I’d like to extend a personal thank-you to everyone who freaked out and overreacted to my Busou Shinki post. It was nice of you to glance and the images and assume the worst rather than actually reading the text! I know reading isn’t technically a prerequisite for being online, but it does help from time to time. ANYWAY. On with a different form of dorkery altogether.
When last we left this blog, Crono had just saved the princess and a queen, too — the princess’ ancestor from 16 generations prior. Count all the generations of princess-babies saved in between as one homogenous mass and you have quite the royal hat trick. The rescue of Marle and her great (etc.) grandmother pits Crono, Lucca and Frog against their first real challenge, a battle with a monster named Yakra. He’s… a yak. With spine-launchers.
It’s here where the game’s combat system really begins to show its chutzpah. Chrono Trigger has a completely inspired battle system, a fine close to the Super NES’s run of great role-playing games; in fact, the in-game nomenclature refers to it as “Active-Time Battle 2.0,” a very clear indication that it was intended as the evolution of Final Fantasy’s 16-bit battle system. Which FF then ignored. Frankly, every PlayStation-era FF — every 32-bit RPG until, say, Paper Mario, really — was a step behind what happened here. At least. Maybe three or four steps, depending on the game.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that only the Suikoden series came close to realizing CT’s exquisite mix of speed, immediacy and party interaction. The first two Suikodens featured combat that was quick and painless, with practically no load times to speak of — about the only PS era RPG to pull that off, regrettably. Chrono Trigger did it, though, and did it beautifully. Every encounter took place on the same screen as exploration, with the party fighting amidst the normal environments against monsters that could usually be seen in advance (and often avoided). Since the combat used the same visual elements as exploration, there was no load time to worry about, to transitions to deal with. The party simply stepped into position, drew their weapons, and the battle commenced.
That transparency of design was abandoned by subsequent RPGs by developers drunk on the visual potential of 3D graphics. The flow and feel of gameplay become secondary considerations in favor of how totally rad it would be to have battle sequences with the highest possible polygon count and incredible visual effects at every turn. Never mind that Trigger managed to be one of the best-looking 16-bit games ever made; once FFVII sold a million in America, everyone decided to march in lock-step to its design, more’s the pity.
And then there’s the combo system. Like I’ve said, Trigger’s battle system is streamlined, each character learning little more than half a dozen spells and skills apiece at predetermined skill levels. Even so, it never feels dumbed down, because your choice of party members determines your skill pool, which can vary dramatically from team to team. Once two characters fight together, they learn combo techniques which allow them to use their innate skills simultaneously: Crono combines his Cyclone sword technique with Lucca’s Flame Toss to create Fire Whirl, for instance, an innately physical attack that offers Cyclone’s area effect but with an added fire-elemental attribute to double its power — potentially more, against enemies weak to fire. Since all six characters are capable of comboing with one another, each party lineup has its own unique arsenal of skills, which makes the fact that each character individually knows only a few techniques much easier to swallow.
It’s such a simple but effective design; it adds both variety and strategy to an otherwise simplistic combat system, especially once you start building more skills. In the Yakra battle, for instance, Frog is the team’s only innate healer, but he also possesses X-Strike, an extremely powerful combination sword technique with Crono. So do you spend his turns linking up with Crono to take down Yakra in a hurry (with Lucca tossing healing potions as quickly — and expensively — as possible), or do you play conservatively and use his healing skill to counteract Yakra’s powerful physical attacks? And once triple combos become available, combat decisions become even more of a balance. Stupidly, no other RPG has ever done this particularly well. Not even Chrono Cross.
So, having mastered the battle system, Crono and company return to AD 1000 to find themselves immediately seized as terrorists. Seems they captured the princess and absconded with her to parts unknown. I told you this chick would be trouble, Crono. Shoulda just hooked up with Lucca and called it a day.
This being AD 1000 rather than 2007, alleged terrorist Crono is actually given a speedy, public and fair trial rather than held extraterritorially for years and waterboarded. The trial is the first real “so cool” moment of the game, reminiscent of FFVI’s opera but infinitely better — the outcome of the trial is only slightly determined by how you respond here. The substance of the case for or against Crono is actually based on his behavior during the Millennial Fair. Did you bother to help the little girl find her cat? Did you eat the old man’s lunch? Were you kind to Marle? Seemingly innocuous actions from several hours ago come into play here, complete with flashbacks and a one-by-one jury tally. The music even resembles “The Trial” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Not that the outcome actually matters; the world of AD 1000 isn’t so far removed from our own, as even an innocent Crono is tossed into the deepest level of the castle dungeon by a shady poltician working outside the law. If only they’d thought to remove his equipment. Especially since I had him kitted out with the best available gear, way outclassing the guards. A bit of stealth action and one massive boss fight later and Crono (now with a seditious Lucca in tow) busts free and fights his way out of the castle, stupidly taking the princess with him. Well, okay, she tags along of her own volition, but still.
Beyond the Ruins
Pursued into a dead end, the crew leaps blindly into a conveniently-located time gate, just like the one that started the whole mess at the Millennial Fair, and land in a cold, bleak world filled with the ruins of what appears to be technology. The previously rapid pace of the game slows down a bit at this point; where the party has been whisked from event to event without a moment’s respite, their arrival in this new area is marked by a change in the tone. Instead of being force-fed information about the new situation, it instead becomes a bit of a mystery. Where have they arrived, and why is everything so desolate? The adventure ceases to be reactive and becomes more exploratory as Crono et al. strive to unravel the truth of their latest destination.
The truth turns out to be that they’ve leapt forward nearly 2000 years to a world devastated by a combination of very angry robots and a monster called Lavos, who annihilated the utopian earth in 1999. Destruction rains from the heavens! on a control console as the three adventurers watch in horror; the world is brought to a grim end, and humanity is left to huddle in filthy ruins, struggling to survive as the end draws near.
Interestingly, the video recording of the Day of Lavos is pretty much the only time in the entire game in which you’re told the story rather than shown. And as it happens, you end up seeing the Day of Lavos by the end of the story anyway. Much as I love Chrono Cross, it would have been such a better game if it had bothered to take its cue from this aspect of its predecessor.
The End of Time
The one good thing to come from this trip to the future — besides Marle freaking out at the annihilation of mankind and resolving to save the world (yeah, fine, so she’s not entirely useless) — is the addition of a new party member, Robo. (He’s a robot, guys. I know, right?) Robo is helpful because he’s the second permanent party member to possess a healing skill. Oh, and his presence makes a mess of the time warp thing and the whole party ends up in a strange limbo called The End of Time.
The reasoning behind this is pretty much just a bunch of arbitrary narrative to justify keeping your party limited to three people, but whatever. The End of Time is a handy way to travel through time. With both the incentive and the means to adventure within the player’s grasp, The End of Time is where the introduction ends and the substance of the quest begins.