Article by Jeremy Parish | April 20, 2010
Chrono Cross: Star-Crossed
Chrono Cross was doomed from the very beginning.
There was just no way around it. Cross was presented as the follow-up to an incredibly beloved game, Chrono Trigger; as chronicled in GameSpite Quarterly 2, Trigger is our reader base's second-favorite game of all time. Let me restate that, Kanye West style: Of all time. You set out to build on that kind of affection, people are gonna take it seriously. Maybe personally. Trigger was a careful balancing act of creativity and fun, the collaboration of some of the medium's most fertile minds, and it landed at just the right time to catch the attention of American console gamers who had grown up alongside the Super NES and were beginning to seek deeper, more substantial creations.
And, ultimately, the Cross conundrum really does boil down to a matter of timing. Trigger owes the credit for its success not only to its creators (who, it should be said, did a fantastic job with the game), but also to its good fortune in arriving at the very end of the 16-bit era. Gaming was entering its adolescence, then, with the PlayStation poised to debut in America just a month or two after the game's debut. Gaming had matured and developed in the decade since the NES launched, and it was about to take on a new form altogether as three-dimensional polygons replaced flat bitmaps.
In many ways, Trigger was the culmination of that decade of budding game design -- the pinnacle of the classic style. It represented the marriage of two RPG franchises (Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy) that had blossomed on NES and only got better on the system's successor. Trigger embodied everything good about classic game design while trimming all the bad. By 1995, developers had isolated the failings of the RPGs genre, the tedious grinding and unbalanced battles and abstruse interfaces. The Trigger team stripped away those things, offering a lean, accessible, engaging RPG that blazed forward at a rapid pace, looked great, and told a fun (and sometimes surprisingly intense) story. It may not have been the last major 16-bit RPG, but as the child of two console generations' most important series, it was easily the most impressive.
Five years later, Cross arrived, and by then the genre had changed radically. It's easy to pin the blame on Final Fantasy VII, but the simple fact of the matter is that no one game changed the RPG. It was a sea change whose roots transcended any one franchise; the RPG was simply forced to adopt a transformative attitude in order to keep abreast of other styles of game. Where once the RPG had been a unique bastion of narrative in console games, by 2000 plenty of action games told perfectly complex stories as well. Metal Gear Solid had a far larger script than any 16-bit RPG ever boasted, and it one-upped FFVII's slick cinematics with cutscenes that looked cooler and were more integral to the game than Square had yet managed. Genre boundaries were beginning to crumble, and suddenly the things that defined the RPG were no longer unique. So RPG designers responded the only way they knew how: They made their games more complex.
Unfortunately, complexity was the very antithesis of Trigger's appeal. The game was sublime in its layered simplicity: Players were given a sharply limited team of characters with only a handful of abilities apiece, but the adventure felt fresh from beginning to end due to the circumstantial interactions possible within this well-defined framework. Different pairings (and triplings) of team members opened up new techniques and required different combat strategies, which combined with the different capabilities and battlefield arrangements of the foes encountered along the way. The story, too, progressed in such a way that its talk of timelines and paradoxes was never confusing or daunting. Everything about Trigger was simply elegant.
But elegance didn't count for much by the time the PlayStation took command of the console market. The 32-bit era was many things, but it definitely wasn't defined by its restraint. The late '90s was a period in which developers -- drunk on the potential of CD-ROM's vastness and goaded by the increasing demands of gamers -- padded their works without mercy. PlayStation games were typically bloated, enormous monstrosities -- often fun and innovative, no doubt, but built to consume time. A compact game was excoriated as a ripoff for its brevity; streamlined mechanics were decried for their childish easiness. Developers brave enough to retain the less-is-more sensibilities of previous generations -- the creators of Klonoa, for instance, or of Suikoden II -- quickly found their works slipping through the cracks of popular acclaim. Size was what sold in 1999. Size and intricacy. And Chrono Cross was nothing if not gigantic, and intricate.
If Trigger could be regarded as the progeny of Final Fantasy VI and Dragon Quest V, Cross was the love child of Xenogears and Final Fantasy VIII: The two densest, most complex console RPGs ever. Despite carrying over a fair amount of Trigger's staff, Cross demonstrated none of its predecessor's restraint or elegance. Where Trigger offered six playable characters (seven if you made the correct choices), Cross included a mind-boggling 40. Where Trigger gave each character a limited palette of unique abilities, Cross's party members had only three character-specific skills apiece -- but each could equip nearly all of the game's countless spells and items. Where Trigger's battles played out with a clever variant on Final Fantasy's breezy Active-Time Battle system, Cross's fights were involved turn-based affairs. Where Trigger's story was laser-focused on saving the world from a threat beyond time, Cross's meandering plot didn't come into focus until the (very obviously rushed) finale -- and though it involved only a pair of alternate realities as opposed to Trigger's six different time periods, the story was utterly confusing.
Cross was the antithesis of the game for which it served as an ostensible sequel. Throughout the latter half of the game, you watched in horror as you learned that nearly every single member of Trigger's cast had been murdered off-screen; the happy-go-lucky comic adventure of the older game was soaked in blood and recast to create a grim new world where the protagonist, a boy named Serge, wasn't even supposed to be alive. And its one salient connection to Trigger -- sorting out the truth behind the disappearance of Zeal's Princess Schala -- was utterly mishandled.
As a sequel, Cross is a disaster. Not just because it so badly bungles its ties to a classic RPG, but because it is the diametric opposite of everything Trigger was about. Where the first game had been a lighthearted compilation of everything that defined 16-bit RPGs, Cross was a leaden exercise in translating an existing game world to meet the standards of its time. It was the very definition of a 32-bit RPG, and that means it was a mess.
And yet... taken on its own merits, Chrono Cross is actually an uneven but frequently brilliant game. While it suffers from many of the hallmarks of late-'90s RPGs that, in retrospect, make it feel more dated than many 16-bit RPGs, it's also brimming with inventive game concepts, great audio-visual design, and an intriguing world. As a sequel to Trigger, Cross is practically an atrocity; as the ultimate expression of Square's 32-bit RPG design thinking, though, it's really quite nice.
Cross borrows liberally from some of its immediate predecessors. It bears some fundamental similarities to Xenogears, which isn't terribly surprising; Square's portion of the Trigger team went on to create Xenogears, and Cross was their next project. Many of Xenogears' most frustrating issues are present in Cross. The story can be overly complicated at times, with a climax that seems to have been hastily assembled and relies entirely too much on lengthy, static plot exposition. On the other hand, it also incorporates some of Xenogears' better traits, particularly its unique battle system.
It's no exaggeration to say that Chrono Cross has the single most inventive battle system of any 32-bit RPG, standing toe-to-toe with Panzer Dragoon Saga and Vagrant Story. Unlike those contemporaries, though, Cross makes no effort to wrap itself in the pretense of a real-time or action-driven combat engine. Quite the contrary; its battles play out in a much more turn-based fashion than Trigger's did.
The highlights of Cross's combat are twofold. First is the concept of Stamina. Cross breaks the concept of turns into seven units of time, not unlike the AT system seen in Final Fantasy Tactics. With each "turn" a character is given, they can use up to seven points of action -- stamina points -- and how these points are spent is left entirely to the player. A light attack is a single point, while a strong attack costs three. Casting magic or using a technique burns all seven stamina points in a single shot. It's also possible to terminate a character's turn before using all the points in order to build up their meter to seven more quickly, allowing them to take more costly actions sooner. Additional intricacy comes in the fact that the more powerful an attack is the lower its accuracy, while successive hits are more likely to find their mark. It's possible to launch into a string of medium or strong attacks, but there's a good chance those blows will miss, wasting the effort entirely. Starting with light attacks and moving up to strong boosts your odds of successful hits, but you're also going to inflict less damage with those initial strikes. Each turn requires strategic thinking: Is it better to hope for a pair of strong strikes despite the odds against them both hitting, or should you play it safe and build up to powerful blow, sacrificing raw power for accuracy?
The second essential facet of combat is the Element and Field system, in which each character has their own innate elemental affinity, and each skill has its own elemental value, and every skill performed influences the elemental state of the battlefield. Elements come in six colors -- white for Light, yellow for Earth, red for Fire, etc. -- which are grouped into three polar pairs -- Light/Dark, Earth/Wind, Fire/Water -- which in turn causes the potency of an elemental action to be determined by a number of combat variables. A character will be most effective using elements that match their own base affinity, and you can boost their potency by assigning them to a higher level of each character's Element Grid -- though the higher their placement on the grid, the more expensive the cost of use. Elemental potency is also influenced by the current state of the field. Use three white skills and the field will turn all-white, boosting the damage of Light attacks and dampening Dark powers. Each element even has associated status condition that's more likely to stick depending on the condition of the field and the affinity of the user.
There is, in short, an awful lot to keep in mind when fighting in Chrono Cross. And none of this takes into consideration the fact that it's possible to use an element or skill without a full seven points of stamina to create a stamina deficit, increasing your immediate battle output in a given turn at the cost of taking longer to recover for your next volley of actions! For all its intricacy, though, Cross's combat isn't unwieldy or unfair, because it's strictly turn-based; you have as long as you need to determine your next action. And if a battle goes south, you can escape from every single battle (even boss battles; in fact, even the final battle) to readjust your skills and rethink your strategies. You can also set your party members to use residual battle stamina to auto-heal at the end of battles. The net effect is that each battle becomes a dense, self-contained, strategic challenge, one in which the player's enormous array of character and skill options combine with the game's numerous combat factors to create uniquely intricate fights. Half an RPG's success rests on its mechanics, and Cross's mechanics are among the best; many of its ideas are only now being assimilated into other RPGs, such as Final Fantasy XIII.
That's amusingly circular, incidentally, because Cross owes a tremendous debt to Final Fantasy VIII. Its Element Grid system, in which each character is given a set number of slots in which spells and techniques can be assigned for use in battle, is extremely similar in conception to FFVIII's Junction system. While the Element Grid doesn't define a character's strengths -- on the contrary, it's defined by those strengths -- it provides the player with complete flexibility in outfitting the party for combat. The grid itself requires some strategic thinking: Do you give your most powerful spells to a character with a high magic stat, or do you assign them to characters with matching elemental affinity? Conversely, do you give a character spells that correspond to their own innate element, or do you diversify at the expense of strength? To make things even trickier, once you've used a skill in battle, that grid slot is expended until combat ends, meaning you can only use the rarest or most powerful skills once per battle.
None of this would matter if Cross's battles pitted players against enemies that simply attacked, but many foes -- especially bosses -- are designed with the battle system's unique features in mind. Many of the most difficult enemies are set as Serge's elemental opposites, and the game's most notoriously challenging battle forces your party to contend with a powerful Light-element user while saddled with two Dark-affinity characters. The element and field systems are at the crux of combat, with many bosses using special techniques to shift the field meter to their advantage before launching their most powerful attacks. Cross is similar in some ways to a Shin Megami Tensei game in that enemies don't necessarily have high hit point values, but can nevertheless be incredibly difficult to defeat due to their manipulation of other factors in combat. One of the deadliest foes, SunOfAGun, barely has more HP than any given party member, and it even has the same elemental affinity as Serge. But its powerful techniques and unconventional behavior, combined with high defense and offense, make it a fearsome foe for the unwary.
Many bosses also like to undermine the party's efforts to control the field. Calling a summoned monster, for example, requires the field to be completely pitched to the eidolon's native affinity, and bosses will cannily use skills of a different element to interrupt this setup process. Come to that, the game's true ending can't even be seen unless the player fully masters the elements.
In other words, Chrono Cross plays beautifully. It's one of the best-designed RPGs ever, at least when speaking strictly from a mechanical perspective. Where the game runs into trouble is on the other side of the RPG equation: The narrative.
The problem, I think, is that Cross mutated throughout the course of its development. In the beginning, it was meant to be a full remake of an obscure Satellaview text adventure, Radical Dreamers -- an understated sequel to Trigger that was only available through a Japanese download service for Super Famicom. Many elements from Dreamers carried over into Cross, most notably the infiltration of Viper Manor mission which dominates the game's opening hours. Furthermore, the cast of Dreamers -- the villainous Lynx, as well as the main characters Serge and Kidd, as well as the game's mysterious MacGuffin, the Frozen Flame -- are prominent features of Cross. But Cross was no straight remake, and the game's nature changed as it took shape. In Radical Dreamers, Serge's ally Gil was secretly Trigger's Magus in disguise, and the enigmatic Guile was originally set to be the same person. But eventually, Guile became something else, more a tribute than a connection. Yet the goal of Cross is ultimately to rescue Schala Zeal from being assimilated by a fragment of Lavos and destroying all of time, a logical outcome of Schala's self-sacrifice in the Ocean Palace. By writing Magus out of the story altogether, Cross's creators severely weakened the impact of the outcome and the strength of its connection to Trigger.
But Guile couldn't have been Magus, not really. Being a Square RPG, Cross unsurprisingly binds its mechanics to its narrative, and in keeping with the scarcity of true magic in Trigger's world, the Element system is presented as a substitute for magic, synthetic sorcery akin to FFVIII's para-magic. This explains the addition of a third pair of elements over Trigger's four-class system, as well as providing justification for the lack of innate magic within Cross's cast. Yet it would also have made Magus impossible to integrate into the battle system, since his powerful natural magic wouldn't fit the rules of Cross's world. As a matter of fact, Guile's grid growth actually makes him a less flexible mage than just about anyone else in the game.
Cross seems to have fallen victim to a failure to self-edit. It's the sort of game created by people who lost sight of the importance of moderation and restraint. And while this did result in a wildly inventive thrill ride of a combat system, it made a mess of the story. And that's to say nothing of the playable characters, only about ten of whom have anything resembling a personality. The other thirty are blank slates at best, infuriatingly ridiculous at worst. Exactly which characters the game does choose to focus on is a bit iffy as well; potentially intriguing cast members like Luccia or the aforementioned Guile all but vanish after the first couple of hours; yet you're forced to sit through an excruciating musical concert with the vapid glam-rocker Nikki.
It's not all bad, though, since Cross does offer a tremendous amount of flexibility in how you advance through its muddled story. At several points in the game, you're sent along branching story paths that affect the events you experience, the characters you meet, and the skills you can build. Even more incredibly, it's entirely possible to play through the entire game without ever allowing the game's most important character, Kid, to join your party; Cross's narrative accounts for every key event of the story with or without her, and no matter how badly you treat her (even if you leave her to die of a poisonous wound!), fate (or Fate) ultimately binds Serge's destiny to hers.
In that light, you can almost forgive the shortcomings of the story. Cross is a boldly experimental effort from Square, an attempt to offer the flexibility you'd expect from a SaGa game with the refined and coherent mechanics of its more mainstream titles. And clearly all on a budget, too; Cross was definitely not given the cash infusion of a Final Fantasy game, which is pretty obvious from the way it applies a great deal of editing and rearrangement to extend a fairly small amount of full-motion video to stretch across a 30-hour adventure.
Still, whatever perils Cross's team had to surmount, none of those really matter to the end user. And the end user was most likely a Chrono Trigger fan with high expectations for its sequel. What they received was a wildly different creation than the 16-bit epic they so loved; in point of fact, what they received a game that seemed to revel in heaping scorn on its predecessor. Crono and Marle, dead! The little town of Porre, a violent military super power! Leene's Bell, the fulcrum of a transdimensional collision of time and space that ultimately collapsed upon itself! Robo, murdered before your very eyes! Lucca, clearly killed as a key point of backstory as her home burned to the ground! Serge is even forced to slaughter Johnny, AKA The Man. Absolutely nothing about Trigger was sacred, and all in the name of tying up a single loose end.
The one saving grace for Chrono fans was the fact that none of Cross's reality was supposed to happen. The entire plot resulted from extensive meddling in time -- not only by Crono and crew, but also by various other factions who sought to manipulate or counteract Lavos' power for their own ends. It's not unreasonable to think that by helping Schala -- who is also Kid -- the player unmakes the entire disastrous storyline anyway. Maybe the dire events of Chrono Cross never really even happened. But that's not much of a legacy for a game, is it? When the nicest thing you can say about its story is that maybe it effectively erased itself out of existence? But then, that's Cross for you: A confusing, conflicted tale, whose approach to storytelling was as disappointing as its mechanics were refreshing.
Whatever the case, it's probably safe to assume that the Chrono series died with Cross. And maybe that's for the best. Trigger was the essence of lighthearted 16-bit fun, and it's that nostalgic slice of the ephemeral past that fans truly responded to. Square -- or rather, Square Enix -- just doesn't have it in them anymore to create something so whimsical and upbeat, at least without also making it stupidly frivolous. Chrono Cross missed the mark as a sequel, and it's unreasonable to think a second attempt would get it right.
It certainly did play wonderfully, though. Much like the Metal Gear Solid series, nothing would make me happier than to see the creators iterate on its mechanics in an entirely different context, one free of narrative baggage and fan expectation. A great gameplay idea is always fun, regardless of the name on the package. And like so many other radical sequels, Cross is a lot easier to enjoy if you squint your eyes and ignore the story connections.