Decades before NFT-pushers made millions off of artificially scarce digital assets, my local Babbage’s put an $85 price sticker on their only copy of Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger was breathtaking to look at, gorgeous to listen to, as accessible to play as it was engaging, and told its beautiful, life-affirming story through a tightly plotted script.
Chrono Cross? Well… I wish I could say three out of four ain’t bad.
Cross‘s graphics were gorgeous on original hardware and CRT TVs, and they mostly still are. The high-res 3D character models are awesome; the remaining blend of upscaled pixel art and retextured polygons is a mixed bag of “amazing” and “fine.”
Cross continued Trigger’s legacy of innovative RPG gameplay: Out with Ye Olde Magic Pointes, in with libraries of once-per-encounter spells and skills. Character power still grows with experience, but is capped by how many bosses you’ve beaten–a story-forward way to eliminate grinding as either a necessity or an advantage. The stamina bar adds so much depth and complexity to the turn-based system that it even makes “Defend” a useful option! And the remaster has quality-of-life hacks like Battle Boost just a button-press away.
As for the story? Well, here’s where I do what I couldn’t as a teenager: Pour myself a tall, frosty glass of coping mechanism.
Chrono Cross opens cold, mid-dungeon crawl, with no clue who we’re playing as or why. When we get to the final door, we see a disturbing CG cutscene implying one party member’s about to murder another?! Then the screen goes black, and we’re re-dropped into an opening sequence that deliberately echoes Trigger’s.
A teen boy awoken by his mother, with sun coming in through the windows. A quaint, colorful village with a festive vibe. A meeting with a pretty girl, some expository dialog, and then a spacetime-warping inciting incident that leaves us breathless and our protagonist’s worldview utterly shattered.
But where Trigger warped its self-insert hero into medieval Truce Valley, Cross warps us into the Uncanny Valley.
The girl-next-door love interest is named “Leena,” one letter off of a story-important ancestor of the first game’s love interest. Cross recycles many of its prequel’s names, concepts, and archetypes–and Trigger fans will drive themselves to distraction trying to discern a knowing wink from a plot-critical canon connection from 'whoops, the same guy wrote both games and accidentally pulled from the same spot in his subconcious.’
Trigger had seven playable characters who, for much of the game, joined and left your party of three as the plot demanded. In Cross, what feels like half the NPCs you meet have portraits and voices and backstories and just feel like they could be playable at some point. Tantalizing! But the game eventually just starts throwing people at you faster than you can use them, building up a uselessly huge 42-character bench.
Trigger wasn’t just a brilliant iteration of the boy-with-sword-meets-girl-saves-world story, it was a revolution in iterative storytelling: Once you beat the game, you could start over with your high-level characters and equipment. This “New Game +” mode let players breeze through the story over and over with different character combinations, and beat it in different ways to see different endings. It was an incredible addition.
Both times I played through Cross, it felt like I was missing stuff at every turn. Like huge chunks of story were happening somewhere I wasn’t. I suspect this game was designed to require multiple playthroughs to feel complete, but after one it doesn’t even feel coherent.
It wasn’t until the end of Cross‘s first act–when it takes a big, BIG swing, one of the few things I remember from my original playthrough–that the game makes a clear attempt to stand on its own.
Fine, then. Let’s consider it on its own.
Tieryas makes as compelling a case as he can, but there’s only one way to defend the story: It’s meditative where Trigger‘s emotional, complex where Trigger’s clear, and melancholy where Trigger’s uplifting.
All of this is true. But as those who survived the Extreme 90s, the Edgy Aughties and the Gritty Reboot 2010s can tell you, darkness doesn’t equal depth.
Cross centers nihilism and ambivalence from the very beginning. Our little fishing village is full of humble artisans and frolicking children who bring dark tidings and spout bizarre diatribes: