler warning on a fifteen-year-old game, but there it is. As the story progresses, its connection to the previous game becomes a bit clearer but is, in the end, more of a tack-on than a significant addition. I couldn’t help but feel that the creators wanted to make their own, unique world and story with science-fiction elements, achieved that goal, and then needed to string in the Chrono Trigger connection. The game also prides itself on profound questions about fighting against one’s fate, but later hammers it in a bit too hard to the point of preachy.
Serge picks up a huge cast of characters (depending on your choices and side-questing abilities) each with varying degrees of story involvement and depth. While this is a plus as far as character customization and replayability, very few characters really interact with the main storyline in a significant way. In other words, each character feels a little less important as you pick up more. Chrono Cross’ world is set along the isles of El Nido, which is a diverse and lush world; each island is brimming with color and things to explore and the two parallel universes only expands that space to explore, albeit they are visually similar. As beautiful as the game is for its time, sometimes the complexity of the artwork makes navigating certain areas difficult. Knowing exactly where one can walk and cannot walk often causes confusion. The game’s plot structure is at best a little unforgiving and at worst puzzling. It is easy to miss events both major and minor throughout the game and I often found myself unsure of where to go and what to do without the help of an online guide. Suffice it to say that I only just beat this game, but have owned it since its release.
The battle system is another beast altogether. While Chrono Trigger boasted an easy-to-learn, easy-to-master battle system, Chrono Cross’ is an entirely different monster; even explaining it here feels daunting. Once an enemy is engaged in the over world, the three party characters engage in a turn-based battle in the battle screen (much like classic Final Fantasy games). Each of the three characters has a bar which fills up as time passes and depletes from physical attacks. On a character’s turn, they can physically attack enemies with a combo made up of weak, medium, or strong attacks each with varying accuracy within the limitation of their “move bar” for lack of a better term. On that same turn, characters can also use one elemental move. Elemental moves (ranked by level) are picked up in the game or purchased in stores and are placed on a series of grids for each character separately (again ranked by level). Depending on the attack combo successfully completed, characters can use elements of higher and higher grids.
On top of that, the game’s elements are separated into four colors: green, yellow, blue, red, white and black. Each color represents an element and, depending on a character or enemy’s innate element, they are weaker to the opposite element. For example, a red (fire) attack is strong against a blue (water) character and vise-versa. All that explained, the game does very little to make what is an overly-complex battle system clear and, even until the end of the game I found placing elements on grids a struggle (there is an automatic option that never really did the trick for me). The color system makes battles incredibly intense because your strongest ally against a monster will also be the weakest ally. At the same time, increases in character stats are not for every battle and see the biggest increases during boss battles. This act makes random encounters less significant and grinding seemingly pointless. The complex battle systems, towering element grids, scant stat increases, and equipment options make keeping characters at-the-ready for battle a chore. While the minutia of character optimization may appeal to some, I was constantly reading guides and stressing over small elemental decisions to stay on top of the game, which always presented a challenge.
Chrono Cross is a curiosity, an under-loved and estranged little brother of one of the greatest games of all time. It has little to no resemblance of its past whatsoever and so, cannot bear the weight of its heritage. While Trigger offers a small, fleshed-out cast with a simplistic style, Cross offers an impenetrable system with a bloated, underdeveloped cast. As beautiful as the world, music, and character design is, the story takes what is an interesting conceit and complicates it by tying it to the game’s predecessor. After finishing the game, I was confused, underwhelmed, and exhausted from following a walkthrough page after page just to get through the game. I recommend playing Chrono Trigger, and giving Chrono Cross a wide berth or curious, passing glance.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames