My 10 Favorite Games #10

 

Chrono Cross

Chrono Cross

Chrono Cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote about Chrono Cross about a year ago, playing it for the first time in a few years. I haven’t changed my thoughts much since then. The one thing I will note is that while the storyline starts out poetic and dreamlike, it eventually starts falling apart at the seams. Square’s team could keep that tone going for a while, but not for the entire length of this 30 or so hour game. That doesn’t really matter to me; the aesthetic of the world and the easy flowing energy of the battle system make the game just easy for me to play.

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There are definitely games with clearer focus than Chrono Cross. The battle system may flow, but its ins and outs aren’t exactly intuitive. The story starts out kind of vague, then degenerates in incomprehensibility. Compare it to its predecessor Chrono Trigger, which has a seemingly simple battle system that even when the depth of the dual and triple techs is unveiled it is still limited by each characters small spell pool and its plot has a pretty simple through line. Chrono Cross is an utter mess. Still, it is a mess with some fine ingredients. While it doesn’t present itself clearly, I enjoy teasing out what everything means even if ultimately it means nothing.

Largely that turns out to be the case with Chrono Cross’s story. Vague foreshadowing resolves into vague, meaningless conclusions. Fortunately, the story in each little set piece largely works. The larger plot is where all the incomprehensibility reigns. Kid gets Serge to help her break in to Viper Manor to steal the Frozen Flame. What the Frozen Flame is isn’t clear at that time, but the breaking in and attempted theft has a pretty clear story. Then you must save Kid by finding a Hydra Humor, so you go to the Hydra Marsh. Again, it is a clear little episode. The connecting tissue for most of these episodes is weak to nonexistent, but the episodes themselves are fine. In the end, though, it doesn’t add up to a truly worthwhile story.

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The plot grand rambling ambitions are not aided by the bloated cast. The cast is one of the things I love about the game, but even I can’t deny that having about 30 unnecessary characters you can get to join your party hampers the game’s ability to tell a story. When you could at any point put a baby dragon and a skeletal clown in you party instead of Kid or Leena or Glenn, then yeah, your story isn’t going to be the same. But there is also no denying how much fun it can be to build a party around said dragon or clown, or maybe a luchador priest or a mushroom man. It is not conducive to storytelling, but it is conducive to wacky fun.

The biggest reasons Chrono Cross is on my Top 10 games list are the music and art. Look at the examples of prerendered backgrounds in this post. Amazing, right? And the music needs no defense. Honestly, no matter what the story was, no matter who the characters were, I would enjoy playing in these tropical locales with the amazing music playing. It is simply perfect.

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The aesthetics combined with the goofy characters and fun battle system, it makes for a game that is simply a joy to play. That is, of course, dependent on one’s ability to tolerate the slowness inherent in PS1 RPGs. They must load. But since I grew up on that, it doesn’t greatly bother me. Chrono Cross is a game that have glaring, numerous flaws. It would never appear if this list were about the games I felt were the best made. But Chrono Cross is better than the sum of its parts. It is like a fragmented dream, it doesn’t quite make sense, but you find yourself endlessly trying to piece it together anyway.

Memories of Chrono Cross

There are few more divisive games than Chrono Cross. While it garnered almost universally terrific review at release, the public at large seems to be split. The reason for this is quite simple: Chrono Cross is an absolute terrible sequel to Chrono Trigger. That is not to say that it is a bad game. Far from it. Chrono Cross gets almost everything right, it only falters when it tries to connect to Chrono Trigger. Nearly every time a part of Cross echoes Trigger is stumbles.

Honestly, I absolutely love Chrono Cross. Both because it is a great game and because of my memories of the time when I played it for the first time. I came to the PS1/N64 generation of consoles pretty late, not getting a 64 until Christmas ‘99 and then a Playstation near my birthday (October) the next year. Chrono Cross was one of the numerous RPGs is bought the next year, flush with money from mowing lawns and too old to ride my bike but still too young drive. Plus, that summer I has home alone. Part of my family went on an RV trip to the west, to see the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but anyone who has spent a week in an RV with 8 or so people know why I declined to join them. My two brothers closest in age spent a month or so with an uncle 500 miles away, but I didn’t go with them either. So at home, with my Dad who was working all day, after I finished whatever mowing I had to do that day I had the house, and TV, to myself. The games I played that summer! Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy Tactics, Legend of the Dragoon, Lunar 2 and Chrono Cross. Amazing games (save for LoD) and while I still would rate most of them among my favorites in the system, but Chrono Cross is the game I most associate with that summer, if only for the summery tropical aesthetic.

If there is one place where no one can argue that Chrono Cross doesn’t shine, it is the presentation. The music is one of humanity’s greatest achievements (warning, the last statement may contain a small amount of hyperbole.) The graphics, while primitive by today’s standards, hold up better than nearly any other 3D PS1 game. The character designs are great, and the colorful, tropical world is still all too unique. Chrono Cross undeniably looks and sounds incredibly good.

Chrono Cross did carry a few things over from Trigger in a good way. Like the lack of random battles, though it didn’t do as well as Trigger. In Trigger many encounters were built into the map, in Cross there are enemy sprites that when engaged zaps the players to usual battle screen. In another way, though, Cross takes the no random battles further by eliminating experience points. In stead of gaining levels by fighting battles, in Cross players get star levels by beating bosses. Other than for some supplementary stat increases after the five or so battles following a level, there is no reason to ever fight a non-boss battle. The forced level let developers hone the difficulty much more tightly. All players are going to have roughly the same stats, so they know exactly how tough the boss can be. Chrono Cross is one of the tougher RPGs I’ve played, a fact easy to forget after a decade of New Game +. The somewhat higher difficulty is tempered by Cross letting players run from any battle. Even boss battles. This means that there is no good reason to see the game over screen. If your element layout or strategy isn’t working, just run away and reset everything. The system all work together, designed to work in concert rather than just things thrown against the wall. It emphasizes strategy over simply making numbers bigger.

None of that would matter if the actual battle system didn’t work just as, which it fortunately does. Each character has 7 stamina per turn, which can be used to attack or to use an element. Weak, medium and strong attacks take 1, 2 and 3 stamina points respectively, but they each open up the characters grid the corresponding amount if they connect. Casting a spell, or an element as they are called in this game, takes a full 7 stamina, but it can be done as long as the character has at least one stamina point, allowing them to accumulate a deficit of up to 6. Effective strategizing means using using enough attacks to open up the grid, but not letting the whole team fall into a deficit, which allows the enemies a free turn. Despite being a rather novel set up, the battle system is surprisingly intuitive. It never feels overly complicated or different for the sake of being different, despite changing plenty of things from Chrono Trigger . There is no MP and it is completely turn based. Instead of learning abilities, with the exception of 3 unique techs for each character, there are only elements and the grid. Each character has a grid on which the player can but spell elements, each of which can be cast once per battle. Since the player can’t just spam their best attack over and over, they must rely on smart allocation of elements. The battle system is good enough to make you want to fight battles even though there is absolutely nothing gained from doing so.

The story, while not as good as the gameplay or graphics, has its moments. Early on it is terrific. It aims for poetic and actually hits it. There are constant references and allusions to dreams and memories and conflating the two, setting up the nostalgic “what is things were different” yearning that is the tone for the game. The dreamlike state, starting with the actually dream sequence at the beginning, never really goes away. The two realities work because one in not wholly better than the other. Serge is only alive in one world, but in his home world nearly all of the Viper Manor characters have been killed. It actually makes it hard to decide which one is the preferable “real” world. When the dragons show up things kind of go to crap, but there are still plenty of great moments. The dreamy-ness of the plot helps excuse some of its shortcomings, but not all of them. The first six or seven hours or so really work well, but after that it kind of sketchy.

One part routinely pointed out as a weakness is the numerous, thinly developed party. I will not argue that the majority of the party is well-developed, but I will argue that the large party is an asset rather than a fault. The characters that matter, Kid, Lynx and Harle, are all well rounded. Most of the rest have only small windows of importance, and some have absolutely none. However, many have their own stories going on outside of Serge’s. The whole world seems connected, with many of the characters having pre-existing relationships, but it also as though Serge’s search into the mystery surrounding him is not the only thing going on for many of the characters. There is the whole Viper Manor group, which numbers about a dozen character and while most of their story can be uncovered over the course of the game, plenty of the dots are not necessarily connected for the player. The individual characters aren’t particularly well-developed, but they all feel like pieces of a well-developed world.

As I mentioned earlier, the game usually falters when it refers back to Chrono Trigger. While they both take place in the same world, the only mentions of places familiar from Trigger are uniformly insulting and terrible. All the happy endings have been quickly erased, and the sleepy town of Porre is now a warlike empire. Squaresoft did seem to know which dangling plot thread from Trigger players wanted so deal with, that of the missing Schala, but they dealt with it in an entirely unsatisfying manner. The questions of what happened to her aren’t really answered, and Magus doesn’t even make an appearance. Also, Schala is Kid kind of and it doesn’t make sense. The story really goes off the rails the more it tries to be a sequel to Chrono Trigger. The worst part of the battle system, the sparse and useless double techs, is a tacked on hold over from Trigger. It almost seems like Chrono Cross goes out of its way to not be a satisfying follow up to Chrono Trigger.

Removed from the idea that it is supposed to be a sequel, Chrono Cross is one of the absolute best RPGs on the Playstation. It can be hard to separate the two games though, and Cross can only suffer from the comparison. The two games in the Chrono series are both excellent, but they really don’t seem to get along with each other.

Radiant Historia

Radiant Historia is one of the best original RPGs on the DS.  The system has been a haven for fans of 16 and 32-bit role playing games, but a surprising amount of the systems library is remakes and ports.  Not that that is a bad thing, it is the only way people are likely going to be able to play things like Dragon Quest 5, but the original games have mostly paled in comparison to the classics.  Radiant Historia, though, stands among the best in the genre, managing to feel simultaneously classic and original.

In a lot of small, hard to define ways, Radiant Historia feels like an SNES game.  Which coming from me is the highest of compliments.  Give or take some rough sprites and 3D backgrounds, it looks like an SNES game.  Maybe the feel is in the fact that the game really doesn’t take advantage of the DS’s special features, making it not unlike many of the ports and remakes.  More than anything, though, it is that there is a comfortable familiarity to the game.  It plays exactly like one would expect an RPG to play.  It is accessible and intuitive.

The accessible nature is amazing when you consider that a lot of what Radiant Historia does is pretty novel, at least as far as RPGs go.  It combines the time travel of Chrono Trigger with the alternate realities of Chrono Cross, but in a way that is more in depth than either of those games.  In Chrono Trigger time travel was mostly an excuse for different environments, Radiant Historia uses it for the opposite reason.  It allows the game to reuse the same areas over and over, but in turn they really take advantage of moving through time.  The battle system is not exactly standard either.  It combines Final Fantasy X’s emphasis on turn order with the grid set up of a tactics game.  The end result offers a variety of effective and interesting strategies.  The player can set trap on squares and knock enemies on to them, or manipulate the turn order to build a giant combo or even do both at once.

The end result is a highly satisfying game, the kind expected from the twilight of a systems life, when all the tricks are known and developers have familiarity with the tools.  Perhaps the most satisfying part of the game is actually the story.  Radiant Historia’s story, at least for much of its length, is much more like a piece of Western fantasy than the typical JRPG.  Sure, eventually the anime-influenced JRPG stuff seeps in, with the forgotten pasts, secret siblings and plots of world destruction, but for the first two thirds of the game there is more emphasis on political maneuvering and small scale conflicts.  Much like the rest of the game, it is a refreshing change of pace.

The game isn’t perfect.  For too long it sticks players with party members with the least interesting abilities.  They are fine individually, but Raynie and Marco do not have much synergy. The game also takes a little too long to get going and it starts to fall apart near the end.  Small flaws in an otherwise terrific game.

Though it more likely to be forgotten than celebrated in the years to come, Radiant Historia deserves a place in the pantheon of great DS games.  It is not only probably the best original RPG on the system, it is easily among the best DS games.  I’m not sure if it is still widely available, but players owe it to themselves to give this gem a try.