It’s been a long road, but we’ve finally made it to the end of Chrono Cross. Serge and friends are ready to confront the Devourer of Time and use the Chrono Cross (I may not have mentioned this, but the eponymous item is necessary in order to get the good ending, and of course it’s not acquired through the course of the main plot, so you could overlook getting it) to weave the various broken timelines together into a cohesive whole that ensures Lavos’s destruction in the future and frees Schala from her prison in the Darkness Beyond Time.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Naturally, because this is a story about the ramifications of time travel, things end where they began on Opassa Beach in Home World where a trio of ghost children who resemble Chrono, Marle, and Lucca from Chrono Trigger (they actually represent dead timelines; don’t ask) await with a massive info dump for all the plot points that the writers didn’t work into the actual story (we finally learn the true origins of Lynx; he wasn’t just an avatar of FATE, but also the repurposed body of Serge’s father Wazuki, who had been driven insane by his contact with the supercomputer; why this revelation is dropped into a chunk of text which the characters don’t react to is befuddling to say the least) for reasons that I don’t fully comprehend but which can probably be summed up with “they ran out of time.”
Following all the revelations, we get to the actual boss fight, which is actually a minor puzzle fight. You have to cast elements in a specific preset color order before you activate the Chrono Cross, which ends the fight and launches the good ending sequence (alternatively, you can just beat the Time Devourer to death, which results in a non-ending where the monster just escapes through a portal to another dead timeline where it still exists). This mechanic is both pretty irritating and pretty ingenious, not because of the puzzle of the color order (that pattern gets repeated regularly enough throughout the game that it’s pretty easy to notice and remember), but because of the way you have to manipulate the battle system. In purely mechanical terms, you have to know how to build a specialized element grid for your three party members that will allow them to cast seven spells back-to-back without getting interrupted by the boss, who may or may not use a technique that will disrupt the sequence. I want to admire the way the puzzle requires intimate knowledge of the spell system, but I’m also annoyed that it’s such a crapshoot if you can’t put together the precise setup (I had to kick Sprigg, who I’ve used nonstop since she joined up midway through the game, out of my party because her element grid lacks any level 1 slots, which are essential to safely casting the Chrono Cross sequence without fear of interruption).
Successfully solving this weird little ending puzzle grants the good ending, which involves all of the events of the game being essentially undone as Serge gets deposited back on Opassa Beach with Leena at the moment just before he was pulled into Another World the first time. When you think about all the things that you accomplished, like the reunions between friends and family who were separated across the two timelines, the good you did for the demi-humans, etc. it feels like a pretty crappy way to end the story. We don’t get to see anything else beyond the scene on the beach where Serge apparently remembers everything that happened and Leena (and by extension the rest of the world) doesn’t, but I suppose it’s possible that the restored timeline involves a meshing of events from the two dimensions that optimizes positive outcomes for the entire cast (the ramifications of such far reaching changes are probably too much of a headache to explore, and would likely lead to another break in the timeline akin to Serge’s death). There’s also a coda involving Kid apparently wandering through Tokyo (because dimension hopping!), which is probably supposed to be a commentary on the multiversal nature of the Chrono series and a cute wink at the idea that our reality is a variation on the game’s story.
All in all, it’s a weird ending, and I’m not sure I entirely like it.
Of course, that assessment kind of covers the game as a whole. It’s a very ambitious title that set out to explore some really complex themes about causality and responsibility, but the end result is mixed at best. Parts of the game are incredibly rich and interesting while whole other swaths are just lackluster and kind of frustrating. I’m guessing that a large part of the failed aspects of the game stem from a perfect storm of unrealistic expectations (it’s impossible to overstate how big a deal Chrono Trigger was among JRPG fans in the late ’90s) and flawed execution. Masato Kato, who was the director and primary scenario writer for Chrono Cross had a very particular vision of what he wanted to do in this side story, but I expect that demands for a direct sequel complicated and contradicted that vision. The parts of the story that are clearly fan service (like the entire sequence in the Dead Sea and Kid’s hugely coincidental connection to Lucca) are a lot of fun on their own, but they never quite mesh with the rest of the world that Kato created in this game. It’s like there was potential for a really interesting story here that could have flourished if it hadn’t been bound by an existing IP with that carried so much baggage along with it.
Heck, the very fact of the ending where Serge and friends get their lives rather pointlessly reset (and Serge gets the extra pleasure of knowing his life was reset!) so that Schala can finally have the happy ending she couldn’t get in Chrono Trigger is a great encapsulation of the game’s failings and its relationship to its older sibling. Everyone loved Chrono Trigger and wanted more of it, and Chrono Cross really wanted to be something different, but it never fully came into its own because it was stuck in the shadow of its more popular predecessor. Now this game’s legacy is as more of an obscure follow-up rather than a solid independent title that happened to share a universe with another really popular game.