2019-12-20: Chrono Cross: A Polarizing Look Beyond CT
This one's gonna be long, as they are when I really dig a game. Buckle up!
When I started up Chrono Cross, I had no idea it'd be the longest game I ever played. I mean I've played games longer, but CC has the distinction of being the longest start-to-credits game I've ever actually seen through to the end. My first play-through took 45 hours, and I'd return for three more to round out my roster before calling the game done. In total I think I put around 65 to 70 hours into it. Quite a shocking aberration for someone who usually looks to move on after 15-20 hours of gameplay.
But Chrono Cross stuck around for good reason. It was the perfect recipe to enthrall me and my stream audience, starting with a place setting that's fairly unique for this kind of RPG: a tropical island chain and open ocean. From there I found myself amused at every enemy I came across, taking time to zoom in on them and giggle at their silly features and goofy design. One of my chatters noted every single enemy was "a dingus", and they weren't far from the truth.
The opening proposed question after question, without giving any answers. You knew you were somehow thrown into a parallel world, or alternate timeline. You knew things were different, and you never existed. You had nowhere to go since your own family were gone and the people of your home town considered you to be a pretender, or even a ghost. That's how Chrono Cross begins. If you're not ready to be dropped head first into a world of questions and no answers, you may just bail here.
But once you begin to scratch into what happened, into why you as the protagonist are special and why you were sent on a trip through the multiverse, the plot is incredibly engaging. It grabbed me hard, to the point that I started doing 6 hour play sessions without even realizing it, and wanting more when it came time to stop. All through the game you're led along: given an answer to a question that just raises another question behind it. Every time you confront a fulcrum character and demand an answer, you get it, and find someone behind them is really pulling the strings-- another question to be answered.
Along the way, tiny hints are dropped to the nature of the world, its link to Chrono Trigger, and how the region of El Nido ended up as it is. But that's something to get into in a moment.
The link to Chrono Trigger is Chrono Cross's biggest asset, and biggest detriment. Cross is a polarizing title, with most review outlets either giving it a perfect 10 or a perfect 0; very little in between. You love it or hate it. A lot of the hate comes from the fact that it bears the Chrono name, but from the onset you have no tangible link to Trigger; and you won't for 90% of the game. Cross is its own story, with its links to its parent title being adjacent and tenuous at best, and yet so incredibly important to understand the totality of the story.
So people who wanted to see what happened after Trigger will likely be disappointed. They certainly will when they learn what actually did occur. In addition, Chrono Cross departed from not just Trigger but every JRPG before it in mechanics and ruleset. They threw out everything, starting over on the concept of the RPG from scratch, only adding things in when they fit the game they were building. As a result, Chrono Cross plays nothing like any RPG you've seen before. To me this is a blessing; to someone who wanted more Chrono Trigger, it was probably a confusing and frustrating mess.
Gone are experience levels, replaced instead with random stat-ups and a stat cap that slides back ever so slightly with each boss you defeat. Gone is the concept of MP, instead being replaced with a psuedo-Vancian system of spell levels and spells that are consumed (for the duration of the battle) on use. Gone even is the concept of the "normal attack", replaced with a system of light, medium, and heavy attacks each with its own damage, chance to hit, and even special effect. Auto battle, and even mindlessly mashing X, is completely and totally impossible. Gone is the idea of one action per character per turn. Cross uses a system that adds weight to the timing of your actions, giving each character stamina that is consumed in differing amounts by your actions. Any character can act at any time, and can be interrupted at any time by a monster with sufficient stamina.
Fortunately, the developers understood how long and involved this made combat. In return, encounters are visible on the map, avoidable, and about a fifth as frequent as a typical RPG. You can complete an entire dungeon with maybe six fights, then the boss. Those six fights are sufficient to grab your stat-ups before you raise your caps again. Grinding is not only unnecessary, it's practically impossible. The result is an RPG that's 70% exploration and 30% combat, instead of the other way around like you see with Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.
Chrono Cross boasts a playable cast of 45 characters. Yeah, 45. Only about half of them are obvious or put directly in your path, and only about half of those are plot-critical. The rest are out of the way, hidden, just plain secret, and exist with their own side stories and vendettas as well as their own stat loadouts. Also once past the opening of the game, once you recruit a character you have them forever and can freely swap them into your active party from the world map at any time. The characters fit into several roles that are interchangeable, and gain stats even out of the party, encouraging mixing and matching when you get bored of one team.
I completed the roster entirely: an achievement that required a minimum of three completions of the game. I needed four. This seems herculean, but the game's NG+ system provides you with several tools to reduce the game's completion time from 40 hours to about 6, as well as a Chrono Trigger-esque ability to go face the final boss at any time you choose, so half those loops were even shorter.
There's a couple of things that mar the experience that are noteworthy. The first is that the combat system is very conducive to getting into routines and flow states. One of them is to attack with a light-medium-heavy combo and then cast a spell, but at any time a foe can interrupt you, pull you your of your menus, and enter into a long animation attack. It's not that you did anything wrong to incur a riposte; it's that the stamina build-up fell such that in the middle of your combo that foe filled up and acted. It doesn't hurt anything on a mechanic level, but it is frustrating to be in the middle of a cool combo then nope, enemy's turn now.
The second is that with a 45 hour game, with longer than normal combats, the game really needed more than two battle themes. There's a theme for "sad" battles, and two more that are used for one major boss each. The rest is the same duo of normal and boss battle theme. The game would have done well with either a battle theme swap depending on what world you're in, or a swap depending on your current protagonist (of which there are two).
Third is a series of small quibbles about how NG+ is handled, but does that even count? Basically, you can carry forward cast members you unlocked to subsequent plays, eventually getting the entire roster on one save despite several characters being mutually exclusive recruits. The problem is you unlock the power to summon and recruit the past-life members literally moments before the final dungeon. I was hoping for an entire play-through with my Harle, Pip, Draggy power-cuteness team but it was not to be.
Finally, there's exactly one plot complaint I have: there comes a moment about half way in where you're forced to kill a non-aggressive, innocent member of the cast to progress further. The explanation of why is shoddy and the battle is forced regardless of your desires. In a game where you have so many choices and everything you can possibly do seems to trigger some kind of response, even if it's just an NPC going "Haha no, you can't do that", this felt really off and kind of sad. I never got a full confirmation from the plot why that had to happen. It's one writing snafu that sticks out in an otherwise almost perfect story.
On the other side, the plot is a giant, sprawling, intertwined masterpiece. As you progress, unrelated characters get tied into the story, elements begin to click together, and you come to realize all this unrelated stuff is actually part of one giant master plan. It's so cool to behold. Even as you progress, the game itself begins to change its tone, starting with fighting "dingusy" looking lizards and silly-named mooks like the trio of Solt, Peppor, and Ketchop... to fighting actually dark and dangerous foes. This transformation occurs in lockstep with the plot: the more you know about who you are and what exactly is on your shoulders, the more dastardly and dangerous the foes become too.
But the plot, and its links to Chrono Trigger. That's the pink elephant in the room isn't it? This is also where the spoilers come out! For Cross to exist, Trigger couldn't live with a "happily ever after". It's revealed quite some time into Cross that the events of Trigger were not all wrapped up in a bow. Not in some alternate realities anyway. Actually, it's one of the least canon endings to Trigger that serves as the jumping off point for the events of Cross: the Reptite Supremacy "bad end". I imagine the few players who got far enough to reveal this that wanted "more Chrono Trigger" were quite enraged by this reveal. I found it amusing.
Throughout the plot, it's revealed that Crono was murdered, Marle disappeared into hiding, and Lucca spent most of her days questioning herself and the moral nature of her actions against the knowledge that her interference in the timeline unmade entire realities on a quantum level. Then in addition, during the game, Robo is killed in front of your eyes, one of your party members is revealed to be the clone of Schala, and there are vague and unconfirmed dangling threads as to the fates of Magus, Ayla, and Frog. It's a lot to take in, and most of it is not pleasant if you're deeply attached to the cast of Trigger.
I'm also ignoring the biggest plot element in the game, but to reveal it would cast the entire experience of playing it into doubt. A reveal in the final leg of the game suddenly throws into question everything you've done, everything that's been. It throws the entire world into question. I was on the edge of my seat. Someone who didn't buy the kayfabe would probably be turned off.
Perhaps I was insulated by the fact that I 100%ed Chrono Trigger in college, years ago, and haven't touched it since. Maybe I went into Cross knowing it was not the same, and was ready for that. Whatever the reason, being unfazed by the striking differences and the major plot swerves that ret-conned the happy ending of Trigger, I found an incredibly engaging plot, a solid unique game, and an incredible aesthetic and design effort in Chrono Cross.
So it's with very little hesitation that I say Chrono Cross may be the best RPG I've ever played. I'd say the best game I've ever played, but there's a war in my head if that distinction goes to Cross or Okami. I don't want to have to choose.