Monthly Archives: September 2013

2013 Game Review Haiku, #31 – Dragon Fantasy (Book 1)

2013 games completed dragon-fantasy-book 1

Old-school roleplaying
With a button to speed up
That vital grinding

These little haikus proved to be quite popular in 2012, so I’m gonna keep them going for another year. Or until I get bored with them. Whatever comes first. If you want to read more words about these games that I’m beating, just search around on Grinding Down. I’m sure I’ve talked about them here or there at some point. Anyways, enjoy my videogamey take on Japanese poetry.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Miscellaneous

gd chrono cross week misc roundup copy

Well, here we are, at the end of Grinding Down‘s Chrono Cross week. Hope you’ve enjoyed my wee analytical posts so far, and I definitely have other videogames I’d love to examine piece by piece like so somewhere down the line. Maybe Suikoden II, perhaps? Super Metroid? Unlimited SaGa?! That last one was a joke, for those scratching their noggins.

Anyways, I’ve now covered what I consider to be the big four topics when talking about this classic Squaresoft RPG: story, characters, the battle system, and music. This final blog post is meant to be a grab-all in terms of smaller topics to cover, as I still–surprise, surprise–have things to talk about when it comes to all the parts that make up the unconventional puzzle that is Chrono Cross. Hopefully I’ll touch upon everything I want to here, as I’d like to move away from the game for a bit, let it quiet down in my skull, and start tackling the next game on my list of “must beat in 2013,” which is probably going to be Silent Hill 2.

That said, on with the further musings.

Window Frames

I remember fondly changing the color of the window frame in Final Fantasy VII from that default blue to a soft green to a zany gradient-inspired explosion of rainbow colors and loving it for the remainder of Cloud’s journey to take down Sephiroth. I wish more games allowed for fun, optimal customization like this. Now, in Chrono Cross, you can’t change the color of your dialogue box, but you can find special frames to replace the standard one. Personally, most of them are ugly as heck, but I did try out the My Favorite Martian and Shellfish frames for a tiny bit, but eventually switched back to something less eye-busting. It’s more fun finding the frames than using them, but it’s nice to the have option nonetheless.

Money

For the most part, money is useless in Chrono Cross. You acquire it with every battle, but you barely spend any of it, and I suspect that, even if you tried, you’d find difficulty in emptying your pockets completely. I wish I had written down how much I had by the end of the game, but it was probably in the 120,000 to 150,000 range, and when you consider that most Elements cost less than 500, with the highest going for maybe around 3,000, well…you have plenty of money to splurge on other things. If only other things existed or were worth it. Which leads me to our next topic of discussion…

Forging/Disassembling

In certain towns, you can speak to blacksmiths who can help forge weapons, armor, and accessories for Serge and his companions. Later on, you also get an item to allow you to do this out on the overworld map. To forge something, you need some a paltry sum of money (see above) and the correct components, and then boom, you have a new thing. Some components are harder to come by, like mythril and rainbow shell, but for the most part, you can make a lot of stuff just using items won from battle. The long and short of this all though is that these weapons and armor are not worth going the extra mile, and some are actually found in various dungeons. There are a few good accessories to make though. Disassembling breaks down weapons, armor, and accessories you’re not using into components, but you’re better off saving them for when you need to equip a new character you haven’t used yet with gear.

Component trading

Um…I have never even attempted to figure this out. Basically, you trade a certain number of Element levels for things like eyeballs, feathers, and scales. Again, just doesn’t seem worth the effort, and trading in useful Elements for components you can earn in battle which are only used for forging items, which I just mentioned are not needed…well, I…wait. What was I saying again? Um, just skip this.  There are two of these trader types, anyways, so they are easy to miss. The first appears in both Guldove and Termina (Another), and the other is in Zappa’s house in Termina (Home).

New Game+

I don’t do many New Game+, mostly because nowadays I just don’t have the time. Though some games like Borderlands 2 really make it worth the effort, offering more things to see and do and become. Chrono Trigger has New Game+, but I’ve not gone back since I beat it last year, and I doubt I will try the New Game+ in Chrono Cross.

I love this RPG, truly I do–it’s just I don’t see what the point is other than viewing alternate endings. Sure, now is a great time to go back and get all the characters you missed out on during your first run because you picked Kid over Leena or Nikki over Guile, but as I lamented earlier this week, those side characters are pretty thin personality-wise. The game will play out the same way–until the ending, depending on when you fight the TimeDevourer–so that’s not very exciting to see all over, though you can speed up the gameplay to fast-forward cutscenes and so on. Let me take that one step further and fast forward us over to YouTube to watch all the different endings and save us hours upon hours.

I suspect I will return to Chrono Cross some time down the line, but not for a long while. Couple of years, at least. And when I do, I’ll probably just play it again from the beginning on a blank save slot–because that’s how I roll. I’m thrilled to have finally experienced it as fully as I could, but now I need to move on and let this experience reside quietly in my brain until something stirs it from its slumber. When that time comes, someone please remind me to ditch Kid early on and see what world-traveling life with fishing girl-next-door Leena is like. Okay, okay…I’ll give Poshul a fair chance, too.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Music

gd chrono cross week music and tunes

The Chrono Cross soundtrack is simply legendary. I’ve been listening to it for years and have certainly spent more time nodding along and tapping my foot to tracks like “Termina – Another World” and “Fragment of a Dream” than actually playing the game, which, for those curious, took me just under 40 hours to see to completion. That’s saying a lot because, to drop some truth bombs here, I dislike a lot of videogame music, especially a lot of 8-bit and 16-bit stuff. It all sounds too–and forgive the phrase here–videogamey for my tastes. When I want music, I want music–strings and soaring climaxes and tempo changes and so on–and composer Yasunori Mitsuda delivers the goods seemingly effortlessly, drawing on old world cultural influences and alternating between bright and dark themes.

I’ve actually touched upon the game’s soundtrack before, back when I did a 30 Days of Gaming meme thingy. Remember that? Of course you do, ya loyal, devoted reader who I haven’t yet scared away with all my Chrono Cross jabbering this week. Anyways, here’s a link for the lazy. I will now try to think of some other things to talk about.

Over the many years of my preponderant existence, I’ve come to appreciation a couple other videogame soundtracks, but not many. Dark Cloud 2 has some solid tracks and ranges from dark, unsettling and nearly off-putting carnival-like songs to slower, prettier pieces like “Starlight Temple” and “Veniccio Coast”. Radiant Historia came with a bonus CD, as did Shin Megami Tensei IV, which I burned onto my computer and listened to a few times. And then there is Fez and Bastion, the two most recent examples of game soundtracks I’ve found myself listening to and enjoying separate from the time I spent finding cubes and shards, respectively. Supposedly Journey has a great one too, but I’ve yet to play it (though I do own it now thanks to a recently stellar sale on PSN). Other than that, a lot of music in games these days is kind of forgettable; certainly it does the job of setting the mood and blocking out background silence, but it only exists for then and there, never meant to be listened to again, unless you play that part over again.

I love that, for every town and place you visit, there are two themes: one for Home World, one for Another World. Some vary quite differently from one another, while others are strikingly similar. Take, for instance, Arni, the first town–well, it’s a fishing village if you want to get specific–that players will experience in Chrono Cross. In the Home World version, you can almost hear the waves crashing against the docks, feel the sea-carrying wind against your face, and be quite content with the day, as the song is both pretty and peaceful, perfect for running around and talking with your neighbors. In the Another World version, a piano riff takes center stage, playing nearly the same guitar part found in the Home World version, but this time it is slower, softer, maybe even a little unsure–which reflects perfectly on Serge because, at this point, he has now traveled to a different realm where he no longer exists and is looked upon as a stranger. The music pairs up like this in a couple other spots, but this is my favorite.

Thankfully, the battle music never really grows old after hearing it a couple of hundred times. I can name some other games where I’m sick of hearing the same battle theme minute after minute after minute: Ni no Kuni, Dragon Fantasy – Book 1, and Kingdom Hearts. Sometimes, a few battles are fought using drastically different songs, but for the most part it’s the adrenaline-pumping, button-pushing beat of a truly epic battle theme. Granted, it pales in comparison to Chrono Trigger‘s battle theme, but that kind of isn’t a fair fight.

It’s difficult to find something to truly dislike about Chrono Cross‘ original soundtrack; the entire compilation isn’t perfect, as some songs are too dreary to handle, but it is brimming with a sense of hopeful continuity, and that reminds me greatly of a large bedroom, once my sister’s, where I’d sit on the floor in my pajamas on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, just a foot away from my television, slotting Elements and listening to this strange, colorful world, feeling somehow right at home. It stirred me then, it stirs me now, and it will continue to be an important part of my life, no matter which realm I end up in.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Battle and Elements

gd chrono cross week battle and elements

It’s a pretty close fight between music and the battle system for my favorite thing about Chrono Cross. It’s like deciding which is my favorite sushi roll, when really I’ll eat and enjoy just about anything rolled in rice. That said, I am partial to asparagus rolls as of late. Anyways, I’m not sure which has the sharper edge in Chrono Cross, but let’s muse about how the fights go for the time being. Tomorrow can be all about the tunes.

Battles are turn-based, unlike the previous Chrono Trigger, which was kind of turn-based, but also depended highly on a time counter to determine who could attack first or next. Think that was called the Active Time Battle. That made those fights tense and a fight for control, but things are much more lax in Chrono Cross. You can totally stay on a single menu screen for as long as you like, planning and plotting your next move until you actually do it. I’ve read this system shares some similarities to Xenogears, but I’ve never played that.

Basically, at the start of battle, every character begins with 7.0 Stamina points, which are used for attacking, defending, and using slotted Elements. There are three types of attacks–hard, medium, and light–and each attack costs 3.0, 2.0 and 1.0 points, respectively. You basically have to make the choice of using up more points for hard-hitting attacks with a smaller chance to hit versus weaker attacks that will definitely land more often than not. Making choices like these also builds up your Element meter, which determines what level spell you can cast. It’s a fantastic balance of strategy and risk/reward.

One of my favorite aspects of the combat system is that, after each battle is over, you can use any or all healing Elements to restore your team’s HP so long as you have enough stamina points left at the end of the fight. This made progressing a faster process as one did not always have to go into the menu after every fight and use a bunch of potions–Tablets, here–to get everyone back up to snuff.

Each Element spell comes with a number, like 1 plus or minus 7. Each vertical bar in a character’s Element grid represents one level of magic, with the column on the far left being Level 1. The number before the plus and minus sign is the preferred level for the spell to be equipped, and the number after the plus and minus sign is the range that spell can be equipped. If you end up equipping a  spell higher than the preferred Level, that spell will be more effective, doing more damage–and vice versa. A character can equip any color Element spell, even though each character focuses on a single Innate color. This only means that spells of the same color as the character will be more effective and others less so. That might have all sounded like crazy-speak, but it is quite easier to grasp once you begin slotting certain Elements on the grid and playing around with what to put where.

However, not every part of Chrono Cross‘ battle system is amazing. Their summon Elements, which brings forth a giant monster to do big damage to your opponent, which was all the rage in other RPGs at that time, like Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Dragoon, are not worth the effort. First, to be able to cast them, you have turn the whole field one single color and then still have enough time and points available to cast the summon Element, which usually is only slot-able in level 7 or 8, before an opponent casts a different color Element to squander your plans. I think I used FrogPrince once, and never bothered with any other summon Elements, as you really are better off just casting normal Elements. Another part of the battle system I could not grok was Traps, which are Elements that capture an enemy’s Element. However, this process was never a guarantee, and again, just like with summons, you are actually fine without them.

Evidently, there are combination attacks in Chrono Cross, but I never had one happen in all my hours battling PortalGheist and ShadowCats. Which is a shame as I enjoyed these greatly in Chrono Trigger. To do a combination attack, both–or maybe even all three–characters must have the required Element level, as well as at least one Stamina point available. After the attack, both techniques which make up the attack will be exhausted, though I don’t know what that actually means. Looking at a list, most of these combo attacks require LV 5 and special  LV 7 Elements, which is often late-game stuff and kind of a waste to even go after. Think this aspect could have been way better televised, but obviously these attacks are not vital in completing the game.

It’s a combat system of choices, most of which don’t matter when fighting the general enemies scattered across the map, but many boss fights require you to be heavily aware of what Elements you have slotted, their color, what types of attacks you should be doing, and when you need to conserve your levels for healing, reviving, or building up for a high-powered GravityBlow. It makes the longer battles more certainly interesting and remains one of my favorite combat systems in an RPG ever. I think Final Fantasy XII‘s is a close second, but that’s about it.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Characters

gd chrono cross week characters

In Chrono Cross, you can recruit up to 45 different characters to Serge’s cause. Next to games like Suikoden and Suikoden II, this is a trifle number, but pretty impressive when you consider that there were only seven playable characters in Chrono Trigger–Crono, Marle, Lucca, Robo, Ayla, Frog, and Magus. It’s like the developers saw how much people enjoyed building a dream-team and took that concept to the max. Unfortunately, more does not always equal better, and while your options for team variety are certainly enhanced, they are not enhanced wildly.

Basically, when it comes to playable characters, you are selecting an Innate color. This is a color that each character has, which dictates what type of special Elements they use, as well as what their strengths and weaknesses are. The colors go as follows: black, white, green, yellow, blue, and red. I found myself trying to keep my party of three all mixed, each their own unique color, and when Lynx was in control, I desperately needed someone with an Innate color of white/green to keep the healing and reviving up. Every character can also equip armor, three accessories, and a weapon tied to their personality, such as Korcha using a fishing pole, a pick for Nikki’s electric guitar, and a magic rod for Razzly.

Clearly, the stand-out stars in Chrono Cross are Serge, Kid, Lynx, and Harle. They are the most recognizable and play vital parts in the main plot, despite how little sense it actually makes. Everyone else is, and I’m sorry to say this, dismissible. They are blank canvasses–kind of just like our leading lad, the voiceless Serge–for you to create a connection with in your own special way. I only grew attached to Fargo and Nikki and Karsh because I made the effort, enhancing the small bits of scene they actually got by doing voices and making jokes and pretending they felt emotions. Otherwise, they speak their one-liners that always added nothing to the conversation and do their part in battle.

Speaking of conversation, let’s talk about talking. It is bonkers, from Home World to Alternate World. Everyone has an accent of some kind, and some are truly zanier than others. A breakdown:

  • “Normal”: Plain old English, with correct spelling and grammar.
  • “Proper English”: This uses no contractions and tends to use longer words.
  • “Casual English”: Plain old English, but more laidback, with words like “ain’t” and “gonna”. Kid fancies this.
  • “Pidgin English”: Not very well-spoken English; for example, tends to forget articles like “the” and “a”.
  • “Guldovian”: Casual English, but every time someone says “you” (like “I’m gonna get you”) they turn it into a “CHA” (“I’m gonna getCHA!”).
  • “French”: Harle speaks with an exaggerated French accent, using “ze” instead of “the” and so on.
  • “ALL CAPS”: SOME CHARACTERS LIKE KARSH ENJOYING SHOUTING EVERYTHING AT YOU.
  • “Weird”: Starky likes to add extra vowels to words, Poshul, the talking purple dog, has a lisp, Peppor and Solt speak in condiment-themed puns, and…the Beebas.

For extra enjoyment, try reading most of anyone’s dialogue in a bad Scottish accent. You won’t feel out of place at all, I swear.

And now, some more on Solt and Peppor, the tutorial twins. These two bumbling Acacia Dragoons accompany Karsh early on in Chrono Cross, but it’s obvious from the get-go that they have no idea what they’re doing. In the other world,  they have amnesia and joined Sneff’s family show. When you first encounter them (and a few more times thereafter), they basically teach you a bit about the battle system, how to use Elements, and so on. It’s quite fun, especially because they are so hapless and rely a lot on puns. Alas, that’s all they do, and then you never really get to interact with them later on or see what happens to them. As a younger gamer, I always dreamed of a team made up of Serge, Solt, and Peppor–but it could never be.

For the most part, I used Serge, Kid, and Greco, and when the time came to switch to Lynx, I mained Fargo and Harle. Never got into Sprigg’s special ability of turning into monsters. After Serge is born anew, I focused solely on a team made up of him, Fargo, and Riddel until the final boss fell. Captain Fargo has some wicked blue attacks, as well as the ability to steal items from enemies, and Riddel, the Lady of Viper Manor, turned out to be quite the potent healer during the final few boss fights. In truth, I could have used a different Innate blue and white character in their place and would have been just fine, experiencing the last third of the game no differently.

It certainly is a strange bunch of colorful hooligans, with a few memorable standouts, but I think Squaresoft just wanted something to brag about, and 45 playable characters in an upcoming RPG sure fills that slot, but it’s a shame that most of them don’t really matter. I’d have rather seen more development with Serge, Kid, and Harle, or fleshed out a select few from the additional cast members, but we could totally lose the talking turnip, the clown skeleton, and the mushroom man and be a better Chrono Cross for it.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Story

gd chrono cross story post copy

At the start of Chrono Cross, the story is quite thin and easy to follow. One day, Serge–place your vote on how to say his name!–slips into an alternate world where he drowned ten years before. From there, he’s determined to find the truth behind the incident. Along the way, he teams up with a spunky, wise-crackin’ thief called Kid searching for something called “the Frozen Flame.” Their goals will align quickly thereafter as they cross paths with a cat-man called Lynx who is up to no good, as cats are wont to do.

However, once you switch from controlling Serge to controlling Serge-stuck-in-Lynx, the plot becomes nigh incomprehensible. By the end, the whole thing has fallen apart, so evident that the game throws info-dump characters at you left and right in hopes that these will help shine some light on the mystery of your reasoning for saving the world. Unfortunately, they don’t–they only muddy the water more. That’s a big problem with time travel stories; eventually, trying to see everything in a straight line takes some explaining. I guess it all comes back to predestination, but I don’t really know. In truth, I sat here typing for ten to fifteen minutes, trying to summarize all of the plot in Chrono Cross, but ended up deleting everything because I can’t make any sense of it. Chronopolis, FATE, Project Kid–you win. All I know is how to slot Elements, fight bosses, gain upgrade stars, and recruit characters.

Also, still not exactly sure what went down with Harle. I mean, one minute, she’s a main player in my battle party of three, and the next she is some Dark Moon dragon I have to kill and then that’s all there is to her story. Boo on that.

And here I am now, telling y’all that Chrono Cross has quite possibly the worst ending ever. Now, understand that there are over ten endings to see in this game, but the majority of them are only watchable during New Game+. I’m talking about the two endings you can get on your first playthrough, both of which suck time-balls: the “fake” and “real” endings, as the community has come to call them. You can defeat the TimeDevourer in two different ways. The first is to just defeat him, which garners you the “fake” ending of credits and a song; the second involves casting Elements in a specific, color-coded pattern, and then using the Chrono Cross special Element to restore time. I only learned of this trick from the Interwebz, though the game gives you some vague clues about this technique, which is harder than it sounds as the boss, at any time, can cast a colored Element of its choice, disrupting the pattern. Do that right, and you free Schala from Lavos (I think?), and then get to sit back and read a bunch of obtuse, archaic white text on a black screen before reuniting with Leena as she finds Serge passed out on the beach, implying it might all have been a (radical) dream. Back to more throwaway text, a pretty song, and a video clip that maybe shows Kid looking for Serge, even in modern times. It felt pretty unspectacular, but that might also stem from my inability to follow the story coherently. For those curious enough, you can watch the whole thing here.

Main plot aside, there are some small additional stories to learn about. Namely, you can gain some heavy insight into S.S. Invincible‘s captain Fargo’s family, the Arni elder Radius has a secret past, and Marcy, a creepy kid that has somehow risen to the top of the Acacia Dragoons. Granted, these side stories are not actually very in-depth, but they help flesh out the characters slightly more than others. Like Janice, the bunny-based girl that just wants to collect monsters, because she’s in a videogame.

Kind of like with Chrono Trigger, I don’t think the story is the strongest part of Chrono Cross. It is there because something has to be there, and it offers the player the power to move between dimensions and see how people and places change, but the how and why is quite convoluted. If only the game had been as simple as finding some komodo dragon scales for a pretty girl’s necklace, as simple as stopping Lynx, the bad guy, from doing the bad thing, and going home to Arni, a peaceful fishing village, to spend the rest of your days listening to the ocean and baking in the warm sun. Instead, it went deep, too deep to surface, and lost me halfway down.

Welcome to Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week

chrono cross gd week copy

A few weeks ago, I beat Chrono Cross for the very first time. This was truly a momentous occasion, as I’ve played the first several hours of that game countless times over the last thirteen years since its release, always getting to a specific plot point and then unfortunately losing interest. I would then forget everything plot-wise and gameplay-wise by the time I got back to it and just start over, hopeful that that run would be the one to see me to the end. Alas, it never was, but I made a plea to myself this year that I’d beat five specific videogames, and Chrono Cross was the prime target. Well, mission accomplished.

The truth: I love this game. I know many don’t and consider it a failure of a sequel, and I can agree there that this is no follow-up to Chrono Trigger, but as a separate entity I think it is beyond fantastic, boils and bumps included. Yeah, it has its weird quirks and healthy share of problems, but there’s also a lot of neat stuff happening thanks to being able to travel between parallel dimensions and customizing Element slots for battle and gathering a large cast of characters to fight by your side. Plus, the tunes are so dang good. In fact, I believe there’s enough here to talk about to devote a whole week of Grinding Down blog posts to it. Hope you’re ready. Hope I’m ready, too.

Anyways, here are the Chrono Cross topics I’ll be covering over the next handful of days:

  • Story, or the thing the writers desperately want to believe is a cohesive story
  • Characters, or the craziest accents ever and look who is severely underdeveloped (spoiler: every character)
  • Battle and Elements, or learning how to slot properly
  • Music, or sounds made by lofty angels using heavenly instruments infused with the glory that is good
  • Miscellaneous, or how money doesn’t matter, or forging for that matter, and how I’m terrified of New Game+

Yeah, think that should cover it. If not, I can always add an extra day, because in my world, I make weeks as long–or as short–as I want. So equip your best armor, slot in a bunch of GravityBlows, and bathe in the beauty that is Chrono Cross as we figure out what I love, like, and hate in one of Squaresoft’s defining RPGs from the PlayStation 1 era.