Chrono Cross is a JRPG classic that passed me by as a kid. Little Jade was far too busy beaming Final Fantasy, Dark Cloud, and Legend of Dragoon directly into her retinas to notice all the other bangers emerging from Squaresoft at that time. Who can blame her?
It was a golden era for the genre with gems releasing every couple of months, showcasing where exactly it was capable of going now global appeal had finally been achieved. We got so many wonderful games, and decades later publishers are eager to revisit their libraries and bring them back into the limelight. Having only dabbled in the vanilla release a handful of years ago, it was fascinating to dive into a remaster that aims to accomplish so much.
Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers is both a faithful and competent remaster of the PlayStation classic that seeks to refresh the original game without ever taking away from what made it so special. Visuals have been updated but maintain the charm of character designs and environments, while the battle system has been outfitted with a number of neat new mechanics that allow them to both run smoothly and alleviate the archaic tedium that so many games from this era now suffer from. However, it isn’t perfect.
When it comes to remasters like this it feels like developers are always playing with fire, daring to step foot onto sacred ground where whatever legacy awaits has already been committed to memory. Any and all steps taken to alter those foundations will result in fan backlash, regardless of whether or not the end result offers an overall improvement. We’ve been burned so many times in the past by developers failing to comprehend the strength of their own back catalogues before, throwing out remasters without any care as to how changes will impact the overall experience. So when Chrono Cross was announced fans were understandably sceptical.
You play as Serge, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood growing up in the fishing village of Arni. He seems to live a peaceful life running errands and trying to win over his childhood sweetheart. Sunshine beams down upon him and he doesn’t have a care in the world, but in typical JRPG fashion, it doesn’t take long for it all to fall apart. One faithful day he awakens on the beach to find himself in a parallel dimension where he drowned ten years prior, meaning that nobody in town recognises him and his presence in this world is little more than that of a ghost. He’s a mystery, now burdened with a bout of amnesia that isn’t even his own. It’s a fascinating mystery that both builds upon the tenets of Chrono Trigger while trying something entirely new, boasting a narrative that easily stands the test of time.
From here you stumble across a lovable cast consisting of cute girls, valiant knights, genderfluid popstars, outlandish jesters, little kids, and even talking animals. Yep, it is definitely a JRPG. Chrono Cross is known for having a grand total of 45 recruitable characters who are able to join your party, but the majority of players will likely stick to a small selection as they progress through the story. That’s what I did anyway, not having the patience to absorb a continuous stream of new personalities as I embarked on my adventure. This vastness won’t be for everyone, but it’s a testament to Squaresoft’s talent that it was able to create a fictional world with so many distinct characters despite the technical hurdles being set against it. These restrictions become abundantly clear when playing the remaster, and I question if the game’s classic status can still thrive in the modern day.
Chrono Cross is a slow game if you aren’t willing to make use of the new features that speed up battles and exploration. A number of puzzles don’t offer clear solutions, while your next objective is often provided through dialogue or talking to characters throughout the world instead of being constantly spoonfed. A keen sense of observation is required to make the most of its world, which is unwilling to hold your hand and explain each and every mechanic you stumble across. Thankfully the battle system is spared this fate, since it even gives Final Fantasy 8’s Junction System a run for its money in terms of its sheer abstruseness.
Traditional abilities aren’t learned upon levelling up or gaining experience, but instead come in the form of Elements which can be purchased and equipped. Some of these skills are permanent, while others are finite and must be either bought again or recharged. Each battlefield is also outfitted with a field of various different colours, each representing a specific weakness or variant that each and every party member and enemy in the game possesses. The key to dealing extensive damage and gaining the upper hand is to influence the layout of the arena by casting specific spells and reacting to the weakness of whatever you’re up against.
That’s not all! Your attacks are also split into three different subsets, each designed to deal different types of damage and have varying effects on your opponent. However, each of them always has a uniquepercentage that determines the chance it will deliver a successful hit. There’s an emergent rhythm to proceedings here as you’re expected to execute attacks in a certain order instead of spamming the most powerful ones and calling it a day, all while combining these with your use of different Elements to win the day. Traditional grinding isn’t a thing in Chrono Cross, and while your stats will increase with continuous battles, simply fighting creatures over and over and over to brute force progression won’t work. You need to learn how to fight or be left behind, which is a dedication to its mechanics I admire.
Battles can be awfully slow though, and switching on the new features that increase the speed of everything can often result in weird performance hiccups that I couldn’t address without a complete restart. The same applies to exploring field areas, which can often exhibit a frustrating stutter that feels especially unusual when playing on the PS5. I presume this is a consequence of the original game’s code, one reliant on a gameplay engine that isn’t able to achieve a higher rate of performance without throwing the entire experience out of whack. It’s a shame, and takes the sheen of what is an otherwise competent remaster.
The original game’s music also can’t be used in place of the remastered score, and parts of the user interface feel like they could have received a more competent refresh given how cumbersome some of them are to navigate. So much effort has been put into refreshing the game’s visuals and character portraits that part of me was hoping a similar amount of love would be seen in the user interface, music, and overall performance. As a result the finished product feels competent in all respects, but like it could have been pushed much further with a few extra resources. I suppose Chrono Cross doesn’t have the name recognition of Final Fantasy or Persona, and thus is treated as such across the JRPG pantheon. The faithful will love it though, and that’s what matters.
With the remaster you’ve also got Radical Dreamers, an illustrated text adventure which was previously a Satellaview title exclusive to Japan. It seeks to explain lingering plot threads from Chrono Trigger while carving a path forward to Chrono Cross, with the latter being a complete expansion of its themes and ideas on a much grander scale. Hardcore fans will have likely played a translated version of this niche little title years ago, but for people like me, it’s a fascinating nugget of extra information that makes the main game’s world and characters that much richer. It isn’t essential, and not everyone will want to read through all of it. Heck, maybe Square Enix just needed a snazzy name and decided to throw it in for funsies.
Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is a remaster that should have happened years ago, and I’m so glad that the JRPG classic has finally received the respect it deserves in the modern landscape. You seldom see it discussed alongside other genre greats in the mainstream zeitgeist, but perhaps that perception will change now Serge’s iconic adventure is available on a selection of platforms with myriad improvements. Not all of its changes are for the best, but are easy enough to accept when the underlying game is still so masterful.
A review copy was provided by Square Enix for the purposes of this review.
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