I don’t talk about this enough online, but I’m a huge fan of Chrono Trigger. It’s my number one video game of all time, and it’s had an immeasurable impact on my life. (As a matter of fact, my online username was inspired by the sword-wielding frog in that game.)
Despite my fondness for Chrono Trigger, however, I never actually found the opportunity to play its critically divisive follow-up, Chrono Cross, until the remaster came out last month. I’ve been playing it off-and-on ever since—on my second playthrough now!—but mostly I’ve been thinking and pondering about it a lot. It’s the kind of game that encourages you to read between the lines.
Even though I didn’t grow up with Chrono Cross, I feel like it’s always been with me. I had a phase in my teenage years when I listened to the soundtrack obsessively, so the game’s tone of whimsy and wistfulness immediately felt familiar, like another me in another world had been playing it all along. For all its imperfections on both a gameplay and narrative level, its artistic sensibilities speak very profoundly to me. The mishmash of seemingly disparate characters and genre elements feels deliberately and precisely measured. You don’t quite understand everything that’s going on, but it makes you feel. There is no other game quite like it in existence.
Here are some of the gameplay/narrative devices that stood out to me in particular (spoilers beware):
The Mystery of the Silent Protagonist
In video games, the silent protagonist is usually a self-insert—or at least a presence that isn’t supposed to intrude on the player’s own identity. In Chrono Cross, the anomaly of Serge’s existence is the driving mystery. In one world he’s alive but in the other he’s dead. The fact that he never speaks for himself throughout it all only makes you wonder what he’s thinking at certain key moments, like when he discovers his own grave or has visions of himself betraying Kid.
Silent though he is, Serge is like an unreliable narrator in a mystery novel. You follow the story through his perspective without truly understanding who he is as a person until the reality of the situation comes to a head. That’s what makes the moment when he switches bodies with Lynx such an effective twist. For that brief second before Lynx starts talking in Serge’s body, you’re genuinely left wondering if those were Serge’s true colours, or if he was just a puppet following Lynx’s machinations. The blank canvas holds limitless potential for both good and evil.
I also really enjoyed how Serge ultimately is just a boy who stumbled upon a larger fate: Schala took pity on him and saved him from death, and he inadvertently touched the Frozen Flame (a shard of Lavos), which transformed him into the arbiter of space and time. He wasn’t secretly born with a special power or privilege. His destiny was a result of happenstance.
This apparent contradiction informs the larger themes of Chrono Cross: our lives have a course mapped out for us by FATE, but that doesn’t have to define us. In the game, FATE is a time-omniscient supercomputer, but you can also see it as a metaphor for the structural factors in society we can’t control as individuals. There are ephemeral moments in time when you might realise that there are different versions of yourself out there somewhere—that you don’t have to be bound by FATE. In those moments, you may stumble upon the crossroads of your life by pure coincidence, and your whole world can change. Treasure those moments, and live life with no regrets.
Starky Is an Essential Character
Chrono Cross is infamous as a game in which you can recruit a bunch of fricken weirdos, including a giant voodoo doll, a mushroom man named Funguy, and a turnip. Most of the weirdos are completely optional to recruit, and it will probably hurt your narrative experience if you do find them and put them in your party for the important plot beats.
Starky, the little blue alien whose existence is entirely unexplained, is a mandatory recruit, however. The game never outright tells you this. It just expects you to have him when you’re wandering around the world map looking for a way to get into the last dungeon. This is the part of the game where you’re going around finishing off character sidequests in order to unlock their best unique skill; Starky’s quest to find his spaceship just happens to coincide with the larger plot.
Starky also has a significant cutscene with Harle—one of the few conversations between party members that takes place without Serge present in the scene. The two oddballs have a surprising rapport that makes perfect sense in hindsight: neither are organic to the world. Starky is a homesick alien, while Harle’s true identity is the Dark Moon Dragon. Starky displays innocent simplicity when comforting Harle right before she leaves the party permanently; he is the only character she shows her tears to.
For me, Starky is easily the best character in Chrono Cross because he embodies both the goofiness and the pathos at the heart of the narrative. The game is filled with tiny little character moments that are easy to miss, but cumulatively, they paint a picture of a colourful world filled with quiet yearning of what could have been. Starky’s mandatory role is a reminder that you cannot overlook this side of the game. Get out there and explore—there’s a whole wide world out there.
Locations Change Every Time You Visit
Chrono Cross makes the fullest use of its limited roster of locations by making the player return to them at various points in the story, in both the home world and the another world. Every time you visit, you see a different side to the people living there. When playing as Lynx, the comforting atmosphere of Arni Village suddenly becomes cold and hostile. Later, the militaristic nation of Porre invades the archipelago, but beyond Riddel’s rescue mission, you never actually confront the army directly. You just try to get around as best you can while the merciless hand of colonialism touches each subsequent island you visit.
Viper Manor is arguably the game’s most dynamic location. The first time you visit, it’s as rogues sneaking in to confront Lynx and steal the Frozen Flame—an echo of the plot of Radical Dreamers. During this segment, you encounter numerous locked doors and passageways, teasing the hidden depths. Characters flit in and out of the mansion, each with their own agendas and stories to tell. Through multiple visits under different narrative contexts, you witness the pride and the fall of the Acacia Dragoons, the self-proclaimed guardians of the El Nido archipelago.
It’s no coincidence that the bulk of the game’s mandatory characters are affiliated with the Acacia Dragoons. In a brilliant stroke of dramatic irony, the dragons they named themselves after turn out to be bioweapons from a different timeline that seek to destroy humanity. The dragoons, or what’s left of them, ultimately choose to live up to the role they decided for themselves by helping Serge save the planet. Their manor is either in ruins or occupied by a foreign power in the end, but their dignity remains.
Among all the side characters, the Acacia Dragoons get the most development, but they’re mostly characterised as a unit. This game isn’t about characters so much as it’s about place and time. To balance things out, the environmental storytelling is top-notch; Chrono Cross shines the most when you’re exploring the Dead Sea in both worlds. Those areas are pure sci-fi dystopia, but across two different vectors: the home world shows fragments of a post-Lavos apocalypse, while the another world shows Chronopolis, an advanced facility filled with digital ghosts. Neither of these locations are over-explained. You wander about, look at the remnants of humanity’s mistakes, and reflect on the possibilities and inevitability of it all.
Chrono Cross isn’t perfect, of course. The gameplay has a lot of jank that either didn’t age well or was never intuitive to begin with. I’m glad that the remaster lets you speed up time and turn off enemy encounters, but there are otherwise few quality-of-life improvements, and there are noticeable performance and graphical issues.
I find myself wondering what this game could have been if it had been given the development time it deserved, both then and now. Certainly, it could have done with fewer characters overall and a tighter script, especially towards the end when a bunch of mind-bending twists are just matter-of-factly exposited to you by some ghost kids on a beach. Like the reveal that Lynx is a warped version of Serge’s dad! That sure would have been nice to see in an actual dramatic scene!
But you know what? Chrono Cross is still brilliant in spite of all its imperfections. It’s possible that all those underdeveloped aspects are the reason fans have continued to think and argue about this game for decades. The messy beauty is what stands out to me most at the end of my first playthrough. I feel like I’ve only really just begun my experience with Chrono Cross even though I technically finished it weeks ago.
My appreciation of Chrono Cross goes deeper than just wanting to write a gushing blog post about it. Its tale of grand emotions across ephemeral blinks in time strikes me as the kind of thing that I’ve always wished I could write myself. I rarely feel this way about a work of media, but Chrono Cross is something I know I’ll carry with me forever. I want its creative legacy to continue on, long into the future. To another time, another place.