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Publisher: SquareSoft (2000, PlayStation)
Chrono Cross is only barely the sequel to Chrono Trigger. Trigger's call to fame was its assemblage of Square and Enix, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Sakaguchi and Horii. With the Enix folk unavailable to participate in a follow-up, it left Square with their own devices to take up the task.
Even then, the key players had either moved on or evolved -- writer Masato Kato had since been in charge of penning Xenogears and his scripting tended to waft into metaphysical territories; musician Yasunori Mitsuda had been bitten with the Celtic bug, giving his music a distinct sound that, while becoming exemplary in the field of video game music, lacked the variety that kept Trigger so much of its energy; and Hironobu Sakaguchi was too busy sinking Square from the inside with his work on the Final Fantasy: Spirits Within movie.
Akira Toriyama's distinctive designs are out -- his spot is taken by Noboteru Yuuki, who tries to maintain the same goofiness of Trigger's designs but ends up overcompensating by drawing some of the most bizarre cast members seen in an RPG, including a talking radish and a video game rendition of Aunt Jemima.
So Chrono Cross barely looks, nor sounds, nor plays like its predecessor, and yet it's one of the most sterling examples of an RPG sequel. Final Fantasy, outside of FFX-2, as well as most JRPGs, rarely have any real plot continuity, while a few others like Phantasy Star and Dragon Quest tie its stories together loosely into overarching legends or events.
Cross does not intend to retell the adventures of Crono, Lucca or Marle -- their adventures, as far as the players were concerned, had finished. Rather, Cross expands significantly on both the mythos of the series and concept of time travel. For better or worse, it's The Odyssey to Trigger's The Ilyiad, in the way that it takes a relatively minor aspect of its predecessor and makes it the focus.
The time travel in Trigger was very light-hearted and straightforward -- if something was wrong in the present, you simply went back in the past and corrected it. Cross asks the question -- what happens to that original timeline, before it's corrected? It doesn't simply disappear -- rather, a parallel universe is formed, and this is where we find the hero, a young fisher boy Serge.
Serge ends up getting sucked into an alternate world. It's the largely the same as his own, with one huge difference -- he learns that his otherworld self drowned when he was young. Although seemingly insignificant, and unknown at first, this event has completely reshaped the history and events of the otherworld.
Even though Trigger was a largely gloomy game, what with the incoming threat of the apocalypse looming over the heroes for a majority of the game, Cross is even more somber. Part of this is because Lavos, the big bad guy from Trigger, isn't actually dead. We learn that it exists somewhere outside of time, virtually invincible.
It casts an even more depressing glow on the events of Trigger, especially since we learn that nearly all of the primary characters have been brutally massacred. It takes guts to kill off such beloved characters -- and to do it in such a throwaway manner that the narrative never elucidates on it -- but it makes you reflect on the apparently happy ending on Chrono Trigger, with its Mode 7 and upbeat theme music, unaware of the tragedies yet to unfold.
Of course, it's just as easy to brand Cross as mere fan fiction, twisting the events and characters of a previous work into something that was never originally intended. Cross' link to Trigger revolves around the unexplained fate of a minor character, and then proceeds to make a whole game out of it. Cross tightly walks the line between brilliance and amateurism -- if nothing else, its bizarre daring shakes up conventions enough to be interesting, even if tends to offend Trigger's many, many fans.
Cross' battle system also threw fans of the original for a loop. Trigger's only potential failing is that the fights were little more than a gimped variation of Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system. This may have been fine with the Dragon Quest folks involved, but the new team undoubtedly required that they overhaul it.
In practice, outside of a few Double and Triple Techs, there is little resemblance to the original game. Each of the party members and enemies are assigned a color -- there are six total, and two of each are diametrically opposed to each other. In addition to the character affinities, each spell or ability has their own color, which can be again used to attack opposing elements. The most important aspect is the Field Element, which is changed to different colors depending on the attacks being used, by either friend or foe.
While you can play the battles like any other RPGs -- pick powerful attacks, execute, heal when necessary -- it's more important to play a strategic game of tug of war by gathering particular party members, equipping them with particular spells, and overwhelming the bad guys through these means. At any given point in a battle, there's usually more than one strategically viable option, which is a godsend for a genre that's stereotyped into just picking the "Fight" option over and over.
It's also particularly user friendly. There are so many characters -- 44 total, although you'll never get all of them in the first play-through -- and so many different elemental configurations, that the developers realized that you may be ill-equipped for battle. During any fight, even the final one, you can flee and regroup without penalty, reducing the need for frustrating (and usually unnecessary) Game Over screens.
Considering the fervent fanbase and Square's tendency to milk their properties, lack of a third Chrono game continues to be one of RPG gaming's greatest mysteries, perhaps only exceeded by Matsuno's disappearance from the Final Fantasy XII project.
Cross' bizarrely open-ended finale left plenty of room for a sequel, yet someone was apparently unhappy with the results of Cross, as they've never followed it up. Though it was financially and critically successful, it was perhaps not the super hit they desired, and despite its strength, it was transparent that it was a vastly different game from its predecessor.