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Chrono Cross - The Radical Dreamers Edition

Chrono Cross - The Radical Dreamers Edition
© 1999, 2022 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

Chrono Cross is a Japanese Role-playing Game developed and initially released in 1999 by Squaresoft for the Sony Playstation. It is the sequel of Chrono Trigger, released on Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994 and based on the text game The Radical Dreamers released in 1996 on the SNES Satellaview service. Chrono Cross has never been published in Europe until the Radical Dreamers Edition that came out in 2022. I’ve played this game in 2001, thanks to importation and the boot-CD that allowed my European Playstation to run foreign games. I’ve bought the Radical Dreamers Edition on Nintendo Switch, and it’s a pleasure to rediscover this masterpiece.

In Chrono Cross, we incarnate a seventeen years-old boy named Serge living in the Arni village, on the main island of the El Nido tropical archipelago. While he was collecting some materials for his childhood friend, he slips into a breach that transports him into a parallel world. In this Another World, nobody knows him because he died drowned ten years ago. While he was exploring this alien world to him, he met Kid, a young thief girl and he became quickly the target of strange powers that seek for the “ghost boy”. Helped by Kid, he’ll also meet who is behind these schemes : Lynx, a being followed by dark powers and who is the target of Kid’s personal vendetta. Serge will be enrolled into a fate written story to uncover the mysteries behind his death in the Another World and helping Kid to find a fabled artifact, the Frozen Flame.

As said at the beginning, Chrono Cross is the sequel of Chrono Trigger, a game where the characters were traveling through the time from the prehistory period to a post-apocalyptic future to prevent the awakening of Lavos, a parasite alien entity that fell on the world billions years ago, sleeping under the earth mantle and feeding from the planet. If Chrono Trigger was a quite standard J-RPG with some innovative mechanics like the double or triple attacks, Cross used more unconventional mechanics for its characters progression and exploration.

First, let’s talk about the characters. There are forty-five characters to unlock, with all of them having a story, specific skills, and different attributes. Initially, there were sixty-four characters planned. You can’t unlock all of them during a first game run, you’ll need to relaunch a New Game + session to add the remaining ones to your roster because some of them are story choices and can be exclusive to another one. While Trigger’s characters were designed by the famous Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball creator), Cross’s were designed by Nobuteru Yuki, designer of Vision of Escaflowne or Space Battleship Yamato 21999 characters. Also, several characters speak with unique accents. For example, Harle speaks with a strong French accent and some French words, Kid speaks with the Australian English accent, Luccia has a strong German accent, etc. In the Japanese version, each character’s lines were written to integrate this feature. However for the North American release, because of space constraints, the accent rendering has been dynamically coded into the game so the text was changed according to the accent. Only one character has almost no text line : Serge, the main one, who is a silent protagonist.

Chrono Cross features some conventional RPG gameplay like the turn based fights, the usage of magic, equipment, and accessories. However, it’s most unconventional aspect of its gameplay is the characters progression. The characters gains attributes points that are automatically assigned (health, strength, etc). But after some encounters, these attributes are no longer gained and the only way to unlock the next progression stage is to beat a boss. So the player have to follow the story, and cannot grind like a traditional RPG to strength-up their characters. The combat system is based on the Elements. The Elements are the “magic” and “items” we can see in other RPG. During its progression, a character unlocks various Element level and the player has to build a grid of skills that will be used in fight. An Element has a specific level and can be positioned on another level, it will gain or lose the difference. For example, a Level 3 skill can be placed on a Level 7 grid, and gain +4. On the opposite, if placed at Level 1, the skill will lose -2. Aside the consumables Elements, a skill can be used only one time during a fight. Chrono Cross combat system is quite strategic and the player has to think about their Element usages. Another interesting feature is the Stamina bar. The physical attacks has three power levels, low, middle, high, that consume Stamina and allow to activate the high level Elements. A low attack has more chances to hit than a high. When the character has its Stamina depleted, it cannot use high attacks or Elements until the Stamina bar is refilled. The Stamina is refilled while the other characters are attacking, or while defending. The last important gameplay item is the Field, a three colors gauge that changes according to the Elements used during the battle. When the field is filled with the same color, the associated Elements are enhanced while their opposite are reduced. This is also the only way to use the Summons. All characters and foes have an Element affinity, making them strong or weak against the opposite.

As a personal anectode, as I was playing the North American version of the game in 2001, and my European TV couldn’t render the colors properly, so I had to deal with the Elements system and their colors with a black and white screen 😅. Also, during several chapters the main character is replaced by another one who has Black Element affinity (Serge is White affinity). This is, of course, the moment when you have to fight the two most powerful bosses of the game who has a White affinity too… This is the moment when you see the tactical potential of the gameplay and the importance to build-up your Elements grid. As the game has no pity for the game over. Like any other RPG from this time, you restart from the last saved file. However, a nice thing : you can run away from all the battles. This is a good opportunity to remade your Elements grid and retry immediately.

On the visual aspect, Chrono Cross was a beautiful game at this initial release and it’s mostly still the case today (yes, it’s very pixelated, but the game has a nice artistic direction). Using the same layout as the Playstation’s Final Fantasy, with real time 3D characters evolving into fixed high quality pre-rendered décors, and with full 3D animated backgrounds during the fights. The story is illustrated by high quality pre-rendered full motion videos and the opening sequence is a wonderful piece of art (both in visual and music aspects). The Radical Dreamers Edition had remastered the characters models and some of the real-time décors. However, the pre-rendered backgrounds seem to be the original one as I recall. That here you can see how this game was beautiful during its initial release. When I’ve played Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, the backgrounds were like over compressed JPEG pictures. On Final Fantasy IX it was better. On Chrono Cross, both the old and the modern versions are similar. The full motion video cut-scenes has not been remastered, so we can enjoy the 1999 Playstation compression.

The characters portrait and the texts has also been remade with new artworks and a modern font more readable than the original one. Players can enable the original display if they want. Basically, the game is like the “remastered” Playstation’s Final Fantasy, an emulation enhanced graphical rendering including some activable cheats like immunity to damages, 2x speed, no combat, and auto combat. I’ve seen some criticisms complaining about the framerate drops during battle sequences and cut scenes, but I think they forgot it’s just a remastered emulation, not an actual remake. The graphical engine seems to be the original one and back on Playstation, the console was on its kneel throwing its last bits of power as we were at the time when the console was fully mastered by the developers. The variable framerate was already present in the original version and made on purpose. On the opposite, some animations were incredibly smooth for the console.

The last point could be about the musics. Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda (who did Chrono Trigger and Xenogears OST too), the OST is a masterpiece of emotions and immersion. While visiting the “Home World”, we can hear a playful and very “tropical island”-ish style but the “Another World” gets suddenly mysterious and melancholic. Globally, the game OST is quite melancholic and most of the themes are very calm and introspective. This is counterbalanced by some good rhythms too with a very nice combat theme and some also inspiring like the Dragons music. The main theme we can here during the idle cut-scene at the game startup is just wonderful and some specific bosses themes are awesome.

Despite being a master piece, there are some negative critics for this game. The Trigger fans has complained about the too far away connection between the two games and the story is quite complicated and difficult to follow. Also, some cool gameplay mechanics from Chrono Trigger like the combo attacks. The endings are also quite vague so the game has no actual conclusion. However, the last critic was also a flaw in Trigger as the game plot wasn’t properly resolved until the release of The Radical Dreamers on SNES Satellaview service that completed it and served as a basis for Cross. Because of the high number of characters, the story could not establish concrete connections with Chrono Trigger and some initial ideas were scrapped during the development. For example, the magician Guile we can recruit at the beginning of the game was supposed to be Magus from the previous one, but the idea has been abandoned.

For me, Chrono Cross is a special memory. I’ve played this game in 2001 while I was in high school. A friend gave a copy to me and I was playing it on my European Playstation by using a boot CD, another method to play foreign (or CD-burned…) games without altering the hardware (I wasn’t confident for this). These discs were using the swap method : you put a spring in the CD player to maintain pushed the internal switch, so the console wouldn’t reset when the hood is opened, boot the console with the boot CD, then the player stops moving and tells you to swap with the game disc and enjoy. I’ve played other foreign games like this, for example Xenogears and some SD Gundam games. However, Chrono Cross has remained for me an unfinished business. I was arrived near the end of the main story and fought one of the last bosses. A video cut scene launched and then … The game froze, the CD lens was retrying again and again, yep, the CD had an issue and the video could not be skipped. That wasn’t the first time I had this problem, Final Fantasy VIII did the same to me and I had to wait for my video games store to get a new used one so I could exchange it.

So, I’ve never been able to finish Chrono Cross. Oh yes, I’ve tried later on emulation, but I couldn’t play it too long. I’ve never been able to play video games on emulators even with a gamepad, I don’t know why. Maybe that’s the kind of game I prefer to play on console.

As I said above, Chrono Cross story is quite messy and confusing during the whole play. Because the main campaign is diluted into the various main characters, it’s not that easy to follow the main line and we can be quickly taken into a side story and try to reconnect later. Actually, like almost every J-RPG, Chrono Cross story unveil its potential and actual background at the end of the game, while visiting the two last dungeons. However, during the main run we can quickly deduce what are the main themes of the game. But let’s be clear, the last scene before the last boss is literally the exposure sequence. It’s like the game was saying “oh crap, I forgot to tell you what’s happening here since 30 hours of playing !”.

I’ve noted two principals themes : ecology and racism. The whole story and main plot are revolving around the humanity’s impact regarding their environment, destroying it and killing various species. This theme has automatically triggered (word play not intended 😛) the second one. While the humans are the main species living in El Nido, there are also what the game call “Demi-Humans”, some races sharing human and animal traits (mermaids, fairies, dog-persons, cat-persons, etc, typically the antagonist Lynx is a panther-human). The Demi-humans hate the humans because their environmental destruction impact themselves too, and destroy their homes. Moreover, the Demi-humans are usually treated as inferiors and used to do the low value work when they’re allowed in the cities. So we’re following a story mainly using these two axis as an illustration to its principal line. And of course, as the game is related to Chrono Trigger, the timelines and the alternative futures created by the previous game’s team are an essential component.

So, what can I say about Chrono Cross… A beautiful game, the musics are a masterpiece, the gameplay is pretty unconventional, and the story is nice despite being quite messy during its roll-out. And it took me 20 years to finish it.

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