Chrono Cross had an awfully tough act to follow.
The sequel to the 1995 SNES role-playing game Chrono Trigger, still widely celebrated as one of the best games ever made, launched four years later to critical acclaim. Yet some players hoping for a more straightforward sequel were disappointed by Chrono Cross’s dramatic divergence from its predecessor.
I was one of those grumps. My older brother and I played it for a few hours, were put off by the game’s divergent art style, lack of time travel, and unconventional combat system, and quickly moved on to other fare. Over time, Chrono Cross has enjoyed a reputational rebound akin to that of the Star Wars prequels, and it’s now regarded by many to be an underrated masterpiece. Revisiting Chrono Cross in 2022, I found the game far more enjoyable than I’d given it credit for the first time around. That said, it’s more an interesting oddity for amateur RPG historians than an unforgettable experience in its own right.
Chrono Cross plonks players into the sandy boots of Serge, who’s torn between two parallel worlds — one where he’s an ordinary teenager, and another where he died in a tragic accident ten years earlier. Hoping to solve the mystery of how the worlds diverged, Serge can team up with more than 40 recruitable characters to challenge the mysterious kitty-faced villain known as Lynx.
Though Chrono Cross takes place in the same world as its predecessor — you’ll hear frequent references to Guardia and Porre, the two main kingdoms of Chrono Trigger — the sequel’s settings couldn’t look more different. Partly, that’s due to the leap from 16-bit pixel art to the rendered 3D models of the PS1. It’s also largely due to Cross’ tropical setting. Everything is bright, rustic, and surrounded by water, a stark contrast to Trigger’s more traditional fantasy fare of castles and caves. Even nearly a quarter-century after its initial release, aren’t a lot of games that look like this, which lends a lot of charm to exploration.
A cheerful, eclectic soundtrack — newly remastered for the Radical Dreamers edition — enhances the idyllic vibes. Why are they playing bagpipes in the tropics, you may wonder? Who cares, just go with it! The game’s oddball menagerie of recruitable characters match the patchwork flavor of El Nido — you can recruit fluffy dogs, fairies, luchadors, and even the moms of your friends. But this sprawling cast means few characters are introduced with memorable fanfare, and you’ll struggle to care about most of them.
While the ability to recruit dozens of party members encourages you to explore and talk to everyone, the world of Chrono Cross often feels feel rather small and limited. Chrono Trigger’s small overworld map never feels too confining, because you’re able to experience and change that world across six time periods. Shuttling between two versions of the same reality doesn’t quite pack the same punch as zipping around thousands of years in the blink of an eye.
Old bones, modern polish
The Radical Dreamers Edition of Chrono Cross benefits from a number of subtle visual upgrades. You can select from three viewing options: the original 4:3 aspect ratio with black bars on the side, a stretched 16:9, and a “zoomed” version that’s a compromise between the two. I would have preferred to play the game in 16:9 without stretching or black bars, but at least Square has given players a handful of options to choose from. It’s a little too easy to miss these settings though — they’re only accessible from the game’s home menu, not the in-game settings.
Like a lot of current-gen ports of Square’s retro games, this latest edition of Chrono Cross adds a few nifty quality-of-life features, including fast-forward and slow-motion controls to keep exploration and combat moving along at a jangly pace, or allow you a bit more leeway for precision maneuvers. Pressing down on your thumbsticks will allow you to avoid random encounters, give your party a battle boost, or give you the option to auto-fight. These are thoughtful inclusions, but it’s not easy to find information about them in-game. More than once, I had to exit the game entirely and go through the process of setting up a new save file to reacquaint myself with the thumbstick commands.
Other aspects of Chrono Cross’ UI and controls would have benefited from more thorough overhauls. As is typical of Square’s PS1-era games, Cross features 3D sprites on a static, pre-rendered background, making it difficult sometimes to discern the correct path. Some ports from the PS1 era — like the original FF7 on Switch — allow you to toggle direction indicators on to highlight the exits for a given area, and that would have been very helpful here. Finding a place to save is often more tedious than it has to be, too — you can’t save freely while in towns, but must instead find a save point or exit to the overworld map.
Fiddy interfaces aside, Chrono Cross will either win or lose you with its unique approach to combat. It ditches Square’s familiar Active-Time Battle mechanics in favor of a system that places higher priority on accuracy and elemental resonance. In a game that pretty much eschews a traditional leveling system, you’ll need to think strategically about your party setup and magic builds before major boss fights. Most magic spells can only be used once battle, so you’ll need to consider the best opportunities to bring out your big guns. For major battles, this emphasis on strategy feels satisfying, and even years ahead of its time. But it also means most random encounters take far too long, which can discourage exploration even with skips and speed boosts.
Playing Chrono Cross was both better and worse than I expected, and I’m glad to have a better understanding of what all the fuss has been about after all these years. I wouldn’t place it in the rare tier of games I’d recommend to positively anyone, but if you’re someone with a deep affinity for this genre, it’s a risk-taking riff on a classic that’s still got surprises to spare.
Chrono Cross: Radical Dreamers Edition comes to Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, and PC on April 7. Inverse reviewed the PS4 version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.