BUT - that's a big "but", its in all caps - "Chrono Cross" is not quite the hideous failure I thought it would be. Actually I think I have enough energy to go all the way and finish this thing. Because as bad as the ideas are around "Chrono Cross"'s battle system, its still something of a very interesting game. I mean, the game doesn't work, but its something of an admirable failure. I can respect a game like "Final Fantasy VIII" on some level because even though the Junctioning system was confusing as all Hell, it was at least an experimental attempt at innovation*, if still a huge mistake. More importantly, "Chrono Cross" is a beautiful game, perhaps the single prettiest game on the old PlayStation. You can tell with every location and every character that a lot of work was put in. And yeah, the storyline is inferior, but it is still an epic RPG adventure that keeps you engaged as to whats going to happen next. Ultimately it really helps when you stop comparing this game to "Chrono Trigger" and just try to enjoy the wonderful scenery and excellent soundtrack.
What we have here is a game form the Golden Age of Square. Back in the PlayStation era, Square was making all kinds of innovative experimental RPGs, like this, FFVIII, "Xenogears", "Parasite Eve", and "Vagrant Story". Since then the now Square Enix has been riding on endless cheap mediocre Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest spin-offs**, then they whored out Kingdom Hearts like you'd never believed, and lately has gotten even lazier in that now most of its games are actually made by Eidos. "Final Fantasy XIII-2" is my Exhibit A for why we should appreciate games like "Chrono Cross", because while that's a failure for being lazy, completely recycled, and then left it all on a cliffhanger so they could sell more crap like DLC, this is a failure because director Misato Kato and his team simply had too many creative ideas. There was too much love put into this game, too many things to deal with, and the final product is something of a mess. So its a failure, but a remarkable failure, I feel.
Weirdly there are people out there who say that "Chrono Cross" is a better game than "Trigger". Uh-huh. Those people are what I call "totally insane". "Cross"'s successes are mostly in tone and presentation. As a pure game its pretty terrible to play, if you just skip the storyline you're left with a clunky frustrating battle system full of weird ideas that could have been interesting on their own, but working together make for a horrible experience. So before I can taught about anything else, I need to discuss the battle system, because WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??
First of all, forget about "Chrono Trigger", that's going to make things a lot easier. The battles are no longer streamlined or efficient or even attempting to be fun. Actually, "Cross" is probably the only JRPG that goes out of its way to make you hate the battles. For one, despite the game's fantastic majestic score, the main battle theme is this nightmarish shrill screeching of a track, just endlessly awful. But don't worry, you only have to listen to this song throughout the entire goddamn game. Also, "Cross" is the only JRPG where for the most part, the regular enemy counters do not matter. They represent no real gaming threat, and usually they don't give EXP, so there's no tangible benefit in fighting other than collecting GP. Luckily there are no random encounters and the enemies never ambush you like they did in "Trigger", so for the most part you can cheerfully run right past nearly enemy in the game, and you'll have missed nothing but wasted time.
The battle system of "Chrono Cross" is this huge labyrinth of unnecessary complexity. You get the sense that every major person involved in the development of the game had one idea for the battle system, and they threw them all together without really thinking how any of this would match up. One guys suggests that EXP be static, that you only really get major stat gains from a boss fight. Interesting idea, it makes sure that the player cannot either be too weak or too strong, but combine that with the fact that if you're strategic you get a free heal after every battle, the main battles are now pointless, not even representing a threat. They keep a three member party system and force you to use the hero all game, but somebody else wants 45 party members, so that means you'll never use most of them, and for the most part it makes no sense to use them. One guy builds this huge complex Element Grid for the magic, and another guy builds this weird combo attack system (I'll get to that in a second), and another guy makes it so that you need to land attacks to use magic. Then some fucking idiot puts a Stamina system. Throw those three things together and you have what may be the worst single JRPG battle system I'v ever seen.
Let's start what you'll see first: attacking. I don't know why basic "Attack" commands couldn't have been left alone as a single button and single effect of your character running up and hitting the enemy. It would have been fine. Instead, you'll see you get three separate attacks with a percentage next to them. What the heck does this mean? Well, it means that weaker attacks are more likely to hit, stronger attacks are less. You need to land weak attacks first so that you can use stronger ones. However, if you miss - and you will, A LOT - that means your combo for the most part is ruined. You can maximize your chances for a strong attack, get it up to like 90%, and there's still a chance you'll miss. So you can just lose whole turns. Worse, you need to land attacks in order to open up your magic grid. So if you miss several times, you might not unlock the magic you need that turn. Guess what? You're boned. The attacking is so damn annoying, but its only the beginning.
The Element Grid is at least something that isn't actively annoying at every second. You don't have MP, what you have are slots in this grid where you can place Elements - which are both spells and basic healing items. (There is an Item slot on your menu, but that's only Key Items, and trust me, you'll never get used to this.) The Items are Items, use them and they disappear, I don't know they were thinking throwing them into the Element Grid. Elements can only be used once per battle, but you can equip like fifteen Cures. Your grid is opened up by landing attacks. Every attack you land, you unlock one column on your grid. Every element has a specific column it works best at, so you want to put them there, but you can put them in different columns. But your character also has special innate Techs - remember those? - which also act as Elements. When you use an Element, you then need to land more attacks in order to open up the Element Grid again. By the way, there are DualTechs in this game. But in all the time I've played, I've found one. And only one. There are maybe twelve DualTechs in this whole game, just forget about them. The positive is that if you end the battle with your Grid open, you can use the Healing magic within that Grid to fully restore your party after every regular encounter, making them entirely unable to weaken you at all.
Also, there is a literal elemental system in this game, because every Element has a color. Blue and Red are weak to each other, White and Black are weak to each other, and Green and Yellow are weak to each other, basic. Hit a Red-color enemy with a Blue Element and you get more damage. As you use more Elements, you influence the color of the battlefield. In the top left corner you can see the battlefield's innate preference. Use three elements of the same color and then that color becomes stronger. Also, there are special Elements called Summons, which you can only use if you get the Battlefield to be fully colored to their element. So if you use blue three times, you might be able to Summon a Frog for a strong attack. But for the most part that's hopeless because enemies use Elements too, so you'll rarely use Summons.
Now for Stamina. Stamina can go fuck itself. I'm still not sure how it works. At the beginning of the battle, you have seven Stamina points. Light attacks cost one, medium attacks cost two, strong cost three. Use all seven, your turn is over, sounds basic. Then then there's magic. Magic costs a full seven Stamina points. But luckily you can dip into negative stamina, so you'll probably want to drop a few attacks before using an Element. Now for reasons that don't make much sense to me, every time your allies attack, you get a Stamina back. So if you just cycle around all three characters doing nothing but attacking, your Stamina will never run out. But its a RPG! You'll need to use magic. Use too much magic, and suddenly your Stamina will end up in something useless like three or four. So you need to waste a turn Defending in order to get it back up to seven. I hate Stamina so damn much. You have no idea.
What's also endlessly frustrating is that the enemies can interrupt your turn. In fact, they almost always interrupt your turn. Its awful. You you're pounding away at your combo, then suddenly the enemy moves, and I'm pretty sure the percentages drop back to where they started. So screw that noise. The enemies should wait their damn turn. If they want to move, move after I've gone. This is a turn-based RPG, get some patience.
Ultimately strategy is nearly nonexistent. Boss fights usually are just exorcises in finding a character with a color that hurts your enemy and then unloading with the best Elements you got until they drop. Heal sometimes too. For the pointless complexity around this game, the strategy never gets beyond a Pokemon battle with a Gym Leader. Water beats Fire, remember that. Later in the game you can do things like cast a spell that basically bypassing the stupid percentage thing, but that's way later. And there are some crushingly difficult boss fights in this game too, like the infamous battle with Miguel in the Dead Sea. Trust me, this was insanely hard, I had to fight this guy about seven times until he finally dropped and it was to the damn wire. This is probably the most difficult single boss fight of any JRPG, and I only survived due to luck.
Speaking of luck, you can run away from boss fights. So if things aren't going your way, just flee, heal up with your item-elements, and start over. Its a lot smarter than eating a GAME OVER, trust me. Running has a 100% chance of working, so you can go the whole game without losing, if you're lucky.
I guess some people were having fun playing with the elements and missing constantly, I'm sure there's some rhythm to the battles that I don't understand, but honestly, I don't care. "Chrono Cross" had the possibility to be a truly excellent game, something just fantastic like "Chrono Trigger". But instead it made this ridiculous embarrassing battle system. So even though there are things that work really well in "Cross", I can't really recommend it as a game. Because its a terrible game, it isn't any fun to play. But as an experience, its something more. That's what I'll be discussing next time.
* But still, "Final Fantasy VIII" doesn't play like a Final Fantasy game, which is what I bought. They should have named that game "Time Romance With Gunblades" or something. So I played FFVIII like it was one of the other six Final Fantasy games I played before, was massively confused about everything - the lack of equipment, the stupid magic system, the awful Card game, and eventually just spammed Limit Breaks and GFs forever until I accidentally made the enemies too strong to defeat because I tried level grinding - which is what you're not supposed to do in that game because SURPRISE the enemies scale with you. For that reason I will always hate FFVIII. I'm not saying don't innovate, but I mean, stay a goddamn Final Fantasy game!
** And the only spin-off they've made lately that's apparently worth a damn is "Final Fantasy Type-0", which NEVER GOT RELEASED HERE. Goddammit. Right now, as far as I'm concerned, Square Enix's last hope is "Bravely Default: Flying Fairy".