The late ‘90s were an odd time to be a JRPG fan outside North America or Japan. The genre had been steadily growing in the West, and the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII in particular opened a whole lot of doors for localising games… at least, in the States. In Europe (and by extension, Australia and New Zealand), the situation was a little different. Local releases of Japanese games—even those that got an American release—were much rarer, and a huge number of beloved games just never made the jump. Case in point: Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is the first time one of the most acclaimed—if divisive among Chrono Trigger fans—PS1 JRPGs will be officially released in Europe. Better late than never, I guess?
It doesn’t take long to see why Chrono Cross has the reputation it has. Even playing it for the first time in 2022, it feels original and unique; I can’t imagine how ahead of its time it would have felt when it first came out more than 20 years ago. It puts clever twists on foundational JRPG ideas and mechanics, with a story that goes in some fascinating directions and pushing boundaries of the way videogame stories can be told—arguably even more than Chrono Trigger before it did. But for all its subversive quality, it holds strong to the unique charm and vibrant aesthetic of ‘90s JRPGs, striking a careful balance between pushing the envelope and capturing what people love.
The irony is that, at first glance, it seems fairly typical—even quaint. Serge, a young adventurer from a small fishing village lives a life of fighting monsters and helping out the townspeople, with simple turn-based battles that eschewed the popularity of ATB-style systems. Your first proper quest (notwithstanding a mysterious cold opening) is to go hunting for lizard scales from a coastal rocky outcrop just outside, a goal achieved through simple field-map puzzles and battles that mostly consist of using “Attack” over and over. But when Serge collapses on the beach and wakes up in a parallel world in which he died as a small kid, well, things start getting a little bit more unorthodox.
What follows is a rollercoaster of time travel, dimension-hopping, and criss-crossed identities. It’s confusing, sometimes to a frustrating degree, but I’d wager that’s deliberate: Chrono Cross is a game that wants you to really engage with to fully understand the intricate web of different threads and ideas it weaves together. As you peel back those layers, the brilliance starts to shine through—far more than just a plot device, the parallel dimension framing is a gateway to a masterful exploration of identity, the dynamics of different types of relationships (to oneseful most of all), and environmental destruction.
There’s a strong existentialist thread running through the whole thing, too. Central to Chrono Cross is the question of who “you” really are, in a world with so many things trying to tear away the concept of self. Sometimes that’s in the most literal sense—why not have a bit of body-switching on top of everything else that’s going on?—but it’s the more subtle, persistent ways that increasingly distorted perspectives of time and space challenge Serge’s self-identity that are the most significant. There are times where Chrono Cross feels more like a horror game than fantasy, in its willingness to sow a bit of existential discomfort.
That makes it sound a lot heavier than it actually is, with a large and intriguing cast bringing plenty of levity and poignant moments through their own stories. There are more than 40 potential party members to recruit, and while the sheer number means that don’t all get as much focus as you might hope, the choices of who to recruit and when have a noteworthy impact on how the narrative unfolds. Chrono Cross isn’t the first game to have mutually-exclusive optional party members, but the role those decisions play in the overall story—in both plot and the way it touches on those different themes—is significant.
Even the battle system, which at first seems rather simple even in contrast to Chrono Trigger, gradually reveals a welcome degree of depth. In place of techs and items, everything in Chrono Cross is governed by elements: abilities that you slot into each character’s element grid, with effects and power depending on where in the grid they’re placed. Put something in a higher tier and it’ll be more powerful, but sufficiently charging your elemental level in battle (through normal attacks) will take longer. Each element also has its own restrictions on where it can be placed, and each character has unique techs that can’t be moved around. Add to that the way using elements of the same affinity skews the battlefield in favour of that affinity—for both your party and your foes—and you get a system with a surprising degree of complexity and room for strategy.
All of the above—the story, the characters, the battle system—made Chrono Cross a masterpiece of a game 20 years ago, and it’s aged flawlessly. The remaster doesn’t do a whole lot to mess with that, but it does add the sorts of convenience features you see in a lot of Square Enix’s other JRPG remasters, like a god mode that makes all enemy attacks miss, the option to disable encounters, and an auto-battle function, both of which can be toggled at will. It also makes the original game’s fast-forward and slow-motion functions available from the start, instead of being locked to New Game Plus mode. And, of course, there’s the remaster itself: high-res character models, new character artwork, and touched-up backgrounds that look fantastic (and the option to play with the original, un-remastered graphics, if you prefer).
The (arguably) more significant addition to Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is right there in the title: it includes Radical Dreamers, a text-adventure side-story to Chrono Trigger that formed the basis for Chrono Cross. This is the first time it’s been officially available in English, and it’s an intriguing adventure, both in its own right and in the way it informs what would eventually become Cross. The quality of the writing is top-notch, too, and it gets unexpectedly puzzling at times—I’d recommend saving often, and across multiple slots, because dead ends can come when you least expect them.
When Chrono Cross first came out in ’99, it proved divisive for not simply following in the footsteps of Chrono Trigger. In retrsospect, it cuts closer to its predecessor than it got credit for back then, not necessarily in style or game design, but in the way it pushed the boundaries of the genre and the stories that videogames can tell. That it still feels unique and even subversive, more than 20 years on from its first release, is proof its timelessness. And for a large part of the world for whom The Radical Dreamers Edition will be the first chance to (officially) play Chrono Cross? Well, they’re in for one hell of a ride.