Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition

I’m sure I’ve brought up Chrono Trigger before. It is my favorite game of all time, after all. It’s an objectively great game, but it’s also very important to me on a personal level. I played it at a turning point in my life. I got it for my 15th birthday – my first after my parents had gotten a divorce and just as I was preparing to leave my middle school friends to start anew at a huge, intimidating high school. Not only did it distract me during those tumultuous times, it also fundamentally changed my relationship with video games and my identity on the whole. If I had to mark a specific time when I went from a kid who played games to a “Gamer,” it was just then. I’d loved games since I was a small child, but it never felt like much more than a fun distraction. My intense love for Chrono Trigger made me realize how deep my love for the hobby ran.

I could probably literally go on until the End of Time (eh? eh? get it?) about Chrono Trigger but suffice it to say I was beyond excited when Square announced a sequel would be coming to the PlayStation, which I had only recently acquired. Chrono Cross was released in 1999 in Japan, just four years after Chrono Trigger. Looking at the two games, that seems wild. It also seems wild to me because I am old now and four years seems like such a short period of time, whereas when I was 15 it seemed like a lifetime to wait for a sequel to the best game of all time. The game wouldn’t release until 2000 in the US, which made the wait that much more excruciating. I avoid prerelease hype for the most part now, but back then I devoured any scrap of info or media that I could find about this mysterious new sequel. I had only recently gotten the internet (insert old man emoji here), but I scoured sites like IGN and Gamespot for any rumor or news, and any gaming magazine that even mentioned it was an instant buy. The strategy guide, published by BradyGAMES, was released almost a week before the game and I snapped it up and tried my best to avoid flipping through it and ruining any surprises that were in store.

My original encounter with Chrono Cross was not quite as magical as my experience with Chrono Trigger was, which seems like a pretty common experience among Chrono fans. [Plenty of spoilers ahead.] Don’t get me wrong, I loved the game, and it was one of my favorite RPGs, but (like many) I was undeniably disappointed that the story wasn’t a direct continuation of the previous game. I wanted to know what my favorite characters were up to after Lavos was defeated. Did Crono still have all of those cats? What did Marle’s eventual reign look like? Where did Magus go? It felt, at the time, like Chrono Cross purposely neglected any and all questions of the sort. There were nods to the first game, but this felt like its own thing, and that was something of a letdown, if I was being honest. Even the major inclusion of Schala, one of my favorite characters from Chrono Trigger, seemed somewhat tenuous, at best. I loved Schala so much that I called the Nintendo Tip Line for the first time ever and asked if there was some way to save her from her fate in the Ocean Palace. I awkwardly, nervously lied and said, “I heard somewhere that there was a way to prevent her from dying so I, uh, just wanted to check.” The Game Counselor™ was like “uh… yeah, I don’t think so.”

I tried! Believe me! I tried. 😦

So, when I found out that Kid, one of the central characters in Chrono Cross, was Schala’s clone, and that you were fighting to free the real Schala from the Time Devourer, I had mixed feelings. That young Joey that called Nintendo to try and find out if Schala could be saved should have been thrilled! But this Schala, or her clone, didn’t seem like the character I knew and loved from Chrono Trigger. She was the opposite, in fact. Instead of being quiet, reflective, concerned, selfless, and sporting flowing purple hair and royal robes, she is spunky, brash, reckless, determined, loud, and wearing sporty clothing with a blonde ponytail. Look, I really like Kid as a character, but she is more like a mix of Ayla and Marle than anything remotely close to Schala. This is just one example of the ways the game changed or kind of glossed over familiar elements from Chrono Trigger, making it feel more like a game inspired by CT and not a sequel. Again, I enjoyed my time with it and even got all the endings and characters, but I don’t know that it hit me as hard as I was hoping it would.

Enter the long-awaited Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition. Like many Chrono fans, I’d had my fingers crossed for years that this would come out. While I love Chrono Trigger and would love some kind of remaster (Pixel Remaster, pls) or reissue, I’ve played that game on the SNES, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, Steam, and iOS, while Chrono Cross hasn’t been offered the same kind of multi-platform accessibility. Plus, it’s a 3D PS1 RPG, which requires a bit more polish to make it run and look good on contemporary hardware, whereas the 2D sprites of Chrono Trigger are pretty timeless. I was eager to try Cross again, not just because it would be slightly prettier and more accessible (and I could get trophies for it, heh), but because I’d hoped that with time many of my conflicted feelings about the game would situate themselves. I was worried, though. What if I didn’t like it this time? What if years of newer and more streamlined RPGs had spoiled me and Chrono Cross felt stiff and hard to navigate? I’d tried to play the Final Fantasy VIII remaster and quit shortly into it because of these reasons, so what if that happened again with one of my favorite RPGs of all time?

It did not, dear reader. After beating this edition of Chrono Cross five times, getting all the characters and endings, and snagging the platinum trophy on PS5, I can say that I have a much deeper appreciation for the core game now. It’s not perfect, but it was wildly ambitious, and I think it achieved much of what it tried to. For example, when I first entered combat and saw the multi-attack/hit percentage system, I was like “oh no.” I’d forgotten about this little wrinkle to the combat system, and even now I’m not a fan of the misleading percentages. But I think the system itself works. Having to think about whether I should swing big and go for a critical strike at the cost of possibly whiffing, or use lighter, more guaranteed strikes to build up my stamina for a big magic attack, made combat feel dynamic and active, which I liked. The magic system, where each character had an affinity, but you could slot most magic attacks into anyone’s inventory was perhaps needlessly cumbersome (I still wish there was an easier way to save builds, rather than manually slotting them in over and over whenever you switch characters, or using the crappy autofill option), but I also appreciated that it allowed for seemingly infinite unique builds of your enormous roster of teammates. Yes, I relied on the same handful of spells for most of my runs, but with every new playthrough I thought about new and interesting builds I could do if I was more adventurous.

I was also worried about how janky and jaggy it might look, and although it took me a bit to get used to the shuddering that seems to persist with remasters of PS1 games (where, say, character idle animations sort of shudder without cause), I was overall very impressed with how the characters look (in particular) They retain the odd proportions of early 3D humanoid character models, but the colorful, vibrant cast look so good now, and their new portraits are gorgeous. I read somewhere that they lost the original high-res files for the background art, so they had to use AI upscaling to make them 4K compatible, and it seems to mostly work. Some backgrounds do look a bit murky, making it hard to distinguish between paths that you can navigate and environmental art, but some backgrounds seem to look more ethereal and artistic, which was a nice surprise. The Sea of Eden looked especially stunning.

I don’t know that I need to say much about the music. Chrono Cross’s soundtrack has been lauded as one of the best in video games since it came out, and I’ve been happy to see new people discover how vibrant, eclectic, and haunting it can be. I can’t even say that it stirred my nostalgia like other video game music has, mainly because I still listen to it pretty frequently while I’m writing or doing something that requires concentration. What didn’t quite stick in my memory as well were the finer details of the story, though. And, having played it again several times now, I can see why. Like many Japanese games, the plot really requires you to pay attention (and even then, its vague, twisty nature means it can be hard to track). Having played it before allowed me to pay even closer attention to subtle details, and I actually came to a much deeper appreciation for the story and how it really does continue the core premise of Chrono Trigger. What I’d once thought of dismissively as “nods” to the first game are far more significant. There are characters that are close to CT characters, like Glenn (a brave knight, like Glenn from CT) and Luccia (a genius scientists with a lively laugh, much like Lucca from CT), and I used to think of them as not-so-subtle tributes. But there is a line in a late-game dungeon that talks about how people exist as forms across many timelines and dimensions, which makes me think that these are not “nods,” but legitimate alternate versions of known characters. A “what if this character was born in a different world or time” kind of thing. I also don’t know that I fully appreciated Robo’s role in the story back in the day, but his sacrifice moved me this time around. I also really loved Balthasar’s significant role, though I really wish they’d given him a Nu companion.

Okay, yes, let’s just move on, shall we?

Speaking of companions, the ability to recruit a sprawling, freaky cast of characters to follow you into battle was so ambitious and I appreciate the dev team for getting in as many characters as they did. I’ve read that they’d hoped to make it so that every character you speak with could be recruited but had to scale back due to scope, but I’m happy with the current roster. The game forces you to switch it up a few times (with the forced protagonist body and team swap), and I rotated pretty often, but some of my regular team members were Kid, Leena, Starky, Marcy, Riddel, Luccia, and Harle. Being able to slot most magic into any character meant that I didn’t have to think as much about who was good at what, so I usually went with who I thought would be fun to have in my party. I have to say, I feel like a Luccia apologist. She is framed as a typical mad scientist, more interested in making strides in science than morality or doing what’s “right” (plus she has poor Pip in a cage). I couldn’t help it, though. Look at her! Maybe it’s the new, high def character model, but I was smitten.

But she could never take the place of my main squeeze, Harle. I fell in love with Harle when I first played the game, and I guess playing Chrono Cross again after all these years does cast her in a different light. I remember her being a much more sympathetic character. While she does express conflicted feelings and regret about (seemingly) having to oppose you, she ultimately does just that. Was I mostly smitten with her because she seemed to have a thing for “me” (Serge)? I mean, she is adorable, and I love her French accent and how flirty and feisty she is, but she’s also pretty rude to my friends. At one point, she says “If you had to chooze between ze world and moi… which would you chooze?” I think I’ve always said that I would choose her, yet she seems unwilling to make the same choice for me. One of the endings does make it seem like you’re living a happy(ish) life alongside Harle as Lynx, though, so I guess that will have to be enough. With the rising popularity of romance systems in games, I do look back at JRPGs from this era, like Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy VIII and wish they could somehow retroactively add a dating system. If they did, I tell myself that I’d end up replaying the game many times over to date most or all the roster, but deep down I think I can admit that I would just keep picking Harle and muttering “next time. Next time I’ll choose Luccia” under my breath.

In the end, I was shocked by how much I loved playing through this game again, over 20 years after my first time with it. There was some nostalgia, but that didn’t impact my opinion of it nearly as much as I thought it would. Yes, there are some minor performance issues and I wish I didn’t have to stand exactly in front of chests and doors to open them, but there was far more to love about this experience and after getting the platinum trophy I walked away reluctantly, somehow still wanting to play more. I have other games to get to and there’s not much else for me to accomplish in Chrono Cross, but these playthroughs brought with them a more profound appreciation for the colorful, quirky, lovely world and characters I spent so much time with. Square’s willingness to release this with such fanfare gives me some faint hope that, should this game find success, we might actually see the fabled Chrono Break someday. They trademarked the name at some point and seemingly dropped the project, but with their recent investment in HD-2D games and willingness to develop games with retro art styles that are less development intensive in terms of funding (like I Am Setsuna), I remain somewhat hopefully that they’ll see the potential in giving a small but experienced team some funding to close out a Chrono trilogy. I mean, they could also throw a ton of money at a 3D remake of Chrono Trigger. After this experience with Chrono Cross, I just want more, damn it.

Ugh. Heartbreaking.
Gato. 😦
Okay, so the fourth wall breaking was a little silly.
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