Chrono Cross and Plot
StoryScan: Weak Point
Our newest feature, StoryScan: Weak Point, highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. For our inaugural essay, we’re covering Chrono Cross (Square, 1999), the controversial sequel to the popular Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995). This essay will cover content from Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger, and the text-based game Radical Dreamers (Square, 1996). Players who have not completed those games may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for their main storylines.
In 1995, Square-Enix released Chrono Trigger, a role-playing game that gave players the ability to travel through time to defeat an alien threat to all life on earth. The game was a break-out success, selling millions of copies worldwide and earning overwhelmingly positive reviews.1 Eager to continue the game’s story in a new setting, Chrono Trigger writer Masato Kano wrote and directed a text-based follow-up, Radical Dreamers (1996, Square). Due to the limited appeal of text-based games and the Japan-only release, Radical Dreamers did not receive the fanfare of its predecessor, but it still made a mark on the series by acting as the narrative basis for the game that followed: 1999’s Chrono Cross, a Sony Playstation Exclusive.
More than twenty years after its release, Chrono Cross is remembered as an ambitious but flawed game that drastically departed from the story and legacy of Chrono Trigger. Beloved Chrono Trigger characters were killed off-screen in violent fashion, and the achievements those characters made were largely negated by forces beyond their control. Even Kato himself wondered if he had gone overboard, stating in an interview with fan-site Chrono Compendium: “I can promise you that you’ll be shocked by the story. Sometimes, I think it may have gone too far, and may have even destroyed the entire image, but c’mon, that’s how stories usually are.”2 In a later interview with Mariela González, author of the Spanish-language Chrono retrospective ‘Más allá del Tiempo, Kato touched on another oft-repeated criticism: the convoluted storyline. “I believe I could have shown a little more empathy to the players and make the story a bit less convoluted [laughs],” he said, adding the corollary: “Although it is important to say that it’s how things were done in those times.“3
The Chrono fanbase has been torn about the ‘shocking’ direction of Cross’s storyline since its release, but there has been little argument about the complexity of its storyline. Its narrative is jam-packed with difficult philosophical questions like the role of predestination in people’s choices and the ultimate fate of mankind, and much of the key information is delivered through massive chunk of expository dialogue. While the over-reliance on exposition is a definite problem, it is merely a symptom of a more significant issue with the plot: a lack of goals, stakes, and urgency.
Problems with Plot
When Chrono Cross begins, players take on the role of Serge, a teenage boy enjoying a quiet life in the El Nido archipelago. One afternoon, his ordinary life is thrown into chaos when he slips between dimensions and arrives in an alternate version of his home. The main difference between his world and the parallel one is that no one he knows recognizes him, because in this world, the boy known as Serge died a decade ago. This leaves Serge with many questions, all of which fit under the umbrella of: “What is going on?” It’s a valid question, but unfortunately, it’s too broad to work as a narrative goal. To move the story forward, goals need to be focused so that the character has an obvious path ahead. Serge’s broad goal doesn’t give him that path, so he’s left meandering until a group of knights attempts to kidnap him, only to be thwarted by an outspoken young girl. This girl, Kid, then suggests to Serge that he ought to follow the knights to their hideout and find out why they wanted to kidnap him. It’s not a strong first step, but it’s the only step Serge can take when his goal is that broad.
Serge’s goals shift as the story progresses, yet he’s always stuck asking vague questions to make sense of his environment. When he breaks into the knight’s manor with Kid, they’re confronted by the antagonist, Lynx, who barely allows them to escape with their lives. While this confrontation sets up Lynx as the antagonist, it doesn’t provide enough information for Serge to set a new goal. Without knowing who Lynx is, what he wants, or what he’s planning next, Serge continues to be at the mercy of other characters with more information. The same thing happens once Serge confronts Lynx a second time, only to become the victim of a sudden body-switch. He’s stuck in a strange body and abandoned in a strange place, and the only way he can move forward is by letting other characters dictate his next steps. This pattern plays out over and over, and the result is always the same: Serge’s goals lack focus, which forces him to go along with the half-baked ideas other characters give him.
Without concrete goals, there can be no stakes, as stakes are what a character risks in pursuit of a goal. As a consequence of Serge’s poorly defined goals, Chrono Cross suffers from vague stakes throughout the story. When Serge is first sucked into the alternate world, there’s no discussion of what might happen if Serge is unable to find a way home, so there’s no sense of tension in his quest. To his knowledge—and to the player’s knowledge—there’s no downside to remaining in the new world, so there’s nothing at stake if he chooses to stay. While it’s established that Serge has friends and family he’d miss back home, Serge’s status as a silent protagonist limits how much of this comes through in the character, and it’s up to the player to extrapolate most of the details.
The lack of risk is further driven home after the first altercation with Lynx, when Kid is left mortally wounded in the aftermath. Even though Serge now has a way to get home (thanks to Kid’s amulet), he chooses to stay in the other world to fight against Lynx at Kid’s insistence. She persuades Serge by telling him that Lynx is searching for an important relic, adding: “Serge, this is no longer just our problem. If we don’t stop these buggers now, they’re gonna cause some major hell around here!” This scene reinforces the lack of stakes twice over, both by reinforcing how unimportant it is that Serge return to his home world, and by underscoring the nebulous threat to the parallel world. Kid’s best argument for Serge to stay is that Lynx is going to cause ‘some major hell,’ which is far too vague to suggest any risk to anyone. The only reason it works is because the stakes are even lower for the choice to return home. If Serge leaves, Lynx will cause ‘some major hell’; if Serge stays, he’ll still eventually be able to get home. Between nebulous stakes and no stakes, it’s not a tough decision. Pursuing Lynx isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the right choice by default.
Just as problems with goals lead to problems with stakes, problems with stakes lead to problems with urgency. When the characters aren’t risking anything with their choices, there’s no reason to make those choices in a timely manner. With its broad goals and low stakes, Chrono Cross suffers an unsurprising lack of urgency as a result. In the beginning, Serge does not know if he’s risking anything by staying in the parallel world, so he has less incentive to return home as quickly as possible. If there were a clear, known risk to staying—say, dying if he spends too long outside his universe—he would have a reason to act quickly, but there’s no pressure for him in the story as it stands.
The lack of urgency continues after the first confrontation with Lynx. Although he’s able to escape Lynx’s clutches, he doesn’t learn where Lynx is going or what he’s planning next, so Serge has no pressure on him to drop everything and find Lynx by a certain time. The closest thing he gets is a vague warning from Kid, who hears that Lynx is searching for an ancient relic and says: “Bloody bastards, what are they up to now? Serge, this is no longer just our problem. If we don’t stop these buggers now, they’re gonna cause some major hell around here!” Not only does Kid not have any idea what Lynx is planning, but she also can’t describe what will happen if he succeeds. As a result, there’s no reason for Serge to act quickly or at all. Once again, other characters have to insert their agendas in the discussion, giving Serge a reason to choose.
Chrono Cross’s plot picks up once Serge gains more concrete goals, but those goals are never focused enough to raise the stakes or create urgency. Serge is always stuck relying on other characters to tell him when, where, and how to go, which keeps the story from reaching the heights of its popular predecessor. With the tight focus of Radical Dreamers or Chrono Trigger, Cross’s story could have been remembered just as fondly, but its lack of direction limited its long-term appeal.
1 “Chrono Trigger.” Wikipedia, 2021.
2 Procyn Studio. “November 1999 – Masato Kato.” Chrono Compendium, 2021.
3 Mariela Gonzalez. “2015 – Masato Kato, by Mariela Gonzalez.” Chrono Compendium, 2021.
* Reference Footage: Upscale. Chrono Cross Opening 8K PSX (Remastered with Neural Network AI). YouTube, 2020.
** Additional Reference Footage: Roanfox. Chrono Cross AI Upscale Gameplay (The TRUE HD remaster). YouTube, 2020.