The classic time travel JRPG-Chrono Trigger Review

© Square Enix, via Steam

Before I start the review proper, I want to address that while this is technically a review of the remastered PC port, I am reviewing the game as a whole, since I have never played Chrono Trigger before and I don’t think the remaster is different enough for it to warrant being considered separately. It’s not even a remaster really, as much as an updated version of the mobile port, which is in itself based on the Nintendo DS port, which was originally based on the PS1 version which, well, you get the point. What I’m trying to say is that this is as close a definitive version of the game as you can get, and, apart from slightly updated graphics and sound, and some optional bonus content, is basically identical to the most popular releases. Alright, on with the review.

Comparison between the original graphics(left) and the improved version(right). The improvements aren’t a big deal, but they are welcome nonetheless.

There are certain clichés people associate with the JRPG genre. The convoluted, nonsensical narratives, the melodrama, the hours and hours of grinding. Honestly, this perception has kept me from trying Chrono Trigger for a long time, which is a shame since none of these clichés are true in this case. Chrono Trigger is refreshingly brief, grind free, and action packed, and it’s characters and dialogue are as far removed from the soap opera stylings of the typical JRPG as they can be. Even the story is relatively straightforward and logical, as far as time travel tales go.

Coming into the game as someone who is decidedly not a JRPG fan and armed with this baggage of negative clichés, as well as being somewhat skeptical of how advanced an RPG made for the SNES all the way back in 1995 could be, my expectations were low. At first, the game seemed to only slightly exceed those expectations. The time travel plot was mildly interesting, the mix of medieval, early 20th century and steampunk elements in the “present day” setting was decidedly unique, and I had more fun with the combat than any of the Final Fantasy games I had played. But my enjoyment of the game came with a footnote. It was “good for what it was”. Then came the jump to 2300 AD.

Suddenly, the whole game changed before my eyes. The music was now more creepy and minimalist. The light, whimsical tone shifted to dark and gritty. Even the graphics, technically limited as they were, managed to convey a shift to a more grown up, less cartoony world. A couple of hours and a trip to the End of Time later, and we were back in whimsical JPRG land. This sudden shift in tone and setting was executed with such grace that it left me utterly blindsided, and completely won me over. For the first time, I was realizing the breadth of scope and ambition that made this game a classic. I was now a Chrono Trigger fan. It was no longer “good for what it was”, it was simply a good game.

It’s mostly the music and dialogue that carry the tone, but the graphics manage to do a surprisingly good job given how technically limited they are.

This trick of painting fully realized and unique settings with just a few brush strokes is something Chrono Trigger uses again and again to great effect, from a prehistoric era where primitive humans and intelligent dinosaurs are locked in an eternal conflict, to a high fantasy, magic-obsessed kingdom during an ice age. Every single one of these eras is so well realized and distinct that each of them could be the main setting for a game. The fact that the game pulls it off so well with such limited resources is nothing short of a marvel. Even in 2021, the flawless worldbuilding at such a breakneck pace would be hard to pull off, but doing it on a 16 bit console, all while maintaining a cohesive tone and visual style, is truly a masterclass in design efficiency.

Speaking of design efficiency, I feel like I need to talk about the character designs of Akira Toriyama(who’s perhaps better known as the creator of Dragon Ball, and Dragon Quest, another classic JRPG franchise). From Robo, the retro-futuristic, 50s B movie style robot, to Frog/Glenn, the amphibian in shining armor, all of your companions are instantly recognizable and distinctive, while managing to keep a cohesive visual style. Even Lucca, Marle, Ayla and Crono himself, the more “ordinary” human protagonists, are lovingly rendered. The same is true of the equally inventive enemy designs. Dinosaurs, evil steam trains, magical monsters, and RPG mainstays like bats and skeletons are all expertly crafted with as much detail and personality as the game’s ancient original hardware would allow. Every pixel is used to maximum efficiency, and every character is full of personality as a result. Once again, Chrono Trigger exceeds all expectations. There are also a few brief but pleasant anime sequences(courtesy of the aforementioned Toriyama), in which the characters are rendered in more detail, but they are mostly superfluous, and arbitrarily placed in the story.

Perhaps even more so than the clever visual design, the music also does a ton of heavy lifting in overcoming the game’s technical limitations. In a game with virtually no animations, rudimentary graphics, no voice acting, and minimalistic dialogue, the soundtrack carries the bulk of the emotional tone, and absolutely nails it. From the occasional serene orchestral soundscapes reminiscent of Final Fantasy, to the thumping percussion and bass lines of the stone age and main battle theme, the game’s music is just as diverse and memorable as it’s varied settings.

After heaping so much praise on it’s design and world building, I have to talk about some areas in which Chrono Trigger does reveal it’s age. The combat for instance, is both rather simplistic and a bit opaque. The underlying mechanics are solid, and the mix of real time and turn based elements is engaging, but it doesn’t exactly leave a ton of room for experimentation or creativity. You’ve got your techs and your magic, although sometimes there isn’t a clear difference between the two, and you’ve also got double and even triple combos, which require multiple party members to pull off. There’s a lot of variety here in theory, but in practice it’s not exactly clear what advantage, if any, some moves bring over others. Some enemies are weaker to certain elements and attacks and immune to others, but the game sometimes neglects to tell you. Occasionally, these weaknesses are intuitive(of course water beats lava monsters), while other times they leave you scratching your head(most things get hurt by lightning, but why do dinosaurs get extra hurt??), and the only way to find out is by trial and error. A lot of the information you need is available in the manual, which you can look up online( it’s strangely absent from the Steam version, and most of the copies I have found online are for the outdated SNES version), but that only covers the basics. I could go on and on about all the unintuitive or poorly explained elements and mechanics, and I’ll end up criticizing the game just for doing things the way they were done at the time. There is however, another alternative: you can just use a walkthrough.

I know what you’re thinking. The mere mention of the word walkthrough is going to get you laughed out of some gaming circles. But the truth is, many games, particularly older games, have no respect for your time or patience. Now, putting it into perspective, this isn’t necessarily a flaw. The gaming world was very different 26 years ago. The target audience was primarily kids with a boat load of free time and no responsibilities. Games were more expensive and quality releases were few and far in between. Videogames were made to last a long time, and they did it by being full of pesky roadblocks and trial and error gameplay. There is no such thing as objective markers or quest log, there’s not even a Morrowind style journal. If you put the game down for a week, good luck remembering where you’re supposed to go and what you’re meant to do next. Like many old games, Chrono Trigger also subscribes to the “mess around and find out” method of game design, which means that occasionally, there’s no logical way of advancing the plot, and all that’s left is going everywhere you can, and interacting with everything you can see. Between these frustrating design elements and the myriad of alternate endings, secrets and bonuses, there’s no shame in looking for help online. In fact, I definitely recommend doing so for anyone who’s on their first playthrough.

Conclusions

You know how some people say that there are certain games that everyone must play at least once before they die? Well, in this case, it’s 100% true. Go play Chrono Trigger, you never know when the world is going to end.

Final Grade:9/10

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