Monday, September 9, 2013

Game Review: Chrono Cross (PS Vita)

Presenting: Another man-versus-nature game from Japan!
This time with world-hopping and possibly time travel!
What do you mean you've seen this before?
Okay. Okay. I have to say this. I must say it – despite my deep and abiding affection for Chrono Trigger:

Chrono Cross sucks.

The 1999 sequel to the 1995 RPG classic is a mess. It fails at two key elements of any game: story and characters. Let me try to put this into a simple list for you, dear reader:

Plot of Typical 90's RPG:

Bad guy appears
Hero must embark on quest
Hero meets new friends
Hero goes on numerous fetch quests
Hero fights bad guy (may or may not be true villain)
Hero fights true villain (may or may not be unexpected traitor)
World is saved

You see how easy that was? Now, it’s going to get a tad bit more complex:

Plot of Chrono Trigger: A boy and his friends are pulled back—and forward—in time because of an extraterrestrial, time distortion-causing parasite called Lavos, which crashed into the planet millions of years ago and wiped out the dominant humanoid reptile species as well as an ancient magitech kingdom that managed to produce at least four survivors who guide and/or antagonize the playable characters throughout the game. Trust me, it all makes sense in the end.

Plot of Chrono Cross: Boogers. Okay, here goes—Schala, princess of the aforementioned ancient magitech kingdom, used her powers back in Chrono Trigger to teleport the heroes to safety during their initial encounter with Lavos. She and Lavos then fused into the Time Devourer, which went into sleep mode in a pocket dimension beyond space and time. A piece of Lavos stayed behind in the physical dimension and came to be known as the Frozen Flame, even though it looks like an angry mutant lychee. Belthasar, one of the sages of the kingdom who had been hurled into the future in Chrono Trigger, established a research facility to study the Frozen Lychee and find out how to control time so he could save Schala. He reprogrammed one of Chrono Trigger’s characters, Robo, to be the Prometheus Circuit in case anything…untoward…happened. Naturally, the supercomputer of the research facility went batshit crazy when Chrono Cross’ main character, Serge, was bitten by a poisonous panther (???) and cried out for help, and Schala heard him and was all, “This one particular child is very important, so I shall send energy to where he is and wreak havoc on the supercomputer, FATE, thus counterproductively placing his life in danger because now FATE wants him dead for some reason, instead of me!” Herp derp.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the research facility was actually hurled back 10,000 years in the past when the researchers started their main experiment, which then caused an alternate timeline where the humanoid reptile species evolved rather than humans to throw in its two cents worth: the Terra Tower, which fought with the human scientists and lost, so the humans split it into six “Dragon Gods,” which are the source of the six Elements, but actually there’s a seventh one that is the key to saving Schala…

…I’m sorry, I can’t keep doing this. Let’s just say that it’s plot gumbo: anything and everything went in. There's even an androgynous J-Pop singer!

To balance out the ranting up to this point, let me say that Chrono Cross offers good gameplay and unimpeachable music by the very talented Yasunori Mitsuda. The combat system offers a ton of variety because it revolves around Elements, which are color-coded to match the forces of nature (earth, fire, wind, water, darkness, light). Each character has an innate elemental affinity, and so it pays to either switch out characters for dungeon-like environments, or re-allocate Elements to strong magic users so they cast spells that advantage the party.

Meanwhile, the music is fantastic. There are tons of standout themes, like the gentle “Dream Fragments,” the breezily inviting guitar-and-voice combo of “Radical Dreamers (Unstolen Thoughts),” and the beautiful, soaring “Dragon God” for the penultimate boss fight. Coupled with the scaling on the world map—which makes the characters look tiny relative to their surroundings—the soundtrack provides an epic feel to the game.

And now back to the negative: Chrono Cross has too many characters. With only seven playables, Chrono Trigger was able to focus on their backstories and development, and all of them were good choices for fights. By contrast, Chrono Cross floundered badly in this department by having 40 characters, only a few of whom are plot-important, useful for fighting enemies or bosses, or even interesting. Many character abilities and backgrounds are esoteric and need guides; for example, Sprigg can mimic every monster she’s defeated, but apparently she has to beat it, and she has to do it in her original form. And she’s an old lady armed with a stick! I like me some Iron Grandmas, but that sounds like a lot of work. And how did she get stuck in Crayola world? Nobody knows. 

1:3 usefulness ratio; one character out of three actually good.
It’s also annoying to have to switch out Elements and equipment all the time, because I wanted to give everyone a fair shake when they first joined my team. Fortunately, the useless characters distinguished themselves very quickly so I could cut them out of the roster early on. It was disappointing to have so many lame-ass companions, especially when I was trying to save time itself! At least, I think that's what I was doing in the game.

In conclusion, Chrono Cross’ weaknesses deprive it of the timelessness of its parent.

However, since it came out in 1999, the year before the civilization-ending Day of Lavos in Chrono Trigger, perhaps Chrono Cross’ real purpose was to make gamers reflect about Life itself as we asked ourselves the following questions repeatedly for forty-plus hours:

Why am I here?
Who are these people?
What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Or maybe it sucks.

This post brought to you by Nutella that is two years past its expiration date. Still good.