Sunday, January 13, 2019

Chrono Trigger (PC) Review

Chrono Trigger was originally released on the SNES in 1995 by Squaresoft, about a year after Final Fantasy VI. It's an RPG created by a dream team of some of the most popular videogame and manga creators of all time; Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi; Dragon Quest creator, Yuji Horii; and Dragon Quest character designer and creator of the Dragon Ball series, Akira Toriyama. It also features a soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu. The credits read like a SquareEnix hall of fame looking at it today.

Chrono Trigger follows the story of a teenage boy named Crono and his group of friends as they travel through time to prevent the apocalyptic future they see in the year 2300 AD. A Lovecraftian monstrosity known as Lavos has been incubating underground, feeding on the planet's energy since the days of the dinosaurs, and will rise out of the earth and wipe out nearly all life in the year 1999 if it is not stopped. It's a dark, Terminator-like premise, but the game is just as light-hearted as a Dragon Quest game.

Chrono Trigger is also like modern Dragon Quest games in how the individual town (or in CT's case, time period) stories tie into the overarching story. Each Era you travel to has its own problems you have to deal with, characters that will join your party, and for the most part, a totally unique look to the world and its people, but everything always ties back to Lavos. Whether it's the aftermath of the Day of Lavos in the apocalyptic future of 2300 AD, Lavos’ arrival in 65,000,000 BC, or everything surrounding Magus, Frog, and the consequences of their actions in the present, it all ties back to Lavos somehow.

What makes CT’s story so engaging is the fantastic cast of characters. Crono himself doesn't have much of a personality. He's your typical Goku looking silent DQ protagonist, but with orange hair. The characters that join your party are bursting with personality, though. The first one you're introduced to is Crono's childhood friend, Lucca. She's an inventor who loves tinkering and technology. So much so that she becomes great friends with Robo, a robot from 2300 AD, who might retroactively be based on Lucca's work from 1000 AD. My favorite has to be Frog. He's a chivalrous knight from 600 AD with a tragic backstory that resulted in him being turned into a humanoid frog. Frog wields the legendary sword, Masamune, and is loyal to Queen Leene, who is the ancestor of Marle, the princess in 1000 AD who joins Crono without telling him that she's the princess. Everyone's story ties into someone else's somehow. Everyone feels like they have purpose. There's no random tagalongs or joke characters, and everyone is important to the story.

Time travel in Chrono Trigger is more than a storytelling device, it's a big part of the gameplay, too. Each time period is sort of like a town in other RPGs, but it’s not like you never go back after you’re done there. Every time period has at least 2 scenarios to play through and many quests require you to travel back and forth through time to complete them. People have been scattered through time, some zones are only available in certain time periods, and sometimes, things just take time. For example, Robo’s special item questline near the end of the game requires you to leave him in 600 AD and come back to get him in 1000 AD so he has time to reforest a desert area. You can also go to the last dungeon in all time periods after it appears and even go to fight Lavos from multiple time periods. The game gives you a lot more freedom to explore and do quests in the order of your choosing than the usual FF or DQ.

One of the main things that made me fall in love with Chrono Trigger when I first played it on SNES was the lack of random battles. There are no random battles in the zones or on the overworld. I don't know if it was the first JRPG to do this, but it was the first time I saw it. All the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games had random battles back then. You can usually see enemies in the field in CT. There are enemy ambushes, but they're not random. You will always be attacked if you run over certain spots and haven't killed those monsters yet. You also never go into some totally different looking place during battles. All battles take place right where you run into the monsters, they look exactly the same, and there are no flashy transitions or loading screens between battles and exploration.

The battle system in Chrono Trigger was also pretty different from most JRPGs of the time. In CT enemies don't just step forward to attack and then jump back in formation, they run around the field to attack and stop in different places. Their position in relation to other enemies and your party members affects how many of them you can hit with certain magic spells and abilities. For example, some of your abilities might hit everything within a circle, so if you cast them on an enemy with more enemies close to it, you'll hit them too. CT also has team up attacks, or “Techs”, as the game calls them. As characters gain experience battling together, they start learning different techniques that only they can do as a team. For example, Lucca can throw fire on Crono's sword and then he can perform a flaming spinning sword attack, and since Frog has a multi heal spell and Marle has powerful single target heals, they can perform a Tech that heals everyone to max HP at once. Every character also has some kind of magic affinity, and combining 2 or 3 schools of magic (or the same 1) with Techs can result in some devastating attacks. Group composition is much more interesting than just thinking about DPS and heals.

Chrono Trigger also uses the Active Time Battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV. Everyone calls these command battle RPGs turn-based, but you don't take turns attacking with ATB. There is no constant order in which characters must perform actions. In ATB, your speed stat determines how often you attack. Chrono Trigger takes full advantage of ATB. Combining ATB with RPG mechanics, like elemental weaknesses and status effects, adds an element of timing and reactionary gameplay to CT's battles. Some boss battles are almost like playing a fighting game with commands. Sometimes you want to wait to attack and sometimes you want to wait for the enemy's attack. The game really made me think about strategy every time I faced a new boss. It's not enough to simply have the best equipment.

Chrono Trigger has been ported to many systems since the SNES days. This most recent PC version is a port of the mobile version, which is a port of the DS version. It includes new stuff from the DS version, like the new localization and new dungeons, but not the bestiary or the Pokemon-like online mode. The new content from the DS version includes some new dungeons and a new town with some quests. The Dimensional Vortex dungeon that appears after you beat the game is just reused areas from the main game, so it's not very interesting. Finishing the 3 different versions of the Dimensional Vortex will permanently upgrade some of your characters, like the special character quests. The Lost Sanctum is a new town that exists in 65,000,000 BC and 2300 AD that has a few areas attached to it and some quests that will send you traveling all over the game. The Lost Sanctum is unique, but reuses graphics from old areas. Finishing quests in the Lost Sanctum will reward you with money, gear, and upgrade items.

This version also includes the animated cutscenes, which first appeared in the PS1 version. They look a bit low res, but they're really cool. They actually look like an Akira Toriyama anime, unlike the old Chrono Trigger OVA. You can also unlock galleries with all the anime, music, art, and endings you've unlocked after you beat the game.

This PC version had the potential to be the new definitive version, but sadly, it's pretty far from that. The 2 main issues with this port are the graphics and the frequent crashes. This version is in 16:9, but it only fills the screen when there is existing art to fill the screen with. For example, towns and the overworld use adjacent areas to fill the screen, while areas that were small to begin with, like the inside of houses, are surrounded by even more black emptiness. That's all well and good, but the art is sometimes cropped vertically and always stretched horizontally, like it's on a CRT, so all the characters look wider and all the circles look like ovals, which is very noticeable in a game where you're constantly going through circular portals to travel through time and half of your magic spells are scaling multicolored circles. The overworld graphics are both squished vertically and stretched horizontally. The framerate frequently stutters and skips frames, especially in the stitched together widescreen areas. This version also has big problems with mouse support. The game frequently crashes if you move the mouse during the anime cutscene that plays when you launch the game, the mouse cursor is always visible, even when using a controller, so you have to keep moving it to the right edge of the screen to hide it, and the game randomly crashes when you right click on the mouse during gameplay. This is kind of a big problem to have for a PC game. The game also randomly crashes if you try to play it while extending your desktop to a 2nd monitor.

The actual sprites in Chrono Trigger still look great, though. This is one of the best looking games on SNES. Akira Toriyama's art style looks great in both the characters and the environments. The dome cities, mountains, dinosaurs, machine and robot designs, Garlic Jr looking monsters, the hair. It's all here. I don't think even DQVI depicted Toriyama's style as well as CT. All your party members have exaggerated expressions, cute victory poses, and unique walking animations, which add yet another layer to their personalities and let you know how they're feeling without even reading their dialogue. CT is a beautiful looking game all around.

This game has one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. Yasunori Mitsuda famously worked himself into the hospital while working on this soundtrack, and Nobuo Uematsu stepped in to finish it. Each Era has its own songs, and they all fit perfectly with the look and theme of each one. The music of 65,000,000 BC sounds like jungle conga drum music, Zeal's theme is like some kind of new age meditation music, and the music of 2300 AD is more like a slow pulsing wave of sound with a few scattered piano keys than actual music. Half of your party members also get their own themes. Robo's sounds weirdly familiar.

This is a pretty bad port of an amazing game. Sadly, we don't have a lot of great options for playing this game on modern platforms outside of emulation. The DS version is probably the best version, but it's slowly but surely going up in price. You can't buy Wii VC games anymore, the PlayStation Classics version has super long and annoying load times, even on PS3, and the mobile versions are worse looking versions of this one. If you can overlook the problems with this version; though, this is still one of the best RPGs ever made.