Author's Note: In a previous blog, I mentioned how I have been struggling with another bout of writer's block with my retrospective on Chrono Cross. I want to thank the handful of you who expressed concern and words of encouragement to me privately. With this episode, I have decided to take to heart a recurring criticism of my game-specific blogs. I have gone ahead and cut down this entry in half to make it both easier to read and edit. In doing this, I hope to ensure I can provide a new entry at least once a week rather than once a month. If you have any other ideas, inquirers, or criticisms, feel free to share in the comments.
Part 11: We Need To Talk About How Much Time You Spend Playing As Lynx
It's been a while, but when we last reviewed my progress with Chrono Cross, our protagonist, Serge, found himself in a bit of a pickle. The story's primary antagonist, Lynx, found a way to swap his soul with Serge's and is now masquerading as Serge while wrecking wanton chaos on the world. As I reviewed last time, this is a bonkers plot twist that the game does fuck all in the grand scheme of things. When everything is all said and done, you play at least half the game as Lynx. While on paper, that might sound like an exciting prospect, it ultimately is not. While there are a handful of environments and set-pieces that hint at the ethos and pathos of Chrono Cross, most of your time controlling Lynx involves what feels like busywork. While you intrepidly explore Serge's "Home World" as Lynx, the overarching theme is that he doesn't want to be a furry and needs to stop the world from ending; the latter of which the first act of the game hammered home for TEN HOURS!
No matter, while controlling Lynx, you explore the "Temporal Vortex," which a resident of the Vortex explains is where souls of the recently deceased go. This reminds me of something I failed to discuss in the first episode of this retrospective. Serge being a silent protagonist makes the PS1-era Squaresoft storytelling Chrono Cross attempts all the more awkward. Yes, I understand Serge being mute is a reference to Crono in Chrono Trigger. At the same time, Chrono Cross tries to have characters engage in sweeping dialogues about morality, faith, destiny, and metaphysics. Its attempts to punch way above its weight class feel weird when the goober you control stands there and says nothing. In the case of the Temporal Vortex, you have party members lecturing about the frailty of life and the fickle nature of destiny. And yet, Serge stands there and does zip. It's the same style of storytelling Squaresoft attempts with Final Fantasy VIII, but unlike Squall, Serge doesn't even reply with an ellipsis.
So, if the writing refuses to allow introspective moments with Serge because it feels obligated to keep up the silent protagonist gimmick, what does it offer instead? Well, not a lot, if we are honest. All those themes of metaphysics, time travel, alternate dimensions, and destiny during the first act? THE STORY BLOWS A FAT RASPBERRY AT YOUR FACE FOR AN ENTIRE THIRD OF THE GAME! For most of the second act, what you get is an endless stream of interstitial set-pieces and one-off characters with nary a connection to the main plot. I'm going to discuss the matter in more detail in the next section, but why the fuck do Van and Zappa get three-act dramatic structures retelling their tragic backstories when we still have NO IDEA why Lynx swapped bodies with Serge? What is Lynx planning? How did Kid survive getting stabbed in the chest? These are the sorts of questions I wanted the game to answer, but for whatever reason, it stubbornly refuses at every turn.
Regardless, I want to return to the issue of Serge not feeling like a genuine character. The advantage of silent protagonists is that they allow the player to graft their moralities and impressions onto a video game avatar. However, that's virtually impossible to do in Chrono Cross. While the game initially provides you with opportunities to respond to scenarios with different choices, there are not enough of these for Serge to function as a cipher. Likewise, it is not like the choices you make in the game are all that impactful or important. For example, let's return to the Temporal Vortex. The dialogue choice you make there is whether or not you lie to Harle and say you are Lynx, which she knows to be false, or tell her you are Serge, which she responds to by calling you a fool. It's not exactly the "best" quandary to graft your opinions of what you think is happening to Serge. To me, this issue highlights how much of Chrono Cross feels like an unfinished passion project. Within the scope of this second act, these dialogue prompts disappear entirely. A core storytelling hook vanishes before your eyes.
Part 12: This Game Sure Does Like To Throw A Bunch Of Pointless Characters At You For No Reason In Particular
When Serge first found himself in Lynx's body, I was furious. However, I wasn't angry because I wasn't in the mood for a wacky plot twist. By this point, you all should know that I'm always down to clown when it comes to Square hitting me with their best shot. No, I was pissed because I knew the character swap would fuck up the spell slots and equipment assignments I meticulously planned for my last bevy of characters. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened! When Sprigg, Harle, Radius, Zappa, and Van join your party, they have jack shit. I know I belabored how much I was not too fond of Chrono Cross's inventory and spell management system on the last blog. Nonetheless, needing to parse out another dozen or so characters to find out which ones are genuinely useful is a tedious slog. Seriously, the minute you leave the Temporal Vortex, the game inundates you with up to five characters across three levels. Despite Chrono Cross spanning over forty hours, it usually barfs out new characters during transitional sequences one after the other.
Some of these characters, like Funguy, can and should be skipped. There is no rhyme or reason to which optional characters are worth the time and effort to get. Some of the worst characters in terms of damage output or magical prowess are recruited through long side quests, which presents a dilemma for Chrono Cross. Character recruitment is the one gameplay hook that carries across the entire game. Nevertheless, the complete lack of balance with these characters makes investing your time with this mechanic generally not worth it. As I discussed last time, the lack of an EXP sharing mechanic on top of the large cast encourages the player to identify three to four characters they enjoy using and sticking with them. And the process of even seeing the unique abilities of each character is a massive time sink. Because you need to build up a meter to use special moves, the simple task of figuring out which characters are worth your while takes fucking forever. I would have significantly preferred something like Grandia II's "Special Attack" system to Chrono Cross's because at least there, you can see all of the flashy animations and spells you want within the first couple of turns.
That last point is a massive disappointment considering how varied some characters play and how intricate their animations are in Chrono Cross. Checking out new characters and watching their attack animations never ceased to put a smile on my face. Some characters like Razzly even have distinct combos that can add an area-of-effect bonus to their basic attacks. Unfortunately, I lost patience with the game as even the most benign battle in Chrono Cross can take upwards of five to six minutes. Additionally, while the cast of characters gets more extensive, the pace of the combat stays about the same. And when I discovered some of the late-game exploits, I didn't feel like Chrono Cross's jingling toy keys act was as cute as I initially found it. Even more baffling, there are a handful of character-specific mechanics. Sprigg, for example, is the only Blue Mage in the game. Pip can evolve into one of five possible forms like a Pokémon. Pierre is like Voltron and needs to assemble five pieces to a medal before assuming his ultimate form. There's also the summoning mechanic, which might warrant its own section next time.
These gameplay mechanics require hours upon hours of player investment before they begin to pay off dividends. The issue here is how little the game cues you in with any of your party members. Unless you are using a guide, the game expects you to spend hours figuring out which characters meld with your play style. However, you can't even do that very effectively! For one thing, you always need to have Lynx or Serge in your party. That limits your slots for experimentation to two. Second, there are only two characters in the entire game who can perform the Steal/Mug command, and they are Kid and Fargo. As a result, for hours upon end, one of them is bound to be a member of your party. This point is essential because Chrono Cross is one of those JRPGs where the best equipment in the game needs to be stolen from bosses!
Part 13: And Now This Game Decides It Needs To Lecture About How Racism Is Bad.
But let's return to the issue of Chrono Cross's story! When Serge returns to his hometown, he discovers that its citizens are none too pleased to see him as they are all dramatically revealed to be biased against demi-humans. That's right, instead of furthering the main plot of a nigh forty-hour game, Chrono Cross decides to spend what feels like ten hours lecturing you about why racism is wrong. Every interaction you make in the town of Arni results in Serge and company being shouted at to leave. No one believes that Lynx is Serge, including his mother, who is horribly underwritten, by the way, and even Poshul refuses to join your party. Things come to a head when the wizened sage, Radius, confronts your party and challenges them to a battle. After emerging victorious, the party gains the trust of Radius, but even he cannot convince the villagers to accept Serge.
Now, I want to make it very clear that . However, with the nine or ten different A and B plots that the game has active in its burner, another subplot is not what I was interested in at this time. If the game was solely focused on surfacing how humanity has done the demi-humans dirty, that would be one thing. But because this game cannot make up its goddamn mind on what it wants its story to be about, this thread feels entirely out of place. To make matters worse, the game complicates things further by tossing in two extra story developments when you revisit Termina in the Home World. Upon entering the once-bustling city, you discover it under occupation by the nation of Porre, and upon meeting up with Van, learn more about the "Frozen Flame." The latter of which is shockingly the quest item that returns you to the main path. Truth be told, while I was picking up new party members and trying to wrap my mind around the ten different story threads popping off in the game, it wasn't until much later when I realized the Frozen Flame was connected to the main story. Everything else was secondary, and that includes the nigh seven-minute cutscene in which Van shares his sob story about wanting to help his father's failing artistic career.
Speaking of Van, he's a perfect example of the game not knowing what to do with its massive cast. The minute he's done with his lecture about his hope to use the Frozen Flame to rejuvenate his father's career, he might as well be dead because the game does nothing with him for the rest of the story. The Frozen Flame, by the way, is a magical MacGuffin that will grant the wish of whoever finds it, similar to a complete set of Dragon Balls. However, after learning about the Frozen Flame, Serge's presence is requested by a colonel named Norris in Viper's Mansion. After navigating a Byzantine series of water puzzles, they find Norris in the villa's sewers. Surprisingly, Norris takes the whole "there are alternate dimensions" news well and even accepts that the person standing in front of him is not Lynx. What's more, he corroborates the information you collected earlier about the Frozen Flame and relays that it can be found at the Dead Sea. Norris provides a boat that you can pilot in the overworld, but approaching the Dead Sea reveals it to be a giant vortex.
The issue here is that a magical sword, the Masamune, has employed a mystical field in front of the entrance of the Dead Sea. Before any of you ask, yes, the characters Masa and Mune are indeed in Chrono Cross. Because when I think of my tier list of Chrono Trigger characters that I want to see in Chrono Cross, Masa and Mune are right up there with characters like Marle, Crono, Lucca, Dalton, Frog, and Robo. Radius reveals the only thing capable of lowering this magical force field is the Einlanzer. That means we need to collect a different magic sword to beat an evil cursed sword, which prevents us from collecting a magical MacGuffin. If that last sentence doesn't make sense to you, then join the party. So, with four or five different story-critical trinkets, you'd maybe think the game spends just a sliver of its time developing its world, mythos, or perhaps the background information to some of these items. You would be wrong. Instead, we fight a giant alien that looks like something from a 1960s era science fiction movie.
Part 14: You Spend So Much Fucking Time On The S.S. Invincible
With the story meandering with a bunch of B Plots and MacGuffins, you eventually find your way to the Home World's version of the S.S. Invincible. However, here the ship is called the "S.S. Zelbess," and this version of Fargo is a sorry sack of shit. I'm going to be honest with all of you. There were two sections of this game I genuinely detested with the passion of a thousand suns. The first being this initial romp on the S.S. Invincible, and the second involves beating all of the dragons after you awaken them from their slumber. Both involve a level of tedium that made me want to pull my hair out. In this case, you discover that the Home World's version of Fargo uses their once-mighty pirate ship as a leisure boat with a fully operating theater and casino. Furthermore, this Fargo has enslaved the demi-humans that once inhabited the island of Marbule as deckhands.
I mentioned earlier whenever the game brings up the topic of the demi-humans, Chrono Cross lectures you as if you are a child learning about Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. Yet, the real problem here is that the story once again attempts a juggling act of storylines which muddies the punch of its message about tolerance and diversity. In this single set-piece, the story tries to:
- Provide historical context to the discrimination of the demi-humans.
- Foreshadow why Fargo is sad.
- Flesh out Nikki's relationship with Fargo.
- Present Nikki's plan to host a concert.
- Introduce Sneff.
- Introduce Irenes.
- Have the Sage of Marbule share a bunch of tangentially connected stories about dragons.
As you might imagine, the whole level is a goddamn mess because the writing cannot make up its mind on what tone or message it wishes to commit to while you are here. When learning about the death of Fargo's wife and the plight of the demi-humans, the narrative strikes a somber tone. When you meet with Nikki and learn about his hope to host a massive concert to use music to teach the world the power of love, it strikes an inspirational one. Then, with Sneff, I suspect Squaresoft watched "The Pest" starring John Leguizamo and thought they could out-racist one of the most offensive films made in the past forty years.
It is impossible to take any of the game's attempts to paint a message of racial tolerance seriously when one of its characters is a buck-toothed caricature of a Chinese magician. And I wasn't exactly jumping for joy when I noticed in the English translation Sneff was unable to pronounce the letter "R." It's not as if what the story accomplishes with Fargo, Nikki, and the Sage of Marbule is all that impressive. Fargo ends up conning your party and enslaving them to a lifetime of labor on his boat, and the process of regaining your freedom is about as convoluted as the rest of the game. Long story short, Sneff transforms you into a domesticated cat, which allows you to break a mechanism that previously ensured Fargo always beat you at roulette. During this process, you discover Fargo is Nikki's father, and Fargo was once married to a mermaid who is now dead. As I have said before and will say again,
"But ZombiePie, now Chrono Cross is surely ready to get back to the main plot!" you say with childish naiveté. No, no, it is not. We still need to pick up the "Einlanzer" to combat the evil juice running through the Masamune. And if you are wondering, yes, they retconned Frog's best saber to have some bad cursed bullshit in it. Conveniently, the questline connected with the Einlanzer sheds some backstory about Radius, another storyline required character who in no way, shape, or form impacts the game's conclusion. Worse, Radius's tragic backstory is a shameless copy-paste job from Squaresoft's storytelling playbook. Radius was friends with a man named Gerai, who once wielded the Einlanzer. The two eventually came across the Masamune, which happens to be the dark inverse of the Einlanzer. Unable to control the evil powers of the Masamune, Radius slew Gerai in a fit of rage and buried him on an island now named the "Isle of the Damned." Before you collect the Einlanzer, you first need to defeat the spirit of Gerai and listen to a ten-minute lecture on why the Masamune is bad news. It's a good storyline, but yet again, I must say that
Part 15: The Game Finally Remembers Its Main Plot! And It's FUCKING CRAZY!
Mercifully, once you finish attending to Radius's bullshit, you promptly travel to the Dead Sea only to discover it is a frozen wasteland. Upon entering the ruins of a city, you find yourself in Chronopolis. The futuristic metropolis and its remaining furnishings might seem familiar to anyone who has played Chrono Trigger, as specific visuals are similar to Robo's 2300 AD timeline. The Dead Sea is one of the stronger set pieces in the entire game as its eerie environmental work and masterstroke score are a match made in heaven. While exploring these ruins, your party discovers a computer terminal which then plays a PowerPoint presentation on Lavos. It is over twenty hours in, and Chrono Cross FINALLY realizes it is a sequel to Chrono Trigger! Thankfully, Chrono Cross takes place in the timeline where Crono and company were successful in beating Lavos.
In the first episode of this series, I warned anyone who wishes for the connections between Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross to be more overt to be careful. There are many fingers on this monkey paw ready to curl up if you want this wish granted. Unfortunately, Chrono Cross is only prepared to share the tip of its narrative iceberg at this moment. After the presentation about Lavos shuts down, nothing corroborates this abbreviated summary for a while. Instead, you weave your way towards the "Tower of Geddon" at the center of the Dead Sea. It is in this tower when you come to grips that something from Chrono Trigger has been catapulted into the tropical wonderland of El Nido. The building appears to be a shopping center of some sort, and it is populated by malfunctioning robots and the spirits of long-dead citizens. A nice touch I noticed is how you witness fewer robots and more ghosts as you progress further into the tower. For example, when you enter what appears to be a theater or ballroom, you encounter apparitions of pageant queens, which also say some of the weirdest quotes.
Then, when you enter a room with what looks like a collapsed wind turbine, you see the ghost of Lucca. As you chase after her, you find a crowd of ghosts standing before a portal. The spirits here are a mix of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross characters, and when you follow what I think was Crono into the portal, shit gets weirder. On the other side, there's an army of spirit children, and it is at the end of this environment when you meet up with the ghosts of Crono, Marle, and Lucca. Instead of greeting Serge with a hearty welcome, they instead yell at him for dooming the world of El Nido to damnation. In a genuinely upsetting scene, Crono speaks and calls Serge a "murderer." As we all know, silent protagonists speaking in sequels is a bit of a video game trope. However, something about Chrono Cross making Crono speak pissed me off more than I can adequately express. Part of it had to do with the game taking its sweet time to muster any effort to connect itself with its predecessor, which is the whole point of it being a sequel. But the other part is how t. It's not as if this is the first time Serge has been told the world's fate is in his hands.
After this ghostly encounter, a man named Miguel greets Serge. Miguel explains that he was with Serge's father when Serge was attacked by a panther that poisoned him many years ago. Lacking proper medicine, Serge's father plotted a course for Marbule in hopes of finding magic capable of saving his son's life. Unfortunately, a maelstrom knocked their ship into the Dead Sea and the ruined city of Chronopolis. Somehow, Serge's father saved his son's life at Chronopolis, but the city's defenses were activated, which stranded Miguel for over ten years. Luckily for him, people don't age at Chronppolis because it exists in a future where death has "been solved." The game also does not address how Serge returned home, nor does it answer questions about Serge's father's current status. Then, Miguel goes on a five-minute screed about how Serge being "saved" destroyed a timeline in the future, and that is why Chronopolis is all fucked up. I might be wrong on that one, so here's a snippet of what Miguel says, and you can feel free to share if you think I'm misconstruing something. Nonetheless, it is at this point when Chrono Cross begins to spew technobabble at a breakneck pace.
"Res nullius... It's because this is a future that was eliminated!!! History is composed of choices and divergences. Each choice you make creates a new world and brings forth a new future. But at the same time, you're eliminating a different future with the choices you didn't make. A future denied of all existence because of a change in the past... A future that was destroyed before it was even born rests here... condensed into the Dead Sea."
Oh, and the boss battle against Miguel is a real pain in the ass! For whatever reason, he's one of the few bosses in the game that take full advantage of the color mechanic. Also, because his color is white, he does double damage to Serge in Lynx's body. While this means Serge does double damage to Miguel, because Miguel is programmed to target Serge first, you will be lucky to get any attacks out of him. Which reminds me, spells being one-time use abilities sucks so much shit. Because you can only use any given spell in a slot once per battle, you end up with a TON of the same healing spells across all of your spaces. Moreover, there are only three revive spells in the entirety of Chrono Cross. Thus, you can only ever resurrect your characters three times in the same battle, and that's if the KO-ed character isn't holding a resurrection spell. It's a system that barely works in ordinary encounters, and it actively punishes the player in boss battles as it forces them to play conservatively.
Once defeated, Miguel weaves a story about a young boy and their friends stopping the end of the world by navigating the dimension of time. If you have even half a brain, you know he's summarizing the story of Chrono Trigger, and it was at this point when it dawned on me how much Chrono Cross enjoys talking at you instead of talking to you. I also realized that Miguel wouldn't spill the beans on how Serge survived being poisoned by a panther demon or what happened to his father. Rather, he reviews how attempts to collect the Frozen Flame by several Acacia Dragoons failed because FATE, and there is a reason why it is spelled with all capitalized letters, did not deem them worthy. However, before Miguel can divulge any more, the remains of Chronopolis begin to explode. In the nick of time, a dragon sweeps up our troupe of heroes and transports them to safety. And it is on that note I am going to wrap things up. Next episode, I will turn Serge back into a human. Trust me;