Chrono Cross: Where angels lose their way

Chrono Cross is keen to make a memorable first impression, the opening hour or so rapidly crashing straight through a playable flash-forward with a bloody twist and into a cute quest this game’s heroic teen, Serge, takes on behalf of his childhood friend, which soon leads to the same bandana’d teen standing in front of his own grave, the sad stone marker undeniable proof he’s now stranded in a universe other than his own.

Meanwhile, in a universe other than the one I’m writing this article in, Chrono Cross knew what to do with itself after delivering such a promising start.

The main problem is that Cross places one foot on a new road, while the rest of its body chooses to walk down the “clinging to the previous game for dear life” path of sequelling, even though this decision’s continually to the game’s detriment. Cross’s story keeps on trying to be clever in the stupidest possible way, mistakenly certain that invoking the name of something last seen in the much-loved SNES RPG before it and grafting broken reality twists onto done and dusted plot threads is the same as creating a meaningful connection between the two. It doesn’t seem to matter if this unhelpful borrowing actually fits its new PlayStation home’s interest in dimension-hopping or the previous game’s time travel themed events either, as Cross is more than happy to pull convoluted excuses out of thin air for every strained reference it foists upon you, as if to say “Look! This was planned all along! We just didn’t tell you or explain or imply anything before now.”.

Cross would rather insist Trigger’s grass was actually blue and its sky was green the whole time than miss out an opportunity to shoehorn in another feeble allusion to Squaresoft’s 16-bit tale.

The times Serge meets the ghost-child echoes of Crono, Marle, and Lucca are a prime example of the avoidable mess this fusion creates. The first encounter takes place by that bell, bathed in the sombre light of the memory of a setting sun, and it’s here we’re told Serge is a murderer.

A murderer of time.

Only I know he hasn’t done anything like that, because I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed if he’d killed time.

Like every other major revelation in Chrono Cross, this statement’s not quite as simple—or true—as it should be. Serge has apparently “murdered time” because he’s not as dead as he’s supposed to be in the “correct” timeline, but on top of that the act of saving the world in Chrono Trigger has created a special sort of alternative unreality that never was, and now time’s back and according to a line said by mini not-Crono it wants revenge, and Serge is the (drumroll) Chrono Trigger. He’s also the lock for a very important door created in the future and then sent to the past too, but for all our sakes I’ll leave that detail alone.

I promise you I’m not being obtuse for the sake of it; Cross just doesn’t make the effort to explain (or even follow up on) any of this information with the clarity necessary for such an event as monumental as breaking time to hit its emotional mark.

To hit any mark, really. Cross’ story contains a nigh-infinite supply of pretty words to catch your eye… and like soap bubbles on a hot summer’s day, they all collapse under the lightest scrutiny.

So let’s help the game out a little: what it’s trying to do here is make you see old scenes in a new way by asking if the currently dead/absent/missing Trigger team did the wrong thing by denying an entire future the right to exist.

In theory this sort of narrative rug-pull is a great idea, the only problem is there was never any doubt that Lavos needed to be stopped, because we all spent an entire RPG seeing for ourselves what would happen if/when the parasitic space hedgehog unleashed its apocalyptic fury. Even now, knowing what happened afterwards in several timelines and dimensions, what other reasonable alternative was there? What better opportunity did they have and not take?

There wasn’t one, and we know that because, again, Chrono Trigger exists and we all know how that story goes. Reframing their adventure in this way has more than a whiff of My First Philosophy Discourse about it, “What if you rescue a helpless orphaned baby from the jaws of a violently hungry lion… and then the baby grows up to be a serial killer?” said with the straightest face.

Equally frustrating is Cross’ habit of coming up with several game’s worth of ambitious ideas and then placing each and every one of them in tiny sealed boxes, infuencing absolutely nothing outside of a handful of designated plot threads.

One of these repeatedly implies that in this world of humans living amongst humanoid cat-people/mermaids/fairies, humans can’t help but upend and destroy everything they touch—yet time and again Cross chooses to contradict its own self-inflicted canon. The world we’re shown—in both realities—is by and large a tropical paradise and all the humans within it either live in cute all-natural dwellings by the sea or beautiful buildings that look like they’ve come straight out of a holiday brochure, all of them intermingling with lush vegetation and tall trees. As for the people in it, more than a few of these demi-humans rise to positions of power and respect or fall in love with beings outside their own species, most humans are some brand of RPG-style nice, and the ones that aren’t still keep it light compared even to other brightly coloured games in roughly the same genre: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles tells a darker fantasy tale, and that has the fluffiest moogles you’ll ever see in it.

Even the parallel dimension concept, a core part of Cross’ everything, lacks substance. This alternative reality is the only reason why Serge is alive and the key to solving a few significant problems along the way too. Yet unlike… let’s mention Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future here, as that’s also about altering the future and experiencing different versions of the same place, there’s no sense that you’re really making a difference, that anything you do has an impact beyond needing an item or person from one place to use in the other, the same way you would in any other RPG. You never look around and think “In another time and place, this is a lush meadow/vibrant town/utterly destroyed”.

Even Sonic The Hedgehog CD managed that.

Cross really needed to either go big—showing the alternative world as clearly that much worse/better/changed than Serge’s home (think of the huge differences between the light/dark worlds in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)—or turn inwards, leaving you in a dimension where everything is the same apart from all the people Serge touched, so you get to see him experience a thousand little tragedies as people who love him dearly in another life walk by without even looking at him, every mark he ever left on the world washed away like footprints in the sand. What we get instead is a Star Trek mirror universe episode, except instead of giving everyone beards, eyepatches, and bad attitudes, the command uniforms are now a slightly different shade of red.

Trigger avoided criticism in this reality-bending regard by keeping its most important plot point very simple—Lavos is bad and it’s going to cause a catastrophic event in 1999 that we absolutely must stop no matter what—and then simply choosing not to spend too much time or energy getting into the paradox-related weeds. In contrast Cross seems to actively invite this sort of analysis, keen as it is on throwing around grand concepts in carefully directed scenes designed to grab your attention, only to then not actually do anything meaningful with any them.

From time to time the clouds do part and you get to glimpse a little of what could have been, the game embracing its sunny surrealism and forgetting, if only for a moment, to weigh itself down with empty Important Nouns and deliberately skewed Trigger references and focus instead on a beautiful journey into the unknown… and then grating daughter-clone Kid leaves the group for hours at a time again, or too much effort is spent talking about—but never really explaining—something that didn’t seem to exist a few minutes ago and doesn’t seem to leave a lasting impression on anything that comes after either, and you’re suddenly back at square one.

Whether Cross measures up to Trigger or not is almost irrelevant: most games would fall short if they were compared against a once in a lifetime dream team project that’s loved by almost everyone with the slightest interest in RPGs. But even when judged on its own merits I’m still not convinced Cross is anywhere near to the best version of itself it could be. The story never fosters any real emotional connection between the characters or the person controlling them, and the explanations/excuses given for various key events are muddy at best, and tissue-thin at worst. It’s a game where meaningless technobabble is offered in lieu of actual stakes and people care about each other because the plot says they’re supposed to, not because they actually did anything to make you believe they felt that way.

Telling a story across time and multiple dimensions was never going to be easy, but I’m not sure it has to be as hard—or at least as confused—as Cross voluntarily makes it out to be either.

There’s bound to be one reality where this game told its story well, but it’s definitely not this one.

[I wouldn’t have been able to write this article without the help I receive through Ko-fi!]