“What was the start of all this? When did the cogs of fate begin to turn?”
Few can argue the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom’s superiority when it comes to delivering top of the line role-playing games. With touchstones such as Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger, it becomes a difficult task for any other console generation to pass muster. That being said, the spirit of the role-playing game found new life, particularly so during the PlayStation era as Squaresoft followed its beloved Chrono Trigger with Chrono Cross in 1999. The game would not serve as a sequel (such factors would be problematic with time travel), but act as an extension of the universe. The result was a story with ambition and complexity rival to the prior year’s release in Xenogears. There’s nothing like revisiting the past to help remember the shortcoming of modern titles.
Chrono Cross is the tale of young Serge, a resident of the quaint fishing village Arni. With his would-be love interest Leena, he spends his days enjoying the nearby ocean which inexplicably becomes intertwined with his destiny. One fateful day, Serge blacks out near the shoreline and awakens to find Leena no longer present. When he returns home, the villagers explain that Serge died drowning ten years prior. Trapped in this foreign world and in search of answers, Serge encounters the charismatic young woman Kid who becomes deeply woven into his story. Together, they must find the artifact known as the Frozen Flame to set the worlds right, all the while thwarting the anthropomorphic panther Lynx and his jester companion Harle.
Square’s story is one that requires keen attention to detail and can be downright impossible to follow in one playthrough. Some might call such a story convoluted, but this is the reality of centering a narrative around the mechanics of time travel. Beyond the inconsistencies perceived by our linear understanding of time, there lies a well thought out journey that gracefully connects the Chrono games together. Cross never suffers from existing in the shadow of Trigger’s success. The plot and characters exist entirely of their own volition. That being said, understanding some of the finer points of this title’s tale is simply not possible without having some idea of what happened in Chrono Trigger. Square even plays with fan expectation by introducing characters such as Glenn to the cast who is a completely unique character, not the frog we once became friends with.
While Glenn is still a fascinating character in his own right, the same cannot be said for Chrono Cross’ unnecessarily large cast of playable characters. With the cast clocking in at forty-five characters, it was inevitable that select characters would take priority. The others, unfortunately suffer from an extreme lack of depth. Fortunately, many of these characters bear no weight on the plot and are completely optional. Those that are necessary for story progression are treated with far more care. Characters previously mentioned such as Kid, Harle, and Lynx are deeply complex figures with their own goals and motivations that serve to blur the lines of good and evil.
As with all RPG’s, time not spent progressing the plot is spent questing or in battle. Chrono Cross offers a lot of unique twists to the classic forms of combat and class archetypes. Each character possesses an innate element type as well as set stamina which corresponds to their elemental strength and ability to act in battle respectively. Characters can execute either weak, medium, or strong attacks with each consuming progressively more stamina while also having a lower chance to successfully hit. The experience is not turn-based and allows the player to switch between characters at any time so long as the character has stamina to act.
Another big change-up comes in the form of equipping items, skills, magic, and summons strategically to the party. After executing attacks, characters build points into his or her element grid which allows them to use abilities of a corresponding point level. A character with a red innate, for example, can use high level fire attacks. However, players must weigh using that character versus the opposing element faced in battle. The elements still correspond to the classic wheel of strength and weakness (i.e. ice is weak to fire; fire is weak to water). While you may grow fond of using Guile for example, pitting his black innate versus a boss with white innate is a sure-fire way to get the character killed. The result of all these new systems is a bit of forward thinking combined with a frantic juggling of resources. That being said, the challenge rating of the game suffers a bit as players are able to escape with guaranteed success from every encounter, including boss battles. This way, players are able to step away and rethink an encounter rather than facing their death.
Chrono Cross came to life during the awkwardly dubbed “puberty of gaming” as developers were trading their classic pixel art for more realistic polygonal shapes in their character models. While any game is bound to show its age on the PlayStation in 2015 in regards to high-definition texture details, this particular title still holds up well. Square’s game was at the time said to push Sony’s hardware to its limit. The area backdrops as well as the world map remain joys to look at as they’ll always possess a style unique to the time period. Each of the forty-five characters possess their own unique art style as well, making the variety of characters a point of pride for the developer’s design team.
Moving on to the crème de la crème – Yasunori Mitsuda’s score. I struggle to think of a soundtrack more fitting and indicative of a video game’s theme *(now that I think of it, Final Fantasy VII also had a very complete soundtrack). Mitsuda masterfully captures the majestic, mediterranean feel of Chrono Cross. One of the most interesting parts of the experience is hearing the themes for the same area in Home World and Another World. For example, Mitsuda utilizes the same melody for Arni Village, but plays them in a different style and tempo to indicate their separation. Also, “Scars of Time” is simply the best video game composition to this day, and I will fight anyone who tells me otherwise.
Chrono Cross had a tough road from its onset. It needed to follow the fan favorite Chrono Trigger as well as two big hits in the Final Fantasy series since 1997. But the undeniably talented writing of Squaresoft’s team, the exciting deviations from genre standards, and the impeccable soundtrack made this game one of the more memorable experiences of my lifetime. Chrono Cross is a necessary game to play for any self-respecting RPG fan.