Yes or No? Right or Left? Belgium or Switzerland?
How does it feel to know that every single choice in your life has dire, possibly even fatal effects on your future? The fragility of it all - should I have studied hard and went to college, or would I be better off today had I taken the route of self-employed, professional assassin of the night? And, most importantly, should I have chosen boxers or briefs?
Looking back over your own life, perhaps you'll find a single decision that could have changed everything. A time where you had before you two choices. One path has taken you to where you are now. But what would have happened had you taken the other path? Would that have made all the difference?
A world where you fight fate and inevitability. A world where there exists that slimmest possibility that things could be changed. This is the world of Chrono Cross, and what a sweet world it is.
Cross is the sequel to Chrono Trigger on the SNES. Back then (and still now), Trigger is probably my favorite RPG. I had my doubts and misgivings about a sequel, but Chrono Cross measures up to the original.
I don't want to spoil anything, so I'm not going to go into too much depth regarding the plot. It revolves around the exploits of Serge, a 'simple' boy who gets mysteriously transported from his quaint fishing village to a strange, alternate universe. Your job is to help him uncover the secrets behind his role in the grand scheme of things.
The fighting system is finely tuned, with different properties working for and against each other. First, there's your stamina meter, which dictates the number of moves you can make. Each move will subtract from the meter. When your meter is depleted, your character will have to wait and rebuild stamina.
Next, there are physical attacks. Physical attacks work on a Low(1), Mid(2), and High(3) basis. Low level attacks have the highest percentage of follow through and do the least amount of damage, but using these weaker attacks allow you to build up the probability of successful strong attacks. Every choice, like the idea behind the plot, it followed through with checks and balances.
And finally, there's the Element system, basically the equivalent of magic. You can find, buy, or win Elements throughout the game. It takes all the good qualities of FF8's junction system without the tedium of drawing power from enemies.
The keyword here is customizability. Each character has a grid full of empty slots. Every column of slots is a different level. As your character grows, you gain more and higher powered slots. You must then allocate your Elements into these slots.
The different physical attacks you choose also allow you to access higher levels of Elements. Let's say you started out with a stamina of 7. You make a Low (1) attack, followed by a High (3). Your stamina will be subtracted to 4, but now you can use your level 4 Elements. Of course, this means you will have to have some pre-battle planning. The computer can auto-allocate your elements, but usually those allocations need some tweaking.
In a nice move, the game lets you run away from boss battles, giving you a chance to rethink your approach and reorganize your Elements. This system gives back as much or as little as you put into it.
It would have been interesting if you could also see your opponent's stamina, and know when they would make their attacks. Conversely, not knowing keeps up the level of surprise and leaves you uncertain with your choices. Will I be able to squeeze in a high attack, or will I be safer making a low attack and then healing?
Character growth is different than your typical points-driven system. Basically, if your characters survive boss battles, their character statistics will increase appropriately. So rather than using points to compel you to fight through minor enemies, the emphasis is on fighting major battles. It's a different paradigm but I've grown to like it.
And speaking of characters...damn. There are just a ton of characters you can gain and use in the game. Some might even say there are too many. Of course, you don't have to play every single character. Just choose and get accustomed to certain ones. Don't forget the keyword.
Characters that I thought were boring at first became really interesting after learning their lineage and history through a side quest. There's even a hidden Pikachu-esque (groan) character that keeps transforming into more powerful forms the more you use him. Cloyingly cute, but interesting to use, simply to see what he'll change into next.
The graphics are cool. Still backgrounds with slight polygonal touches give life to environments of great beauty, like the sunlight wafting into a soft green forest villa (Put down the, ahem, "water pipe," Johnny - Ed.). During battles, the graphics switch into full 3D, but still manage to match well with the 2D backgrounds.
There's a dynamic camera that you can select for these 3D battles, which puts things into a first-person view. Admittedly, it sometimes gets confusing. Characters are always rendered in polygons, though occasionally the characters look far too small in certain areas. Coincidentally, that problem was solved with my new, bigger TV. But don't go out and buy a TV just to make your characters bigger.
The score has lulling sadness rich with tone and feeling. The music even includes subtle excerpts from the original Chrono Trigger, creating a nice musical link between the two.
Like any modern day RPG, the power of voice acting has been completely ignored. I've heard all the arguments before - "Then you can't name your characters." Or "That would take 20 bazillion disks!" But neither of these are necessarily true. Audio voice is possible and it makes games like this even better. In the case of Chrono Cross, the lack of voice keeps it similar to the original.
Like any sequel that wasn't planned from the beginning, Cross isn't perfect. Links between the two games had to be created. The events in Cross happened 20 years after Trigger, and there are references aplenty. Some of them worked for me, but others I felt were stretching it.
Chrono Cross is something great in its own right, managing to still measure up to the original and still be different. Striking a balance between old and new school RPG elements, it's a treat for fans of the genre. With a beautiful story, characters that are actually interesting and a fighting system that's more than your typical "attack, attack, defend, blah" devoid of true strategy, this game is the one I had been waiting for. It's about time.