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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Chrono Cross

The highly anticipated sequel to what was arguably Square's crowning achievement on the SNES.  But was Chrono Cross worth the five year wait, or is this one sequel that strayed too far from what made its predecessor a smash hit?

Chrono Trigger is a game that needs no introduction - any RPG fan worth their salt can tell you that it's one of the finest games in the genre, if not the best ever made, and carries with it not only well-polished gameplay and a solid storyline, but a genuine sense of fun in its fast-paced design, well-written characters and overall sense of humor.  This is probably in no small part thanks to possessing art design by Akira Toriyama, whose quirky humor and propensity for over-the-top action is on display in almost everything he creates, and of course the stellar writing of Masato Kato, visual direction by Tetsuya Takahashi and an amazing soundtrack Yasunori Mitsuda only added to its appeal.

Naturally, with as much of a hit as it was, the sequels were inevitable.  First was a text adventure styled game released for the Bandai Satellaview in 1996 called "Radical Dreamers", which followed three new protagonists as aspiring thieves seeking a jewel within a well-guarded manor and confronting a villain named "Lynx".  While Masato Kato was ultimately unhappy with the quality of this work (even denying it a release alongside later re-releases of Chrono Trigger), this would later serve as a basis for the full-fledged sequel released in 2000, Chrono Cross.  Indeed, the main characters of Dreamers - Serge and Kid - became that game's main protagonists, Lynx became its primary antagonist, and Viper Manor is a key setting in the early stages of the game.

With as big of an impact as Chrono Trigger's visuals and music had, it was inevitable that its sequels would try to follow them.  Chrono Cross certainly succeeds there, delivering amazingly detailed, vividly colored, fluidly animated 3D models that, in many cases, don't even look like they should be possible on the limited hardware of the Playstation.  Yasunori Mitsuda returns to provide music as direction as well, and his soundtrack here is absolutely stellar, with many even regarding it as the best soundtrack ever composed for a video game.  While I don't completely agree with that sentiment, there is no denying that Chrono Cross' soundtrack is a master-class of design; each and every track lends tremendous atmosphere to its environment (my personal favorite being Shadow's End Forest) and helps the player truly get immersed in the game's world.

But while the game's visuals and audio presentation are undeniably extremely high in quality, it doesn't take long for returning players to realize that Chrono Cross bears very little resemblance to its predecessor, either aesthetically or in terms of gameplay.  Akira Toriyama's distinct art style is nowhere to be found here, and the gameplay, rather than being fast-paced active time battles, is now a turn based system that takes a few cues from Xenogears, letting the player mix weak, medium and strong attacks together in various combinations.  Weaker attacks have a higher chance to hit, while stronger ones have a much higher chance to miss and cost more time units, but as one lands more successive hits in a turn, the hit chance of stronger attacks will rise, lending to an overall strategy of leading with some weaker hits and working up to stronger ones to inflict maximum damage.

The game's magic system is also significantly overhauled.  While Chrono Trigger used a traditional MP system and most spells in the game were themed around one of four elements (Fire, Ice/Water, Lightning and Shadow), Chrono Cross now uses six - Fire, Water, Air/Nature, Earth/Lightning, Shadow and Light, each of which has a defined opposite.  All spells in the game fit into one of these elements, and each character comes with a spell grid where elements can be equipped and cast once per battle (divided into seven tiers of power).  Each area the player ventures through is themed around one of these elements as well, which determines the starting "field effect" in the corner of the battle screen.   Each time a spell is cast, one of the three spaces on the field effect will change to that color, and the more of that color there is on the field, the more effective spells of that element will become (and the less effective the opposing element will be).  Thus, controlling the field's element plays heavily into the strategy of many battles, particularly later in the game.  This also plays into the collection element of many Square games; some particularly powerful spells can only be acquired by setting "traps" to capture them and add them to one's own repertoire.

Another element that sets it apart from Chrono Trigger is that the game does not only feature multiple endings (many of which can only be accessed after a first playthrough), but even numerous paths through the main story.  While the overall plot remains the same regardless, the player has the option to take a different route at several points in the story, which often leads them to an alternate dungeon or a new area with a different set of characters to recruit.  While ultimately nothing spectacular, it was a pretty unique feature for the time, and does lend the game at least a bit of replay value.  Also coming in handy is that, after being cleared once, the game unlocks a feature that allows the player to slow down the game with the L1 button (in order to appreciate the elaborate combat animations) or roughly double the game's speed with R1 (to get through dungeons and mundane battles quicker).

A new crafting system plays a prominent role in the gameplay now too.  While some can simply be purchased, the majority of weapons, armor and accessories in the game now also require the player to collect a number of components from enemies and chests, and turn those over at shops to create new equipment.  These start off relatively easy to find (Copper, Iron, monster fangs and feathers, et cetera), but late game it proves more troublesome, with most of the best weapons and armors requiring rare Rainbow Shells and six types of "Shiny" components, the latter of which can only be earned by defeating enemies of a specific element with a summon.  It's easy enough to make one's way through the game focusing on only a few characters, but if you wish to fully deck out the entire cast, well, you'd best be prepared to spend a lot of time farming materials.  Thankfully, this isn't as grindy as you'd expect - most every item is found in a logical place (furs, bones, humour from monsters, screws from robotic enemies, et cetera) and you'll win them frequently as prizes in battles.  Shiny items are a bit trickier, requiring you to defeat normal enemies with Summon elements (which in turn can only be cast when all three field elements are the same color as the summon), but these are also relatively easy to set up, particularly late-game when you get elements that turn the entire field element a solid color.

One slightly frustrating change comes with the reworked gameplay, however, namely that the player's growth is capped at any given stage of the game.  Defeating bosses earns the player "stars" that allow them to increase their characters' stats through subsequent battles, but once they've hit a certain plateau, their growth will stop dead until they defeat the next boss in the chain and earn another star. This can be a bit frustrating one's first time through the game, particularly if a player inadvertently picks the harder path at a fork and is stuck there, trying different combinations of elements and characters and refighting the same boss over and over until they eventually manage to win out.  The game itself is seemingly aware of this as well, allowing the player to run from any battle they encounter (even bosses) in order to speed things up or abort a failed attempt at a boss.

While Chrono Trigger had a relatively small cast of playable characters (seven in all), each was separate and distinct enough to give the player plenty of options for each fight, and all contributed to the overarching plot in their own way, making them all feel like an indispensable part of the larger narrative.  Chrono Cross, on the other hand, has a significantly larger playable cast (45 characters in all), which is just a touch excessive; virtually every character in the game with a portrait, sans the main villains, can be recruited in some way or another.  However, most are given little to do in the overall story (if anything at all) and have little in the way of personality outside of a few unique attack animations and possibly a unique accent (applied to character-neutral bits of dialog during key scenes).  In a game like Suikoden, a large cast was more in line with the overall theme of the game (building an army, staffing a castle and ultimately taking the fight to an evil empire; and even if a particular character had little relevance to the main narrative, they at least felt like they were serving a purpose in the grand scheme), but here it just feels like a flimsy excuse to show off more flashy animations than anything.  Confusingly, several of these characters also bear strong resemblances to the playable cast of Chrono Trigger, but have absolutely no confirmable link to them, as if they were just repurposed remnants from earlier drafts of the script (Guile, for example, was famously supposed to be the first game's Magus, but this was dropped in a later revision).  In this case, making Serge a silent protagonist is a pretty big detriment to the story - Crono could get away with it in the original game because he was mostly a stand-in for the player, having little overall impact on the events that unfold but taking the journey alongside the rest of the cast as they grow and learn.  Here, Serge is very much a central character to the plot and his entire arc is about his unexpected role in the past and in events to come; leaving out any real development or personality for him is a pretty big and noticeable absence.  Moreso when this same company recently produced Final Fantasy VII - a game which wouldn't have been half of what it was without making Cloud an interesting, multifaceted and flawed protagonist.

The titular mechanic of time travel - Chrono Trigger's most well-known and famous plot element - is also conspicuously absent in its sequel.  Instead, much of the game is centered on a theme of parallel worlds, most prominently featuring the character's home world and an alternate one where his counterpart died as a child.  Later on other realities also begin creeping in; some of which even draw cues from some of Chrono Trigger's endings (such as the potential future where the Reptites become the planet's dominant species).  This definitely lends itself to some interesting moments, but sadly feels underutilized overall, only really coming into play in the last quarter or so of the game as an afterthought.  A lot of disparate ideas that never quite come together to create something grandiose, which is a pretty apt description of the game in general, really.

But the most significant difference of all is the game's tone.  While Trigger had a pervading sense of fun in spite of its darker themes and occasionally grim moments, Cross attempts to take a more philosophical approach, with very mixed results.  Several prominent characters frequently quote Nietzsche, many riddles are spoken and much of the dialog comes off as overly flowery and more than a bit pretentious.  Indeed, the game seems to be more interested in impressing the player with its "smart" themes rather than letting them get invested in the overall storyline or characters, hoping they won't notice a lot of the dumber bits of writing and logic in the game.  It feels like Masato Kato wanted to make his own Xenogears after he and Tetsuya Takahashi found some success with that game and its pervading use of biblical, Jungian and Freudian themes, but completely missed the subtlety and strong writing that allowed them to work within Xenogears' overarching storyline.  Instead, Cross's themes push themselves to the forefront, seemingly trying to distract from the lackluster characters and script, which clearly didn't get anywhere near the same level of care and attention from the writers.  It desperately tries to sound smart by using big words and heavy themes rather than actually doing anything interesting or subversive with them, and the act ain't fooling anyone.

At the end of the day, Chrono Cross, despite being billed as a sequel to Chrono Trigger, bears almost no resemblance to its predecessor.  Its gameplay is entirely reworked, there are very few returning characters or themes from the original (and what few there are only get a pittance in terms of screen time) and many of the writing decisions made within are more than a bit baffling. It's in the same boat as Final Fantasy VI for me, feeling like a large mishmash of ideas that are often good individually, but which don't quite fit together into a cohesive experience. The fact that they actually had to retcon many elements into the DS rerelease of Chrono Trigger so that Cross's plot would make some semblance of sense speaks to this, as does the fact that Cross throws in so many characters and plot threads for the sake of content, but gives so few of them any satisfying arc or conclusion.  Chrono Cross is still an entertaining game with moments of inspired design, fun gameplay and a brilliant presentation, but it proves to be a disappointing sequel overall, especially for those who still regard the Chrono series' inaugural game as one of the most tightly designed, brilliantly executed RPGs ever made.

Developer: Squaresoft
Publisher: Squaresoft
Platform: Playstation 1, Playstation Network, Playstation 4, PC, Switch, XBox One/Series
Released:  2000, 2011, 2022
Recommended version:  Honestly, they're all about on-level with each other (with the PSN version of course being an emulated port).  The "Radical Dreamers Edition" is a rather strange remaster, though, as there are only the barest-minimum of improvements made over the original.  There are redrawn portraits for the characters (which look quite good), but the "high-resolution" backdrops just look like they were ran through an online upscaling tool, complete with awkward-looking smoothed edges that don't blend quite right.  The 3D models look almost identical to the originals, though with cleaner edges owing to the antialiasing; they even still have that PS1 "jitter" even when characters are standing still.  The FMVs still have the familiar graininess and artifacting that was present in their PS1 counterparts, so no real change there either.  Strangest of all, the framerate isn't improved at all from the PS1, with a lot of noticeable slowdown and frame-skipping during the bigger, flashier moves, and even fluctuating as you move around the maps.  Basically, it feels like you're just running the original version in a third-party emulator with some upscaling options on; the only notable difference being the few token enhancements common to other modern Square ports (like the ability to toggle encounters and autosaves).  You also start the game with the Time Shifter (a New Game + feature in the original), which lets you slow down or speed up the gameplay with the shoulder buttons.  On the upside, this version does include the "original draft" of Chrono Cross (Radical Dreamers, formerly exclusive to the Satellaview), so it's nice to own for that if nothing else.