Crossing the Ocean
Out of all the JRPG’s I’ve played on the PS1, Chrono Cross may be the most brilliant and strange. In a console library dominated by classics from the genre, the game stands out among the rest by just being so, well, bizarre. As a sequel to Chrono Trigger you’d expect something more traditional, a title hoping to live up to the soaring heights of its genre defining predecessor. But the game itself is anything but typical, featuring a battle system unlike any others before or since, and a story that seemingly tries to make things confusing. When you look up anything about the game’s endings, you’ll find that most search bars will bring up Chrono Cross ending explanation as a secondary option. The game is a puzzle to say the least.
And yet, in spite of how obtuse it can be, whether it be because of the massive exposition dumps that dominate the game’s latter half, or the strange logic of its multi-dimensional mechanics, I can’t help but love it. Because at the end of it all, when you look past the Dragon Gods and supercomputers called FATE, Chrono Cross has a very well thought out message.
A lot of JRPG’s focus on concepts of destiny and human purpose, but few tackle it in the way that Chrono Cross does. With titles like Xenogears you tend to get a lot of hamfisted religious allegories, but in Chrono Cross most of these questions are brought up directly through the game’s central gameplay gimmick. On the surface, the two parallel universes you can explore here are like the Light and Dark worlds in Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, with both facilitating interesting puzzle and exploration mechanics. If something isn’t available in one world you can go to Opassa Beach, travel into the alternate one, and hopefully find what you’re looking for. However, what makes the Home and Another World so special is how they play into the game’s plot and theme.
At its core, Chrono Cross is a story about choice. The writing starts off small on this front, really only showcasing the minute differences between the two dimensions. In one the main character Serge is alive and in love with his childhood sweetheart Leena, while in the other he’s been dead for more than a decade, the world passing by without him. Its simple enough, but soon the differences begin to spiral outward. In the Another World, Termina is a bustling town that’s home of the powerful Acacia Dragoons, while in the Home World it’s dying and shadowed by the ruins of Viper Manor. Despite the two world maps being almost entirely identical, their states of wellbeing couldn’t be more unique.
As the game goes on things only become more chaotic. The more you learn about the dimensional rift, the more the idea of free will becomes an illusion. Lynx seems omnipotent, guiding you along in his secret plan, while the late game plays two twists back to back in a disorienting final act. Once I learned about the giant supercomputer controlling humankind for centuries, I thought the end goal was pretty clear, but after you defeat FATE the stakes just keep increasing. The Dragon Gods who once gave Serge protection are now out to destroy humanity, free from imprisonment and ready to rid the world of the creatures they believe are impure creations of Lavos.
It’s a bit of a mess. The lines between black and white blurred to the point where I kept wondering if Serge and Kid’s wants to save the world were really justified. If humankind was safer being controlled by FATE, then was it worth gaining humanity’s free will only to unleash a new destructive force in its wake? And if the Reptites really would have been better for the planet, well then why should they try to stop the Dragon God’s plot? The game even goes so far as to call into question the actions of the cast of Chrono Trigger, connecting the fracturing of the world to their time travel meddling.
But by the time the credits roll, the game ultimately tells the audience to screw all those negative notions. No one is a mere cog in the system, and everyone deserves the opportunity to forge their own path! This is best expressed in Kid’s final words to the player, as well as the live action footage of her wandering around Tokyo. Despite knowing the troubles ahead of her, Kid promises to embark forward into a new reality and find Serge once again. Because in the end, everyone has the chance to be be that person who changes the world. Even if things seem dire, and even if you no longer recognize who you are, there’s always hope on the horizon.
Chrono Cross can be confusing. Lord knows it took me a long time to even understand half the stuff going on with the final boss, but ultimately I think the journey is worth it. Even though the game sold nearly 1.5 million units worldwide, it’s faded into obscurity. I feel like they’re a couple reasons for this, but the major one is that Chrono Cross isn’t easy. It doesn’t provide convenient answers, nor does it hold anyone’s hand. Instead, the developers ask players to constantly make important decisions, creating a huge roster of recruitable characters and story with many diverging paths. Even as early on as the third hour, you can choose between three separate party members, each providing a different route into the game’s first major dungeon. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, which is often why I see people talk about how they never finished it.
So if you put down Chrono Cross all those years ago, I encourage you to pick it back up. Sure it has flaws: the battle system, while featuring some great tactical elements when it comes to character affinities and stamina meters, can occasionally be tedious, and I’m not going to lie when I say that a good fifty percent of the game’s large cast is useless fluff. But there is a great game in here, one which takes a tough look at many high concept ideas.
I don’t usually get personal on this blog, but I honestly found myself tearing up during the game’s final moments. As someone currently transitioning from one stage of his life into the next, Chrono Cross’ messages of free will and greater purpose are empowering and relatable. It can be hard thinking about where my life is heading or what it could have been, but no matter where the road takes me, I know there will always be something to look forward to. Maybe it would be easier to take a simple path and let some sort of predetermined destiny guide me, but for now I think I’m content to let my dreams carry me forward into the future.