For some reason I think I’ve subconsciously delayed putting Chrono Cross up here for quite a while. It’s probably one of the first games I thought of doing when I originally started this blog, but as time went on I just couldn’t wrap my brain around actually sitting down and explaining how or why Chrono Cross is what it is. There’s some scrutiny out there for this game, probably most of it a result of everyone’s obsession with Chrono Trigger. I also kinda thought that because of the somewhat negative sentiments the public had towards it, Chrono Cross would be one of the games that would sort of render my list unpopular to any people who happen to see it (kinda like the Castlevania debacle ). The reality is, though, who gives a shit? That’s all irrelevant…I didn’t want to review it because I didn’t have a clue even really how to begin, or what I would end up saying. I have to start somewhere though, so I’ll do my best. Chrono Cross is possibly the most amazing role playing game ever made and is one of my personal favorites. It’s, to me, the culmination of every good thing about RPG’s in the last thirty years wrapped into one complex, thoughtful and beautiful experience. I struggled in a similar way trying to explain Vagrant Story…how do you clinically review something that has affected you on more than just a superficial level, and then expect people to understand how you feel just by the written words used to describe that feeling? I suppose that, in a way, it’s impossible without that person ever playing the game. I guess something that I’ve got going for me this time is that many people have actually played Chrono Cross, perplexing me even more that a good percentage of these people didn’t see what I saw. What I did see back then was something absolutely unique yet familiar and upon retrospection and replaying, I’ve found that not only is it still that, but may symbolically stand as the climax of an era of innovation and progression that no game of this type will ever again match.
Chrono Cross is by lack of a better definition, something special. All of the credit goes to the design team and a good portion of that attention should be directed at Yasunori Mitsuda the composer and Masato Kato, the director. You have to know that when you get a collection of game-makers with work already under their belt to the tune of Xenogears and Chrono Trigger…the result isn’t going to be stock. I consider Mitsuda the top composer in the industry by far, and Chrono Cross is his best work. Kato (at the time) was a scenario writer for Square, responsible for the plots of some heavier non-Final Fantasy games. I suppose I could contribute a lot of the magic of this game to these two guys working together in a more expanded creative capacity than ever before. Mitsuda was not fully responsible for Chrono Trigger’s music and while his Xenogears soundtrack is one of the best ever, that game suffered under serious budget and time restraints. Kato was on those two games as well, but only as a writer…whereas in Chrono Cross he gets the director’s chair. I would assume that working on these games together time and again has helped these guys grow closer, as evidenced by the story album The Five Seasons of Kirite that Kato wrote and had Mitsuda write a soundtrack for (that were released together as book and CD). Chrono Cross was the exact platform these guys deserved and they took advantage of it. The result of this unchained collaboration is that the game gives off a much more artistic feel than you would expect out of a big box RPG. There are lots of concepts and ideas at work in Chrono Cross that a major Square RPG just didn’t usually present. You would absolutely never see a game in today’s world as far outside of the box as Chrono Cross was, but with the caliber of budget and support that it had.
It wouldn’t bother me to say that Chrono Cross is great just because it has a different set of sensibilities than your standard RPG, but that wouldn’t be giving the game (or the designers) nearly enough credit. If Chrono Trigger started the experiment with its mildly paradigm-shifting battles and time travel concept, then Chrono Cross should be recognized as perfecting the marriage of standard and non-standard. I have a bit of respect for CT for even attempting to do away with random battles and forging new ideas story wise, the likes of which hadn’t really been explored at that time. BUT (and this is a big ‘but’) there are some growing pains in Chrono Trigger that you can’t ignore. Common and necessary functionality/game making 101 shit were mishandled in that game, seemingly related to the progress they were trying to make. Not so in Chrono Cross. It’s easily as functional and faithful to genre standbys as it is progressive and high concept. It’s wildly artistic but still grounded familiarly. I’ve found in my travels through the gaming world that (and I’ve mentioned this before) games usually can really excel at a couple key categories while leaving others to the wayside. I personally attribute that to the designers and their specific priorities or beliefs about making games taking precedence. Xenogears/saga are a perfect example. There’s lots of shit wrong with those games…but the things that shine through really shine through because the creator (Tetsuya Takahashi) had a vision. Takahashi knows to make dramatic story lines filled with religious, political, romantic and usually very deep concepts…but the cutscenes are insanely long-winded and sometimes nonsensical. I’m willing to survive the dreadful pacing of those games because I know the emotional pay-off will be big. The combat in Xenogears is refreshing, original and works great, but the gear battles are much less polished and don’t work nearly as well most of the time. I get through them because I know that the next special move I learn is going to be really cool, driving me to grind out everyone’s specials even if it feels like a chore. What I’m trying to get at here is that Chrono Cross has these really unique priorities as well but without the downside of the creators not knowing how to make a game that fucking works. There’s absolutely no sacrificing functionality. It’s eager to carve new paths but is so respectful of sound fundamentals and tradition that the fresh concepts are executed flawlessly.
I do want to talk about the game itself and not just my personal ramblings about game design because there’s just so much to like about Chrono Cross. That being said, I’d like to cut off a lot of people before I start. Yes, I have played Chrono Trigger. No, I didn’t play it when it first came out so I don’t understand the nostalgia that comes with that experience, although I do understand the concept and feeling of nostalgia for a game. I’ve found that one of the major complaints against Chrono Cross is that it just isn’t a good sequel to Chrono Trigger. If you are a person who feels that Chrono Cross’ success needs to be weighed against your sentimentally blinded opinion of ‘the best game ever made’ Chrono Trigger then I want you to stop reading. Many gamers legitimately wrote off Chrono Cross mentally long before they reached the end of it, maybe even before the damn game even released. Just…please shut up with all that nonsense. It’s possible to critique a game based on merit and remove your happy memories goggles from time to time.
I for one, have a special place in my heart for Final Fantasy VII…but I don’t sit here and label it the greatest god damn game sent down to Earth from the Lord our God. It was the first RPG I ever played. EVER. If I were made to pack up a suitcase and was forced to take only necessities to a deserted island where I knew there would not be any game consoles or TV’s, you better fucking know that my original copy of FF VII would make the cut, with honors. BUT. I can, as a functioning and intelligent adult, still see that it’s indeed far from perfect and that there are much better games out there, better Final Fantasy games no less. So with that in mind I would like to officially state that not only is Chrono Cross a better game than Chrono Trigger, but it’s better in every single conceivable category. From characters to music to story to gameplay to length to graphics to writing to pacing to being a great sequel to EVERY to FUCKING to THING to ABOUT to THE to GAME, Chrono Cross is wildly superior. If you deny that fact based on the emotional illusion that Chrono Trigger is the most special, most monumental experience ever then you should by all means continue to sit in your ignorant little time-capsule and never leave it.
Moving on…I’d like to start with the characters. There are 45 playable, complete characters in Chrono Cross. Your main is Serge. He’s a small town boy, probably with a heart of gold and whatnot/whathaveyou. Throughout the game you are given some characters automatically, but many of them you must figure out how to recruit. The idea falls somewhere between Suikoden and Radiata Stories. Apparently it wasn’t enough for the designers to just create a bunch of character-less party members for you to find. They decided, “Hey, what if every single character had a backstory and was important to the plot somehow? What if the ways you recruited them were really intense and meaningful? What if this huge stable of characters actually all felt like well-designed main characters that could go toe-to-toe with any ‘main’ six or seven from any Final Fantasy? What if we just totally embarrass the tired tradition of abusing archetypal and transparent cliches within our heroes/villains?” I can’t even really imagine what the process was for coming up with the characters in this game, because (as idealistic as this comment will sound) they all really feel like they belong and live in that world. Here’s a perfect example of how Chrono Cross’ creators took the idea of character and story to the next level. So, Mojo is a scarecrow-ish straw man character that you can recruit in Serge’s hometown. Sounds silly, right? Well, he is…but instead of making him recruit-able by some predictable fetch quest that magically brings him to life, Chrono Cross handles his unique little part in the story really elegantly and somehow pretty emotionally. When you first get control of Serge in his hometown you can explore all the houses there, one of which belongs to a fisherman. You find the owner in his basement cleaning a fish or something, reminiscing about what it means to be a man of the sea. His walls are decorated with the trophies his exploits have won him, and he seems like a pretty happy guy. When you initiate a couple screens of dialogue with him be begins to speak of a turning point in his life, one is which he was unsure of what the future held for him and it was at that point that he decided to become a fisherman. It all seems to have worked out, right? He doesn’t really know for sure and he wonders if there may be another ‘him’ in some other world that took a different path at that same crossroads so long ago, living a completely different life. It’s a moving moment for so early on in a game, especially when you don’t really know much yet about how the story eventually unfolds. So, you take the fisherman’s pendant there in his basement as a token of the conversation and move on. Later on in the game when you discover that there actually IS another world that you have somehow landed in, you find your return to your same hometown very much changed. The same man still owns the same house, and when you find him he is sitting in that same basement. This time, though, his room is filled with candles and a ‘magical’ voodoo doll hung up on the wall. When you speak to him here (thinking it’s the same man) he ends up being some freaky religious nut worshipping this weird idol. If you happened to talk to your world’s fisherman and gained the pendant, the man is this world notices you carrying it and begins to tell a story of a time in his life where he made a choice…how he always wanted to be a fisherman but never followed through with it. Because of that choice he has felt lost for many years, finding any idols to worship to make him feel whole. Upon seeing the pendant he realizes where things went wrong and then promises to finally follow-through on his dream of becoming a fisherman. FUCKING BOOM. After he leaves the room, the voodoo doll (Mojo) springs off of the wall in a joyous dance and explains to you that he’s been alive the whole time, witnessing this man’s depressing and unfulfilled life. Because you’ve helped this guy realize that he could be so much more, Mojo tells you that he’s actually a joyful being not to be worshipped sullenly in some dark basement. It inspires him so much he joins your party as a representative of happiness (which he fulfills in spades). I mean, games just don’t do shit like that for minor characters that you may never use. They had absolutely no reason to create such an intense story line just to have you recruit some throwaway little backup that might never see main party play. But they did. And they did that same damn thing for all 45. It’s scary to think that of all of the little stories, Mojo’s would rank somewhere near the bottom in terms of depth or importance. No matter how minor it may seem in the grand scheme, this story adds an extra layer of depth to the character of Mojo, one that many other games would never take to the time to add. The amount of detail and effort put into this world and its characters is simply jaw-dropping/awe-inspiring.
Mojo as a design is a good example of the work put into the characters, too. He has a huge nail in his chest because he was hung on the wall with it. When he jumps down off the table, the nail stays in him and does so for the rest of the game. It’s that sort of attention to creative and complete design that makes Chrono Cross one of the most rewarding games I’ve ever played. All of the characters get as much or much attention, each with their own specific tie to the world that grounds them there. Glenn (name seem familiar?) is a young knight who looks up to his older/more successful brother who was lost tragically some time ago. He eventually can wield two swords (family heirlooms) but before you do the quest to gain the second one, his battle animations are all one handed. They then of course rendered dual-wielding animations for when and if you go get that second sword. Pip is a small experimental creature that evolves based on the type of magic attacks you use. Luccia *cough* is the scientist who created Pip…both of which you can recruit. Turnip is…a turnip! You pluck him out of the ground and he’s a little chivalrous turnip knight with a sharp blade and a sense of justice. He survived on an island that was ransacked and burnt by the villain…because he was still growing underground. His sense of justice comes from feeling the malice in the destruction of the island ground that was his birth place. Also, he has a little green sprout on his head. The list goes on and on…and for each character I could recite an example of how they were cleverly designed or smartly implemented into the game. The characters and the amount of effort put into their placement and existence within the game world is one of the best examples of amazing and thoughtful design that I’ve ever seen. It is beautifully impressive.
The depth within the characters could logically indicate a couple of things for most people. You might naturally conclude that either they really focused on the characters and the story is somewhat throw-away, or they are actually legitimately crafted with enough purpose that the story itself is good, but takes a back-seat to the characters. Neither are true, of course. Serge’s tale of crossing between worlds, alive in one…dead in the other, is an emotionally saturated account. There was a very clear opportunity to go the preachy route in Chrono Cross and you have to give them credit for staying away from that. You see, there are two parallel worlds in the game that separated from a single one at a specific moment in young Serge’s life. This tragic event meant the death of child Serge in the other world, while the one we call home in the game continued on with Serge being saved from the event. So goes the theme for the rest of the story. Everyone has another ‘them’ that could’ve lived an entirely different life, much like the story of the fisherman. Because Serge himself was the catalyst for the split, the people close to him (party members, story specific NPCs) are the most affected. You can begin to see how they could’ve turned this into an in your face lesson on ‘making the right decisions’ and ‘following your heart’. Instead, they apply the philosophies more subtly by showing you big AND small differences an event can make on the future. The same character in both worlds isn’t always ‘Good’ in the home world and ‘Bad’ in the other. Sometimes while traveling between the two you grow attached to the other world character…maybe their lives are improved over the original ones. It’s a wonderful concept to say the least, and they really took the time to flesh out how the characters respond to and have changed in this other Serge-less world.
The point I’m trying to make is that despite the obvious philosophical messages, Chrono Cross doesn’t ever really beat you over the head with it. Games with ambitious stories (Metal Gear Solid, Xeno series) have a feeling that, at times they’re just trying way too hard. There are multiple points in both of those games series’ that you just want the cutscenes to stop. Maybe love does bloom on the battlefield, but do I need to trudge through hours and hours of overwrought dialogue, over the top terminology and constant repetition of the creators’ video game version of commentary on real world issues to get the point? No, and the proof is right here. I can examine the subtle relationships between the splintered, parallel worlds just by reading the reaction the characters have towards it all. Much like Radiata Stories, there is a more personal story unfolding behind the scenes in Chrono Cross that the writers decided to tell through attention to detail and not plot exposition. The messages delivered through this game are more introspective, “What would I do differently if I could make a different choice at a crucial moment?” and, “What what I be like in a parallel world where things had gone differently?” It never blatantly explains sophomoric psychological concepts to you, you get to witness the characters subtly learning them for themselves. And none of that could be pulled off if it weren’t for excellent design. They push the concept further at a critical point where they ask you to make a life-changing decision regarding the secondary character’s (Kid) story. Given that the game itself is about choices and alternate futures, it’s an extremely heavy determination that will cause you to stop for a moment and think, “How will this alter the game?” or “What happens if I make the wrong choice?”. In the end, smartly, there is no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’…that would be too simple. The choice you make will subtly alter the game from that point on and you must continue to move forward with the consequences/bonuses.
Which brings me to my next point: The creators of Chrono Cross assume you are an adult. And not the hyper violence, ultra gore-loving kind of adult. Like, a real one, a smart one who’s been a gamer for a while and wants something more. Every bit of the design calls out to people like me who’s sick of the absolutely retarded (and low) standards that the RPG genre usually leans on. Here’s a list of some:
– Cliched/Emo main character
– “Bad-ass” silver-haired villain with a big sword
– Stock-as-fuck party members (of which there are rarely more than six or seven)
– Stupid/predictable plot twists
– ONE FUCKING BATTLE THEME AND ONE FUCKING BOSS THEME
– An invisible ‘connection’ with the main character that we’re supposed to feel because he’s given no personality/voice
– A final boss that appears in the last twenty minutes of the game… or… a giant mutated angel/devil form of the main bad guy
– A very clear ‘best’ endgame final party to use
– Is he a good guy/ is he a bad guy? Oh crap the bad guy just turned good!/Oh crap the good guy just turned bad! (KAIN)
– Same old turn based / magic battle system with random encounters
The more I think about it the more it seems like Kato and crew purposefully attempted to call out a lot of these tropes by addressing them head-on, possibly even to show us what’s wrong with these traditional stand-bys. Serge IS a silent protagonist, but given that he’s dead in the Other World we get a lot of second-hand accounts of what he was actually like as a boy growing up while the villagers reminisce about him. Silent protagonists have no choice but to be defined by the actions or events they participate in during the story because the makers want us to put ourselves in their shoes, but there are ways to give them personality traits other than emotes! Half-way through the game there is an event where the villain steals your body and you then inherit his body with Serge’s soul. While your team is being thoroughly trashed by “Serge” and you lay there helpless in the what they think is the body of the defeated bad guy, depending on who you have in the party, they say specific things. Mostly to the tune of, “Why, Serge?” but with a personal twist. It’s moments like these that help develop him as a character. You party members, men and women who have stood by you through a ton, think that YOU have turned on them. The sadness that they portray is almost…dare I say…real. It’s written in such a way that you understand how betrayed the characters feel. And they wouldn’t ‘feel’ that way at all if Serge was just some nobody, ya know? We can infer that deeper bonds of friendship have developed between Serge and his crew by the way they react to this moment. This isn’t the only indication of his character, but it certainly is a very memorable one. Chrono Trigger has a similar moment that isn’t pulled off nearly as delicately or heartfelt, leaving Chrono to be seen as nothing more than a guy with cool hair and a katana throughout that game.
Going down that list and explaining everything that Chrono Cross does to thrash those stereotypes would be easy, but would also pretty much ruin the game for anyone who hasn’t played it and I’m not here to screw someone out of finding that out on their own, ya know? The battle system is very unique, probably almost to the point of being impossible to explain in words but there are no random battles and that’s a huge plus already. The villain is very non-typical and while not necessarily sympathetic, you step into his body for the second half of the game and get to see how he is viewed by the world…which is endlessly interesting. One thing that absolutely does need to be discussed is the music though, and I think I’ll end after that.
Yasunori Mitsuda is a master of melody, and the ones he created for Chrono Cross flow so beautifully over every moment of the game that I will not hesitate to call it, by far, the best video game OST ever composed. It’s one of only four soundtracks that I’ve ever imported the official physical copy of (hint: one of the other three is also a Mitsuda OST). How do you describe what music does to you? There are tracks from this work that defy any standard, songs that pull more emotion out of me than I’d ever like to admit. I’ve teared up more than once just listening to some of the more memorable tracks while writing this review. There is a profound feeling woven into the music that gives me the impression that Mitsuda was heavily and emotionally invested in it’s creation. The tracks seem to grow organically into the art-style and beautiful graphics, the way it breathes life into the world and gives the characters and settings more substance. Music has the power to move people all by itself, but when it’s this beautifully implemented into a game made as superbly as this the result is hard to describe. If you are a fan of music, if you understand how it’s made and have any sort of respect for the process and talent required to compose even a simple tune you will be blown away by the score for Chrono Cross. It moves me, it’s awesome…what else can I say.
I’ve cried playing Chrono Cross. I’ll admit it openly, and it’s not that there’s anything even really that sad about the game or the story. It’s just so thoughtful, so filled with emotion. There are heavier moments of course, but what really inspires me is that every moment in it is meaningful in some way. There are layers that you can peel back and still find depth somewhere hidden in the game that only serves to give the player a sense of feeling. There’s been a lot of talk about atmosphere and story telling in gaming over the past couple years, and I find most of the discussions to be superficial. BioShock isn’t a deep game. Arkham Asylum isn’t a deep game, it’s not even all that atmospheric. Niko Bellic, Kratos, Master Chief…these aren’t real characters that make you feel anything. They are artificially inserted into artificial places that are meant to inspire artificial interest. Take a second and start unwrapping the pretty coating on some of these games and see how far down it all really goes. See how much true, legitimate depth you can find down there. BioShock has a bunch of recordings that tell you the backstory. You can’t even put real characters faces to the recordings, there’s no sincerity to it despite the fact that it’s trying to tell a really intense story. You can’t openly explore the world in GTA IV…there’s no insides to any buildings. That doesn’t immerse you, it takes you out of the world, makes it seem cheap. Arkham Asylum is a fun romp around a darkly lit cross section of every standard video game area ever made…think about it…a jungle area, a library, a jail cell…a courtyard with guards, for fucks sake man that game had like five boss fights and three of them were carbon copies of each other. They didn’t spend nearly enough time getting into what the character Batman is actually about. These are the games that we’ve put on such high pedestals? These games are a fucking joke, man. Completely uninspiring design from point A to point Z. How long are we going to let THEM TELL US that their games are so heavy, so adult. Maybe I’m some fucking crazy nut job psycho but I want something special out of my games. I want to have a personal experience, to invest myself in a different world, sometimes even to escape ours…that’s why I play them. I want something above and beyond what I even think I know. The reason why Chrono Cross resonates so much with me is because the creators wanted that too. It was clearly a labor of love for them, that shines through pretty clearly. They had it right back then. They did something amazing because they had a vision, and the stars aligned and it happened for them. I can only be grateful that they did, because it changed my life. Chrono Cross is unusual and complex but everything about it is just so memorable…a beautiful game through and through. Please play it.
Click here to see where Chrono Cross placed in my Master List!