Chrono Cross

5
Scale

   As most professionally creative people know, it's much harder to please an audience with a sequel than an original product, because of all the things that could go wrong. It can't be too much like the first one, or it's a retread, but it can't stray too far from the original, or fans groan that the "feeling" from the first is gone. The way most RPG series avoid this pitfall is to eschew continuing storylines, but a far more impressive way--the way that the Chrono Cross team has actually pulled off--is to bite the bullet and create a direct sequel that has all the charm, fun, and quality that made the original property what it was.

 The Great Concavity
Map quest

   It might have helped, though, that they had already sort of done it. Americans never got a chance to see Radical Dreamers, Chrono Trigger's unofficial sequel on the Satellaview, a SNES add-on, but the very basic concepts and storyline in Chrono Cross are taken from the game. Of course, that game was a text adventure with rather uninteresting still backgrounds. The PlayStation "remake" (if the term even applies) of Radical Dreamers is a very different story.

   Few thought the word "beautiful" could ever apply to something borne from the PlayStation's aging hardware, but Chrono Cross is proof positive that it's possible. All of the backgrounds are at least "good", but every so often comes a dungeon or a town that just forces you to put down the controller and take it all in before going forward. What's more, battle backgrounds come astonishingly close to replicating the prerendered map screens; if it wasn't for the menus and large character models, it might be difficult to tell the difference at a glance.

That stair-stepping in the background is stairsteps.
Ready for my close-up
 

   Speaking of large character models, Square has managed to do even better than the impressive battle graphics found in Final Fantasy VIII. Though still moving at 15 frames a second, the combatants on both sides have a smoothness and fluidity of animation not often seen on the PSX. Even more impressive is that the models move this well with such detailed textures. Factor in motion blur, liberal sprinklings of lighting effects, and a special coding effect not even seen until the second playing through, and you'll wonder how the design team got more than even 2 frames a second with this level of quality.

   Square being Square, of course, the visual quality extends to the full-motion video sequences. The most striking thing about these, however, is their brevity and relative infrequency. Only the four or five most key scenes are illustrated through FMV, with every other plot point handled through the in-game engine. Furthermore, even the little bit of FMV sprinkled through the first disc is seen time and time again. The reason for this? Chrono Cross' scope is so dizzying, every bit of extra space helps.

 The Great Concavity
Map quest

   Though it has "only" two alternate worlds compared to Chrono Trigger's five time periods, there's a lot to do. When you exit to the world map, it's hard to believe such an overworld can accomodate around 40 hours of gameplay. The fact that each location has two variations--one for each world--helps, as do the various other islands around El Nido. Dungeons on the whole are also relatively small in terms of size, though you'll have to explore each one thoroughly to find everything.

   The weary RPG player will be happy to know that searching and finding obscure treasure chests is what replaces tedious level-building and money raising. To understand why this is so, a little explanation of the battle system is in order. A character's stats raise occasionally through normal battles, but the big jumps come through boss battles. Effectively, this sets all the characters at about an even level, one which can't be passed up. Because of the way the game builds stats by progression through the game, and raising stats through hours of fighting normal enemies is literally impossible, you'll always be at the right base strength for the right part of the game. What enemies do give you are Elements--which is where the battle system really comes into its own.

Try not to just select your Elements from a hat.
Some people just don't get it.
 

   Each character has an Element grid that, like his or her stats, expands with boss battles. There are eight levels to the grid, and each level will gradually gain more slots. A beginning character might have two level 1 slots and a level 2, while an end-game hero will have at least two level eight slots and as many as eight level ones. Each slot in the grid is filled with an Element, which have intrinsic values and colors. The Red attack element Fireball is a level 1 plus or minus 7, which basically means it can go anywhere on the grid. If you put it at a higher value, it'll become stronger, and if you were theoretically able to put a level 1 Element below that level, it would be less effective. Not every Element's intrinsic value ranges across the entire grid: some high-level summons are level 8 plus or minus zero, and a few others can't be placed more than two spots from their requisite level.

   You use the elements when you've built up enough levels through attacking. The three standard attacks available to all characters are weak, medium, and strong. Using the three attacks will take 1, 2, or 3 points from your Stamina gauge, and that many will also be added to your element level--if the attack connects. For instance, hitting an enemy with a medium attack will allow you to use Elements on the second level of your grid. Every Element used, though, will drain 7 stamina--and characters may not use their turns unless they have at least 1 stamina. In the example earlier, using the medium attack took off 2 stamina and the resulting Element took off 7, resulting in a final stamina value of negative 5.

  nbsp;The rest of the battle system is best left to the instruction booklet, but all of this has been to explain what a joy Chrono Cross' battle system can be to play. At any time you may switch to any other character for an attack; there are no standardized "turns." Such flexibility allows and even encourages you to play the game in several ways, without falling into a simple routine of hitting the attack button over and over. And if you feel that you've made a mistake, or the battle isn't turning in your favor, Chrono Cross doesn't expect you to die and restart from the last save point just so you can try a different strategy--the "Run Away" command has a 100% success rate, even on bosses. And as for regular enemies, you needn't even encounter them if you don't feel like it, since they're possible to dodge and they don't give experience. Nothing's stopping people who enjoy the battle system, of course, and if you really want to earn a lot of gold, you can. For the rest of us, though, CC's encounter-light system is a godsend, and something one wishes more RPGs would strive to emulate.

 Controversial 64-letter dialect was cut at the last minute.
An example of "slobbering" dialect

   Another area in which Chrono Cross stands tall above other RPGs is its translation. The game has forty-four unique characters, most of whom have their own special speech patterns. This would be a daunting task in itself for most translation teams, but when you consider that each character has its own specific event dialogue, and that there are several points in the game where the story branches, the amount of text in Chrono Cross that needed translating is just painful to think about. Nevertheless, Square USA did a masterful job--almost every character comes alive with his or her own personality; it's as easy to tell them apart by their dialogue as it is by their character models.

   Beyond the characterization, the story is also top-notch, doling out just the right amounts of plot points in such a way that you're always desperate to find out what happens next. The early stages of the game follow a pattern very similar to the original Chrono Trigger: wander around innocuously until you become lost in another world, try to find your way back home only to discover that things have become much more complex than they were at first glance, and figure out what you're going to do about it. To say very much about the middle or late stages of the game would, of course, be a spoiler, save to say that it's obvious the design team spent a lot of time playing Chrono Trigger.

   Helping the story immensely is a soundtrack that actually augments the story rather than simply drawing attention to the music, or falling flat entirely. The odd Chrono Trigger theme is woven into the soundtrack, but the majority of the music is completely original, and consistently amazing. (With the glaring exception of the cruise ship theme.)

   It's hard to make direct comparisons between two games on two different platforms, especially when the nostalgia factor is as strong as it is here. So suffice to say that it combines beautiful graphics, entrancing music, and gameplay so refreshing that it virtually defines what it means to be a New School RPG; then it tops the whole thing off with a plot that neither overrelies on Chrono Trigger nor callously exploits its name, but actually expands and extends the classic game. It's a must-buy for Chrono Trigger fans, a must-own for any PlayStation owner, and a must-play for even the most casual fan of RPGs.


Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
 
Chrono Cross
Developer Square
Publisher Square
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (2)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  11.18.99
 08.15.00
News
More Chrono Cross character / story background info
Media
654 screenshots (spoilers)
Artwork
Alf artwork
Other
North American box art