As we reach the 15th anniversary of Chrono Cross's North American release, it's a good time to reflect on the impact this game had. For many fans of Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross was a bit of a shock. It was a game that at first seemed to have nothing to do with the plot of Chrono Trigger, although after playing for a bit connections between the two games would be revealed. The game mechanics, art style, and even the overall tone also differed greatly between the two games.
But this huge difference between Cross and Trigger was inevitable. Chrono Trigger was created by Square under the supervision of Enix employee Yuji Horii, best know as the creator of the Dragon Quest franchise, who contributed the development of the game's plot. He did not return for the sequel. Not only that, but the unique art style of Akira Toriyama was missing from Chrono Cross. Toriyama, best known for the Dragon Ball manga, has such a distinctive style that one of my friends thought that Chrono Trigger "ripped off" Dragon Ball. While the new art style was perfectly fine, and arguably more appropriate for Chrono Cross' darker tone, it was jarring for fans who were expecting Toriyama's art style.
However these weren't the only factors that made the 2 games so different, as Square itself had changed in the years since Chrono Trigger was released. In the late 90s, Square went through a really experimental phase; they were cranking out games like Parasite Eve, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy VIII. All of the games brought in new ideas to the JRPG genre, incorporating new and unusual gameplay mechanics that deviated heavily from the established norms of the genre.
And the experimentation wasn't just limited to gameplay, they were also experimenting with storytelling as well. Whether it was rebellious mitochondria turning people into monsters or a villain whose goal was to compress time, no idea was too ridiculous for Square to reject. I mean that half-jokingly; I did enjoy both Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VIII despite the absurd plot elements. But its clear that under these circumstances fans were not going to get a game that was anything like Chrono Trigger.
While the game we got may not have been what we wanted or expected, it was actually a pretty awesome game in a lot of ways, although deeply flawed in others.While the main gimmick in Chrono Trigger is bopping around to different time periods, Chrono Cross focuses on traveling between 2 parallel dimensions, which is actually pretty cool. If you were going to make a sequel without making it a complete rehash of the previous game, this is a good way to do it. Exploring a place in two similar dimensions gives a somewhat similar feeling to exploring a place in multiple time periods, but still different.
Another really cool thing is that many of the playable characters who join your party throughout the game can eventually be brought to the other dimension to meet themselves, which leads to some amusing dialogue. This feels similar to, but not quite the same, as Chrono Trigger's sidequests whose effects could be seen in later time periods. What both games have in common is that they did an excellent job of making the most of their respective gimmicks.
What's really awesome is the event that caused the 2 dimensions to split is that in one of them the protagonist, Serge, drowned as a child. Although later the player can freely move between the 2 dimensions, for part of the game Serge is trapped in a dimension where everyone thinks he is dead and he can visit his own grave. It's pretty creepy, and a really great way to get players interested in the story.
Later on. the plot will take many twists and turns, some of them quite dubious, but as mentioned earlier, this was pretty much Square's style at the time. Many illogical, random, or even downright insane plot developments can be forgiven if we have interesting characters to get invested in that will bring emotional weight to the story.
Unfortunately, Chrono Cross completely falls flat with its characters. Serge is a generic silent protagonist much like Crono before him, so in that regard Chrono Cross it not any worse off. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are much worse. Trigger had a lean team of 5 characters supporting Crono, or 6 if you get the optional character to join. Cross had over 40 supporting characters who can join your group. While Trigger's characters were all very distinct and memorable, Cross's are generic and forgettable.
Playing through Chrono Trigger multiple times was actually pretty fun, bringing different characters through different parts of the game would show off their unique dialogue. Chrono Cross is packed with generic dialogue. The developers actually wrote a program to apply accents to the generic dialogue so that the characters feel a bit distinct, but the dialogue is still generic and offers no insight into the characters' personality, and frankly most of the accents are incredibly annoying. A few characters, like Kid, who are actually relevant to the plot, actually get a decent amount of unique dialogue. Most of the characters just feel tacked on and pointless. The game really would have benefited from a smaller team of better developed characters, instead of filling the game with numerous nobodies.
The gameplay in Chrono Trigger revolved around dual and triple techs, which allowed multiple characters to work together to use a special attack. Choosing which characters were in your active party was a major decision, because you would have wildly different techs available. Dual techs exist in Cross as well, but only a few characters get them, and good luck figuring out who they are without a guide.
The major gameplay element in Chrono Cross are elements. It works a bit like Materia in Final Fantasy VII, a little bit more complicated, but basically you just equip elements in order to cast magic in battle. Yes, this does seem to go against Chrono Trigger, where you had to travel to the end of time to learn magic, but I don't think its a huge deal. I can accept that technology was recently invented that allows any random person to cast magic.
Now this is the really interesting part; each element you have equipped can only be used once per battle. This changes everything. Forget about whatever wonky plot twist Square cooked up, this is the reason Chrono Cross is special. In RPGs it's common for characters to come back from the brink of death several times per battle thanks to healing magic or items, leading to really long, yet quite easy and repetitive battles.
However Cross' system greatly limits how much you'll be able to heal. There are consumables, which are basically this game's equivalent of items, but they still need to be equipped in the element grid, and there are still limitations on how many you'll be able to use per battle. You can equip more healing elements if you want, but you'll have fewer slots to equip attacking elements, which might just be worse.
I found this game frustrating and not too much fun at first. It was so different from any previous JRPG, I had to unlearn all my experience from playing Final Fantasy in order to master this game. It can actually be a pretty fun and satisfying system once you get used to it. Unlike Final Fantasy VIII, which you can sort of coast through without knowing too much about how the weird game mechanics work, this game will kick your ass if you don't take the time to understand it.
So at the end of all of this, what can we say about Chrono Cross? It was kind of a lousy sequel to Chrono Trigger. The entire game takes place on an archipelago that doesn't even exist in Trigger. You only get vague hints as to what's going on the Zenan mainland. Some characters from the previous game do make brief appearances, which are more likely to confuse than satisfy fans.
But if we take Chrono Cross as a standalone game, it's actually pretty good. The plot is pretty bizarre, but it's a fun ride for the most part. The combat system can be quite fun if you put in the effort to master it but can be cruel and unforgiving to casual players who don't look into the game too deeply. Ultimately, this game is a classic in its own right, not as a sequel to Chrono Trigger.