Chrono Cross – A Review Across Dimensions

Name: Chrono Cross
Company: Squaresoft
North American Release: August 15th, 2000
Console: PlayStation One

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Ah Chrono Cross, you complicated, convoluted whirlwind of an RPG. I suppose I’ll start with where my experience with the game all began.

I’ve now owned this game twice. The first time was in the early 2000’s. It’s predecessor, Chrono Trigger is one of my favourite games, but it’s both expensive and rare, making it an elusive one to add to my collection at the time. (I currently own it in Final Fantasy Chronicles format) Lo and behold, its sequel was readily available at a reasonable price, so I picked it up. Expecting a rich adventure through time, I found myself disappointed with a plot direction that I felt left me stranded as a player and I traded the game in after reaching the midway point.

Fast forward by nearly twenty years and I find the Source (Canadian replacement for Radio Shack) offering sealed copies for sale. Given that it had been so long, I wondered if I might actually enjoy the game now. It should also be said that I was admittedly curious about what these copies would contain and where they came from. (Though, I never did find out that one) With all that in mind, I decided to order one. A week and a bit later, it arrived. Apart from the chrome underside of the discs (PS1 games were black on the underside) it was a perfectly normal ‘Greatest Hits’ edition of the game by all appearances. I know, not exactly exciting stuff, but still, curiosity satisfied.

One thing remained, though: what will I think of the game itself now?

Well, I got more enjoyment out of it now, that’s for sure.

For one, I actually finished it this time, and ultimately I’m glad I did. For another, every single shortcoming this game might possibly have can be easily overlooked due to Yasunori Mitsuda’s masterpiece of a soundtrack. Yasunori is the god of video game composers in my book. Yes, I’d even put him above Nobuo Uematsu and I can confidently ‘Name That Tune’ for the full soundtracks of Final Fantasy I to X. If Gold & Steel were to be made into a show, movie, and/or a game, I’d want Yasunori to be the composer and it would be no contest. I could be told that Ramin Djawadi and Howard Shore were both interested and my response would be, “Great! If Yasunori Mitsuda doesn’t want the gig, let’s talk to them.” Yasunori’s work on Chrono Trigger and Xenogears are both masterpieces to begin with, and Chrono Cross is icing on that cake.

One of the first songs you hear upon starting the game in earnest.

But I digress, let’s talk about Chrono Cross. With the least spoiler-y explanation possible, (for a game that’s been out so long it’s legally allowed to drink in the U.S.) Chrono Cross is primarily about dimension hopping and discovering the root of the dimensional rift that allowed for such. Your main character (named Serge by default) finds himself on a beach presenting sea shells to his crush when ZAP! She’s gone and everything is slightly different and off, somehow. You find out you’re in an alternate version of the archipelago you call home, and no one knows who you are. Somehow, though, the armed forces of the area want to arrest you. So, guess we’re gonna try to figure out what the heck happened.

This past year has made me want to fall face first into the sand at times too, buddy.

I’m not going to spoil any further than that in terms of the actual story of the game. Certain gameplay elements might come up, but that’s it. Besides, the story gets so off the wall bizarre that I’m certain that the only way to experience it is to play it.

Graphically, it’s a beautiful game. In fact, I would say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing game on the PS1. It’s bright and vibrant and really captures its tropical island setting wonderfully. The characters are well realised, and though there’s a level of visual realism, the artists knew where to let whimsy sneak in. This unique style holds up remarkably well, even twenty years later. Which, given the 3D limitations of the PS1/N64 era, says a great deal.

The overworld map.

Gameplay: out of the gate, navigating the overworld and interactive areas (like towns and dungeons) is all perfectly normal JRPG fare. You can walk or run and the action button allows you to interact with objects and talk to people. You know, the standard stuff.

As for the battle system, well… The elemental field aspect was a small part of why I gave up on this game the first time. You see, in most JRPGs of this era, for battles, you go into the Final Fantasy style turn-based battle with the three or four characters in your party and a menu to input commands for them like Fight, Skills, Magic, Items, etc. In Chrono Cross, you get three characters and your menu is Fight, Defend, Element, and Run Away. That’s it. Weird, right? But the reason for that is that everything but your base attack/defend options in battle falls under the element option. Each magic spell, skill, and consumable item (all called elements in this game) has to be found or bought, then assigned to a character’s element grid. (Equipment and weapons are mercifully excluded from this system and are their own thing) There’s a level system to it, in that each element is assigned a level from one to eight. For instance, the starter elements, like simple healing potions are all level one, while the most devastating attacks are level eight. It should also be said that the higher the level, the less slots you have for fitting elements. Each character and element is further allocated to a colour. This part is fairly straight forward in that fire is red, water is blue, wind is green, both electricity and earth are yellow (for some reason), holy magic is white, and the dark arts are black. The opposite colours, those being white and black, blue and red, and yellow and green, all ebb and flow with one another in terms of efficiency. For instance, Kidd, one of the main characters, is red elemental. Using a water spell on her will deal more damage than usual, and she’ll take less damage than usual when hit with a fire spell.

Where it gets complicated is that using a spell puts that’s spells colour into the element field when in battle. The three most recent colours dictate the lay of the field for that given battle, and having two or more of any one colour will change the power of both same coloured and opposite coloured spells. This sounds interesting on the surface, but it hits its balancing limit pretty early. Why? Because you get to use each element you allocate to your character’s grid once per battle. Sure, you can usually find duplicates of certain spells and consumables, but the best spells, and all unique skills, are individual and can be used exactly once per battle. All the top tier spells (and all summons) are further restricted to characters who share the same colour as the spell.

The element field is that oval in the top left corner. Smallest oval is the most recently used element, they fan out with use from there. Those little, coloured Arkanoid-looking rectangles in the middle is your elemental grid. The columns from left to right are the level tiers. This is early into the game, but as you can see, there’s only two or so for each colour.

This becomes a problem with special skills like Steal, which exactly two characters in the whole game can use, and they can only use it once in a battle. They fail to steal? Too bad, you’ll have to reset to try again because you can’t reuse that skill again in that battle. As per usual within the JRPG genre, the bosses have the best items to steal, and the success rate to steal from them is often low, so get ready to work that reset button.

With such a limit on your usage of elements, it means that you get one or two chances per battle to turn the elemental field to your advantage before the enemy attacks. If you fail, and they disrupt the field, the enemy will get to reuse their unlimited abilities to turn the field’s colour back to their favour. It makes boss battles, in particular, into a chore. Now, I will say that at about the halfway mark of the game, the bosses also start using single spells that turn the whole field to an advantageous colour for them. You, on the other hand, don’t even get the chance to find those elements for yourself until the last dungeon of the game. They’re dropped by mini-bosses, and you only get one of each colour.

Moreover, in order to use any elements, you have to first charge up your elemental levels by attacking the enemy with your base attack in each battle. Guess who’s under no such restriction? All the enemies. Later boss battles can start with the bosses busting out high-tier spells that hit everyone while you’re still attacking to build up towards your own high-tier magic. So yeah, there’s no MP, no separate skills that don’t consume magic, no items, it’s all bound to the elemental grid, and use of any of it requires you to charge it up in each battle. You might be thinking, “Can I carry my charges over from battle to battle?” and nope, you certainly cannot.

Thankfully, the boss battles tend not to be long. Still, I found myself in a spot more than once where I was down to nothing but low level magic and attacks and wondering if my characters are strong enough and have a reliable enough hit percentage to power through a battle or do I reset and take another run with a restored elemental grid.

Later in the game, I found a way to cheese the random encounters somewhat by grinding a little for equipment parts, crafting the best equipment possible at a given time, equipping accessories that help with hit percentage (which is a bigger deal than you think in this game) and letting brute strength do most of the damage. It worked to a degree, even on a few bosses, but it always disappoints me when I have to cheese a game mechanic to bypass what the game makers intended to be a feature. The first time around, I had already “Nope”d out by this point and moved on to other games.

The hit percentages I speak of can be seen here. The numbers one through three represent the levels of attack you may attempt. The stronger the attack, the lower the chance of your attack landing.

As for the possible characters that you can bring into battle to help out… There’s 43 of them in total, not counting the main character. As I mentioned before, they all have an innate element colour of their own, so you have to take that into account when selecting your party for any given dungeons. For example, one dungeon takes place inside a volcano, where the element field typically starts with red elements and enemies that use fire attacks. In this case, a blue elemental character will be at a disadvantage unless they can turn the whole field blue, whereas a red elemental character won’t take near as much damage. The flipside is that the red elemental also won’t be able to dish it out as well either.

The next problem arises once you realise that out of the 43 possible options, you’ll only have access to about twenty at most at your peak (until near the end of the game) and somewhere around ten of the whole 43 are truly useful. There are also about half a dozen you cannot recruit in a given playthrough. There are two major decisions that decide who you get to recruit to your team. The first makes you pick one of three possible characters, while the second opens your path to one of two sets of three or four possible recruits.

Back to the characters themselves as far as gameplay goes: most have terrible attack power or hit percentage, and those with the highest magic power nearly always fall into this category. This leaves you having to watch them miss often and lose opportunities to build up their elemental levels while the enemies dish out spells and skills with impunity. The solid attackers/tanks, on the other hand, tend to have limited elemental grids, meaning they can’t equip near as many items and spells, and their magic stat is on the lower end. Of course, that tells us that even though they can build up elemental levels quickly, there’s not nearly as much you can do with them. There are two or three that fall somewhere in the middle, and those tend to be the best options at any given time.

You know who I want on my side to face a final boss capable of devouring time itself? A sentient water lily. That’ll show ’em.

A few of the characters are forced into your already limited party at points, and they tend not to be good. Those characters might also disappear. But it’s okay, because there’s no character levelling, so you’re not out any wasted time grinding them into usefulness. You only level up in this game after boss battles, and it covers all characters, whether in the battle party or not. All that the levelling in this case allows is for you to increase your stats to a certain point in random encounters until the next boss. Once you stop getting stat increases, the random encounters can be avoided until the next boss battle, unless you want currency or item drops.

I think that about covers it for the gameplay. I know I didn’t paint the prettiest picture of it, though I swear it’s not as bad as I make it out to be. It just lacks balance, especially when compared to its predecessor and its contemporaries of the time. I didn’t hate it, at least on my replay, anyway. It certainly plays better than Final Fantasy VIII, too. Yet, other RPGs at the time did it far better.

Let’s talk story for a bit. Admittedly, that will be a challenge to do without spoiling things, so light warning for potential spoilers of a twenty one year old game ahead.

Let me ask you Chrono Trigger players some questions: did you think that game wrapped up in a neat bow? Yeah, Chrono Cross says it didn’t. Are you ready to return to a new adventure in Guardia? Yeah, Chrono Cross takes place somewhere entirely different. I felt as though this game was originally not part of the Chrono-verse, but somewhere during development, the team got the order to fit it in, resulting in the answers to the above questions. It almost seems like they might have been months into developing this story about two dimension-hopping teenagers who are wanted by their local government when Squaresoft’s top brass said, “It won’t fit Final Fantasy, but it needs to be in a series. See if you can wedge it into one of the other brands.” The developers looked at what they had and what brands were under Squaresoft’s umbrella, and said “I dunno, I really liked Chrono Trigger, do you think we can tie it to that?”

The resulting story certainly does bridge both games and there are plenty of subtle and obvious nods to Chrono Trigger throughout. There are times though, when it gets a bit haughty for itself. It’s in these moments that the explanations can come off a bit overwrought, and the overall point becomes a bit muddied. Even near the end, there was instances when I was thinking “Sure, why not?” and “Yep, that’ll do,” in response to the explanatory knots tying up the loose ends of some of the overarching plotlines as they continued to spin and weave into the extremes of convolution. At the end, it sorta made sense, at least in a way that allows you to feel like the story has reached a satisfying enough conclusion.

The shining point to the narrative though, is the characters, or at least those who were given time to develop. I will say though, that I was impressed by the fact that about a solid third of those you can recruit were fleshed out fully. Kidd, Harle, the various current and former members of the Acacia Dragoons, and the pirate Fargo, and those associated with his plotline all get a decent amount of time to be brought to life. These stories, both before and during Chrono Cross’ events, are remarkably done and they display a fully realised world and its inhabitants that could have survived without the ties to Chrono Trigger. I found that the characters alone breathe a sense of life into Chrono Cross that its main plot alone can’t seem to accomplish at times. There’s one character in particular who has his one scene two thirds of the way into the game that really stood out. In just a few lines of dialogue and one flashback, this one character becomes perhaps the most tragic character in the whole game. His one scene in particular shows off the storytelling prowess that Chrono Cross is capable of at its best. Personally, he isn’t even that relevant to the story’s progression. He’s a placeholder, and could have been a nameless nobody, but they fleshed him out fully, made him somebody, and made you care about his fate.

What drives the story more than any other narrative device or character though, is the soundtrack, and I’m going to close out with a toast to it. I had no memory of the soundtrack of this game when I replayed it twenty odd years later. I knew Yasunori was responsible, and knowing that, I expected to be in for a treat. I maintain that while voiced dialogue is often fantastic in video games, music alone can tell a story every bit as well, and Yasunori illustrated that point perfectly in Chrono Cross. Every track encapsulates its environment to a T. It pulls at your heartstrings when it needs to, fills you with calm the next, and pumps the blood for battle when the time calls for it. There are tributes to Chrono Trigger’s soundtrack everywhere too, and the way they’re slipped into the soundtrack is done in such a way that when it hits you, you’ll know it. He nailed it, he absolutely nailed it, and there’s nothing else I can say about it. I don’t know if I’ll replay Chrono Cross with the same zeal (play on words intended) that I would the other games that Yasunori scored, like Xenogears or Chrono Trigger, but I might come back to it just for another run through the musical journey it provided.

I mean, just listen to it. It’s friggin’ amazing and it’s still, not even my favourite track.

I remember hearing somewhere that “the right soundtrack can make you feel the emotion of a scene every bit as much as any director or actor” and Yasunori Mitsuda does just that in Chrono Cross.

So there you have it, do you agree with my assessment of Chrono Cross? Are/were you a fan of it? Or do you dislike it as much as I originally did twenty odd years ago?

*Screenshots and cover art for the game were sourced from Game FAQs and Moby Games.

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