Writing this makes me wish I had finished writing my Flame Bait comments on Chrono Trigger, which I played for the first time only four months prior to playing Chrono Cross, also for the first time. So in brief summary, Chrono Trigger was one of those games that I skipped over back in the day because I didn't have a SNES. I had heard a negative review or two at the time so when the game eventually gained cult popularity on the internet I figured it was just that; cult popularity. But after some persuasion I eventually gave it a whirl. I thought it was fun, but I had some difficulty getting into it, largely because wacky hijinks are really not my thing and because I had some difficulty buying into the characters. No doubt the idea that three teenagers don't give a flipping care about diving into the unknown and then trying to save the world (even though they haven't a clue how they'll accomplish this) would have been easier for me to swallow had I played the game at the appropriate age, but I'm older and a bit more pragmatic/cynical now, I guess.
On the other hand, though Serge is a teenage main character in Chrono Cross, I don't have a problem believing him. Perhaps it's because of how he ties into the storyline versus Chrono and his friends. Though it may be shocking to say, since general opinion appears to sway in favor of Chrono Trigger, I must prefer Cross. And that Yasunori Mitsuda is perhaps at his best in his composition of Chrono Cross's soundtrack doesn't hurt either. Of Shadow Hearts, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross, I'd have to say that Chrono Cross's soundtrack is the hardest for me to get out of my head. That's a mean string quartet in the opening theme "Chrono Cross - Scars of Time" and I have to admire any composition that makes a violin sound like the coolest instrument on the planet.
Whereas in Chrono Trigger the entire group fell into their role more or less by happenstance (Crono even literally bumping into Marle for the first time at the beginning of the game), Chrono Cross is indeniably centered around Serge. Chrono Trigger could have had a different protagonist than Crono and the story would have turned out the same. Chrono Cross only occurs because of who Serge is, a boy who happens to have died in one reality and lived in another. Because of his untimely death in the other reality, the adventure occurs, because he is something that the world without Serge needs.
The great gimmick of Chrono Trigger was traveling through time, and the great gimmick of Chrono Cross is traveling between dimensions. When I first had that described to me I was not impressed. However if someone had told me that the different realities were due to events set into motion by the time traveling that occured in Chrono Trigger I would have been much more intrigued. Indeed, much of the game's crucial discussions of various timeline relies on the events and information dispensed in Chrono Trigger. Perhaps more so than with any other game I've played to date, I would recommend that the sequel not be played without having completed the original. If I had played Chrono Cross first I probably would've been hopelessly lost by the references to dead timelines, dead civilizations, who the heck Schala was, and I would certainly have been left wondering what the identities of the three ghostly children were.
In a way, keeping things straight in Chrono Cross was a bit of a challenge. The game gives near complete access to each location on the world map surprisingly early, but there's a lot of revisiting as Serge jumps back and forth between the two worlds. Most of the first third of the game is spent with Serge stranded in Another World, the reality in which he had drowned ten years ago. The second third is largely spent in Home World with Serge stuck in someone else's body and unable to return to Another World because the dimension distrubance that drew him across realities no longer exists. In the final third, there is much jumping back and forth across realities to be had as Serge reclaims his body and goes about finishing his quest. On the surface this makes Chrono Cross very interesting because it's possible to see how people's lives turned out differently. I found myself very intrigued finding out where the differences occurred and wondered how crucial Serge could be to effect so many lives in the ten years of his absense or presense. I was rather disappointed that the reason for all of the differences could not be accounted for, not without a lot of speculation. In particular, the Viper Mansion incident involving Lynx, Lord Viper, Acacia Dragoons, and the city-state of Porre seems to have been accelerated by three years in the Home World versus Another World and there really isn't any explaination why. Nor is there ever an explanation for what happened to the Lynx of Home World, only that he disappeared some time ago, probably at the three year mark when Viper and crew left for the Dead Sea, allowing Porre to take control of the main island.
That's rather irritating because for most of the initial part of the game, Lynx is the enemy. The Lynx of Another World was expecting Home World Serge to one day cross dimensions and referred to him as the Chrono Trigger (which in the previous game was the miracle that halted time and allowed Crono to be saved). Why he is the Chrono Trigger is never really explained, except that Serge is a trigger of some sorts, and that his very duality of living in one world while dying in another is causing a temporal imbalance, potentially ruining all the work of the characters of the previous game. As part of his plan, Lynx swaps bodies with Serge and Serge, as Lynx, is temporarily trapped in Home World. This raises interesting questions as many people recognize Serge as "Lynx" and for a good portion of the game supporting characters have to keep explaining to each other (since Serge never talks) that this person that looks like Lynx is really someone else called Serge. Unfortunately, other than the occupying Porre Army recognizing Lynx as a friend, the game gives out no other enlightening information about what the Home World Lynx might have been doing before he disappeared. That information would have been nice because Another World Lynx does a big info drop later in the game and some of the shock might have been better absorbed if it had been hinted at earlier on.
If Chrono Cross does anything frequently, it's raise a lot of questions. For the most part I enjoyed the process. Some of the subtler things I thought had been implemented in the game for design reasons without regard to continuity with Chrono Trigger or just sensability in general actually had explanations. When I started playing, Elements didn't make sense to me because they looked like magic, which was a lost art in Chrono Trigger, but surprisingly the developers hadn't forgotten and the origin of Elements is explained. Also, I had wondered why Lynx had chosen the form of a feline demihuman when arguably he could have chosen any form he wanted and demihumans are actually discriminated against by the general populace. Where did the dragon gods come from (since they didn't exist in Chrono Trigger) and why do the people of the El Nido Archipelagio say their ancestors came from the Sea of Eden (really a mini-sea surrounded by the meanest coral reef you've ever seen) when the open sea is in the other direction? Those too are explained.
But on the otherhand, perhaps because of the dual timelines, there are inconsistencies that are never fully explained and inconsistencies that are simply inconsistencies. For instance, no one can seem to agree when the event took place that changed the Sea of Eden into the Dead Sea in Home World. One character says ten years ago. Another says three. A third even suggests fourteen, which would place the event before the realities even split! The fact the player isn't directly told what the event was that caused the split (though it can be inferred that it had something to do with Serge living) doesn't help either.
Aside from the vagaries of the human (and demihuman) characters, there are larger differences such as the six Dragon Gods who initially appeared to have been in both dimensions (judging from the dialogue given by NPCs), but appear to have split themselves between the two so that three exist in Home and three in Another. What happened to the dragons' counterparts in the other worlds? Or did they never exist? The Sky Dragon puts in an appearance in Home World, but the next time we see the Sky Dragon it's in Another. Also, in one of the story's most pivotal cut scenes we see all six dragons in the sky of Anotehr World together, which implies that the three dragons from Home World somehow crossed over to join their companions. How this is able to happen is never explained.
Though I enjoyed the storyline very much, I think Chrono Cross suffered some design flaws as the story writer(s) tried to implement the plot. I'm not sure exactly why there are so many unanswered questions, but it's possible that Square was simply following a hectic production schedule and had to cut/rearrange things to make them fit. With several groups of people working independantly of each other to build the different modules of the game (not entirely uncommon) it's possible that there was a miscommunication and some of the plot points got jumbled, resulting in them being misimplemented or missing altogether. Some of it also could have been due to translation errors, but things such as inconsistent dates I think are more likely chalked up to a flaw in the original.
I really wish I knew what the "ghosts" of Crono, Marle, and Lucca were doing besides pulling in cameo appearances. I wish I knew why when Serge returned to Home World in Lynx's body the dimensional distortion had sealed. Since Serge is supposed to be alive in this world it would seem to me that the distortion would be even wilder than it was before! I also wish I knew why killing Miguel would cause the distortion to return, since Miguel's journey to the Sea of Eden/Dead Sea occurred fourteen years ago, well before the two realities split. I mean, did Serge really have to kill the dad of his childhood friend? For that matter, why did Miguel never leave the Sea of Eden anyway? He had a daughter back home who was no doubt waiting for him! Didn't anyone ask any questions when a healthy toddler Serge and his dad returned from their voyage without Miguel? I also thought it was strange how Serge's journey starts with him standing beside his childhood friend Leena on Opassa Beach and then him disappearing through realities. But when Serge finally gets back to Home and sees Leena again, she doesn't say anything like "What happened! Where did you disappear too?" In fact, she doesn't even acknowledge that anything strange happened. Weird... That fact is made even stranger by the ending, which I'll get to later.
While I can ignore those questions and still enjoy the game, there is one inconsistency that I thought was a glaring oversight. Serge (and those he takes with him) supposedly is the only one who can cross dimensions because his life is the crux between them, and even then he can only do it with the Astral Amulet and in the weak spot between dimensions at Opassa Beach. But when Serge tries to reclaim his body in Home World's Fort Dragonia (because Another World's Fort was wrecked) he runs into Lynx still in Serge's body. Because this Lynx is in Serge's body, it can only be Another World's Lynx. Even if the ability to cross dimensions is linked to the body as well as the soul that dwells within it, Another World Lynx should not have been able to cross dimensions without the Astral Amulet, which Home World Serge possesses. The Astral Amulet came from Another World Kid so there isn't another amulet that Another World Lynx could have used to get to Home World. So how the heck did he get there? Alas, continuity never gets in the way of a good boss fight.
Indeed, when Serge is trapped in Lynx's body he gains black element alignment and all of Lynx's special skills, but when Lynx possesses Serge's body, he is still black element with his own special skills. Granted that helps the whole Dark Serge image Lynx is brewing, I think it would've been much more interesting to actually fight against Serge's own white-aligned skills. One interesting thing of note about the body-switching that I liked is that it's not a complete one-for-one character model switch. Serge still uses his trademark swallow weapon when he becomes Lynx and Lynx still uses his scythe when in Serge's body. While I haven't watched Lynx's spellcasting enough to know otherwise, I know Serge keeps his same combat casting poses even when in Lynx's body. It's a nice twist, showing that the person within is still behaving the same even though the body without has changed.
Chrono Cross is unusual among most RPGs in that it has a huge playable cast. Most games that allow swapping of party members top out at eight to ten combatants. Chrono Cross has over forty. Only the notorious Suikoden series (with its 108 Stars of Destiny, most of them playable) has more, but Suikoden's cast has a good many characters that are very similar to each other so while they aren't direct palette swaps of each other, their attacks and such are identical. Since magic is an equipable factor in Suikoden no one has individualized special attacks, which would be murderously difficult with so many potential party members. Chrono Cross actually has the audacity to provide each of the playable characters with three different special combat techniques that they alone can perform. The rest of the "magic" used in combat, the Elements, are equipables like the Runes in Suikoden. This allows just about any character to be useable in combat depending on the player's preferences. The character might be better at combat or better for spellcasting, but almost any Element can be equiped on any character allowing for a lot of customization. The only exceptions are for certain high level Elements for which the character has to match the corresponding color in order to use it. Because the six element colors, red and blue, green and yellow, and white and black, oppose each other, green Elements in theory should damage yellow characters more than others and vice versa. This is supposed to provide incentive for the player to change party members frequently depending on the environment of the next dungeon or the upcoming boss. I actually found the difference to be negligible as far as I was concerned so once I found a comfortable party I largely stuck with it for the rest of the game.
My initial party through most of the first third of the game was Leena and Glenn and I probably would've kept them entire way through except that when Serge and Lynx swapped bodies I could no longer use my old party members as Lynx. That single event was actually such a shock that my enthusiasm for the game fell quite a bit. I didn't want to play as Lynx, let alone be stuck with him and without my old party members for almost half the game. But I stuck with it and eventually fell in with Norris and Irenes and they stayed with me until the end. I suppose comfortability says something in that even when I got my old party members back I did not return Leena and Glenn to my regular party. I did sub in Glenn a couple times, just for specific purposes, but he was no longer part of my permanent line-up. That might change when I start a New Game+ and can sub Serge out for another character.
One of the complaints I had heard about Chrono Cross was that with so many characters no one got enough attention. I actually disagree with this. I think everyone got just the amount of attention they needed. There is a tendency, I think, in console RPGs to add a story behind every many character so they will get a good subplot at some point in the game. But really, do all people's lives get that messed up? I think what Chrono Cross gives the player is enough information so that each of the party members are more than just a portrait and combat sprite (part of Suikoden's problem), but not so much that the player drowns in knowing their entire life story. Some of the characters are more detailed than others. Pip, the laboratory-created squirrel creature, probably doesn't need much to him other than being a cute little puffball. Orhla on the other hand, one of the very last recruitable characters in the game, has a touching story in her search for her lost sister. Orhla's plot, should the player pursue it, probably takes less than five minutes, but it adds a dimension to her so she is not merely Orhla the barmaid, but Orhla the twin who finally found her sister if only by crossing dimensions.
What I did have something of an issue with though was why some of the characters didn't leave after the initial reason they joined. Leena offered to accompany Serge to Termina since she was going there anyway, but there really was no reason for her to hang around afterwards (unless she just liked Serge that much ^_^). She does stay though, and even though it hardly sounds reasonable to bring a fisherman's daughter into a final confrontation with a creature that's set to devour time itself it's possible. Most of the characters however have more open-ended reasons for staying and those that join later in the game arguably know what they're signing up for.
One thing that I found particularly fun in Chrono Cross, especially with so many characters available, is seeing what one person in one world was doing versus one in another. Unfortunately only perhaps half the cast have counterparts available to visit. Most of the Viper Manor crew is gone and certain characters don't appear in both worlds because they originally came from outside the El Nido region and there was no reason for them to be present. Others are unaccounted for, but not mysteriously so. Sneff works on the S. S. Zelbess in Home World, but Fargo doesn't set up a casino ship in Another World so it stands to reason that Sneff is probably working somewhere else that is not necessarily crucial to the game. The only lack of a counterpart that really bothered me was perhaps Starky's. Starky is an alien who crashlanded in Home World's El Nido, utterly wrecking his ship. He joins the party because he's assured that there's a possibility his ship survived in Another. Eventually the party does find Starky's ship in Another, but where is Another Starky? And what's Home Starky supposed to do anyway? Fly home in another dimension? Given how oddly Starky behaves (though in a bizarrely cute fashion) I somehow doubt that leaving the planet in a different dimension than he started in would bother him.
Perhaps my favorite person in both timelines would have to be Norris. He's perhaps unusual in that he's chivalrous and well-intentioned, but also served as a spy in Porre's army, and Porre is the invader of El Nido in both worlds. One of my favorite moments is when Orcha in the Viper Manor talks with Serge about how he thinks there's a spy in the kitchen and the dishwasher starts acting up. That same dishwasher is also found trapped in a cage in Luccia's lab later on (presumably because he was snooping), and then it's later revealed that it's Norris (who is perhaps the poster child of everything a noble military man should be). Norris, like most of the people who appear in both dimensions, takes meeting his other self rather well. Another World's Norris even gives Home World Norris his final attack skill.
Oddly enough, despite the complaints of not enough character development, I don't hear much about Serge, who is probably one of the last in the breed of silent protagonists. Serge never talks on camera, though it's heavily implied that he does when he occasionally gives explanations to people about what happened to him. It's just we never actually see that dialogue represented. The result of this is that the really in depth conversations between the party and someone else requires the use of a different representative for the group mind, typically whoever is in the second party slot, though occasionally the third. One of the in-game conversations I had looked more like a dialogue between Lynx and Norris than Lynx and Serge because Norris was doing so much talking in Serge's stead. When the dialogue was more one-sided in olden days this was not a big deal. But if the game intends to have a decidedly two-way conversation, the way of the silent protagonist has to go. It's not quite as bad as in Golden Sun where words were almost literally put in Isaac's mouth because he didn't talk. Norris or whoever else takes his place never says "Serge doesn't want to do that!" instead settling for a more proper "we" or "I" to express such sentiments, which is a lot more realistic.
For all the dimension hopping and timeline shifting, the core mission of Chrono Cross ties in intimately to Chrono Trigger because the real story of why everything happened the way it did occured not because Serge died in one dimension and lived in the other, but because of what happened to Schala back in 12000 BC in the first game. Chrono Cross the game essentially exists to reveal Schala's fate. For me that was a bit much, because as far as I was concerned she was effectively dead. There really was no need to describe what happened to her because we saw her going down in the ruined Ocean Palace. Maybe she didn't die on camera, but the implication was clear. Still, there is a bit in Chrono Trigger's ending, if Magus is in the party, that suggests Schala is alive and he's going to search for her. I've heard Schala's disappearance described as being one of the great mysteries of Chrono Trigger, the sort of plotline that inevitably came up in fanfic upon fanfic. Well, that question is answered in Chrono Cross, though I did think that was overly much just to resolve a small plot thread from the original game. (And Magus still doesn't find her. That thread apparently got cut from the plot, though a letter from Lucca still refers to the fact he's looking for her.)
I did have some problems with Schala showing up in this fashion though. The character Kid (who I despised for her fake Australian accent, which has to be fake because she didn't use it as a child and doesn't even use it all the time as a teenager) is essentially Schala's clone-daughter and first appears at the end of the Chrono Trigger rerelease as a baby with Schala's pendant around her neck. This doesn't make any sense because in Chrono Trigger it was implied that Schala's pendant is the same as Marle's, just in different time periods. If Schala had kept her pendant when she got sucked into the dimensional void, then her pendant never could have found its way into the hands of the Guardia royal family in order for Marle to inherit.
Also, the fact that everything in Chrono Cross happened just so in order to free Schala was a bit contrived to say the least. FATE got knocked out of the way, the Dragon Gods got knocked out of the way, and the Time Devourer neatly stopped and all thanks to Belthezar capitalizing on events Schala had set into motion? Maybe it's just too pat, or maybe it just happened that way. Belthezar certainly implies that a good deal of the work to bring Serge and company this way was his own machinations, but I'm not sure things entirely happened because he arranged it. There were too many times things were beyond his control and it sounds very weird for a person from the future to come to the past expecting things to go a certain way. Of course they should go a certain way because the past has already been written from the perspective he has, so he already knows what will happen. At least somewhat. Serge's survival throwing the time continuum into disarray might have changed something as far as Belthezar was aware. But because we only see the game from Serge's perspective and Serge does no time traveling himself, I find myself less concerned with erratic bits of plausibilities such as that.
Actually seeing Schala rendered in 3D instead of her old 2D sprite was a bit of a shock too. She had last been seen with wavy blue hair, a purple robe, and a rather stately mein for a 16-bit sprite. Chrono Cross's Schala looked like a ten-year-old when I first saw her (though in retrospect I suppose she could have been older--it's just between the art style and not having another character standing next to her she looked very short). She also went blond and no longer looked like the mature young lady in my mind. Schala's age had never been given, but I had figured her to be around eighteen or nineteen. The Schala of Chrono Cross looks to be able the same age as Kid, which makes her a few years younger than I had anticipated. I suppose that's one of the shocks bound to occur when a game transitions from 2D to 3D with a change in character designers to boot.
The ending to Chrono Cross was perhaps a bit strange in that a unified timeline between Home and Another is created, but rather merging after the adventure has taken place, it effectively rewinds time to the start of the adventure with Serge once again on Opassa Beach, right after he passed out in front of Leena. Obviously the fact that Serge lived is kept in the new timeline, but nothing else remains. Schala even tells him that he will not remember his adventure, which is rather sad because aside from friendships being undone, we don't know what else will be lost. (Does that mean Riddel will lose her Dario again now that she's found another of him in a different dimension?). Having been freed from the Time Devourer, Schala presumably merges back with Kid, though goodness knows where in the world she'll appear. She says she'll search for Serge though, and the ending credits, an odd mix of scenes from the game and a live action version of Schala wandering around a Japanese city, show that she does keep her promise to look for him.
I have to wonder though why Serge is so important to her, aside from being the one who saved her of course. Of all the children who have surely suffered pain over the ages, why did she decide that the three-year-old Serge, nearly killed by a pather demon, was special and that she would help him, so he in turn could help her? Also, having known him and probably watched him grow from child to teenager, why would Schala search for him after being reborn into the world? Considering that the defeat of the Time Devourer probably could have expelled her into any time period she chose, why choose 1020AD instead of the past in Zeal where her brother no doubt remains (unless Magus figured out how to time travel on his own)? It sounds better I suppose, to have a romantic subplot between Serge and Kid, but I can't see one between Serge and Schala if only because Schala's saving him was more like a motherly or at least an older sisterly action. Besides, Serge already has a girlfriend in Leena. Granted it's probably a less mature teenagerly relationship, it would seem strange for Serge to dump it all to chase after some dream girl, because likely all he will remember of his adventure will be nothing more than a dream.
One thing I did like about the ending though is that it's bookended by an epilogue to go with the text-only prologue in the opening movie. That prologue has to be one of the most poetic pieces of prose ever to make it into a video game, neatly setting up the premise of the story while pointing out and accepting the contradictions that come with being human. "We loved so many and hated so much, and yet we ran joyfully beneath cerulean skies." I was rather proud of myself having guessed the prologue was written by Schala from the outset. The loving and hating sounded only like something that could have happened to someone who came from Chrono Trigger's city of Zeal, which was a paradise in the sky bought at the expense of the magicless Earthbound.
The game's real ending is a bit difficult to get though. I can't say I got it entirely fairly since I had been spoiled by someone one a message board that had mentioned something about paying attention to the crystals in order to learn how to use the Chrono Cross correctly, but on the other hand, the crystals actually were no help to me whatsoever. I actually tried watching them to figure out the order and it looked like sometimes two of them would light up at a time, and they didn't light up in time to the melody they were playing either, so that was no help. Even without the net I think I could have figured out how to use the Chrono Cross eventually though (assuming I got the Cross at all because I almost missed it), because I did figure out the order on my own without any hints (since watching the crystals didn't work). If Serge has the cross, he's told numerous times that its tuned to melody and rhythm. Whenever an Element is cast after obtaining the Chrono Cross a single note plays. Obviously, to use the Chrono Cross a melody must be formed. Now I played piano for a good many years and Loom (which let the player cast spells by playing musical notes) was one of my favorite old computer games. So I latched on to the melody that needed to be performed to correctly activate the Chrono Cross nearly as soon as I heard it. The only thing is I couldn't match the melody to the order of the Element colors. Fortunately, when the teleporter right before the second to last boss activates it lights up a set of colored circles in the correct order and the melody plays along with it. As soon as I heard the melody playing in time to the circles lighting up, I knew that was the order and I hurriedly wrote it down. I accidentally swapped two of the colors so I wound up getting the bad ending first, but since I had a suspicion that I had gotten two of them mixed up (I had only a second or two to remember them once I realized the order) it was easy to go back and fight the last boss a second time with the correct order. The "bad" ending just runs the credits and the compiled CC and live action scenes. Since Schala is not freed without the correct use of the Chrono Cross the rest of the ending down not occur and goodness knows what happens to the timeline(s).