There’s a moment early on when Leena, Serge’s childhood friend with ample romantic undertones, ponders what their lives might be like in 10 years, or even 20 years. She wonders if they’ll remember this conversation when their whole worlds have inevitably shifted to accommodate the rigors of full adulthood. Her queries help to set the tone of an ambitious, adventurous, and sometimes frustratingly ambiguous tale.
I first played Chrono Cross, and thus encountered this scene, on August 15th, 2000. It was the day of the game’s North American launch, and I had turned 13 exactly one day beforehand. Leena’s thoughts held real weight for me. In a decade, I’d be 23. What would that be like? I could scarcely imagine. Tag in another ten years, and 33? Goodness gracious, isn’t that how old Char Aznable was when he evaporated into magical green pixie dust in Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack? It was unfathomable that I’d live that long, and that my body would take on a shape befitting the achievement.
As it happens, it took longer than 10 years for Chrono Cross to make its triumphant return. It took a little over 20, in fact. Here I am, then, replaying this JRPG that is as epic as it is strange, this artifact from a time when Square gave highly experimental projects budgets that rivaled even their Final Fantasy contemporaries, and as I watch Leena ponder anew – her character model is sharper now, her facial artwork is much cleaner and more detailed – and the full weight of these years kicks me so hard I kiss the moons.
In a way, it feels like destiny to find Serge’s gal here again, now that I have an answer to my own personal version of her question. How do I feel all these years later? It depends on the day, really. Sometimes, I feel like a completely different person. On other occasions, I wonder how much of that mixed-up kid ever truly left me. The fateful angle to all this, you see, is that ultimately I think that’s exactly how I feel about Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition.
Chrono Cross is a game that has always been gorgeous. Its vivid colors, lushly animated backgrounds, excellent battle animations, and breathtaking CG sequences were the stuff of legends back in 2000. I had faith that it would all hold up well with the remaster, and my faith has been rewarded. Everything old is new again. The colors are even more vibrant, and the added detail to the designs of not just all 45 (!) playable characters, but plenty of NPCs as well, comes across as a minor visual revolution.
All that beauty came at a cost – the PlayStation was an old workhorse by the time Chrono Cross arrived on the scene, and the graphical strain that director Masato Kato and his talented team placed upon the console was evident in its dodgy frame rate. PlaySation RPGs seldom did well in this regard, but Chrono Cross took the lag to the next level.
Sadly, all those strains seem to remain, at least as of this writing. Run through the lively Termina and you’ll soon see what I mean. One second everything’s proceeding along apace; the next, the game is down in the single digits frame-wise as you move through several of what I’ll call “city choke-points” where graphical assets need to load. But then the pain all fades away, and everything’s fairly smooth again until further notice. While the fact that Termina and other towns are usually smooth except at apparently predefined spots, I’d be remiss to ignore my friends with motion sickness issues who have told me in the past that variable frame rates are their ocular bane.
I don’t tend to get motion sick, so if I was out to make some personally-driven point like “it’s not as bad as you may have heard,” I totally could. But my role here is to warn you that The Radical Dreamers Edition is far from the most technically stable remaster Square has ever put to publishing, so I’ll do precisely that. And while we’re at it, I’ll add something that may upset hardcore audiophiles: the totally rearranged tracks feature only on the main menu screen, not in-game. This doesn’t bother me either, because frankly, I’m not in love with them. What you do get is the tried-and-true original soundtrack, impeccably remastered just for me.
Radical Dreamers itself, the 1996 visual novel that’s, uh, let’s say quasi-set in the Chrono universe, is an absolute blast. Like Chrono Cross itself for poor Europe, Radical Dreamers was never released anywhere in the West, including North America. A prominent member of fandom, who went by the online handle DemiForce, unofficially translated the game in the mid-2000s, but this is the first official localization the world has ever seen. With due respect to the very solid fan patch, this formal work effort has produced a professional-grade product with excellent dialogue and easier-to-grasp puzzle writing.
Fast-forward makes fights snappier than ever, and just as odd to boot. Forget Lynx; accuracy is your true nemesis. Building up a battle chain means taking risks that you’ll miss a blow, or find yourself interrupted by a deadly smack. But the system for aligning spells is still just as intuitive, and the goal of attaining a high Element level so you can really unleash the heat is such a sweet little loop. The bigger affairs can get tough without a sound strategy in mind, and grinding stats will only ever take you so far, as there’s a soft cap in prospective stat gain per the number of bosses defeated at a given point. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that should give you an idea as to the way this cookie crumbles.)
The inclusion of a toggle for enemy encounters is a godsend. It’s comical, watching big, scary, muscular bad guys chase after Serge only to ram into him to no avail because Square gave this version the opportunity for our blue-haired protagonist to just kind of stand stoically against raging behemoths and other miscreants. You owe it to yourself to see four or five of Viper’s combat-trained dragoons march up to Serge, ram the guy repeatedly, and never, ever take a hint. Why is this so funny?
Maybe it’s the inherent whimsy of Chrono Cross itself that catapults even the most mundane-sounding feats into genuine enjoyment. Indeed, the El Nido archipelago feels like something out of a dream. Its surreal nature begs for answers to questions more multifaceted (and, at times, outright classified by sentient supercomputers and other fun fellows) than what Leena asks at the beginning of the game.
That surrealness comes to a head in the closing chapters of the game’s story when the whimsy steadily transforms into a set of climactic encounters against massive and powerful beings with a real grudge toward the human race. By the time it’s finished, Chrono Cross is… a lot. Too much, arguably, and sporting an ending that may leave you scratching your head. 13-year-old me sure did and 34-year-old me remains a tad mystified. But it’s impossible to deny the breadth and depth of philosophical thought packed tightly into a well-paced tale.
Yet it’s Leena’s question, of all things, that sticks with me the most. Where was I at 13, really? Where am I now, for that matter? Where will I be should I have the fortune to keep on keepin’ on another decade or two and more? What was Chrono Cross to me in 2000? It was one of several life-changing JRPG experiences. What is Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition in 2022? It’s the wonderful revival of a game that needed to avoid fading into obscurity, as it teetered on the edge in recent years despite its considerable pedigree as the weird sequel to one of the most popular role-playing games in history.
The original Chrono Cross surprised fans with melancholic contemplative moments strewn throughout a bizarre journey teeming with memorable characters. Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and its aforementioned performance problems are certainly unfortunate, but it packs in just enough to label itself a remaster whilst ensuring that an important entry in Square Enix canon is made playable for modern audiences new and old.
Perhaps, then, The Radical Dreamers Edition does not quite warrant a word like ‘radical’ in its description, but that’s just fine; like Leena on Opassa Beach, all I really needed was to return to this seminal moment through changed eyes.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by the publisher Square Enix.