The Beautifully Melancholy Chrono Cross Was Unfairly Overlooked

Japanese RPGs used to be a lot more controversial. Or maybe it was just because I was a teenager during the genre's heyday — you know, when Final Fantasy games flew off shelves, when hours of CG cutscenes featuring teary-eyed androgynes were considered breathtaking rather than tiresome -- and teenagers like to argue about things on the internet a lot more than people my age can stomach.

But I was reminded of that kind of controversy lately; Kirk Hamilton asked me to kick in some thoughts on the music of Chrono Cross for one of his recent programming blocks, and I heard a lot of feedback from Twitter and by email about how "controversial" Chrono Cross was in its time, how "angry" it made fans. I don't really remember that; to my mind, it's a widely underrated JRPG, sort of dismissed and swept beneath the rug in the shadow of its lauded predecessor, Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger would have been quite a tough act to follow. I know tons of people who think it's high on the list of the best RPGs of all time, if not the best. Its story of the world through ages, tasking players with time travelling in order to repair rifts in the continuum — and ultimately to save the world from Lavos, an alien threat that sleeps deep within the planet — was unique for its time, and the fact Chrono Trigger's rich world offered players so many complex and intuitive choices gave it a permanent place in many players' memories.

I become increasingly convinced that fan adoration of Chrono Trigger led to the unfair dismissal of a work of worthy beauty.

Chrono Cross is only tied to the world of Trigger loosely; the references that connect some of the game's story and places to Chrono Trigger's are generally subtle and kind of hard to parse. Even today, fans want sequels to the games they love and not "spiritual successors"; gamers find it hard to stomach the continuation of a franchise when key recognisable elements are considerably changed. That's understandable.

But replaying Chrono Cross lately, I become increasingly convinced that fan adoration of Chrono Trigger led to the unfair dismissal of a work of worthy beauty. Perhaps the story and the gameplay of Cross aren't as strong — or, more specifically, they aren't strong in the same ways that Trigger is — but what's most special about Chrono Cross is that it tells its story through tone and aesthetics, through a vast sense of quietude, loneliness and alienation that it stages against an impeccably beautiful oceanic landscape.

While Chrono Trigger dealt with the pleasurable brain puzzle of imagining how the world can change with the passage of time, Chrono Cross explores the identity of the individual: What would your world look like if you were the only variable that changed? What would it be like without you in it, what would your house look like if you had died when you were young? Or if you'd never been born at all? If you wore someone else's face, the face of your enemy?

At the game's opening, silent protagonist Serge stumbles into an astral rift on the seashore of his home village. In town, subtle things are just a bit different: The town has a different chief. A coffee shop girl committed to a career in poetry has abandoned her dream. And in your house, you don't find your mum waiting for you, but a bristly stranger who's never heard of you.

Your childhood friend, Leena, is still waiting on the dock where you left her just a little while ago to go and gather scales to make her a bracelet. Except she doesn't recognise you — and she doesn't understand how you'd be mean enough to pretend to be someone she sort of knew who died as a child. Later, at the zenith of a cliff that overhangs the quiet, dispassionate sea, you find your own grave.

Of course, the game very quickly opens into a story that's bigger than you and your identity crisis. But that sense of profound disorientation with which the game opens never leaves, even as the player rapidly learns to traverse between the "Home World" and "Another World." Not even the definitive "Other World", but another, as if this slight variation on the place you've always known is just one of many possibilities.

As I told Kirk, the reason I love the game's music so much is that it so often captures the sound of being adrift, of feeling lost, of beautiful grief. It also re-uses motifs to great effect — for example, the theme song for your home village is different in Another World than it is in the Home World; it's a slower arrangement, but the melody is nearly the same. Loyal fans of Chrono Trigger can even pick up some of that game's musical motifs sprinkled around the world of Chrono Cross.

But my favourite thing about Chrono Cross is the ocean. The visual direction for the game is very strong, very considered; the adventure is distributed across a raw, wild land dug into a massive ocean. There are jewel-green forests hung with eerie phosphorescence, and magma-veined mountains that smolder with a glowing heat you can nearly feel, but the sea is everywhere in this game. From some vantages it's royal and endless, and in others it's glittering shallows, marine green, resting docile around the villages that have built themselves into it, that coexist with it. Exploring the world of Chrono Cross is a delight of bright corals, of mysterious foliage that arches high over swamplands like the spine of a fish, and of quiet white sands where you can buy some silence, alone with the sighing of the waves.

It's funny, then, that one of the least formulaic JRPGs I can think of — and truly, one of my very favourites — went so overlooked.

The ocean is such a multifaceted character; it has the capacity for incredible gravity and massive destruction just as it has for beauty and stillness, for teeming life. The ocean is inevitable, and it's the perfect thematic partner for a story about loss of self, loss of identity. As the player you're trying to sort out the game world, accomplish its quest, and collect its manifold recruitable party members (a calling card of Chrono Cross is that there are many-many-many of them, some more interesting than others). But all the while, the sea doesn't let you forget that you're a young, silent boy who has lost himself in the face of forces much more overwhelming and inexorable than he knows how to address.

Because JRPGs are games about gaining levels and better equipment and about gaining progressive control over where you can travel in a massive world, the "growing up" narrative arc is pretty standard; they end up being stories about children who leave home and find their inner strength as they face a great evil. Final Fantasy games usually employ political adversaries that then open up into larger, spiritual or god-like ones. You could even read into it the archetypal story of finding your value system in the context of your community, and later your faith in things greater, as you form bonds with others and learn more about the world.

But Chrono Cross is special. That it contains so many disparate and seemingly-random recruitable party members — though a few are key to the story — seems to be considered by gamers to be a weakness of the game, but narratively it's effective, enhancing the player's empathy for Serge's isolation. Each person has his or her own goals; the game contains no grand messages on love and friendship and unity. It isn't particularly directed, either, with rewards sometimes to be found for simply exploring areas on one's own. It's easy to forget one's objective, to feel lost. The result is the game feels like an essay on self-discovery, a process that is inherently lonely and often sad.

Remembering back to that JRPG heyday, when people were too loyal to their favourite titles to give Chrono Cross much of a sporting chance, I feel a little nostalgic. And I think about why JRPGs seem to have lost some of their luster, and one of the bigger reasons I can come up with is that we got fatigued of the formula.

It's funny, then, that one of the least formulaic JRPGs I can think of — and truly, one of my very favourites — went so overlooked. Lucky thing it's on PSOne classics for you guys to check out if you missed it.

Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and games editor at Nylon Guys, in addition to freelancing reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.


Comments

    And this is why Chrono Cross is still my favourite JRPG of all time.
    Shame they won't give it to us on the PSN.

      Never released it here on PS1 the first time around, either.

      I don't see how anybody could say we "overlooked" it when they never saw fit to give us the option of buying it in the first place.

    It's a shame it was never released here officially, I managed to play it a couple of years ago after loving Chrono Trigger and absolutely loved this one as well.
    It's hard to really define this as a sequel, despite the plot being a consequence of the first game, the characters, setting and RPG system were completely different. But yet, remove the connection to Chrono Trigger and the games plot wouldn't feel the same.
    I thought it was a very daring sequel and was an absolute beautiful game, they need to release here officially asap!

    I remember Chrono Cross fondly as it is the first game I've ever imported. Reading this article makes me want to play this again (New Game+ perhaps), since I didn't get the real ending when I played it :/

      I got a mod chipped PSone in part to play Chrono Cross. Still an all-time favourite. Mystifying why they never released it here officially.

    I remember fighting some boss (a knight?) who is trapped in time and has been waiting for you for eons on that island of the dead or whatever. Thought it was very beautiful with the music at the time. Makes me want to play it again.

      You're thinking of Miguel. Widely known as That One Boss.

    This is one of the few games I regret never getting a chance to play back when it was new (stupid region restrictions :(). Tried to go back to it a few years ago but found that it's very hard to pick it up now.

    It wasn't overlooked here, IT NEVER CAME OUT! Why haven't SE seen fit to correct this error? And where the hell is Xenogears?

    I lived in south america when this game came out, we had to pirate it if we wanted to play it.

    Totally worth the two dollars, good times.

      Haha that's exactly my case. Same for Xenogears. I got CC right after it was released in the US and I remember being mesmerized by the beautiful graphics... back then it was the best looking thing in videogames... and the music... so nostalgic and melancholic, sad but beautiful. Definitely a masterpiece.

      I'd hope for SE to re-release it or even remake it for the PS3, but the fact that they haven't gotten their arses onto the absurd money-making-machine that remaking FFVII would be, I'd say the chances are minuscule.

    Man.....I never thought this would appear in a australian website. I remember playing chrono cross in jap when it first came out and then finishing it twice when the US version got released. It was right up there with xenogears and the good old rpgs of yester years. I recently purchased the MGS HD collection and man the whole nostalgia of playing good games in the day is just eye watering.

    It was an abysmal failure, for the treatment of the vibrant and well-defined Chrono Trigger.

    A memorable standalone title, perhaps, but most do correctly acknowledge it as an obstacle in the way of getting a true sequel to Chrono Trigger. In a world where time travel and paradoxes are abundant, it would not have been at all difficult to serve up something resonant with the original franchise.

    A shame one of your favorite games had the misfortune of being haphazardly dropped into a series it didn't fit. If I were part of the dev team, I really would have been calling for it to be launched as a standalone franchise, as the most it seemed to accomplish in the context of the series was the unreasonable deaths of the entire cast of CT.

    1 problem thought......that sunglasses and the 2 dragon honor combo was too strong

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