As many people know, Chrono Cross is the long awaited sequel to Chrono Trigger, a game released roughly five years ago for the Super NES that involved some memorable and original gameplay based around time travel. Chrono Trigger was famous for allowing the player a remarkable amount of variation in how he/she chose to play the game. Chrono Cross expands on this tradition in a way that not only comments on the implications of Chrono Trigger, but does so in a way that weaves these very concepts into the gameplay fabric itself. Players begin the game as Serge, a boy living in a small tropical village in a corner of the world previously unknown in Chrono Trigger, called El Nido, whose idyllic life is threatened when he stumbles onto a gate to a parallel world. The gameplay involves Serge's quest as he recruits members of both worlds in his search to discover the true nature and purpose of the phenomenon, as well as his role within it.
Following the lead of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII (FF8), the world of Chrono Cross is presented via pre-rendered backgrounds in which exploration takes place. While this might seem boring to some people, it should be said that Chrono Cross offers a better use of this technique than previously seen, at least within Squaresoft. While only scarce few backgrounds in FF8 were distinctly animated, the ones in Chrono Cross are often remarkably detailed and brimming with life. Liquid beams of light stream through open curtains, children run and play through the surf of a nearby beach, and trees blow in the wind. While 3-D characters on 2D backgrounds are not renowned for their "you are there" feeling, Chrono Cross probably comes as close as you can on PlayStation. Likewise, the battle scenes, which are full 3D, offer a commendable amount of detail as well. Nice, clean textures, multiple levels of terrain, and even neat effects like lens flare and weather are standard aspects of the Chrono Cross battle engine, and they compliment the 2-D visuals quite well.
The gameplay itself offers the standard exploration/combat combination of all Japan console RPGs, only with a surprising amount of variation. For example, Chrono Cross is the first game I can remember by Square that uses a usable inventory of items, the likes of which you might see in an adventure game. Many game events and plot threads and such are activated in Chrono Cross via the player's decision to use a particular item at a particular place or on a particular person — which, of course, the player can decline at any time. Basically, what this means is that much of the game has a very non-linear feel. Although you do go from A to B to C in Chrono Cross eventually, how you go about it and, especially, who you go about it with is often entirely up to you. And with no less than a whopping 40-plus characters able to join your party, this makes for quite a bit of disparity in the actual game experience throughout multiple play-throughs. This not only makes for a richer experience than normal in terms of replay value, but it also neatly and cleverly fits into the "multiple realities" theme of the story — similar to the way in which the time travel gameplay of Chrono Trigger contributed its theme.
Those who have been disappointed and frustrated with the trend of complicated battle systems in recent Square RPGs should fall immediately in love with Chrono Cross's superbly designed combat engine. Neither overly complicated nor overly simplified, Chrono Cross's battles have one thing that players truly crave for: balance. At the beginning of a turn players are given three degrees of attack: weak, middle, and strong — each with a percentage indicating their success rate. Each successfully landed blow scores points which then can be used to cast "elements" — six different abilities, each with their own color-related attribute which basically function as magic. When the same color element is used successively, the battlefield becomes charged with its particular attribute at which point that attribute becomes stronger — resulting in the need to adapt tactics to the every-changing flow of battle. This is a clearly conceived, satisfyingly strategic, yet intuitive system that works without a hitch. And although I am not one to complain much about Square's other battle systems of late, I applaud Square for recognizing the benefit of taking the complexity out of the battle preparation and putting it in the battle. To make matters even better, I should add that every battle in Chrono Cross can be retreated from (yes, even the last boss) and that — like Chrono Trigger before it — even enemies can be seen in the game engine and avoided if the player wishes. As a result, Chrono Cross is one of the most fun and friendly RPG combat experiences to come out of Squaresoft in a while.
Chrono Cross, indeed, has very few bad points. In fact, I am sure there are those who believe it has none, especially in light of its pleasant departures from controversial trends. However, I am not one of those people, and the reason is simply the narrative. There's no doubt it starts out well. It's well-paced, offers good character depth and a fine translation, and contains some truly well-designed plot-twists (one, in particular, that borders on brilliant — which I wouldn't dream of revealing here). But towards the end it begins to run out of steam. The parallel worlds theme gradually turns from a genuine inspiration to an excuse the writers hide behind when they can't answer their own questions within the logic they've constructed for the story. Instead of events moving forward into a natural resolution, they simply become jumbled as characters are forced into desperate monologues designed to Explain It All. Although I am sure there are those who will merely accept this as ambitious, I think it should be noted that this is not necessarily good story telling. I have become increasingly frustrated with videogame plots that seem to think the quantity of ideas is more important than the quality of ideas.
If there is one aspect of the game that absolutely cannot be criticized, though, it is the music. Yasunori Mitsuda, who scored Xenogears as well as the original Chrono Trigger, has put together a lush and emotionally charged body of work for this game. Quite the opposite of Xenogears, which was very flamboyant and dramatic, the compositions for Chrono Cross are subtle and subdued and contain some real depth in their simplicity.
Chrono Cross is definitely a worthy sequel to Chrono Trigger, in narrative (to a point) but more so in gameplay and general concept. Those looking for some real substance and an imaginative application of ideas into skillfully designed gameplay should definitely check this out. Don't let its looks fool you. It isn't just another Final Fantasy. It's the cure for the common Square game.
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