Then and Now: Chrono Cross (PSX)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

As we’ve seen with the Diablo III and the predictable congestion issues the game is experiencing, as well as the general fan reaction, gaming fans tend to be an entitled lot. When they get what they want, it’s usually about how it should have been better. When they don’t get what they want, they flail with retard strength, pounding away at their keyboards with scattershot verbal attacks targeted at the developer, their employees, and anyone they’ve ever loved about what a travesty they’ve committed against mankind. It goes one step short of offering them a knife as a method of saying “kill yourself and save your dignity”.

Sadly, it’s oddly reminiscent of fan reaction to Chrono Cross when it came out.

Simply put, Chrono Cross was NOT CHRONO TRIGGER!!! Fans didn’t want anything innovative, or inspired, or anything that wasn’t a NEW CHRONO TRIGGER!!!. How a new Chrono Trigger would work, or whether it would make sense were never explained, but this was irrelevant for those that wanted MORE CHRONO TRIGGER!!! These fans were so insistent on MORE CHRONO TRIGGER!!! that they went and created their own, with a ROM of Crimson Echoes leaking to the internet last year, against the orders of Square Enix. Naturally, it’s terrible, consisting of horrendous continuity breaks, inconsistent dialogue, plot holes one could drive the Epoch through, and generally fanfiction-quality writing, but for the truly zealous, it was at least MORE CHRONO TRIGGER!!!

It’s a shame, because Chrono Cross was a great game by its own rights, the proverbial smart, responsible and yet only somewhat less attractive woman bypassed by a fanbase that kept trying to sleep with the supermodel. “I know I’m in there, man, she grinned at me last week!” With Chrono Trigger now in the history books, and Square Enix outright antagonizing their fanbase at this point, it’s high time to look back on one of the most underappreciated games of the golden era of JRPGs and see if it stands up in 2012.

Chrono Cross
Original System: Sony PlayStation
Developer: Square Product Development Division 3
Publisher: SquareSoft
Original Release Date: August 15, 2000

HOW WAS IT THEN: Opinions on Chrono Cross in 2000 tended to depend on what people wanted out of the game. For those that wanted an innovative new RPG, they got what they wanted. For those that wanted MORE CHRONO TRIGGER!!!, they were sorely disappointed. The latter tended to be a vocal minority, but the former group was right.

The developers of Chrono Cross went for the fences in terms of developing things that hadn’t been seen in the genre, and they connected on most of it. Chrono Cross‘s battle system focused on two key things: elements and stamina. Stamina was important to determine how many attacks, and the veracity of said attacks, someone could do in a turn, and if too much was used (bringing the combatant into negatives), that character took longer to recover. Meanwhile, elements could strengthen or weaken attacks for whoever exploited the system, friend or foe. While it didn’t make every battle a thinking man’s game, it did add an element beyond that of Final Fantasy‘s “mash attack until victory” battle system, and made boss battles particularly challenging. One key thing the developers tried was having statistic upgrades limited until boss battles were cleared, at which point another layer of stats could be added, replacing the standard experience-for-level system. It was an interesting decision that put the onus more on getting through the story and less on mindlessly grinding for levels.

Whereas Chrono Trigger had up to seven characters that could be recruited, all with their own intricate backstories for the player to flesh out, Chrono Cross has 45 of them, across different parallel universes where character A can even interact with his counterpart in world B. This is Chrono Cross‘s blessing and its curse. Unlike a game like Suikoden, which has alternative ways to flesh out even the less important characters, an awful lot of the characters in Cross feel disposable and unimportant. A lot of time was spent on the game’s main story, but more characterization was needed, even if the variety added some spice to combat.

The innovations that Chrono Trigger brought to the table, such as viewable enemies, New Game+ and alternative endings, make their comeback in Cross. The endings, many of which couldn’t be viewed outside of New Game+, added hours of replayability for a $50 game that was already long. Dedicated fans surely got their money’s worth.

While it wasn’t Chrono Trigger, more open-minded fans were treated to a good experience, provided they could overlook a few flaws.

THEN: B+

HOW IS IT NOW: Cross is still a very good game with a lot of innovations, and though some of those innovations have become standard industry fare over the years, the game itself is still a quality play. However, some of the design decisions that worked so well over a decade ago are less positive nowadays.

The battle system definitely holds up. I personally don’t mind a “mash X until victory” battle system so long as it’s in a game that’s balanced well; Grandia‘s amazing battle system can be a bigger pain in the neck when I just want to get somewhere without having to think too deeply about it. Cross does a good job of balancing a system that makes one think with some great ideas that can be used well, keeping things consistently fresh, especially considering the large roll call of characters. While random battles are largely routine, there’s enough in here to keep people from falling asleep, at least.

The same can’t be said for the story, which has so many nuances, parallels and assorted issues that it gets to Inception-level silliness at times. If I have to go to old message boards to try to interpret what’s going on in my game’s story, there’s a problem, and the throwaway cast of playable characters, most of whom are not written with much effort, don’t help things. Chrono Cross has the smell of a game that might have been a little ambitious in scope for its time, to the point where beancounters started urging for the game to see release.

As with most PlayStation-era 3D games, the graphics obviously don’t stand up as well as those of its two-dimensional partner, but they do stand up better than some other games of the era, with a relatively minimal amount of pixelation and polygon tearing. It’s not as gorgeous nowadays as it would be had it been either 2D or a PS2 game, but it holds up much better than, say, Final Fantasy VII or VIII. What DOES stand up, unquestionably, is the soundtrack, which is, in my personal opinion, the greatest ever. The brainchild of Yasunori Mitsuda, the talent behind the majority of Chrono Trigger‘s soundtrack (also considered one of the all-time greatest), Cross‘s heavily Celtic-inspired soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric, and gorgeously arranged, leaving the player with emotions that correspond with what’s happening in the game. Outside of the game, the OST is one of my favourites to listen to, and inside of it, it’s the greatest marriage of music to interactive entertainment I’ve ever witnessed.

Ironically, what was once a strength of Chrono Cross turns out to almost be a weakness in 2012: the New Game+ endings. Getting through Chrono Cross can take a long time, even with New Game+, and it’s extremely time-consuming to get all of the endings, with the size and scope of this game making it a more arduous task than it was in Trigger. A dedicated gamer in 2000 saw this as admirable, but that same gamer, raised on today’s games with today’s selection, simply doesn’t have the time, or is engaged in perpetual worlds like World of Warcraft, to be replaying the same game multiple times to check out alternatives.

Chrono Cross is about $15 online, with the black label version often going for slightly more. The game was also released on the PlayStation Network for the premium price of $9.99, which has helped drive down the cost of a physical copy significantly. It’s definitely worth it, even accounting for the flaws, as there’s hours of enjoyment to be had with Chrono Cross for RPG fans of all eras, even the most dogmatic Chrono Trigger supporter.

NOW: B-

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.