Through a Mirror, Badly
Oh, Chrono Cross. I want to like you. I tried to desperately to like you. You're the sorta, kinda quasi-sequel to my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger. There's a glimmer of a good game in you, but, as a whole, you are so beyond underwhelming.
And I preface this to say I fully recognize that since Chrono Trigger is my favorite game anything less than a stellar sequel would have been a disappointment. I get that. And if I looked at the games only from a one-to-one comparison I could easily say "well, sure, I'm just being too harsh." But I don't compare this game to the first at this point. I try, each time, to appreciate the game as its own entity... and I can't.
Let's start, though, with what's good about the game. Developed during the PlayStation (PSO) era, Chrono Cross (CC) actually has a few things in common with another Square game from that same period: Final Fantasy VII (FF7). Like FF7, CC features pre-rendered backgrounds that the live characters move on top of. This does make the various areas of the game look quite nice with gorgeous, lush set-pieces that feel on par with the SNES settings from the first game. In an improvement, CC also has better looking character "sprites" that aren't nearly as blocky as the characters from FF7.
Another commonality between the two is in the character customization. In FF7, all your characters used a shared pool of materia. Want Cloud to have a fire spell, just put one of your fire materia in his sword. In CC, these are magical spell blocks, and instead of going into your weapons, with better weapons having more materia slots, the characters earn more spell blocks as they level up. This allows you to say "I want this character to have these spells, but to ignore these other ones" and customize as you see fit. This is an interesting idea, in theory, and I like the idea of it (even if, as we'll discuss in a bit, the execution is lacking).
The game has a great ambiance, too, which starts from the opening cinematic when you pop the game in. That first movie, set to the awesome song "Time's Scar", is propulsive and energetic. It evokes emotions in the watch, getting you amped for the events of the game shown in brief snippets of the video. You want to care for the characters because you see them doing all kinds of cool things with a truly kick-ass soundtrack. And, yes, the music throughout the game is amazing, featuring a number of great riffs on the original CT soundtrack while also finding new ways to explore the improved CD Audio quality of the PlayStation.
However, there are a great number of flaws that detract from the experience, and to begin that discussion, let's go back to the magic. Each character has a certain number of magic slots, and each character is aligned to one of six elements. Thus, a water person will be able to cast water magic better, but the opposing magic, fire, will not be as good a fit for them (doing decreased effects in their hands). That's all fine and dandy in theory, and if you only had a limited pool of characters to work with (meaning you had limited options for who you could take into combat) or if your character's spell blanks were more constrained (most characters have upwards of 40 spell blanks by end-game) the strategizing of the spells could have been an interesting mechanic.
But here's the thing: while Chrono Trigger only had 7 characters and often found creative ways to limit who you could use when, Chrono Cross has 40+ characters and many of them are pretty interchangeable. Fairly quickly your single, wordless hero (Serge) will start building a massive party and, only rarely, are you stripped down to a couple of characters. There's almost no strategy to the magic then, since I had so much to play with and could easily change out characters at will. Plus, against minor enemies, a water mage casting a fire spell would still kill the beast, so there was hardly a penalty at all for mixing and matching.
The 40+ characters also speaks to another problem: namely, that you never grow attached to anyone in your group. Most RPGs (not just Chrono Trigger) limit how big your party is. This aids the writers in crafting the story, ensuring that the characters all get important beats and story moments. But because there are so many characters in Chrono Cross, the best the writers could do was to craft an "accent engine" that would take the bog-standard dialogue from a scene and change it slightly to make it sound like it had a different voice saying it depending on the characters in the party. Nothing is affected by your character choices as everyone is, essentially, going to say the same things.
The problem with the story isn't just with the characters, either. Chrono Cross has one of the most incomprehensible plots this side of (the generally agreed upon "WTF was that story?" champion) FF7. I swear, the guys at Square must have really wanted to craft long, obtuse video novels because both FF7 and CC just go way off-base half way into the games. In Chrono Cross's case, this moment comes when the characters finally start trying to figure out what's wrong with their world.
To back up for a second, the game begins with our hero, Serge, going to the beach to find shells for his not-girlfriend (whose name is inconsequential since, after the first hour or so, you'll probably stop using her in your party anyway). While on the beach, Serge finds a weird portal and is wordlessly drawn into it. He wakes up a little while later, back on the beach, but things seem wrong. He gets back to his hometown and no one there knows him. The not-girlfriend says he looks like a kid that died years ago, and this starts to clue us in that, hey, you know what, maybe we're in an alternate dimension? Thus, while Chrono Trigger had us bouncing between multiple time periods, Chrono Cross elects to explore multiple (well, two) dimensions.
I'm all for this as I love time travel as much as alternate realities. It's a different concept born from the same basic idea. "What if some action in the past changed the present?" As we find out about mid-way in the game, the younger, dying Serge was taken to an ancient city (named Dinopolis, or something similar) where his father used the magic/science of the place to somehow save the boy. This caused an alternate reality where Serge was alive. It also weakened the fabric of reality.
The thing is, the Dinopolis city is also from a different reality, one where the dinosaurs didn't die off when Lavos crashed down. Except we don't get to explore that reality because it somehow does and doesn't exist. And, oh yeah, the whole thing about dinosaurs and Lavos? That was never really discussed before (as this game is largely tangential to the first Chrono) but then it suddenly becomes the big plot point.
We also have Lynx, who is our villain. Except he's not the big villain, because the big villain is dragons. Dragons that were peaceful and helpful earlier in the game. But they're actually evil because they're the last living dinosaurs or something.
Oh, and for some reason avatars of Chrono, Marle, and Lucca (heroes of the first game) show up to advise you/taunt you in Dinopolis despite this making, like, no sense. Seriously, what the hell is going on in this game? By the midpoint, my brain simply shut down and sheer game mechanics carried me though just so I could try and finish whatever this was I was playing.
And hey, okay, maybe the game doesn't need a good plot. FF7 certainly didn't. But we've already ruled out the characters, and the magic, and the story. What else is there? How about the combat?
Well, first of all, you don't really need to fight battles. See, your characters don't actually gain levels in the traditional sense -- killing enemies doesn't convey any kind of experience, so there's little reason to go after the various minions that dot the landscape. The only time you gain levels (or, really, stars in this game) is when you defeat a boss. When you do, you gain a level and and bunch of skill points get applied to your character automatically. The next couple of fights after that will also grant a small number of bonus points. Then, after that, you get nothing. The game acts like it actively doesn't want you to fight.
And even when you go get into battles, they don't really work. In the battles (which, unlike in the first game, actually shift you to specific battle arenas, yet another minor change I dislike) your characters don't have any magic or skill points to spend. Instead they basically have stamina and three levels of basic attacks. Your magic meter sits empty, but you can use your level 1, 2, and 3 attacks against enemies -- the attacks land (which they won't always, obnoxiously), you charge up your meter an equivalent 1, 2, or 3 points. However, you only have 7 stamina to work with, and each attack drains 1, 2, or 3 points of stamina from your pool.
With me so far? Cool. So, once your magic meter is as full as you'd like it, you can then cast any spells at the level you've charged to (or below). This does, however, cost you 7 stamina to perform this spell, so you may end up going into the negatives, giving the monsters time to attack you.
This system is needlessly complex (in direct opposition to how the leveling is stupidly simplified). It forces you into drawn out battles just because you have to charge all your attacks. The positive and negative number should mean something, but enemies seemingly attack at will ignoring whatever stamina they may or may not have (since it's never clear if they play by the same rules we do). And all so you can not earn anything for it since there's no such thing as experience. It just doesn't work.
By the end of the game you've seen a lot of cool set pieces, sure, and played with a number of characters that seem interesting (but are all shallow). And then, for one last shot, you end up having to fight Lavos to save Schala (Magus's sister from the first game). Why is Schala here? Who knows? The ending of the game never explains it -- truly, the ending is just weird, a video capture of some girl (is it supposed to be Schala) walking the modern streets of Japan. Like... what?
I despise this game so much. I want to like it, I know there are good parts to it, but it just never, ever comes together. This game is a terrible sequel (or sidequel or whatever you want to call it), and I would have been happier if it never existed.
Well, aside from the opening song. "Time's Scar" is amazing.
Alternate Version: Radical Dreamers
Although Chrono Cross hasn't been remade or re-released for more modern consoles, it does have one alternate version. Before Chrono Cross was created and developed, Square developed a different sequel to Chrono Trigger. Titled Radical Dreamers, the game was a text-adventure released only in Japan for the StellaView download system on the SNES (for those unfamiliar, it was kinda like the Sega Channel those of us in the West had access to). The game followed a small team, including Magus, as they went in search of the Frozen Fire (and, in Magus's case, to try and find out what happened to his sister, Schala, after the events of the previous game).
For pretty obvious reasons (it was a text adventure, it came out on a peripheral than never made it State-side, and it was a text adventure), Radical Dreamers was never released in the West. Instead, elements of its story were reworked into Chrono Cross. Now, I haven't played the game -- I dislike pirating titles even if they never came to the U.S. -- so I can't speak to how good or bad the game was. But if something about the story of Chrono Cross appealed to you (you monster!) and you want to see it, somehow, in a "purer" form, maybe try and see if you can find a copy of Radical Dreamers to play.
Future of the Chrono Series
At one time a further adventure in the Chrono universe had been planned. Square had registered the title Chrono Break, and there were thoughts that they might create some kind time-hopping, alternate dimension-crossing, third act for the series. Sadly, that third game never came to fruition.
Last they mentioned the game at all, it was to downplay the potential for a Chrono III, Break or otherwise. Other games they've developed more recently, like I Am Setsuna and Octopath Traveler have been billed as spiritual successors to the Chrono series, so for now that's the best we're going to get. Which does mean that, at least for this reviewer, the Chrono series on quite the down note.
Still, I'll always have my SNES cartridge of Chrono Trigger (and that opening movie from Chrono Cross), so that will just have to be enough.