Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition Review: The Divisive Classic Deserves Better

Chrono Cross had the unenviable task in 1999 of continuing the story of Chrono Trigger, which remains, to this day, one of the most celebrated RPGs of all time. As if that wasn't challenging enough, the game had to do without Chrono Trigger's famous "dream team" of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, and Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama at the helm. Instead, the development of Chrono Cross fell to Chrono Trigger writer/story planner Masato Kato. Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda returned to provide Crono Cross' music, and The Vision of Escaflowne artist Nobuteru Yuuki took over Toriyama's position as character designer. The results were controversial. Now that divisive legacy is available for a new generation to discover with Square Enix's release of Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition on modern consoles and PC. While it's great to have such a fascinating game at players' fingertips, and the remastered version provides some quality of life upgrades, The Radical Dreamers Edition proves less definitive than hoped.

Where Chrono Trigger offered a lighthearted adventure with lovable characters, Chrono Cross proved more philosophical in tone, similar to the mech RPG/existential crisis simulator Xenogears, which also featured Kato's writing. Chrono Cross reveals that its predecessor's happily ever after did not last very long for its heroes and ponders the unforeseen consequences of their well-intentioned exploits through time. Many fans praise Chrono Cross for its innovation and thoughtful story. Critics, at best, begrudgingly admit it's a pretty good game but maintain it is a poor sequel to Chrono Trigger. Still, others go as far as to call it the worst video game of all time. Chrono Cross is the Star Wars: The Last Jedi of Japanese roleplaying games.  

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(Photo: Square Enix)

Chrono Cross casts players as Serge, a teenager living a simple life in a small village in El Nido, an archipelago existing in the same world as Chrono Trigger. Serge's life takes an odd turn when he discovers another world, a similar timeline yet slightly different from his. The divergence seemingly began when the Serge of this timeline died as a child, setting off ripple effects throughout the region. Serge, determined to learn more about the existence of this mysterious new world, joins forces with the equally mysterious thief Kid in pursuit of answers.

Serge can recruit more than 40 different characters to his cause throughout his adventure, though it's impossible to recruit all of them in a single playthrough. That's fine since only about a quarter of them are interesting or particularly useful, with most of the rest undeveloped beyond an annoying-to-read phonetic accent. The game employs a system where characters equip elements, which serve as both the game's magic and items. Each character's unique element grid determines how many of the varying levels of elements they can equip at a time, growing throughout the game through a leveling system tied to the number of bosses the player has defeated. That means grinding yields minimal reward, and intelligent gameplay is necessary for beating the game's more formidable enemies.

Playing Chrono Cross, it's strange to realize it debuted only four years after Chrono Trigger as the jump from Trigger's late 2D-era sprites to Cross's awkward 32-bit polygons makes it seem like a decade at least had passed between the two. Unfortunately, The Radical Dreamers Edition's HD upgrade doesn't do much to alleviate this. It may even make it worse. The game's lush pre-rendered backgrounds are sometimes fuzzy and new HD character models are jagged and offputting. Players can opt to play with the original graphics, but then there's little reason for anyone who still has access to Chrono Cross as a PSOne classic, physically or through the PlayStation Store, to invest in this new remaster. The gameplay also feels sluggish, as if moving in slow motion at times, and there's an awkward relic in the save system, which still requires players to choose between two memory card slots when making their saves.

A handful of quality-of-life upgrades fare better. These include turning off enemy encounters, making combat easy, and a fast-forward mode, which causes everything in the game to happen faster. These features make the late game much more enjoyable, alleviating some of the pacing issues. For example, as the story reaches its most exciting point and its connections to Chrono Trigger are coming into focus, the game forces players to backtrack to fight half a dozen boss battles at separate locations before progressing further. Traversing these dungeons more speedily and ignoring the average monsters makes the affair much less tedious.

The most significant addition to Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is right there in the name. Before Chrono Cross, the text adventure Radical Dreamers, also written by Kato, served as Chrono Trigger's first sequel. Previously released only via Nintendo's Satellaview add-on for the Super Famicom, Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition represents its first release outside Japan. The game tells a more condensed version of Chrono Cross's main throughline, involving Kid and her secret origin. In this context, it plays like the short film that later expanded into a full-length feature, now a DVD special feature that's ultimately not enough to justify a purchase alone. 

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(Photo: Square Enix)

If it sounds like I'm frustrated with Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition, that's because I am. Chrono Cross, despite some flaws, is an emotional, moody game that allows players to meditate on what the world would be like if they ceased to exist, an all-too-common stray thought. It's a literal and philosophical battle between fate and self-determination, of learning to do good within our flawed existence. It's got a beautiful and distinct setting in El Nido's tropical environment, and Mitsuda's score is among the best music ever created for a video game. While The Radical Dreamers Edition's quality-of-life improvements are welcome, and it's lovely to have the game more widely available, the attempt to give the game a quick HD facelift may do more harm than good. Luckily the original edition is still there for people who prefer that route, meaning it's not a total loss.

If you've never played Chrono Cross, you should, and there's little reason not to take advantage of the upgrades available in The Radical Dreamers Edition. If you already have access to the original edition, whether it's worth the double-dip comes down to how determined you are to play Radical Dreamers; I'd wager it isn't worth the price of admission. But regardless, however you do it, you should play Chrono Cross. It's just a shame this remaster isn't all it could have been.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is available now for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It was reviewed on a base-model PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, with a review code provided by the publisher.