Chrono Cross
by Pitchfork



Given Chrono Trigger's tremendous success and stellar critical reception, a sequel was inevitable. SquareSoft showed an unusual -- downright unheard of by today's standards -- measure of patience and restraint by choosing to wait five years after Trigger's release to Trigger to put Chrono Cross on the shelves.

Chrono Trigger fans feverishly counted the weeks, their anticipation intensified by the Internet/magazine Hype Machine. "Forty-five playable characters! Multiple dimensions! You can run from boss fights! A villain named Lynx who's sort of like Magus! MAGUS IS SO COOL! CHRONO TRIGGER IS SUCH A GREAT GAME!" What most of them didn't pick up on -- at least not right away -- was that Chrono Cross was by no means a Chrono Trigger 2. It should have been obvious from the get-go that Akira Toryiama, one-third of Trigger's Dream Team, had nothing to do with Cross. Horii -- the architect of Trigger's world and plot -- was out too, as were Kitase, Matsui, and Tokita, Trigger's directorial triumvirate. Trigger's foundational battle system was scrapped and redesigned by Hiromichi Tanaka, designer and producer of Secret of Mana and director of Seiken Densetsu 3. From what I can recall, few people picked up on this. All they saw was the Chrono in the title and the SquareSoft logo. Remember -- consumers are conditioned to pay attention to brand names first, details second.

Neverthless, critical fanfare and fanboy joy squeals hailed Chrono Cross's domestic and overseas releases in 1999 and 2000. It remains one of only seven games to receieve a perfect score from Gamespot in the site's entire history. If you check the GameFAQs reviews section, virtually all the player reviews dated 2000 - 2001 are spastic in their accolades of Cross. All tens out of ten; all SQUARE'S BEST RPG EVER HOLY MOTHER OF GOD SO DAMN GOOD. (Another victory for the old SquareSoft shock and awe tactic.)

But these days, you will find fewer people singing its praises loudly as Chrono Trigger's. Whenever the gaming mags and blogs do their bi-annual TOP 250 GAMES OF ALL TIME, YET AGAIN lists, Chrono Trigger is likely to find a place somewhere within the upper half of the heap. Chrono Cross will occasionally be mentioned as well, but never on a higher spot than Trigger and often towards the bottom half -- if it earns a place at all. I have yet to see any professional (or at least more discerning) video game critics claim that it surpasses Trigger. As far as I can tell, Chrono Cross's reputation began deprecating as soon as the intitial thrill of HOLY HELL CHRONO TRIGGER SEQUEL wore off, and players, reflecting upon what they experienced, realized they had no idea what the hell they just experienced.

One of the main reasons for Chrono Cross's finding itself the subject of such antipathy amongs RPG fans is, despite the "Chrono" and clockface motif in the title, it really has very little in common with Trigger. It has no time travel in the game, for one thing. Toriyma's absence establishes unbreachable visual incongruity between the two games. Compared to Chrono Trigger's dynamic and challenging battles, the combat system designed exlusively for Chrono Cross is static, slow, and dull. Trigger's signature dual and triple techs do reappear in Cross, they're so sparse as to practically qualify for Easter Egg status. Chrono Trigger is straightforward, upbeat, and clearly designed with a focus on its enjoyability as a video game; Chrono Cross is convoluted, somber, and meditative, developed fairly blatantly as an "art" game with RPG elements. The fact that it means to be a direct continuation of Chrono Trigger's story in spite of being so radically different almost seems an affront to its predecessor.

Given this, you may feel tempted to label Chrono Cross as the worst kind of sequel -- the kind calculated by studio suits to capitalize on name recognition and outsourced to a team of bottom-feeders who had nothing to do with the original creators. For a long time, I saw Chrono Cross as nothing more than a cynical, officially-licensed fanfiction sequel to Trigger that had no right to exist. But this was before I actually looked at the credits and discovered that Masato Kato, Chrono Trigger's story designer and script writer, reprises both these roles in Chrono Cross in addition to assuming a directorial mantle. Go figure. So much for the "bastard sequel" designation.

But this doesn't change the fact that Chrono Cross is a bizarre sequel, and not to mention a strange game belonging to a strange genre. What the hell kind of experience is this thing trying to deliver, anyway? We sure as hell can't call it an old-school JRPG like its predecessor, and it doesn't qualify as a new-school cinematic RPG, either. Chrono Cross is sort of like a silent interactive animated movie or a synaesthetic graphic novel with rudimentary RPG elements grafted on. You'll recall how Final Fantasy VII went double, triple, and quadruple platinum, prompting SquareSoft to make a policy of developing and marketing its renowned RPG properties as experiences instead of puerile little games. The results were idiosyncratic, to say the least. Chrono Cross, like many games of the PSX/Saturn/Dreamcast era, is a multimedia mutant, belonging to of a breed of mainstream video game that could only exist in the videogame industry's pupal stage between the end of the cartridge and the onset of the DVD-rom console.

Let's say it up front: Chrono Cross falls far short of Trigger. Even when considered independently of its predecessor, Cross barely stacks up as an above-average RPG. Still, it's a very interesting game, owing to how ambitious, inconsistent, and downright weird it is, and well worth taking a look at.


The Rat Maze, Part One


Plot summaries are poor form, but one can't be avoided if we want to discuss a story as knotted as Chrono Cross's. I get the feeling even those who played through the game twice before will need a little memory refresher before we begin the dissection.

Chrono Cross starts off in a very similar fashion as Trigger. After a night of eerily vivid and foreboding dreams about running through a peculiar temple with strange companion, the bedroom curtains are drawn and the sun shines in. You awaken as seventeen-year old silent protagonist Serge, a resident of the impossibly idyllic fishing village of Arni, located in the El Nido archipeligo south of the Zenan mainland seen in Chrono Trigger. After puttering around Arni a while, you meet up with your sweetheart Leena at the isolated Opassa Beach, where you sit and look out at the ocean while a sentimental Leena waxes teenage-philosophic about life, memory, and the ocean.

And then it's down the rabbit hole. Serge bugs out and imagines a tremendous wave about to roll over him, then falls through the sand and loses consciousness. When he wakes up on the beach, Leena is gone. Upon returning to Arni, Serge finds that it has changed. It looks exacty the same -- but none of his neighbors recognize him. Someone else is living in his house. Leena insists he can't be Serge, because Serge drowned off Opassa Beach seven years ago. Her story is verified when Serge visits Cape Howl and reads the inscription on his own tombstone.

As far as RPG premises go, this is absolutely golden. It's a great way to kick off a game, especially for one expected to be spiritually faithful to Chrono Trigger. The player gets hurled through the looking glass with the same abruptness as in Trigger, though this time the jolt is much more disorienting. The bold, cavalier spirit of Trigger is supplanted by a sense of alienation and uncertainty (unlike its predecessor, Chrono Cross doesn't have a Lucca character who has this wormhole business all figured out and under control) that will permeate the experience for hours to come. Additionally, Chrono Cross's dimensional gate is a brilliant way of recreating Chrono Trigger's defining time travel mechanic without lazily rehashing it. Chrono Trigger is concerned with exploring the what was and what will be of its world and characters; Chrono Cross focuses on the what might have been.

Instead of weaving in and out of multiple time periods as we did in Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross has us sliding back and forth between a pair of alternate dimensions. The first is the self-explanatory Home World, where Serge has lived and grown up. The other is unimaginatively-named Another World, in which a seven-year-old Serge drowned off Opassa Beach in 1010 A.D. As the faultline of a dimensional divide, Serge is a living, breathing chrono trigger whose life and death carry tremendous implications for both worlds.

Trapped in Another World, Serge soon finds himself persued by agents of Lynx, a dark figure posessing a preternatural knoweldge of Serge's para-dimensional origins, and is dragged by a young thief Kid into a hunt for a mysterious treasure called the Frozen Flame. Several hours later, after a series of escapades involving nocturnal burgling, tropical seafaring, dwarven genocide, and dueling with dragoons, Serge is lured into the central chamber of an ancient Dragonian ruin, where Lynx uses a plot device artifact called the Dragon Tear to switch bodies with Serge. Lynx -- formerly Serge -- gets spat out of Another World and washes up in the Temporal Vortex, an Impressionist dimensional waystation. Here he meets the Cockney mystic Sprigg, who talks at him about the absence of a higher power, the nonexistence of meaning, and the impersonal randomness of the universe. Then he bumps into Harle (Lynx's mischievous, French-accented henchgirl), who taunts him about the impossibiliy of being certain he was ever Serge and ruminates aloud about the cruel, relentless, crushing engine of reality that will inevitably destroy him, leave him behind, and forget about him.

After escaping from the Temporal Vortex with Harle and Sprigg, Lynx ends up back in Home World. Except for his mother, nobody in Arni believes he is or ever was Serge. The townsfolk stop just short of lynching him. The village elder tries to kill him. His girlfriend tells him to piss off; no matter how many times you speak with her or what items you show her, all she'll do is shake her head and insist she doesn't know you and that you aren't Serge. When you pack up and leave Arni to explore the rest of Home World for the first time, you realize that the alternate world where you drowned seven years ago was generally a cheerier place than the one that allowed you to survive.

What a desolate fucking game.

After a quest involving Trigger's Masamune (which has become cursed and evil since the last time we saw it), Lynx enters the otherworldly Dead Sea in hopes of discovering a way back to Another World and becoming Serge again. After making his way through the temporally-suspended wreckage of a dark future -- where we find familiar historial records containing references to a familiar planet-destroying alien parasite -- Lynx stumbles upon the ruins of Chrono Trigger's Leene Square, where apparations of Crono, Lucca, and Marle scream at him for being such a scumbag and undoing all their work. In a timeline that lets Serge continue living beyond 1010 A.D., Lavos still destroys the world in 1999, despite everything that happened in Chrono Trigger. Then Lynx kills Leena's father, the Dead Sea explodes, and our heroes are whisked away by the great Sky Dragon, who tells them they need to find the relics of the six Dragon Gods in order to enter the Sea of Eden.

From here on, it's useless to continue with a plot summary. It just gets too wacky. You can read a "condensed" synopsis whole story here, if you'd like. One of Chrono Trigger's graces was that its plot had a lot of bends and details, but could be encapsulated in just a few sentences: "some teenagers accidentally travel through time and witness the end of the world. They resolve to go back and change history to prevent armageddon. Fantastic adventures ensue." Describing Chrono Cross's story takes a bit more doing: "so this kid Serge goes into another world where he's dead and breaks into this mansion and later on switches bodies with this panther demon and goes back to his own world and a lot of weird shit happens and there's this city and supercomputer from the future that comes back in time and a city from an alternate reptite dimension that is pulled into the timeline to counterbalance the city from the future and this thing called the Frozen Flame that everyone's after for some reason and the god of dragons that wants to kill humans because they were influenced by Lavos but is also being controlled by Lavos itself or something, maybe, but in the end it turns out the whole thing was pretty much all about tying up a dangling plot thread from the first game. I think?"

Chrono Cross's tangled plot deserves some credit for never letting you find your bearings. RPGs tend to lose a lot of their fascination once you get to a point where their worlds and scenarios cease being so bewilderingly new and you come to an understanding of the situation. Chrono Cross never allows you do this. Every time you hit the bottom of the rabbit hole, you only find another rabbit hole. The Kato responsible for Chrono Trigger's Kingdom of Zeal scenario -- the trippiest, most important, and most memorable part of the whole game -- is in full form in Cross, whipping up two veritable Zeals, coexisting in the same location in the alternate worlds. The first is Home World's Dead Sea, the temporally displaced and frozen ruins of a future destroyed by Lavos, which offers some of the eeriest, most unsettling scenery in any video game in addition to the marriage of revelation and mystery that made Trigger's Zeal so unforgettable. The second is Another World's Sea of Eden, a similarly-displaced research facility from a future spared from the Day of Lavos, where Chrono Trigger's mythology collides head-on with Chrono Cross's metaphysics. The events and twists associated with these two locations alone might be worth Cross's admission price, but the rest of the game is fairly consistent in serving players food for thought and wonder. It's not flawless -- the Magical Dreamers, Masamune, and COLLECT THE SIX PLOT TOKENS DRAGON RELICS segments are momentum killers, there are a lot of plot holes, and the ending was clearly rushed -- but at the heart of Chrono Cross is one of the most fascinating and unusual stories the JRPG has ever produced. (And aren't the stories why most of us have put so much time into the damn things?)

One problem, of course, is the very likely possibility that the first-time Chrono Cross player will put down the controller when the "Fin" screen appears after the credits finish rolling, finding himself at a total loss. The game gives you a lot that you must take in and untangle before you can understand the story enough to appreciate it, and presents it in a format that lends itself poorly to the repeated viewings required to do so. A book allows you to simply open up to and reread previous chapters. With a film you can just hit the rewind button, or otherwise shell out nine bucks and set aside two hours the next day for a second viewing. In Chrono Cross, your only choice is to start a new game and take another twenty to thirty-hour romp through El Nido. (But I suppose, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and its Let's Plays, game script text files, and fan-compiled information sites, this is not as much of a problem today as it was in past decades. But why should turning to a source outside the piece be necessary?)

We'll have more to discuss about Chrono Cross's story later. For now, let's move on to...


The Menagerie


As we've already seen in Final Fantasy VIII and IX, SquareSoft cultivated a bad habit of all-inclusiveness during the PSX period. If someone on the development team thought they had a really cool idea for an event, location, or concept, it got crammed into the game without regard for how well it might mesh with the rest of the content. Chrono Cross is no different -- but since Kato presumably reserved total control over the plot for himself, the other developers had to settle for running amok with the cast. Enough has been said about this already, but what the hell? Turns out that the principles that apply to fighting games don't necessarily work in other genres, and cramming over forty characters (Chrono Cross has more player characters than Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy IX combined) into a console RPG can be more of a clog than an asset.

There are some RPGs in which this might have worked. Take Shining Force, a strategy RPG that contains thirty playable characters, most of whom have very little to say or contribute to the plot once they've been recruited. Shining Force allows you to form a party of up to twelve characters at once, so even though most of your team drops off the story radar, you still spend a great deal of time with them during battles. Chrono Cross, on the other hand, has forty-four playable characters (tallying Serge and Lynx as a single character), but only allows for three in the active party. Since Serge, unlike Crono, cannot ever be relegated to the sidelines, the player only has the freedom to choose two characters to take along out of the thirty to forty-something he will likely amass before the game is over. Collecting so many characters and being unable to use or interact with most of them without going to a lot of time and trouble is frustrating, a little stressful, and somewhat pointless, since the difference between most of these people are pretty negligible. "NO!" you'll find yourself shouting at the screen after a while. "I don't need any more of you people!"

The only characters who need to be in the game as party members are Serge and Kid. If we're feeling generous, we could also include Korcha, Fargo, Radius, Karsh, Norris, Harle, Starky, and maybe Nikki, since they're the only other ones who contribute anything to the wider plot after their "[name] JOINS YOUR PARTY" messages. The other thirty-four become footnotes from the moment they offer to put their lives on the line for Serge's inexplicable mission. Surrounded by so many names and faces that have no real reason to be there, the characters that actually serve a purpose are marginalized. Consider Starky, the beanie baby alien. Midway through the game, you fight him as a pop-up gag boss, and them recruit him seemingly as yet another pop-up gag character. After becoming part of the gang, he disappears completely unless you keep him in your active party (and why would you?), and you're likely to forget about him altogether. But once you arrive at the final dungeon, he suddenly leaps into center stage to provide the critical contrivance the heroes need to surmount an obstacle in the plot -- only to vanish again afterwards. This can only be called sloppy.

More advice for budding writers: excercise care in populating your stories. Don't be like Chrono Cross. The more faces and names that your readers/viewers have to keep track of, the less memorable they all become. (I recall mentioning Irenes to Polly one evening, and she seemed surprised: "there was a mermaid in Chrono Cross?")

Since the majority of them have such a neglible bearing on the story of Serge's journey and spend most of their time rotting in the reserves, most of Cross's playable characters would have been off as NPCs -- which hardly seems a demotion, since the game's NPCs are already so brilliant.

Generally, NPCs in role playing games only exist to dispense clues and flavor text. As the technology improved and the towns and villages in the games grew larger, they became populated with more NPCs, and they all started having less to say. (I envision a room full Square interns tossing pencils at the ceiling and churning out colorful blurbs for Rabanastre NPC #47, Rabanastre NPC #48, Rabanastre NPC #49, Rabanastre NPC #50...) The NPCs in Chrono Cross's are a little different. Whether they make their livings as fishermen, soldiers, merchants, cooks, or scientists, virtually every NPC in Chrono Cross is a philosopher or a poet. El Nido is a place where you can walk up to anybody you see, tap them on the shoulder, and be treated to a long, existentialist tangent inspired by whatever that person happens to be looking at, doing, or thinking about at that particular moment. Kato lays it on pretty thick -- some of these folks talk like first-semester undergraduates smoking a joint for the second time -- but it makes for a hell of a trip when everyone you approach wants to share their reflections on the paradoxes of human existence, the mysteries of the sea, and the recondite wisdom of their vocations. (Gosh, it's like those MDMA-fueled psytrance raves all over again.)


Choice and Consequence


Common knoweldge says the main element setting Japanese RPGS apart from their Western counterarts relates to player choice and freedom. In a WRPG, the player is often given free reign to choose where he goes and what he does, and his decisions have a significant impact on his progress. Japanese RPGs tend to prevent the player from deviating from the script, preferring to keep the progression of the game on a rail. Chrono Cross is not much different, but it does present the player with a few alternative choices that influence how the story unfolds and resolves itself.

This isn't entirely a good thing: player choice and mandatory plot sequences make for squabbling partners. Consider Kid: you are allowed blow her off at the beginning of the game. You can abandon her after she gets poisoned by Lynx. You can refuse to put her in your party before she disappears to follow Dark Serge around Home World for about a third of the whole game. It is possible to play Chrono Cross in such a way that Kid only takes the stage for an hour or two, and she will still always be the most important character next to Serge, and the subject of several sententiously emotional sequences that might not work because we barely know the girl and are given precious little reason to give a damn about this snippy and violent Aussie yit other than her being good-looking.

But nevermind that. How's this for a morality choice? When Kid is mortally poisoned by Lynx, we learn that the only antidote is in the bodily humors of the last surviving Hydra in Home World's Hydra Marsh. If Serge wants to save Kid -- a loud and pushy chick he barely even knows -- he must knowingly doom an entire species to extinction. Wiping out the Hydra will also kill the forest, as the Hydra forms the foundation of its entire ecosystem. Is one human life worth the cost of an ecological catastrophe? What's really the right choice here?

And it gets sweeter. Should you choose to save Kid by offing the Hydra, you can recruit a character named Razzly while wandering through the marshes. If you take Razzly into battle against the Hydra, she discovers afterwards that the creature was pregnant and performs a postmortem caesarian section, preserving the species from extinction and saving the forest. If you leave her out of her team, the Hydra's young are stillborn and the marshes become unihabitable. With their home destroyed, Hydra Marsh's humanoid residents pack their things, hit the road, and attempt to conquer Razzly's home on Water Dragon Isle for themselves, taking after the example of El Nido's colonialist humans. Razzly's sister is killed during the struggle, but the invaders are defeated. Afterwards, you get to sit there and take it while they tell you what an unconscionable monster you are for driving them to do this, and that the responsibility for their dislocation and decimation is all on your head. Letting events play out this way is the only way to acquire Razzly's level 7 tech, which is a component of one of the two triple techs in the entire game. Saving or harvesting one of the Little Sisters in BioShock only to reap the same rewards either way hardly compares to the burden of a decision like this.

There is an even bigger choice to be made at the end of the game, but it seems as though it had to be truncated, probably as the result of a late production time crunch. There are two ways of defeating the final boss, the Time Devourer, and the "ghost children" beseech you to choose wisely, as the fate of all existence hinges upon how you proceed.

Chrono Cross's story bulges with messages about the futility of aggression and the urgency of humanity's getting its shit together and learning coexist peacefully with itself and the rest of the planet. Therefore, overcoming humanity's ultimate foe -- Lavos, the very entity responsible for humanity's runaway evolution, and therefore its inherent greed, ruthless, and savagery -- by way of violence is the incorrect way of going it.

The game's "true" ending occurs when you use the Chrono Cross to nonviolently separate the Schala/Lavos dyad, rescuing Schala and banishing the Time Devourer (in a sequence that borrows liberally from the final battle in Mother). But what happens when you make the wrong choice?

The folks at the Chrono Compendium theorize that an ongoing ancillary plot was supposed to culminate during the final battle. Throughout the game it is suggested that Serge is in danger of merging or otherwise empowering the Time Devourer, allowing it to complete its monstrous evolution and consume all spacetime. But there is no ending that reflects this in the final product -- at least not explicitly. When the Time Devourer's HP is brought to zero, it flashes, roars, and disappears through a portal that appears over Serge and co.'s heads as the screen goes dark. After a pause, the credits start rolling.

This whole sequence is likely the result of the aforementioned time-crunch and an exhausted budget, but at least the developers managed to find a way to make do with what they had. It might have even worked out for the best. What would be a more jarring consequence for failing to do the right thing than denying the player any sort of conclusion? (How can there be a conclusion, now that the escaped Time Devourer has been unleashed upon existence?)


The Rat Maze, Part Two


Chrono Cross is a veritable Audrey Hepburn centerfold for the mental masturbator. Peruse the Chrono Compendium's theories and analysis articles if you need proof. With so much to dismantle and examine, narrowing down what to discuss in detail is tricky. In order to keep this thing under novella length, we'll settle for taking a look at two topics of particular interest regarding the plot.

1.) THE BASTARD SEQUEL

If there is one thing for which Chrono Cross receives the most criticism from Trigger fans, it's how it allegedly runs roughshod over the characters and spirit of its predecessor. Kato almost seems sadistic in how he takes Trigger's HAPPILY EVER AFTER ending and knocks it right on its ass. Between the conclusion of Chrono Trigger in 1000 A.D. and the beginning of Chrono Cross in 1020 A.D., Guardia Kingdom falls (no word on whether Crono and Marle survived), Lucca is kidnapped very likely murdered by Lynx, and the holy sword Masamune has been corrupted and transformed into a cursed blade that compels its weilder into an uncontrollable bloodlust. Three of Trigger's renowned robotic cast members bite the dust: Robo is killed practically onscreen in Chronopolis, Johnny's mangled corpse lies strewn out over a section of highway in the Dead Sea, and the singing carnival robot Gato is crippled and left to burn with Lucca's home. Cross frequently takes elements from Trigger and either runs with them in strange directions or simply makes them darker. Trigger (or at least the English version) states that Lavos has been the guiding force of human evolution; Cross expands on the concept and goes on to explain that humanity, as the "children" of Lavos, are abominations of nature and incapable of existing in harmony with the rest of the planet. Chrono Trigger's story is about saving the world by changing history; Cross says that it's impossible to create a new future without, in a very real sense, murdering the old one. What a bizarre approach to a sequel. Trigger contains a quest in which your characters selflessly save a forest; Cross has a quest in which they selfishly destroy one. It's like if Stanley Kubrick had been picked to replace George Lucas in The Empire Strikes Back.

This used to get on my nerves, too -- but now, not so much. Playing Chrono Cross again after nearly a decade, I can understand and appreciate why Kato did what he did. Straight from the horse's mouth:

After the announcement of Cross this time, I heard a lot of voices out there that were saying things like, "man, this isn't Chrono. To tell you the truth, I was gravely disappointed. Yes, the platform changed; and yes, there were many parts that changed dramatically from the previous work. But in my view, the whole point in making Chrono Cross was to make a new Chrono with the best available skills and technologies of today. I never had any intentions of just taking the system from Trigger and moving it onto the PlayStation console. That's why I believe that Cross is Cross, and not Trigger 2. The thing that I can't understand is how could people possibly declare that this isn't Chrono? And for these people, I can't help but wonder what it was that Chrono meant to them? Is it possible that none of the messages that I tried to send out to these people never really got through to them?

In some of the Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy pieces -- I think the ones for VII and XII in particular -- we discussed how SquareSoft matured over time. The upbeat, ingenuous popular fantasy fare of their NES and SNES titles gave way to a new generation of games with more complex characters and heavier themes that strove to bring games closer to cinema. Video games were evolving. They were discovering that they were perhaps capable of being more than procrastination-facilitating toys, and Square positioned itself at the forefront of this shift.

Chrono Cross is a grown-up Chrono Trigger. Maybe Kato reckoned that the fans who enjoyed Trigger when they were ten to fifteen years old deserved a sequel whose maturation was commeasurate with their own experiences during the years since Trigger's release. Chrono Trigger is a fairly tale; a boyhood dream. Chrono Cross is a bittersweet dose of reality. There is no THE END in the world. The story always continues after the latest chapter is concluded, and -- perhaps as Trigger's fans noticed as they passed into adolescence and adulthood -- the next chapter isn't necessarily a happy one or what we expected.

Trust me: a Chrono Trigger 2 would not have been a good thing. We've discussed the nature of the hack sequel elsewhere, so we won't do it again here. Chrono Trigger 2 would have almost definitely been a hack sequel. If you are a fan who would have preferred another game about Chrono and Marle (both starting back at level one, of course) travelling through time to save the world from some other cosmic threat, congratulations -- you are the reason Hollywood and the video game industry suck right now. It is impossible for decent art (commercial or otherwise) to be made if the creators allow the consumers to call the shots. It art doesn't risk upsetting expectations and challenging its audience, it can only stagnate. (But I'm probably repeating myself here.)


2.)THE SILENT PROTAGONIST

Chrono Cross is the rare post-SNES JRPG that can accurately be called a role-playing game. Even though the term RPG continues to be used in regard to Final Fantasy, the Tales series, Xenosaga, etc., but there is actually very little role-playing to be found in most of these games. As soon as an RPG's player character begins speaking on his own or making decisions independently of the person holding the controller, the term "role-playing game" becomes a misnomer.

This is why the silent protagonist device is such an effective tool in video games. When the player's character in the game's interactive narrative -- and technically, every video game is an interactive narrative -- is incapable of exercising any autonomy of supplying his own voice and thoughts, there is that much less of a boundary between the player and the world of the game. In Chrono Trigger, the player is Crono, and vice versa (up until the Ocean Palace disaster, anyway). Conversely, in Final Fantasy X, the player really only acts as Tidus's arms and legs, and only when the game cedes control to him. There is no role-playing; Tidus and the player are totally seperate entities. The player nudges Tidus along and views events from mover his shoulder rather than through his eyes.

Chrono Cross uses this tool to a more daring end. Chrono Trigger was designed to be a fantastic adventure in which the player vicariously leads a life of daring action and heroism through Crono. It's a blast, but fairly typical video game fare. Chrono Cross, however, is a story that's less about saving the world from disaster than Serge's quest for identity and meaning. Because Serge and the player are inextricably bound, Serge's existential struggle becomes the player's own.

I admit that I'm probably ripping off the central theme of K. Newton's brilliant deconstruction of Trigger here, but Chrono Cross is so blantantly designed as an existential trip that it's hard not to. The game begins with a dream and an awakening into reality. You cross over into a world in which all your friends and neighbors tell you that you don't exist. Then you cross back into your own world, where everybody tells you that you aren't yourself. You literally spend the entire game being tossed around by immense cosmic forces you cannot understand (fate on one side, the gods on the other, and an incarnation of the void at the bottom), and receive no explanation as to why until the very end (and the explanation doesn't make a great deal of sense). Serge can't even begin properly saving the world from FATE, the Dragon God, and the Time Devourer until he succeeds in asserting his own existence in said world. Chrono Cross can be a very unsettling game, since it so frequently assails Serge's (and by extension, the player's) sense of self. At the end of the game, the distinction between Serge and the person holding the controller is totally shattered when the liberated Schala addresses her speech to the player, then spends the closing credits in a video montage in which she searches for the player throughout modern-day Japan, played by a faceless actress wearing a blonde wig.

The silent protagonist device makes it work. (Well, except for maybe the creepy credits montage.) Chrono Cross couldn't evoke such a sense of the uncanny if Serge didn't serve as the player's total in-game surrogate. Just imagine how different an experience it would be if Serge were able to speak. Serge would enter Another World's Arni for the first time and start braying "BUT I'M SERGE! WHAT'S GOING ON HERE? I'M NOT DEAD! THIS IS WEIRD!" and wouldn't let up until the end of Home World's Fort Dragonia sequence, twenty-something hours later. Because Kato had the sense to keep Serge's mouth shut, Chrono Cross is capable of getting under the player's skin on a very personal level. From where I'm sitting, BioShock ("would you kindly?" "a man chooses...") has been the only other mainstream video game that does it more effectively.


The Motor of the Maze


There is a comment I've been wanting to go back and add to to the old Final Fantasy VII writeup (which needs still some cleaning up and factual corrections that I've been putting off). Conveniently, it's just as relevant to Chrono Cross.

Alfred Hitchcock uses the term "MacGuffin" to refer to an object in a film whose function is to drive the plot. Some examples from the movies would be the Maltese Falcon of the eponymous Bogart film, the Arc of the Covenant in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc, the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, and the $50,000 in Kangaroo Jack. MacGuffins from the video game sphere include the larval Metroid from Super Metroid, the bananas in Donkey Kong Country, and all those damn crystals from all those damn Final Fantasy games. A MacGuffin is an object within the plot that makes it go; it's what gets the characters moving and entering into conflicts with one another.

Chrono Cross's most obvious MacGuffin is the Frozen Flame artifact. Kid wants it. General Viper wants it. FATE wants it. The Dragon Gods want it. Thus there is conflict, and Chrono Cross has a plot.

But there is a much more significant, though perhaps less apparent MacGuffin in play here.

Chrono Cross, like most of the Final Fantasy games we've previously covered (and, for that matter, like the majority of video games released since 1995), draws a sharp line between its story content and its play content. You're either running through dungeons, fighting battles, and arranging your party's equipment and Elements, or otherwise taking in the story. Very seldom do these parts of the game overlap.

Early on in the lifespan of the video game, a plot was included as icing on the cake. Its purpose was to instill context and meaning into the all the shooting, jumping across platforms, and dungeon crawling, thereby making the experience a more pleasurable one by adding a sense of purpose and the promise of a reward (perform well and you'll find out what happens next).

In Chrono Cross, the scales are reversed. Kato is a writer first and a game designer second. All of Cross's ludological elements (I realize there's no way of bringing the term "ludology" into a conversation about video games without immediately sounding like an overacademized asshole who forgot how to have fun years ago, and I apologize) exist for the purpose of compelling the player to advance the story. The game Chrono Cross is a MacGuffin that exists to drive Chrono Cross, the story. The game's plot and presentation were obviously given top priority during development. Considerably less attention was paid to designing everything in Chrono Cross that makes it a video game.

And this brings us to Chrono Cross's most massive and unforgivable failure. We can go on and on about its agreeable and interesting qualities, but it's ultimately a moot point. Considered strictly as a game, Chrono Cross is pretty mediocre.

As it made the transition from a games publisher to a crafter of experiences, Square realized that attaching stories, characters, and aesthetics to games that might be too challenging or complicated risked gumming up the experience. It often seems as though all of Chrono Cross's battle and character growth mechanics were designed with the explicit purpose of minimizing their own presence. This is a console RPG in which there are no random battles. All fights can be instantly instantly fled from, including boss battles: if your encounter with a certain powerful enemy goes badly, you are often able to tap out, heal up, switch up your party and equipment, and start over again. There are no experience points; all characters get stat increases at regular premediated intervals. Equipment upgrades are relatively cheap and only necessary every five hours or so. The status menu has a button you can click that automatically equips all your characters' Elements for them, saving you the five minutes you'd spend doing it yourself. "Streamlined" isn't the right word for this -- "perfunctory" is more like it. "Look, we know all the exploration, enemy battles, and menu browsing between cutscenes is a pain in the ass, so why don't we just make it easy for everyone to breeze through them? People don't buy the Square brand for that shit anyway."

Then there is the battle system, which was built as an alternative to the ATB system that had been in use since 1991's Final Fantasy IV. The stamina/Elements system might have been a welcome change of pace, but it falls far short of what it was designed to replace. This might be less the fault of the mechanics themselves than the mind-numbing ease of most battles. Your opponents get in only one turn for your team's five or six, and they rarely hit too hard. Your garden variety enemy encounters are so easily dodged, present such minimal rewards and negligible consequences, and are so drawn-out and dull that you'll find yourself dodging them whenever possible -- an easy task, since most of them aren't very good at chasing you. (It is darkly appropriate that Chrono Cross's battle theme is the most shrill and obnoxious tune ever composed for a console RPG, totally incongruous with the rest of Mitsuda's otherwise brilliant soundtrack, and reason enough to avoid getting into any fights.) After you defeat Miguel in the Dead Sea, pat yourself on the back. You've already beaten Chrono Cross. The challenge is on a downward slope for the next ten to fifteen hours. From then on, you are just coasting.

Chrono Cross strikes me an RPG that apparently never really wanted to be an RPG. But as the fully-fledged, big-budget sequel to Chrono Trigger, it had no alternative. Imagine Trigger fans' outrage if it were announced that Chrono Trigger 2 was being designed as a point-and-click adventure or an visual novel. Not even Square's enormous post-Final Fantasy VII credit would have been enough to prevent it from bombing.

Truth is, Chrono Cross probably would have been better off it were developed as a point-and-click adventure or visual novel. Funny story, though: at one point, it actually was.




Enter Radical Dreamers, A text-based adventure game released for the Super Famicom Satellavision peripheral in 1996. It can probably be inferred that Radical Dreamers was designed as a low-budget, relatively easy-to-make foray onto the system to test the waters and mark out a presence. Kato was drafted to direct the project and do most of the story planning and writing. The game was rushed through production and finished in about three months.

Two things about Radical Dreamers are worth discussing. The first is its genre: it is Square's first attempt at a text-based adventure game. Envision Shadowgate with a lot more dialogue and random battles (which are also text-based), and you'll get a fairly good idea of what the experience is like. Obviously a game like this is carried by its story and atmosphere, and Radical Dreamers does a decent job on both accounts. From what I've played, it ain't half-bad -- but I lost my patience with it after my third or fourth random encounter with a group of goblins.

The other and probably more interesting fact about Radical Dreamers is its status as the "missing link" between Chrono Trigger and the radically (no pun intended) different Chrono Cross. Square didn't assign Kato with creating an "official" sequel to Chrono Trigger, but while drafting the scenerio, Kato began feeling as though there was unfinished business from Trigger that needed to be wrapped up (namely the Schala scenario). Radical Dreamers apparently has nothing in common with Trigger until the big reveal at the very end.

It story is more or less a prototype of Chrono Cross. Events are viewed through Serge's perspective, though he is much less silent than in his Cross appearance and his background is much different. Kid is virtually identical to her Cross counterpart, Schala connection and all. The third party member is Gil, secretly Magus in disguise, who has Cross's "Guile" as his counterpart -- the character who was supposed to be Magus, but was changed to an unrelated adventurer/magician when the developers realized the 45-character roster would make it impossible to give him the attention due a Trigger veteran. Lynx, Riddel, and General Viper have their origins in Radical Dreamers, as do the Viper Manor break-in scenario, the Frozen Flame relic, and the concept of an invasive military force from Porre.




VG Chartz has no data on Radical Dreamers and I'm not terribly well-equipped to dig up and read Japanese video game industry sales periodicals from the mid-90s. How well it performed on the market is anyone's guess. My assumption was that it was something much less than a hit, or even a sleeper hit. It doesn't seem as though the SquareSoft brass objected to Kato modifying and transplating its story, plot twists and all, directly into Chrono Cross three years later. More than just borrowing its characters and plotlines, Chrono Cross takes from Radical Dreamers its darker tone, verbosity, and emphasis on atmosphere -- and repeats its greatest mistake by including a deadweight battle system when one was not needed (or at least not in the capacity that it is used).

Chrono Cross might have turned out better if it were developed as a high-budget Radical Dreamers redux done right: a game that minimized combat and stat-tweaking and revolved solely around story, atmosphere, and exploration. (Hey, aren't those the things players enjoy most about JRPGs anyway?) But there was no way it could happen. The "Chrono" in the title made it impossible.

So Chrono Cross is stuck as a console RPG, even though its story nor ideas aren't particularly suited for one. It's hard to get a perfectly shaped and smoothed realization of your story across when you keep having to take time out from the real substance of the thing to waste the player's time with pointless battles utilizing a snoozefest of combat system and periodic boss fights against a crowd of antagonists that have nothing to do with the plot and are completely forgettable in and of themselves. (There are something in the neighborhood of 45 boss fights, and I'd be hard pressed to remember more than ten.) Chrono Cross has many fine qualities, but they are rather beside the point. Good aesthetics and a go story do not necessarily make a good game.


Where Angels Lose Their Way


Unfortunately, it cannot even be said that Chrono Cross's story is executed well enough to make up for its shortcomings as a game. It has too many flaws of its own. In addition to its convolusion and plot holes, Cross suffers from two tremendous problems that are impossible to overlook.

The first is the Compression of Time factor, described in entry #182 of The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches:

Compression of Time:

As you approach the final confrontation with the villain, events will become increasingly awkward, contrived and disconnected from one another -- almost as if some cosmic Author was running up against a deadline and had to slap together the ending at the last minute.


Chrono Cross's plot gets off to a hell of a start, but trips and falls on face as it approaches the home stretch. Things begin happening extremely quickly, as though the developers were struggling to cram the whole remainder of the plot into a much smaller space than they anticipated. Remember that video games had mushroomed into a big business at this point. Even though Square's corporate suits weren't as overbearing in 1999 as they were after the Enix merger (remember what they did to Matsuno), but it is very evident that at some point during Chrono Cross's development, they put their foot down with Kato: the game must be finished by this date, and within this budget, or you will commit seppuku for failing your masters. Therefore, we see the most important revelations in the plot divulged by a trio of NPCs loitering around the portal leading to the Time Devourerer, and learn as an aside that Kid goes back and saves from Serge from drowning (kind of an important plot point, wouldn't you say?) after the game ends. There is absolutely no way it would have played out like this if Kato and his team were given more time and money. (Granted, I am in the apparently small minority of players who don't particularly mind the Opassa Beach textheap, but I still think the developers would have found a more interesting way of getting the message across if they weren't pressed for time and/or money.)

The other fatal flaw actually is Kato's fault, but it's hard to blame him for it.

This is purely speculation on my part -- but you'll remember that Kato resigned from Gainax to work for SquareSoft after his work on 1993's Princess Maker. Chrono Trigger was released the same year as Gainax's Neon Genesis Evangelion, the anime that shook Japanese pop culture to its roots, and the two were likely developed during the same timespan. Chrono Trigger was a hit, but its ripples were nothing compared to the tidal wave caused by Evangelion. Maybe Kato observed the success of his former colleagues and was determined to create something similar -- a pop cultural art piece that could rattle and haunt its viewers the same was as Evangelion.

Okay, so that may be a bit of a stretch. But I think it's harder to deny that Kato intended for Chrono Cross to be his masterpiece -- the Ulysses to Chrono Trigger's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Everything about Cross -- its scope, its themes, its preponderance of people reflecting on their lives and choices (bearing in mind that its writer's thirty-fifth birthday likely coincided with the game's development) -- suggests that Kato designed it to be his definitive Statement as a writer. Unfortunately, it seems as though he bit off more than he could chew.

Chrono Cross asks a lot of questions. What is the significance of human life? Do humanity's flaws outweigh its virtues? Is homo sapiens doomed to go on hurting and destroying itself and the world around it unto its eventual extinction? As the game goes on, these questions ring louder and louder, and the implication is that the Frozen Flame and/or Chrono Cross hold the answers.

But Kato is no more privy to the solutions of human existence's ineffable riddles than anyone else. Chrono Cross attempts to answer some of the tremendous questions it poses, and falls flat -- no thanks to the obviously rushed ending. After Schala is seperated from Lavos, she speaks to the player about terrestrial life and the purpose of its existence in bits of text imposed over a dim, rippling image of the planet. Again, there is no doubt that the development team would have opted for something less emaciated if they had the time and budget to do so. I can just imagine Kato sitting at his desk at four in the morning -- five hours before the script deadline -- chain smoking, popping caffeine pills, and slapping himself every time he looks at the clock, driving himself crazy trying to put down on paper the last words, the final secret at the bottom of all the moral and philosophical quandaries posed by Chrono Cross, attempting to put down a fascimile of the very meaning of human existence that could be crammed inside a couple dozen text blocks. There was no way he could pull it off. Schala comes off sounding like a chapter from a self-help booklet, and jacks up the game's already skyrocketing WTF gradient with lines like:

Oh, but yes...
eventually all dreams
will return to Zurvan...
to the sea of dreams...

I can't speak for anyone else, but when I finished Chrono Cross for the first time in 2000, my brain had already blown a fuse before the video footage of the Japanese chick in the blonde wig even started rolling. I was unable to process any information from the conclusion beyond the fourth or fifth "page" of Schala's speech until a second and third viewing. Cross is fortunate to have such a lovely end theme. Otherwise, I might have thrown the controller through the screen.

Ambitious as Chrono Cross is, it ultimately writes a check it cannot cash, thanks to a number of mistaken decisions and bum circumstances. A statement from Kato made prior to its release speaks volumes:

Cross is undoubtedly the highest quality Chrono that we can create right now. I won't say the "best" Chrono, but if you can't accept that, then I'm sorry to say this but I guess your Chrono and my Chrono have taken totally different paths. But I would like to say, thank you for falling in love with Trigger so much.

(Okay, fine, here is the real end theme.)


"Thus the curtain closes on another tale..."


Is Chrono Cross a failure?

Probably. I sure as hell wouldn't call it a success, at any rate. "Well-intentioned clusterfuck" seem a more apt designation.

Kato was never allowed to direct another game. (He left Square around 2002 and now only works for them on a freelance basis, doing story plotting for some of their smaller games.) Even during Square Enix's ongoing "WE NEED MORE SEQUELS OF EVERYTHING" phase, it refuses to touch Chrono, with the exception of the "hey let's put out a fourteen-year-old game that a thousands of people will buy for the second or third time" Nintendo DS port of Chrono Trigger. A Square Enix executive has made a statement that goes something along the lines of, "if you want to see another Chrono game, buy more DS copies of Chrono Trigger to convince us it'll be worth our while." Cross evidently left a very sour taste on Square's executive palate.

I couldn't recommend Chrono Cross to any of my friends without warning them in advance that it will gravely disappoint them. It's impossible for it not to. They will be spending thirty hours putting up with a pain in the ass combat system, only to reach the end of a story whose conclusion is slightly less of a disaster than the Hindenburg.

And yet, I find myself really liking and even sort of admiring Chrono Cross.

Kato's mistake is that he approaches a New Media product with an Old Media mindset -- as a writer/director rather than a designer/developer. Maybe I have a soft spot for Cross because of personal sympathy. Kato is a writer in a game designer's world. It is a hard thing to suspect that you've dedicated yourself to an expressive craft that is on the verge of obsolesence -- but that's another kettle of fishmen entirely. Though he goes about it wrong, Kato tried his damndest to create something that would stick in players' minds and hearts, even after they wound up their controllers, put Disc 2 back in the case, and moved on to the next game in their backlog. Cross is a big-budget, mainstream game that strives to be something more than popular shlock, which is especially impressive in the context of today's marketing focus group-controlled industry. As a Chrono fan, I'm content with the series bowing out on such a note. It's surely preferable to watching it cannibalize itself with an endless procession of increasingly mediocre and overinflated sequels. (The world does not need another Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid, or Final Fantasy.)

Makes you wish that all our shortfalls could be so compelling.




I suppose that's it for now. Props to the Chrono Compendium for being such an invaluable resource. Join us next time for when we discuss the Legacy of Kain series in the context of Late Capitalism. (Oh, you think I'm joking.) In the meantime, I got this blog thing going on lately. Why not have a look?

(The real end theme, "Unstolen Jewel," is here. Scout's honor.)






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