Thankfully, I Played This First.
Thus, the roughshod treatment of the beloved Chrono Trigger was unknown to me.
Ape’s Ranking: #5/100
This is my favorite video game of all-time. Just like its plot, I’m full of contradictions: it’s story is a mess, there are too many characters, non-boss fights are useless. While Chrono Trigger avoided pedantic discussions about time travel, Chrono Cross does the opposite by twisting so many convoluted plot devices in a knot that you could read gobs of timelines from fan historians and still not get it. I’ve never seen a sequel so irreverent of what came before it.
Thankfully during the Summer of 2000, I only vaguely knew about Chrono Trigger, so I was able to enjoy Chrono Cross in a vacuum. It’s a game of amazing atmosphere, music, and imagination. If you are able to float at a superficial level without trying to run everything to ground, you are treated to wonderful philosophical questions about free will, meaning, and fate.
Also, this is the best video game soundtrack of all time.
A typical day in Arni village, Serge awakens late for a play date with fellow teenager Leena. To make it up to her, as she now has to babysit, he goes to collect Komodo dragon scales to make her a beautiful necklace. As they sit on the beach reminiscing, Serge starts to feel funny. A vortex of sorts overcomes him and becomes unconscious.
He awakens at the same beach, but Leena is disappeared and things feel…odd. He returns to Arni village, but now no one recognizes him, even Leena. She says that Serge died years ago and that his grave is at Cape Howl. Serge visits his own gravesite to see that she’s telling the truth. He is visited by two factions who knew he would be there: Karsh who is working with Acacia Dragoons and Kid a cavalier thief.
The rest of the game is trying to tease out Serge’s role in history. Why does he no longer exist in this world? Who should he trust?
To do my due diligence, let me recapitulate everything that is wrong with this game.
The story is one that you have to look at with askance. Things get widely out of control and if you really sit down to try and make all the connections, I don’t think you can. My mind was able to populate the plane between thinking about the important question it poses but not over thinking the slight of hands it uses. If you are going to come unscathed from this mess of a story, I suggest you try and do the same.
The game also boasts a large cast of characters. Spoiler alert: most of them don’t matter. Already drowning in character choices, one particular scene occurs where 4 more people join in rapid succession. ENOUGH ALREADY. Outside of the three main characters (Serge, Kid, Lynx) there is a secondary tier where people have peripheral influence (the dragoons, a pirate) but those are only a handful. The other forty playable characters are placeholders Hell, one of your character options is a hispanic pastor who dresses up as a WWE wrestler. COME ON!
Finally, the game does not use a level up system. Instead, you get stars with each boss fight that gives a boost to every character. This is the only way to make progress in stats. Random Encounters outside of boss fights don’t accrue any type of points, so there is no reason to even get into fights. Most of the game is trying to escape touching enemies (they are visible on the screen, so at least it isn’t random), but I found it a better use of time to run away than actually fight. Not exactly what I want out of my RPG battle system.
Best Video Game Soundtrack.
Yasunori Mitsuda deserves a medal. I’ve never seen a soundtrack bolster so much that is wrong in a game. Every defunct game mechanic is extinguished by his amazing ability to let your mind drift away to other realities using music alone. Instead of getting caught up in the irrational plot holes, one gets carried away by the abstract feelings he captures.
Take for instance, this:
If there has ever been a song that signifies the start of an adventure via a boat to explore with high optimism, here it is.
Or how about when you cross dimensions, discover your death in another world, and have to clamor to find meaning again. You are confused in this mysterious land as heavy questions weigh your heart. Try this song on:
It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mood and the feeling. Wherever the plot fails, the music rises to the occasion to make you feel the way you should. Usually, each game has a couple tracks that make our spirits sore. This game is four-discs worth of perfectly crafted music. It never stops.
Chrono Cross borders on fine art. While the polygonal characters look horrendous, the stylized background still captures the imagination. The point of playing an RPG is to be transported somewhere else, to lose your self so much in the world-building that you don’t question it. The style rings true through and through.
The Split of Time.
Where Chrono Trigger was concerned about what happened forwards and backwards on a continuous timeline, Chrono Cross asks what happens if time split off into two parallel universes. The story makes you jump back and forth between both dimensions, and the differences begin to accumulate. Nestled throughout, there are vignettes of people’s lives who grew different directions. This was such a unique vehicle for narration.
We meet one lady working in an isolated village in a small restaurant. She dreams of being a famous poet. In the other dimension, even though she is at the same restaurant, she no longer has ambition. Same person but with two very different feels: one of hope and one of despair.
The same goes for a playable character Van. He is a child who in one dimension doesn’t appreciate his distant and rich father. In the other, his dad is extremely present but poor. Van is still unhappy. What a cool way to present the moral of “The Grass Is Always Greener” and how some are never happy.
Breaking the Fourth Wall.
This really makes you think about yourself and your meaning in life. The superficial stories are the most impactful, and it makes you reflect on your own choices in life and your free will in them. The best plot twist of the game (if you don’t think too much, of course) is when you find out you have been manipulated via FATE: the very save points you have used throughout the game were actually computers that manipulated you to do the will of the programmer.
Not only did your characters get duped, you did. I haven’t felt such a post-modern sense of instability since Metal Gear Solid 2 when the game told me to turn of the game off, and I actually did it (Yes, I felt stupid). I felt betrayed until I realized the point of playing a game is to be manipulated and have your choices corralled and planned for by a “creator.” These thoughts and ideas are why I so easily ignore specific points about execution — this is a heavy game, man!
After beating the game, I spent the afternoon with a special someone in a hammock looking at the wind through the trees on a gorgeous day. It’s a time and place I’ll never return to (I’m on clinical rotation in a smaller town), and after going through such a heavy game dealing with time and meaning, I soaked up every second. It’s one of the few games that carried over into real life — it has actually affected me as a person, and taught me to embrace feeling and imagination.
While there isn’t much incentive to get into battles, the twist of the classic 90s RPG format was perfectly done. You have a choice to either go for a min, mod, or max attack, but they each have a tiered % chance of hitting and consume proportionate stamina. This means the player can decide how risky they want to be: either going for a couple of big swings with high risk of missing or several, small, guaranteed attacks.
Successful attacks charge up your element which is equipable magic in Chrono Cross. If you are planning to fire off a particular one, this means you have to plan how much risk you want to take with physical attacks — if you keep missing the enemy, you’ll never charge up your magic.
This interplay was smart, and made the fights which were important intriguing due to the decision making.
Fetch Quest Done Right.
Chrono Cross has its fair amount of fetch quests, too, but they do it the right way: it’s not just about the item, it’s about unfolding more of the story. To get into the Dead Sea, you have to get the fiddler crab. Then once you get that, you find the path is blocked by an evil sword. To deal with that, you have to go get a special sword. Both of these are fetch quests in nature, but along the way, you learn more about the characters and story.
With the fiddler crab, you see the whole back story of three peripheral characters and learn more about the history of the Demi-humans. While trying to get the special sword, you learn more about the dragoons and the history of even more of the peripheral characters. They didn’t feel like fetch quests because I was interested by the side-stories.
Still my favorite game of all-time, but probably just because of the music.
Other People’s Takes:
- Video Games of the Oppressed: “Chrono Cross is a wonderful example of both how a game can successfully empower its players and also a cautionary tale to why a creator needs to trust their audience and actors.”
- RPG Square: “The soundtrack of Chrono Cross is an amazing composition. It’s melodies are both complex, yet simple, but are always mesmerising”
- World Walker: “Is Chrono Cross fun? Yes. But players expecting the same experience of Chrono Trigger are going to be disappointed.”