When I wrapped up my Final Fantasy XI series last year, I mentioned my next "long-form" blog series would detail my adventures with Chrono Cross. Initially, I had planned to air this series to mark the twentieth anniversary of its North American release. However, for various reasons, which we will discuss shortly, this series was a teeming nightmare to create. That aside, Chrono Cross is one of those games that, top-to-bottom, left me speechless. I still cannot fathom how this game's story and mechanics were allowed to ship in the incoherent mess they are, and to be honest, always have been. However, the game is a monumental accomplishment and a work of art that speaks volumes of the creative "Golden Age" Squaresoft was ridding on during the PlayStation One. Nonetheless, I still do not know if I'd recommend the game to anyone, especially those with any nostalgia surrounding Chrono Trigger. Maybe as this series progresses, I'll be able to wrangle the proverbial creative "mixed bag" that is this game. But for now, Jesus Christ, Chrono Cross sure is a video game!
Part #1: The Legacy Of Radical Dreamers
Whenever people try to assess Chrono Cross, I think most evaluations, especially negative ones, make a critical misstep from the onset. Virtually every review starts its assessment with a piece about how different Chrono Cross compares to its supposed predecessor, Chrono Trigger. Admittedly, these grousing opening statements are partly Squaresoft's fault. They were the ones that billed Chrono Cross as the successor of Chrono Trigger and included various references to the game within Chrono Cross. However, I think immediately jumping into Chrono Cross expecting a sequel to one of the most beloved JRPGs ever made "poisons the well" in more than one way. If you go into Chrono Cross expecting a logical continuation of Chrono Trigger, you will not appreciate anything it accomplishes. As a result, I think it is both healthier and fairer to view Chrono Cross not as a sequel to Chrono Trigger but instead, a fully realized release of one of Squaresoft's most obscure failed projects: Radical Dreamers.
Radical Dreamers, or Radical Dreamers: Nusumenai Houseki, was a visual novel sequel to Chrono Trigger exclusive to Japan. Its gameplay was a then-novel mix of text-based dialogue choices and scripted cutscenes. The player's agency is relatively limited, but that was the standard for visual novels then and even today. However, its story featured a stark tale involving a young boy named Serge and his female companion, Kid. The two are joined by a comrade named "Gil," and as they attempt to rob Viper Mansion, they quickly find themselves way over their heads. Suddenly, they get embroiled in a conspiracy capable of destroying the world. Much like Chrono Cross, Radical Dreamers is a wildly ambitious title, but a flawed one at that. Part of the reason it was never released outside of Japan was due to its platform of choice. Radical Dreamers was one of a hundred or so titles exclusive to the Satellaview add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. As the Satellaview itself never launched outside of Japan, that limited the possible audience for Radical Dreamers. I'm not going to review the history of the Satellaview, but I will note the highest number of active subscribers to the platform was around 100,000 people. So, if we are talking about the number of people who even could play Radical Dreamers as God intended, it was a percent of a percent.
I will warn you right now; Radical Dreamers is not for the faint of heart. It, like Chrono Cross, cares not about your nostalgia for Chrono Trigger. It is a dark and brutal "hard reset" meant to pave the way for future projects. To illustrate, in Radical Dreamers, Lynx kidnaps Lucca and then murders her in front of Kid. The story also culminates with Lynx basically kicking everyone's ass and only forced to accept defeat when an army organized by Dalton appears via deus ex machina. One does not murder a beloved figure in Chrono Trigger without the intent of moving forward with your own ideas or cast of characters, and it is worth noting the game's creative lead, Masato Kato. By his admission, Kato was incredibly depressed when writing Radical Dreamers and approached the task of making an experimental visual novel sequel to Chrono Trigger with little reverence to the game. Kato approached Radical Dreamers the same way Hideaki Anno approached the Evangelion reboot films.
What does any of this prattle have to do with Chrono Cross? In 1998, Squaresoft was just starting to gird its loins to begin development on Final Fantasy IX. Nevertheless, the team behind Xenogears was free, and one of the creative leads on that project was none other than Masato Kato. Fun fact, but Masato Kato originally wanted Xenogears to be a science-fiction-themed sequel to Chrono Trigger but was rebuffed by higher-ups in Squaresoft's upper management. However, when Xenogears proved to be a massive hit, Kato saw an opportunity to be the director of his own video game project. Kato felt that Radical Dreamers was a "half-finished project" and wanted to revive its story, cast, and theme in a full-fledged console title. However, even though Kato got the green light to move forward with the project, the executives of Squaresoft always viewed it as a secondary project to Final Fantasy IX. Hence, the game's team peaked at around 80 designers and programmers, whereas Final Fantasy IX easily eclipsed 100 within the first month of its production. When you play Chrono Cross, you must accept that you are playing something from a vagabond creative lead and designed by a skeleton crew always living under Final Fantasy IX's shadow. Only then will you be able to appreciate a sliver of what Chrono Cross has to offer.
Part #2: Square-Enix DOES NOT Want You Playing Chrono Cross
Much has been said about Nintendo and their terrible history of not wanting you to play their games on modern technology. No one company has made modern video game preservation more complicated than them, and they are incomparable enemies to the emulation community. Square-Enix, on the other hand, is a definite contender for second place. Time and time again, they have been selective in which games get the remaster treatment. Even worse, rarely, if ever, do they make the original aspect ratios, settings, or graphics available in what remake or remaster offerings they provide. Case in point, look at the Android/iOS ports of every numbered Final Fantasy game. Most, including myself, would greatly appreciate it if Square-Enix just released the original SNES version of Final Fantasy VI on Steam or the Epic Games Store. Instead, we get their notion of "smoothed" graphics with jagged texture maps and painfully stretch ground textures.
With Chrono Cross, I can only assume they do not want you playing this game. The last time they made any version of this game legally available, it was through Sony's "PSOne Classics" program. That means unless you want to drag out your original PlayStation, your only platform options are the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, or PlayStation Vita. So, seeing a challenge, I dusted off my step-brother's PS3 and took the time to navigate its godawful U.I. and cluttered marketplace to find the only digital copy of Chrono Cross available to me without resorting to "less than legal means." However, and this next part genuinely makes my blood boil, the PS3 version of Chrono Cross is incredibly questionable. The most pressing issue I found is Square-Enix saw fit to emulate every part of the PS1 version verbatim. That includes its framerate issues and load times. You heard that right; I wish I were kidding.
Unfortunately, playing Chrono Cross on the PlayStation One is a miserable experience. I understand the game was a monumental technical accomplishment, and working within the mechanical limitations of the PlayStation One is no laughing matter. However, the original version of Chrono Cross is riddled with signs that Squaresoft was butting against the console's technical limits at the end of the platform's lifespan. The load times are ridiculous, with some taking twenty to thirty seconds alone to load new environments or backdrops. Going from a town or city to the overworld can take time, and worse, the constant load times between different parts within a single level or dungeon makes establishing your bearings a total chore. Nonetheless, that pales in comparison to the game's framerate. Whenever you enter combat, the game's flashy animations and special moves cause the game to drop from its regular refresh rate to less than fifteen Hz. When I unlocked and tried out some combo moves or optional summons, I swear the game's refresh rate dropped to single digits. Part of this is due to the game being optimized for CRTs, and without a dynamic refresh rate, the game plays like shit on any modern monitor. However, the primary culprit stems from the game biting off more than it can chew.
All of my complaints aside, I believe this game warrants a modern remaster. For one thing, the game is a snapshot into Squaresoft's creative peak, when they were most willing to try out new ideas and storytelling concepts. I will be the first to admit the game is a mess and barely manages to covey a tenth of its ideas clearly or coherently. But HOT DAMN is this game a WILD EXPERIENCE that more people need to check out and try. Kingdom Hearts fans should play this game to see where Square's high faulting fantasy storytelling aspirations first got out of control. Final Fantasy fans should explore the game to see some of the franchise's zanier ideas in a more potent and unadulterated form. More importantly, I cannot fathom a game as big or culturally significant as Chrono Cross being swept under the rug. This game deserves better, and the fact I cannot play any version of it on the PS5 or Steam with better textures or load times is a travesty.
Part #3: Playing Chrono Cross Is The Worst Part
The minute you boot up Chrono Cross, there are several stark signs that you are not playing a simple sequel to Chrono Trigger. Its aesthetical choices are one, and the character recruitment mechanic is another, but the starkest is by far its gameplay. Chrono Trigger is a refreshing "formula break" from what Squaresoft had pioneered and codified by the time Final Fantasy VI was released. Each character in Chrono Trigger controls differently and exemplifies a distinct class or job type. Ayla plays differently from Marle, who plays differently from Magus, etc. This design choice, in turn, made swapping out party members with different characters all the more exciting and discovering "special attacks" when combining two or more character's meters an absolute blast. The EXP sharing system and the physical instancing of enemies also encourage players to explore these options even into the game's final story arc.
On the other hand, Chrono Cross has many of these mechanics, but they are different enough to feel like you are in uncharted waters. Yes, the game borrows Chrono Trigger's physical instancing of enemies, but the enemy encounters are so often unavoidable that the game might as well have used a random encounter system. Indeed, there are combo attacks in Chrono Cross, but they are a poor man's version of Chrono Trigger's "Combo Techs." But the fundamental inputting of attacks is where Chrono Cross honestly loses me. In it, you input attacks on a continuum much like Chrono Trigger, and certain inputs take up more meter than others. However, Chrono Cross's combat feels a lot more mindless. Unlike in Trigger, there's nothing stopping you from inputting the same bullshit over and over again from the beginning of the game to the final boss.
Worse, the game encourages you to button mash as enemies can interrupt your characters while they are animating attacks. An incredibly annoying problem that plagued me whenever I played Chrono Cross was that after inputting a series of attacks, an enemy would "wake up" and attack my character mid-animation. In this case, you need to re-input the remainder of your attacks. The issue here is immediately apparent. If you attempt some of the more "complex" combinations, you often struggle to remember the exact sequence of the remainder of your attacks. So, more often than not, I stuck with the same two or three attack inputs beyond the occasional magic spell from time to time. The gameplay's monotony is made even worse because each character plays the same, with the only difference being how many magic slots they have or their elemental affinities.
The vast cast, which we will discuss shortly, has a huge role in exacerbating this precise shortcoming. Chrono Trigger benefits from having a small cast because it can more easily distinguish the pros and cons of each of its characters. With Chrono Cross, because the game has an insane number of characters, the development team struggles to make any one character feel memorable or "special." As a result, in Chrono Cross, you NEVER feel like composing your party is especially important. But that is ignoring the most fundamental problem with Chrono Cross's combat: it is so goddamn slow. The flashy animations aside, attacking a single target takes forever to input and watch play out in real-time. The game generously outputs at fourteen to fifteen frames per second, and that dips to the single digits whenever you use a character's special ability. And if you do dare to use magical spells during non-boss encounters, you might as well walk away from your console and make a sandwich. The extravagant magic animations are almost comical in how long they take to complete.
Then, we have the whole "color field" mechanic. I hated this mechanic as it feels impossible to achieve an entire field of color given how easy enemies can interrupt your characters. I cannot begin to list the number of times I was seconds away from filling out or taking advantage of a whole field when a random enemy popped off a conflicting magic spell to ruin my plans. Worse, outside of no more than four or five bosses, the entire mechanic feels pointless or, at best, an afterthought. And even setting up your magic spells is a colossal pain in the ass. The slot-based magic interface is fiddly and frustrating to use, and the inventory management system is awful. You would think in a game that prides itself on how many characters it has, it would have some "swap" or "save" mechanic when managing multiple character's equipment or spells, but that is not the case. Whenever I was forced to relinquish a party member for another, I dreaded the steps involved with de-equipping a character.
Part #4: The Huge Cast Is A Double-Edged Sword
I'm going to warn all of my readers that I'm not going to do my "normal" close reading of every plot point in this game. For one thing, the game has so many one-off plot beats that it is impossible to do that, and for another thing, the game waits until its last three levels to reveal what its story is all about. There's so much chaff in Chrono Cross, it is not even funny, and the amount of time the game spends on story points that amount to nothing is utterly annoying. Maybe you enjoyed the game spending three fucking hours on the S.S. Invincible so Nikki could hold a concert about the importance of racial tolerance, but goddamn if I felt like it was a waste of my fucking time. Nonetheless, there's something to be said in how "quaint" Chrono Cross starts. Serge waking up from a nightmare in the podunk town of Arni effectively mirrors the introductory moments of Chrono Trigger.
On another positive note, the large cast makes exploring environments for new party members one of the few mechanics that holds water from beginning to end. I'm not going to lie to you and say the game providing some dialogue choices that impacted which characters joined my party did not put a smile on my face. I recruited as many characters as possible and found the most significant amount of joy "playing" Chrono Cross during breaks in-between story moments where I could travel vast distances or dimensions to pick up any would-be adventurers. However, that superficial joy comes at an enormous cost. That cost is that only a handful of characters feel genuinely connected to the game's story, especially its late-game philosophical discourse. Most of the recruitable characters say "hi" once and then disappear into the ether that is your party selection screen. Yes, each character has a side quest you can complete, but even these range a vast delta of interactivity. For example, I still do not understand why Lenna, your childhood friend, gets jack shit, but Orlha produces a five-act dramatic structure where you watch her come to terms with the death of her sister. And some of the characters that are connected to the story feel entirely out of place. For instance, Starky is critical to the narrative, but he sticks out like a sore thumb every time he gets a moment to say his piece.
This quibble returns us to the issue of Chrono Cross not utilizing enough of Chrono Trigger's storytelling structure. I cannot emphasize this point enough, but Chrono Trigger accomplishes in one hour what takes Chrono Cross ten to fifteen. The philosophical musings that define the game's final act are A WAYS TO GO from when you experience your first "dimensional shift." However, Arni does provide a fun tutorial of one of Chrono Cross's core mechanics: character recruitment. Here you have the opportunity to recruit Poshul, a pink dog who happily wails on any enemies you encounter. However, the game does a shit job of communicating which NPCs are recruitable party members or even which parts of the story present points of differentiation between playthroughs. At no point does the game say, "Yo, talk to everyone in this town and see who is willing to join you," and that's an issue because it is incredibly easy to miss out on characters by just progressing the story.
Missing a character is not that big of a deal as most are completely useless in combat. Likewise, the "story critical" characters are good enough to carry the load of any missing optional ones. That said, I cannot comprehend why the character recruitment mechanic is not more visibly communicated to the player. The only real marker that someone might be recruitable is if a character portrait appears when you talk to them, but that is not a given. Likewise, there's no mission log in this game, and that omission drove me fucking crazy. Some optional characters require entire side quests before they join your party, whereas others join Serge post-haste. There's no rhyme or reason why characters need more rigmarole, but remembering the steps to some of these side quests is irritating. To highlight, traveling the world to assemble Skelly sucks because you have to refer to your inventory to remember which of his body parts you have already collected.
To further hammer home the double-edged sword of Chrono Cross's massive cast, you have the story's "Branching Points." At various stages in the game, it will force you to mull over a choice that will bestow a different set of characters. Again, there's something about the variety of choices in the game that I truly enjoyed playing around with during my playthrough. However, YET AGAIN, Chrono Cross fumbles its execution. First, some of the situations that lock away characters are super contrived. For instance, if you accept Kid's first offer to help you at Cape Howl, Lenna will never join your party. In other choices, I never felt like I had a good handle on what the impacts of my decision would be further down the road. Worse, there were times when I did not understand why a character did not show up in my playthrough. To highlight, I have no idea what I needed to have done to get Turnip, but I obviously did something wrong as they never appeared once. But if you ask me to pinpoint what my mistake may have been, I could not tell you.
Part #5: The Starting Premise Of The Game Is Such A Nothing Burger
What is the purpose of the first ten hours of Chrono Cross? For the past month, I have been trying to come up with an answer to that question. Unfortunately, I still have nothing to show for my efforts.
- exploring Arni village
- collecting a bunch of lizard scales to make Lenna a necklace
- falling into an alternate dimension
- mulling over which three characters to pick up at "Another" Termina
- going to Viper Mansion.
Of these five distinct set pieces, only two (i.e., the dimension shift and Viper Mansion) have any genuine grounding with the main plot. However, only one is even remotely connected with the events surrounding the game's ending (i.e., the dimension shift). Getting Lenna her necklace is a fine combat tutorial, albeit it serves as a rude reminder of the game's terrible drop rate and slow, plodding gameplay. But no matter, things start decently enough in Chrono Cross. The game subjects you to a dream sequence wherein you get a nice "abilitease," and a hint of some of the characters you will eventually encounter. When the protagonist, Serge, awakens from their slumber, they find themselves in a quaint fishing hamlet called "Arni Village."
After collecting the trinkets necessary to make Lenna, Serge's childhood friend, a necklace, you spend time with them at Opassa Beach. Now, hard stop, there are dialogue choices at various points in Chrono Cross. Whether or not you pick the "correct" dialogue prompts during these scenes often determines whether or not a character gets their level seven tech skill. The problem is that the game does not communicate this point to you at all, and many of the correct dialogue selections are phony as fuck. No matter, as Serge reminisces with Lenna, they inexplicably transport themselves to an alternate dimension. This becomes apparent when Serge interacts with the villagers of Arni and discovers that he died many years ago in this alternate dimension. His mother refuses to accept him, and this version of Lenna instructs Serge to locate his grave at Cape Howl.
For anyone with a modicum of nostalgia for Chrono Trigger, you will likely note that alternate dimensions have nothing to do with that game, as it is all about traversing timelines and eras of antiquity. Under normal circumstances, I would nod my head and agree that the introduction of alternate dimensions is another bitter pill Chrono Cross forces you to swallow as it presents itself as a sequel to Chrono Trigger. However, as someone who has finished Chrono Cross twice, I will say that the proverbial shriveled finger on the monkey paw curls up at the mere suggestion that this game does not have enough of a grounding with its predecessor. All I will say is that the introduction of alternate dimensions adds a lot of convoluted bullshit to Chrono Cross. Nonetheless, I will warn you that it does indeed have a direct connection to Chrono Trigger.
Despite some early promise, the game sticks with the mystery of Serge being dead in an alternate dimension for far longer than it should. That is doubly so when you consider how the game ends and what its ultimate plot beat is about in its second half. For twelve whole acts, all the game gives you is this oblique mystery on why Serge is dead in the "Another Dimension" and how he can get back home. In the meantime, the game gives you so many subplots, and it's a Herculean task to list them out in an intelligible manner. You have the love triangle between Kid and Lenna over Serge's affections. You have Porre's occupation of Termina. You have Nikki and his attempt to teach the world to be tolerant of the demi-humans. Speaking of which, you three or four separate subplots connected to humans treating demi-humans like shit. First, there are the Dwarfs, who in the "another" dimension attempt to fight against their human oppressors. Second, Fargo enslaves the demi-humans on his ship. And then you have the four or five separate subplots connected to the demi-human colony at Marbule! What does any of this have to do with the game's ending?
The end result is that Chrono Cross waits its sweet ass time before it provides any idea as to what its ulterior motive is with its story. The consequence is that it attempts to maintain your interest with one-off vignettes of varying quality. For example, Riddel's whole relationship story arc with Dario did absolutely nothing for me. That's doubly so when the game spends what feels like two hours on a side quest about Karsh needing to prove he did not kill Dario. Likewise, some of these interstitial set pieces go on for what feels like an eternity. Nikki's concert about loving the demi-humans like your family? Why the fuck was that an almost ten-minute fully animated cutscene when the entire end of this game is told through three characters and in-game text boxes? This game is filled to the gills with fluff, which makes playing it even more of a burden.
Part #6: Viper Manor Is A Perfect Case Study ON Everything Wrong With The Level Design In Chrono Cross
Viper Mansion is the level that all but crystalized my overall dislike of how Chrono Cross plays. Up to that point, I was somewhat shocked at how little I played the game. Chrono Cross employs Chrono Trigger's real-world instancing instead of the standard random encounter system that Squaresoft had made all but a JRPG norm on the PS1. In the case of Chrono Trigger, the use of real-world encounters allows the player to opt into as much or little combat as they like, within limits. Even better, Chrono Trigger's use of this mechanic boils out grinding in favor of encounters that always feel connected to progressing and showcasing your characters' abilities. Unfortunately, the design team in charge of Chrono Cross has fiddled with this winning formula and tacked a bunch of needless busywork that makes its implementation of real-world encounters an all-out slog.
The first point of order has to do with how your characters level up. In Chrono Cross, your characters gain a new level whenever they beat a boss. Every boss rewards a star rank which helps your characters unlock more slots to equip magical abilities. Additionally, when you reach certain parts of the story, boss fights will also boost your party members' base stats. Admittedly, this mechanic is not too far off from how your character's leveled up in Chrono Trigger, but again, the issue with Chrono Cross is that there is a bunch of needless bullshit that makes your sense of progression feel far less rewarding. For one thing, the boss encounters are not spread equitably and favor the mid to late-game. This means you are stuck with entry-level characters and equipment for over ten hours. Worse, there's a bunch of unavoidable non-boss encounters in Chrono Cross. In the case of Viper Manor, or any of the late-game dungeons for that matter, monsters burst out of closets all the time, and these encounters are forced. The problem is because these encounters reward no experience or valuable items, they feel entirely irrelevant.
With all of that in mind, let's return to the issue at hand, Viper Manor. The mission here is simple enough: confront General Viper and determine why he and his Acacia Dragoons want Serge dead. It's a straightforward premise that the game finds a way to stretch across multiple set pieces. First, depending on which companion you picked up in Termina, Serge and company will either start things off by ascending the Viper Bluffs, blasting through the manor's front gate, or sneaking through a sewer. Once in the villa, the game subjects you to a stealth mission where you navigate a series of backdrops until you make your way to a stable. While there, you create a distraction by unleashing a myriad of dragoons before entering Viper's abode. Once there, you have to accomplish a Byzantine series of steps to get a key to unlock the stairs to General Viper's office. Every step of this process takes five to seven minutes, and each effort is about as entertaining as watching grass grow. Plus, your characters don't have any of their flashier abilities. As a result, you are stuck looking at the same attack animations and character inputs
Have I mentioned how mindless the combat feels for more than half the game? Before you unlock the special abilities, summons, high-tier magic spells, or late-game characters, you end up committing to a rhythm or sequence of inputs by the time you reach Viper Manor, and that does not change at any point. Part of the reason for this is the game is not difficult! Throughout the first ten hours, at no point did I ever feel like I was in danger of seeing a "Game Over" screen. It is AGES before the game subjects you to anything even remotely challenging. The first time a boss or enemy KO-ed my party was Miguel, but he's damn near the game's midpoint! On top of that, it's not like your characters are fun to play in the first place. Casting magic isn't as effective as you'd like due to the color field mechanic, and the slot system, which we will discuss in-depth next episode, is a pain in the ass. So, with no sweeping potential until the character swap, you mash away on whatever prompts you feel like inputting and wait for everything to die.
What makes everything even more unpalatable is how Chrono Cross doesn't force you to opt into mechanics or play styles like Chrono Trigger. Take, for example, the first time you meet Ayla and start fighting the Reptites. While stomping about in the Prehistory portion of Chrono Trigger, the game clues you into the Reptites being weak to lightning. Then as you progress, the dinosaurs evolve to invert that weakness against your favor. Nothing like that happens in Chrono Cross. Sure, the color system adds in a pseudo-rock-paper-scissors dynamic. However, because physical or special attacks remain potent from beginning to end, I never felt like I needed to opt into this system outside of a few bosses. To make matters worse, the game introduces new mechanics well into its twentieth hour in the form of recurring battles against Solt and Peppor. However, the mechanics that they often introduce rarely have any implications in the set pieces or dungeons you are about to encounter. For example, they present the game's summoning system around hour four, but that mechanic isn't handy until the final act.
Part #7: The Story Takes FOREVER To Get Interesting And Weird
The good news about Viper Manor is that it signals when the story starts to become more compelling. As mentioned earlier, the game sticks with the underlying mystery of Serge being a mute ghost boy. Nonetheless, things begin to take a dramatic turn when you meet up with an elderly wizard at Viper Manor. A lot of this is thanks to Lynx, the game's recurring antagonist. Sure, he's a mustache-twirling villain for most of the game, but his schemes are so comically ridiculous that I found him to be one of the story's best and strongest characters. Admittedly, there's a ton of anime "bullshitery" you have to tolerate whenever he appears, but every monkey wrench he throws at Serge is just the goddamn best.
Before we jump into the belly of the beast, I should mention I opted for Guile instead of Nikki or Pierre. Nikki is probably the "correct" party member choice given his connection to the game's early story arcs, but I could not be fucked to care about his highly involved recruitment mission. On the other hand, Pierre is simply shit, and when I read up on how you make him less shit, I said, "Fuck that!" So, I was stuck with Guile and his fake-ass Magus act, which bummed me out thanks in no part to his poor magical slot spread. Before that, I initially rejected Kid to guarantee I could have Lenna in my party. At this stage of the game, Lenna is a godsend as she is your strongest magic caster by a mile. While en route to Termina in the "Another World," I initiated the questline to add Skelly to my party, and you have my assurances; I re-assembled him before the end of the game. Upon entering the depths of Viper Manor, I took the necessary steps to free Pip from its cage. Of these optional characters, Guile and Lenna were the only ones I used more than twice in my playthrough. Kid, on the other hand, is in her own category.
As the party makes progress through Viper Manor, they discover that General Viper is the man in charge and his second-in-command, Lynx, is always right there beside him. I enjoyed the moments where you interact with the dragoons at Viper Manor. I was shocked to discover they were not bloodthirsty child soldiers but trained professionals whose only wish is to protect their homeland of Termina. You also get early hints that Lynx is disturbing the "old ways" of the dragoons, and his refusal to follow their customs has irked many of General Viper's most loyal servants. Upon reaching the top of Viper Manor, the story showcases two distinct set pieces. First, Serge meets up with an elderly wizard at an observatory and a young girl in a Gothic Lolita setup that speaks with a 90s-era Valley Girl accent. Her name is Marcy, and the localization for her dialogue is terrible, but not even near the top five worst character translations in the game. Oh no, we have more of that to come next episode.
After beating the young Marcy, our attention turns to the old wizard who muses that he knows more about Serge than everyone might suspect. He shifts a weird machine and then lectures about alternate dimensions and time paradoxes as the screen wilds out like a bad LSD trip. We then live out a flashback, which the game has, up to this point, shared in spurts, wherein Serge watches a black void destroy the world as he knows it. The wizard says to Serge that only he has the power to stop the end of the world, but that he is also the reason for the cataclysm presenting itself. The wizard shifts the machine from earlier back to its original position, and the screen returns to normal. He then provides the exact location of General Viper and encourages Serge to proceed with haste. I loved this scene due to how patently ridiculous it was compared to the rest of the game. When Chrono Cross "goes for it," it goes HARD, and I cannot help but cackle with glee whenever it does!
Part #8: I Saved Kid And Fucking Regret It
When your party confronts General Viper and Lynx at the top of the manor, things get a little hectic. Following Lynx's formal introduction, Kid reveals she harbors a deep-seething hatred of the furry due to some prior blood feud. Before you are thrust into a battle, you are told about the "Frozen Flame" and how it can grant wishes to save the world of El Nido from its impending doom. Lynx points to Serge, and much like the Time Lord from earlier, declares Serge to be the source of El Nido's upcoming apocalypse. After defeating Lynx, Kid devises a scheme in which the party attempts to escape the mansion by holding Viper's daughter, Riddel, at gunpoint. This plan leads to Kid cornered on the edge of a roof, wherein Lynx throws a poisoned dagger that hits Kid and plummets her into the ocean. Serge follows by diving to her rescue. The game then smash cuts to black before transitioning to a new location called "Guldove."
Eventually, Kid succumbs to the effects of Lynx's poisoned dagger. The lone doctor at Guldove shares that only the bone of a Hydra will be able to cure her. Unfortunately, in the Another World, hydras have gone extinct. Being able to put two and two together, you realize that if you could travel back to Serge's home dimension, he would be able to slay a hydra to get said bone to cure Kid. However, Kid implores Serge not to bother and says the effort is not worth his time and she has come to terms with her demise. Thus, the game presents another "Branching Point," but this one boils down to if you will save Kid or allow her to die. Conceptually, this moral dilemma is one of the more powerful moments in the early portion of the game. However, much like any good idea or concept in Chrono Cross, the game's execution massively fucks everything up!
As my chapter subtitle suggests, I saved Kid. I also took the necessary steps to pick up NioFio, Greco, and Razzly while in my pursuit of the legendary Hydra Humor. No matter, what makes this scene so strong is how it goes about surfacing the consequences of your actions, at least if you save Kid. As I explored the Hydra Marshes, I was reminded by multiple characters that hydras were essentially an endangered species in Serge's home dimension. This culminated in a battle against a family of dwarfs, which declared themselves the Hydra Marsh's protectors and lamented the wanton destruction humanity had wracked on the environment. Upon killing what they believed to be the last hydra, they bemoaned Serge and asked him to think about his act's senselessness and how he has "destroyed" the lifelong duty of the dwarfs. Furthermore, there is a noted change in the environment if you choose to kill the last hydra. The plants of the Hydra Marsh become less animated, and the music even changes to reflect the loss of life. Finally, this is a choice the game will remind you of as you progress the story. The dwarfs and other demi-humans will recall Serge's actions, which will determine how welcoming they are to him.
The problem is that none of this matters. First, the story completely ditches the branching points entirely by the third and final act, and they have no bearing on which ending you get during the story's finale. Second, even within the microcosm of the first act, the writing doesn't even take full advantage of this particular dilemma. Do you want to know what happens when you elect to let Kid die? Well, you hook up with Glenn in Termina, and upon returning to Kid, Yup, the story drops a literal deus ex machina and the game even has the gall of letting Kid re-join your party as if nothing happened. Now, for those of you who have played Chrono Cross, you understand that Kid cannot die because of how she's attached to the game's ending. That said, this entire situation is a sham. Not only are there no consequences to deciding to let Kid die, but you also get better characters. I am not necessarily against the concept of branching paths or different sets of playable characters based on your choices. However, when those choices have no connection to the story, and there are no consequences to particular decisions, I cannot help but view the system as a wasted opportunity. Also, trying to save Kid added an extra hour or two to my playthrough, and given how shitty the game plays in the first two acts, I was not a fan of that.
Part #9: This Game Has The Worst Pacing Issues I Have Ever Seen
Chrono Cross represents the best and worst of Squaresoft's storytelling habits. The game's narrative is oozing ambition, and you cannot fault it for trying. However, it misses far more often than it hits, and there's no denying how much it wastes your time. Remember Lynx's lectures on the roof-top of Viper Mansion? That's the last time you'll have anything even remotely connected to the actual story of Chrono Cross for a solid TEN HOURS. The subsequent levels are Hermit's Hideaway, the S.S. Invincible, Water Dragon Isle, Mount Pyre, and Fort Dragonia. At best, Fort Dragonia provides the "turning point" of the story, but the remaining environments are more about introducing subplots or new characters. I know some of you would object to me lumping Harle and Radius in with forgettable standbys like Skelly or Fargo. However, even in their cases, their contributions to the main story are spread across a vast continuum and splayed out in ten-minute-long lectures. And because this information is stretched so thin, I often struggled to recall referenced proper nouns introduced in the first or second act.
I mentioned I would not provide a level-by-level close reading of Chrono Cross, and that's when this kicks into high gear. There are too many levels in this game that offer nothing but random encounters and shitty one-off characters to make such an effort worth it. I'm not doing a deep look at the first time you land on the S.S. Invincible when you fight a bunch of spooky ghosts. You can't make me. Sure, it's "fun" to see how the alternate dimensions contrast characters, but even then, the game doesn't go far enough. For example, when I brought Lenna from the alternate dimension and had her interact with Lenna in the Home World, the opposite Lenna just mused, "Huh, you remind me of someone." On the other hand, other characters immediately recognize their counterparts, and they react as if it is no big deal. The issue is that shifting between the two dimensions isn't the revelatory experience it should be. Instead, it allows the game to cut corners in terms of providing new or additional levels. As a result, the interstitial levels are exactly the sum of their parts. They are visually stunning travelogues wherein you are occasionally prompted to add new people or trinkets to your party—nothing more; nothing less.
But alas, let's return to Hermit's Hideaway, the level that refocuses the party on their next goal after reviving Kid. Unfortunately, Lynx appears to have beaten Serge to the punch as the location is blown to bits. While examining the burned ruins, Serge and company come across Harle, a French-accented jester. I'm going to harp on this point in the next episode, but I cannot emphasize enough how Alexander O. Smith's translation of Vagrant Story came out the same year as Chrono Cross's North American release. Radius provides advice on where Serge should go next while also hinting at his destiny to bring death and destruction to all around him. I'd say more about Radius, but all he does is share the same sound bite the game gives you in hour one. Sure, his backstory involving his time with the Dragoons, his fallen companion Gerai, and experiences with the Masamune are "nice," but that's all I can say. Likewise, your first rodeo on the S.S. Invincible is entirely unremarkable. Fargo is a fun character in moderation, but HOT DAMN is his character arc in the Home World just a tedious drag. And before you ask, yes, I got Pip.
The only notable transitional set piece worth commending at this point is found at the Water Dragon Isle. If you attempt to climb Mount Pyre without the Water Dragon's blessing, you will find the lava there will make quick work of your character's health points. However, when you visit the Water Dragon Isle, you find it under siege by the dwarfs from earlier. If, like me, you slew the last hydra to save Kid, the Dwarfs proclaim that they have learned from Serge the need to conquer other cultures and groups of people in the name of imperialism. It's a shocking moment of introspection I was not prepared for, and I give credit to the game; it works magnificently. You find the island's fairy colony in disrepair with what would typically be interactable NPCs lying in heaps either passed our or outright dead. Suppose Razzly is a part of your party. In that case, the set-piece is especially devastating as family and friends eventually turn on her, believing that her attempts to interact with the human world brought this devastation onto her people.
Part #10: The First "Real" Plot Twist Is A Fucking Doozy, But It's Entirely Irrelevant!
Eventually, your party makes its way to Mount Pyre before it can assault Fort Dragonia and take Lynx head-on. While at the molten volcano, you use the Water Dragon's special ability to freeze flows of lava to make paths. It's a fun puzzle, and considering the bullshit we are about to deal with in the fort, I did not mind it. You do, however, end up in a boss encounter against some of the dragoons you fought earlier. This includes Marcy, who is more than happy to share her contempt for both you and your entire party. Once you dispatch them, you make your way to the entrance of the fort wherein Harle appears and declares that you are approaching a "point of no return." She's not lying, by the way! Dear God, she's definitely NOT lying about that one!
Once inside the fort, you are reminded of my least favorite aspect of Squaresoft's PS1-era design sensibilities: their insistence to incorporate puzzles into every goddamn dungeon they make. The dungeon here is broken into four quadrants, each with a different puzzle that may or may not transition into a boss battle once you solve it. Some of these puzzles, like the one where you rearrange your party's order, are clever. Unfortunately, other puzzles, like the stone labyrinth, are terrible time sinks. In the case of the labyrinth, it's easy to get lost, and the inclusion of dead-ends makes navigating the environment a total chore. Much like Viper Manor, the encounters are often unavoidable due to the narrow pathways and because the game loves to spring shit on you when you least expect it. The bosses are also hit-or-miss, given that their elemental tells and weaknesses aren't always necessary to pick up on in battle. Like everything else in the game, you can still slog through and beat bosses through brute force. However, at least the boss design is clever and fun.
Eventually, you find Lynx and General Viper. Viper goes down relatively quickly, and as he readies himself for another go at Serge, Lynx stabs him in the back. The boss battle against Lynx commences, and it too is nothing to write home about as it concludes in record time. However, as Lynx marvels over Serge's strength, he cackles that he cannot hope to kill him. As was the case on Viper Manor, Serge is treated to a flashback involving a black panther, the significance of which is still anyone's guess. We then see Lynx grabbing a magical orb which then swaps the souls of Serge and Lynx. Lynx inhabits Serge's body, and he even has a "punished" Serge character portrait. Next, Lynx in Serge's body commands your party to "attack Lynx," who is actually Serge. As they attack, you are thrust into a forced-loss battle wherein you control Lynx and watch your party murder you using the same abilities you had just employed. This is what we call a "formula break," and I fucking LOVED IT!
Lynx in Serge's body then turns his attention to Kid. Similar to what we have seen in Serge's multiple flashbacks, Lynx stabs Kid through the heart. She falls to the floor in a pool of blood, and while Serge in Lynx's body cries out in agony, he is transported into the afterlife. Again, this is fucking WILD, and I loved every minute of it! For HOURS the game blue-balls its audience that some crazy shit is about to happen, and FINALLY, you start to see that! Oddly enough, as someone who has completed Chrono Cross, I can safely say you end up playing more of the game as Serge in Lynx's body than the "normal" Serge. I can only imagine someone working on this believed they had to have an "Aerith dies" moment like everything Squaresoft made during this era. I'm glad they did because the sheer brass balls of this plot twist gave me a second wind just as I began contemplating dropping this game entirely.
Now, for those of you reading this blog and who have never played Chrono Cross, I'm going to do you a solid. You need to understand that this and every plot twist or development during the first two-thirds of the game are entirely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. That's my underlying issue with Chrono Cross, and even though I loved the sheer craziness of this twist, I can't help but think about its long-term irrelevancy. Nothing about Serge turning into a furry has any deep-seated connection with what we will see or witness in the last three levels. Nothing about this plot twist has anything to do with the final boss and why we are even fighting said final boss. To add insult to injury, the writing and development team behind Chrono Cross knows this; hence, when you attempt to play New Game+, you can speed through the first half of the game as if it is nothing. It is storytelling malfeasance, at least in my opinion, how long the ethos of this game remains a complete mystery. Nonetheless, at least this game has some excellent music.