05 September 2010

RPG Week — Chrono Cross

Okay, so it's no secret that I love Chrono Cross. I have beaten the game five times and am currently playing through it for the sixth time. I have gotten all the characters and their Tech skills, achieved all the possible endings, killed the Criosphinx, and I can even tell you in detail how it all ties in to Chrono Trigger.

I also own the guide book, art book, and soundtrack. In fact, it is the first video game soundtrack I ever purchased, imported directly from Japan when I was young. I would probably have the Kid poly resin statue at the very least, if only they weren't so hard to find and usually priced at over $300.

Hell, I even had a GeoCities webpage devoted to it way back when. Yes, Geocities. I probably had some cheap MIDI version of the game's soundtrack playing and everything.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that today's post is less a review and more a tribute to the biggest game of my childhood. Chrono Cross is my favourite video game, and it's not because I believe it to be the best, because that is a hard claim to make. However, it is very good, and I will always have a special place for it in my heart. It's "my" game. I often tell my gamer friends, "If you want to understand me and a huge part of my childhood, play Chrono Cross." It really is an important piece of my childhood, and I'm sure it helped shape to some degrees the person I am today.

So really, it's impossible for me to be impartial. What I can do is share why I love it, and encourage you to give it a chance. Especially if you're one of those Chrono Trigger fanboys who hate it so much that you can't take it for what it is: a great RPG with a beautiful story.

I do not think this game would have had the impact it did on me if it weren't for the characters. The primary cast of characters is excellent. Despite being the silent protagonist, Serge is given a lot of personality through how the other characters interact with him. Typical for Square RPGs, it features a bit of a love triangle between Serge, his girlfriend Leena, and the mysterious thief Kid. However, rather than this being fraught with angsty drama, it takes a more poetic and philosophical side. Leena is his safe, comfortable past. She embodies, to a great deal, the peaceful life that Serge once lived in his Home World. Kid, however, is anything but safe, and she comes along just as Serge's tranquil world begins to crumble away and he was swept off to the troubled Another World, a place in which he is the missing piece of a grand, cosmic puzzle.

All in all, Kid has the most personality of the bunch, being a smarmy, Australian sheila with a lot of secrets. She's fun, mysterious, and exciting. I mean, what's a guy not to like? She's also rather brash and defiant. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of Serge and Kid's relationship is that it's not explicitly romantic, though the tension may be there. It is an unfulfilled love, which is driven home as the game progresses.

Aside from the main cast of characters there is an entire world of other playable characters. Though not as developed, they still come off as having distinct personalities. Part of this is due to the fact that the game used a specialized program that would change the basic dialogue in order to fit the different characters' accents, each with its own unique vibe and style. Furthermore, there a little side stories that can be done for each character. Some times, it's as simple as taking them to meet their alternate universe self, but others can be more involved. In fact, it took me six playthroughs to discover added story for the fairy Razzly (and actually puts two boss fights in the main story into a new perspective).

This is a marked difference from many other RPGs of the time that offered large casts of recruitable characters. which were all pretty generic and non-descript, with no real discernible personalities outside their class type.

Of course, there are so many characters in Chrono Cross that you are not going to connect with them all. However, you still connect with the main cast, and then every player comes away with their own unique experiences in regards to which other characters they favoured and which ones they didn't use as much. In fact, it takes at least three playthroughs to recruit every character in the game, so everyone is bound to have slightly different experiences.

I think the basic story isn't too hard to comprehend. There are a lot of questions in the beginning, but most of them are gradually answered as Serge comes to learn who he truly is and what his purpose in life is. However, how it connects to Chrono Trigger, and thus some elements of the end of the game, are a bit bizarre and hard to understand without multiple playthroughs and careful thought over its more obscure details. And it's not that the other endings available in New Game+ explain things, as they are mostly for fun. Rather, it's just that you need to become familiar with the smaller intricacies of the plot in order to fully understand the grand picture.

This may be why many fans of Chrono Trigger are so quick to dismiss Chrono Cross. It is a sequel to the original and it does reference it, but it only seems tangentially related until you finally figure everything out. In some ways, that becomes the ultimate puzzle in the game that must be solve.

That said, I do know some people (such as Menchi) dislike the final puzzle of the game. I will admit that the answer is somewhat obscure, and that unless you figure it out and get the good ending, the game ends rather abruptly and unsatisfactorily. At the same time, I figured out on my own when I was 12 or so years old (ooh, burn!). Seriously, though, I can see how it might be easy to overlook the answer, but it certainly isn't impossible by any means.

Anyway, the whole vibe of the story is very bittersweet and nostalgic, and that certainly hasn't helped reduce by feelings of nostalgia as I replay this game. The ending in particular (the good one) is one of the most bittersweet I have even experienced, and just thinking about it sends shivers down my spine. I'll probably cry when I get to it again. Just sayin.

The game also excels in that there is at least one boss fight that, emotionally, you just do not want to win. There is also another one that makes you feel bad after winning. Both are also extremely hard, which just adds to the emotional tension. It really pulls at your heart strings.

Furthermore, Chrono Cross has the biggest and most powerful plot twists I've ever experienced in a game. The moment when it happens, you are literally dumbfounded. Sure, you thought something was going to happen, but not this. Wow. What a twist. Don't want to give it away, what with it being a major spoiler and all.

The combat beeba lots of fun!
The combat system is essentially turn-based, but "turns" are more loosely defined. Rather than actual turns, you have Stamina points that limit how many times a character can act in a row. Stamina is recharged when other characters act, or by guarding. Also, enemies will get to act after so many Stamina points have been used up. Stamina points can be used to attack or cast Elements. Attacking will allow you to choose Weak (1 Stamina), Strong (2), or Fierce (3). Fierce gives you the highest damage per Stamina points consumed, but it also has a lower hit percentage and is thus more likely to miss. Generally, you will want to combo with a Weak attack, a Strong attack, and a Fierce attack to build up your hit percentage and damage.

You can also cast Elements, which use 7 Stamina—the full Stamina bar. If you use an Element with only one Stamina point left, you will drop to -6, which just means it will be longer before that character can act again, as you need at least 1 Stamina point to do something.

Elements are, essentially, magic, although it also includes items (Consumables). Elements and Consumables are allocated on the character's Element grid. There are different power levels, where the higher the level, the stronger the effect, but also the higher the cost to use that Element. Instead of MP, you use phsyical attacks to build up your Element level, which gives you access to the Elements on the grid. So, for example, if you do a Weak, Strong, and Fierce attack, you will have an Element level of 6, which will give you access to all the Elements level 6 or lower. Casting a level 6 Element will then drop the Element level to 0, but casting a level 2 will only drop it to 4. Once a particular Element is used, it is no longer accessible for the rest of the battle. Honestly, the system sounds somewhat complex, but once you get into it, it's easy to get the hang of it.

Though Consumables can be used outside of battle to heal the party, Elements cannot. However, immediately after a battle, you are given an option to heal your characters using the Element levels that are left over from the fight. As a result, the party is generally fully healed at the start of each battle, which allows each battle to be its own little challenge.

The normal encounters are generally not too bad a threat, but the game has some pretty serious bosses that will, at least the first time through, pose quite the challenge to players. Furthermore, the game does not allow excessive grinding. Instead, whenever you beat a boss, the party receives a Star Level. This level sort of acts as a limiter on how high your party's stats can increase. Though beating enemies will give you small stats increases, it will stop doing so, often well before the next boss fight. Thus while regular encounters can still be worthwhile for the spoils like Elements or components to forge better equipment, there is a certain point at which they will no longer level you up, and that point comes pretty quickly. However, this also means that it's relatively easy to get lesser used characters up to speed if you need to swap them in for whatever reason.

So what happens if you're struggling with a boss, since you can't grind? Well, you have to stand back and rethink your strategy. Allocate the Elements differently. Maybe change your party. There is no boss that is even remotely impossible as long as you have the right strategy to beat it. This keeps boss fights interesting. Also, it means you never have that moment where you go, "Okay, I keep trying different strategies and they just aren't working... Am I just supposed to grind?"

The Escher mindtrip dimension.
Really, the game looks pretty damn good, even by today's standards. At the time, it was amazing. It came out between Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy IX, so it was from the time when Squaresoft and PlayStation were really starting to figure this new 3D graphics thing. The backgrounds are pre-rendered and are very lush and well-made. There is one level in which you are basically running around Escher drawings. The experience is simply sublime. The game really is beautiful.

And when it comes to the music, well... I spent more money than the price of the game itself just to import the soundtrack from Japan when I was a kid. Do you realize how many weeks of allowance I had to save up for that? Yeah. Nuff said.

All in all, the game has a lot of personality to it. There's a lot of loving attention to detail that went in to it, and it shows. I mean, seriously, I'm playing through it for the sixth time and I'm still finding new things. And even though I know everything that happens, it still gives me the chills sometimes. It still moves me.

So I'll say it again: "If you want to understand me and a huge part of my childhood, play Chrono Cross." It's a great game. And if you're still mad at it or whatever cuz you're some die-hard Chrono Trigger fan, then come off it, man! It's stupid to hate a game for reasons like that. Don't deprive yourself of a great RPG just because you're too big of a fanboy to let yourself enjoy it. The only person you're hurting in the end is yourself. Cuz me? I've got both games, and I love them both.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who read all of RPG Week. I hope you enjoyed it. That said, I'm still going to be writing a little on here every day, though maybe not as wordy as this, and most likely on movies. Still, it feels good to be writing here again.

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