I haven’t tried to do a really in depth write up of a video game since my series on Final Fantasy VII two years ago (I’m going to say it was two years ago, because we’re in 2015 now and that means two years is a totally legitimate estimate), but I’ve been itching to go back and check out Chrono Cross ever since I did my replay of Chrono Trigger a few months ago before I got into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Chrono Trigger seems to be one of those generational touchstones that virtually all self-identifying gamers of a certain age have played, but its sequel is a really mixed bag in comparison. I remember all the hype surrounding Chrono Cross, simply because there was a five year stretch between the two games, and that was an eternity of development for a sequel to such a popular game in comparison to the average two year dev-time that Square’s flagship Final Fantasy series had established for its Playstation era games (if I recall correctly, there was a new numbered Final Fantasy released every year from 1997 to 1999, with each subsequent game beginning production before its predecessor came out). A lot of the long delay had to do with the fact that Chrono Trigger was a very special game for Square; they assembled what they called their “Dream Team” of writers, artists, and directors for this one game, and then the creators who weren’t directly employed by Square parted ways to work on other projects. Getting all that talent back together for a sequel just wasn’t feasible, and in the end only one major contributor to Chrono Trigger, Masato Kato, returned for Chrono Cross.
I didn’t know about all the behind the scenes stuff when I was awaiting this game as a kid (though games have always had credits, I never really connected the funny looking names that played at the end of the story with actual creative minds that had to work together to come up with this thing that I was enjoying), but in retrospect it explains a lot about the very different feel that Chrono Cross conveys. The cast from Chrono Trigger barely appear in the sequel, and what we do learn about them suggests that things didn’t end well for any of them (but I’m getting ahead of myself). In many ways, this feels more like a spiritual successor rather than an actual sequel, since all that’s really retained are some thematic elements (in a much more contemplative mode; instead of focusing on a pulpy time travel adventure, Cross‘s plot spends a lot of time meditating on what happens to alternative time lines and how choices in the past impact the present), a few trappings from Trigger‘s design features (three-person party limit, combination attacks, visible enemies on the dungeon screens, simplified symbolic world maps), and the musical composer (Yasunori Mitsuda, whose soundtrack is pretty universally beloved, regardless of what people think of the rest of the game). If you never played Chrono Trigger, you could theoretically jump into Chrono Cross without needing any prior knowledge.
The obvious paradox is you probably wouldn’t be playing Chrono Cross unless you’ve played Chrono Trigger.
Anyway, I’m going to blog through my replay (maybe I’ll do a New Game + run through after I finish the game once, but that’s a ways off right now), so I better get to it. Much like my FFVII series, I figure this’ll be a regular staple for a few months, and I’ll try to write spoiler-free until I arrive at the corresponding plot points (this won’t be nearly as hard as it was with FFVII since Chrono Cross‘s plot is really convoluted, and I honestly don’t remember a lot of the major story beats).
So, we start off with Serge (our protagonist), Kid (our deuteragonist, who also happens to be curiously Australian), and a randomly generated third party member (on this playthrough I got Nikki, who’s kind of an emo punk rocker) storming a dungeon for some reason that’s not yet fully explained. After reaching the top of the magical tower thingy (that’s a technical term), we’re treated to a cutscene which shows Serge suddenly stabbing Kid in the back and grinning maliciously.
Fortunately, this was all a dream and Serge wakes up in Arni Village, a small fishing community in the El Nido archipelago. Serge is supposed to be getting ready for a lazy day spent with his girlfriend, Leena (this opening scene’s a callback to the beginning of Chrono Trigger, which is a nice touch), but he’s running late. Leena happens to be a sweet girl, and she tells Serge that since he woke up too late for them to go hang out (she got roped into babysitting some of the village’s kids), he can make it up to her by going to the nearby starter dungeon and getting her some jewelry from the local wildlife (there are worse excuses for starting an adventure; I just can’t think of them right now). Once that errand’s completed, Serge meets up with Leena at the spot on the beach where Serge nearly drowned a decade earlier, and as they discuss what makes a moment memorable (more like Leena talks and the player puts words in Serge’s mouth, because he’s one of those now rare mute heroes) Serge has a moment of major vertigo and falls through a dimensional rift.
There’s much belaboring over the next hour of gameplay about the fact that Serge has found himself stuck in a world where everything is slightly different from how he remembers it, with the largest change being the fact that in this world Serge actually died as a child. We meet Kid for real at Serge’s grave, and then we run into one of the most memorable things about the game: the decision branches.
See, branching paths in games isn’t terribly special these days, since any self respecting game developer who makes RPGs (particularly Western style ones) is going to incorporate some branching plot points. Chrono Cross is interesting because the game is thematically all about considering the choices not made, and to emphasize that theme, it frequently presents the player with decisions that affect in small ways how the game’s going to play out (mostly in terms of what characters are available to recruit; I forgot to mention there are forty-five party members available in this game, and many of your decisions limit who will actually play a part in the story). At this point, the player can choose to either let Kid join you in your adventure or send her away (I never really made the connection when I was younger, but all the decisions to not recruit Kid play into Serge’s fears of what he sees in that opening dream sequence; he’s trying to avoid that future by keeping her at a distance). I chose to send her away, both because Kid’s a very unreliable party member (though she’ll prove to be important to the story, she drops out of your party with surprising regularity, so it’s better not to get too attached to having her around) and because on this playthrough I’m imagining Serge is really bewildered to actually meet the girl in his dream, and he’s wary of what else about the dream might come to pass.
As a result of refusing Kid’s company, Serge goes back to Arni Village where he befriends this world’s Leena, who just thinks that he’s somebody else who has amnesia and only believes that he’s Serge. Together, with the village’s resident talking dog, they set out to figure out the mystery of where Serge came from and how he can get back to where he belongs.
Recruited Party Members
Serge – The protagonist. Start the game and he’s in your party!
Leena – Serge’s girlfriend in his home dimension, and a concerned party who wants to make sure this strange boy with the identity crisis finds the help that he needs. She only joins you if you refuse to let Kid tag along after meeting her at Serge’s grave.
Poshul – A talking dog who lives in Arni Village. She comes along on your journey because I guess the developers thought it would be cruel to make you continue on without a third party member. I find her very annoying, and switch her out of my party as soon as I have other options.
Mojo – A dancing, life-sized voodoo doll with a giant nail stuck through him. In alternate Arni Village, there’s a guy who’s spent the last decade worshiping this thing, and if you show him a keepsake from his other self then Mojo comes to life and decides to spread love throughout the world by following you around. Don’t ask questions; just go with it.