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I get the strange, irrepressible feeling that someday, someone is going to question why I never review any games that have come out in the current year. Well, to that person I’d like to say it’s partly because I like destroying the innocence of people’s game-related childhood memories, and also partly because I just like how wholesome older games are in a modern context, in that they are simple affairs that don’t worry about things like online multiplayer, DLC or gratuitous amounts of mega violence.
However, I always feel a little skeptical whenever I hear about a game that’s more than a decade old and is described as a ‘classic’. I feel as though this is probably coming from someone who refuses to remove their rose-tinted spectacles and are leering at the misinformed while sipping on a cosmopolitan that consists of stubbornness, denial and a twist of utter douchebag.
In my experience, RPGs seem to be the prime offenders in this ‘being terrible’ contest. I think this might be because there wasn’t much room for character development in the earlier days of video-game yore, which meant that you often played as a very unlikable character, which is sort of the crutch for the entire genre. I remember being given a game called Alundra some years ago, being told it was ‘the Playstation’s answer to Zelda.’ After playing the game for a few hours, I’m forced to assume that the answer was given in a sarcastic tone of voice .
Before I properly tear into Chrono Trigger, I want to make it clear that I actually enjoyed the game. I played it all the way to the end, something that I’ve been doing less and less of lately. It’s just that I have a lot more fun frolicking in the Carnival of Criticism than I do in the Abattoir of Adoration. It’s a shame I couldn’t hack more than an hour of Vagrant Story, that’s a game I would have delighted in ripping into, but for now I’ll have to limit myself to describing it as Dungeon-Buggery-Boredom-Trousers.
My very first impression of Chrono Trigger was “Wow, this is even better than Final Fantasy 6″, an RPG that I would regard as possibly the best ever made. However, after fighting the final boss, my overall impression was “Well that was good…… but not as good as Final Fantasy 6″. I think that reaction to the game is actually quite telling. If it was a person, I’d imagine it to be some kind of intellectual genius who had just found a way to convert water into bacon, but suffered from crippling anxiety. Chrono Trigger has issues with confidence and deals with it by both setting its standards far too low and by throwing everything it has at you from the very beginning.
You play as the mute (and quite annoying for it) Chrono, whose name alludes to time, which is the central theme of this game.
After accidentally inventing a time machine (Oh, Japan), you wind up several hundred years in the past. The only way to get back to the future is to play a bit of Huey Lewis and the News for your parents who haven’t met yet at the Enchantment under the Sea Dance and-oh wait, wrong….it’s something to do with fighting evil. After gallivanting around for a bit, basically doing exactly the kind of thing you’d expect someone to do if they found out they could time travel (i.e. mess with people’s heads), you eventually learn that the world is going to be decimated in 1999 by what appears to be a giant inter dimensional hedgehog called Lavos.
What I really don’t get is why the characters in this game feel the need to even bother fighting this guy. Presumably the world is going to collapse in on itself eventually somewhere down the line, so why go to so much trouble to stop an apocalypse that is almost definitely going to be foreshadowed by another one a few thousand years later? The only character who is directly affected by these events is a robot character who belongs to an era after the apocalypse has occurred called Robo. This is what I assume people will eventually call Robocop once he retires to California to open his own surf supplies store. Yet if he stops the Apocalypse from happening, he runs the risk of having never existed in the first place.
Everyone else will be long dead before it happens, so why go to so much trouble? I suppose you could argue that it’s just to be ‘nice’, but when you’re playing a mute character that’s supposed to be a blank slate upon which you can project yourself, ‘nice’ wouldn’t be invited to the party. I’d be far more inclined to use my time machine to win a few lotteries and then invent the jacuzzi to invite all the celebrities into, before they became famous.
Another issue I had planned to raise in this game was that, if the main characters have a time machine, why not just go to a specific moment in time, when the Space hedgehog is playing with some Legos with its back turned, and then whack it over the head with some kind of giant coconut? Showing that clever bit of initiative that they used to be known for, Square actually has that base covered.
Once you’ve gotten to a certain point in the game, no more than about 4 hours in, I might add, you are given the option to tie your ass-kicking boots and tackle the last boss. This is an innovation that I think the game has to be most commended for.
As soon as I saw I could do this, I took my barely leveled up part, which consisted of a female mechanic and a Shakespearean frog, and jumped in. And while fighting, something odd and completely illogical happened. I reset the game. Because while it was good to know I could complete the game in this logical manner, I wanted to see what happened with the rest of the story. So well done Square, for tactfully nabbing an extra 16 hours from my life.
As for the story itself, it seems to teeter between interesting and boring, though never veering too radically in either direction. It plods on steadily enough, but there were very few moments that made me drop my chocolate chip cookies in amazement/horror/delight. I blame this largely on the fact that the main characters would be right at home on Dora the Explorer, or any other kids TV show. They all look very colourful and interesting, but this is just to distract the player from the fact that you could fit all 7 of their back-stories on the back of half a playing card. Final Fantasy 6 had double that amount of characters, but almost every one of them was interesting because you never got the impression they had just popped into existence as soon as the game had started. Even if all they had been doing up until that point was composing terrible songs about rice pudding, they still had a history.
By the end of Chrono Trigger, the only character I was in any way invested in was Robo, who, somewhat ironically, felt like the most human character. He has an interesting relationship with Lucca, the female mechanic, that I feel most young males such as myself can relate to. It’s called the ‘Friend Zone’. I’m pretty sure Robo was originally supposed to be a human character, but the developers must have thought “Whoa, wait, we can’t let him have a sad ending….if we make him a robot, then it will make sense for the relationship to be one-sided”. None of this is explicitly stated, and only barely hinted at. Perhaps it’s just my overactive imagination playing frisbee with the rare china plate that is the plot, but it nonetheless gave at least one of the characters a little credence in my eyes.
It’s a good thing, therefore, that the actual gameplay is as much fun as a bouncy castle chocolate factory. I’m one of those aggressively normal gamers, whose first RPG was Final Fantasy 7. I thoroughly approved of the simple battle system in that and if I had my way, no game would ever deviate too much from it. Chrono Trigger, luckily, follows a very familiar format, in that you stand perfectly still in front of your enemy until it’s your turn to hit it with something. All of your special abilities fall under a category called Techs, which can be anything from shooting fireballs to throwing dinosaurs at people.
What makes the game different is that you can combine one characters special moves with others to perform double or triple attacks. Got a swordsman and someone who specializes in fire? Fire sword! Got a marksman and someone with an ice spell? Blizzard bullets!
Got a fat guy and a water mage? Splash attack! (That one’s not very effective….). These firework displays look particularly good in sexy 2D as well, a nice contrast to the fat and pimply, Stretch-Armstrong-3D bandwagon that most other games were jumping on at around this time.
I’m going to complain again now, because while this system is oodles of fun, it all comes across as fairly conservative and simplistic. There is very little strategy required here and all your moves count for very little. Once you learn the trick to have Ayla, the Prehistoric Lady, throw Chrono so that he flies across the screen hitting everything in his path, it’s all just too easy. It’s like calling in a military platoon to get a biscuit from the top cupboard, which your mum said you could have anyway, so long as you eat your vegetables. It’s nice to have the platoon, and it sure is fun to watch them use stealth camouflage and rappel from the ceiling to get the biscuit, but all you really have to do is press the “Get biscuit” button and your job is done.
Which isn’t to say that the entire game is this easy, just most of it. The last boss is one of the best I remember fighting in recent memory, but for the most part, the game doesn’t feel particularly interactive. It’s a bit like watching an anime movie where the reception is a little dodgy and you have to move the aerial every now and then to fix it. Another thing that factors into this is the loss of random battles. Are you all prepared for a fairly radical statement? I like random battles. They give games a sense of scale. Walking across the world map, getting into a battle, winning and coming out the other side always gave me the sensation that entire days were passing, rather than the case here, which feels like “Tra la la la, I’m leaving my hometown, through this arch, past these woods, over the fence and now I’m in New Mexico. And it only took twenty seconds!”.
It is a good game, and one that I would happily recommend, but don’t go thinking that there is no room for improvement when there absolutely is. It’s far too easy, everything about it feels far smaller than other RPGs (using the glorious Final Fantasy 6 as an example again) and the characters are about as engaging as your least favourite Simpson characters.
To reiterate again, I like Chrono Trigger.
But it is not a perfect game.