Chrono Cross is the spiritual sequel to Chrono Trigger. Both were created by Square Enix back when they still made JRPGs that were a little funky. While many Chrono Trigger fans were upset by what Chrono Cross is not (namely an actual sequel to Chrono Trigger), I’m here to review what it is.
Or more accurately, what it is all these years later.
Chrono Cross is that quiet kid in the back of class who everyone knows because his older brother is the quarterback, but no one talks to because he’s, well, not the quarterback.
And yet, when you get to know him, he’s actually a really great guy.
In the same way, it’s hard to talk about Chrono Cross without talking about Chrono Trigger. But you know what? I’m going to try. Because I played Chrono Cross in middle school after begging my mom to buy a new game. It cost $19.99 and I only bought it because I thought the case looked cool.
At the time, I had no idea what Chrono Trigger was. In fact, I didn’t even find out it was part of an entire ethos until years later.
Chrono Cross exists in the same universe as Chrono Trigger, but does something completely different. You play as Serge, the bandanna-wearing, swallow wielding protagonist from the cover art. Fun fact: this game taught me what a swallow is (it’s that Darth Maul looking weapon above). Serge is your typical JRPG protagonist: he speaks few to no words, grew up in a humble village, and constantly blurs the line between lazy character writing and masterful storytelling.
World building is the art of constructing a coherent, imaginary universe. Coherent is italicized because making an imaginary universe is no small feat — it has to feel organic to the player (or reader). Too often gaming studios cram together a hodgepodge of fantasy tropes with no rhyme or reason, which ironically ends up watering down the experience. Square is no exception to this. Compare Final Fantasy XV with Final Fantasy VII, for example. They both have magic and future technology living in harmony, but XV feels awkward while VII feels necessary.
Fortunately, this is one of those legendary Square Enix games before they forgot how to write with nuance. Even though there’s a main plot line, the story of this world and your relationship with it primarily unfolds in subtle interactions with the characters and places in it. The main plot is confusing and jumps through different dimensions and moments in time, but it works within the context of the universe. To this day I couldn’t explain to you the plot in full. In fact, I recently watched this informative video that takes you through it and cannot believe I kept up at all as a tween.
Like any good mystery, you never quite know what’s going on, but you feel drawn to press on. The multitude of wacky, well-developed characters you meet throughout your journey compounds the intrigue with substance. There’s so much to discover in this world that you forget about the overarching story until it sneaks back up on you and slaps you across the face. It’s like how Game of Thrones got everyone hooked with its characters’ intertwining stories, but then suddenly they’d drop in a white walker episode to focus the story. (Unlike Game of Thrones, Chrono Cross doesn’t throw its premise into a dumpster fire at the end.)
On a less abstract level, the world itself is visually stunning. The world is huge for a game released in 1999. Much like Breath of the Wild, each area is polished but ambitious in relation to the other areas.
There’s even an M.C. Escher inspired area that doubles as a puzzle:
Sound of time
When I remember this game, I remember this absurd story and all of the characters. But as with any great old game, it’s the soundtrack that tied everything together. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda cemented his legacy with the soundtrack for Chrono Cross (’99) after having already done Chrono Trigger (‘95), Xenogears (‘98), and Mario Party (‘98). He went on to compose numerous other games as well.
The soundtrack, originally spanning over 3 discs and 180 minutes, carries you through the game and helps to connect the sprawling adventure, despite some confusing time jumps. Like any good music it guides the player’s emotions, but it also establishes momentum along the journey.
At the beginning, for example, the calming vibes of Home Arni Village ground the player in the stillness of Serge’s hometown. As more of the story builds and you adventure your way across the “Home” world, the songs build in intensity, pacing you for a major turning point in the game (which I’m trying not to spoil), until it finally climaxes at said point. After that climax, the game slows again, and so does the music. Returning to Arni Village, Mitsuda reminds us of the place that it was earlier in the story by rearranging the original song into a slower, sadder version: Another Arni.
Looking back, there’s a lot to learn from what Chrono Cross did right. The story was complex and goofy, yet felt connected because of the music and authenticity of its characters. Even though it was pretty out there as far as JRPGs go, it holds up all these years later.
It was also one of the first games I can remember that gave the player a ton of control over how the story unfolds. Who you recruited into your party and where you took them made an impact on the overall game. There were numerous “false” endings, and a true ending that was a real mind breaker.
Chrono Cross had 45 characters that you could recruit into your party. Forty five. Think about that. That’s more than Super Smash Bros. Brawl and that’s a fighting game. These are 45 unique characters with backstories that influence the game. If you wanted to have control over that many characters in an RPG at the time, the closest you could get was Fire Emblem, an entirely different beast. When I think about my favorite times with this game, I think of the journeys that I went on with those 45 characters, recruiting them, losing some, loathing others.
What’s most impressive about the cast is that they (almost) all felt meaningful. They weren’t plot devices or a typecast healer the game shoved in your face. No, they were companions I recruited because I wanted them on my journey. Fuck healing, that mushroom-man is my friend.
When all is said and done, though the story, music, and world are phenomenal, it’s these connections that put Chrono Cross near the top of my list of memorable games. I look forward to my next play-through.
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