Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gimme a Chrono Break!

Lately I have been playing the DS port of Chrono Trigger a bunch. I basically won the game and did all the extra side quests but I have yet to get all the endings (not that it matters, since I know what they are anyway), and now I am going to make my expected post-game rant.

So Chrono Trigger. It's a game. A RPG in fact. One of the best SNES-era RPGs in most people's opinion. And it's about time travel.

Now I have a deep seated hate for time travel and any fiction related to it. Mostly because I have always felt time travel is an impossibly idiotic concept, full of paradoxes, miss-interpretations of physics, and philosophical absurdities. Just take the good old fashioned Grandfather Paradox. Worse is it usually completely denies the whole concept of free will and in a way even consciousness. But I am not going to get into that now. Yeah, you managed to get out of one of my long metaphysical ramblings... this time.

With Chrono Trigger though, I can mostly forgive for all this time travel stuff, because for the most part, it isn't a time travel story, it is a story with time travel in it. Time travel is almost used exclusively to get the party from one adventure to the next and for some gimmicks in side quests. It doesn't usually dwell on paradoxes and such, and when it does feature them, it does it in a manner that's far different then you might expect.

See, Chrono Trigger is a fantasy at heart, not sci-fi. And as a fantasy, the way time works is completely different then how sci-fi treats time. In the game there is the recurring theme of "dreams", and a mysterious entity called... well... "The Entity" that the characters think might be responsible for the gates that are used to travel into different time periods. The main villain is a sort of eldritch abomination alien named Lavos who landed on the planet in a meteor in prehistoric times and will eventually destroy the world millions of years later. Upon finding out this, the heroes who stumbled into time gates to the distant future where the planet is a ruined wasteland decide to prevent this fate and change history somehow. During this quest they set for themselves they begin to theorize that the gates were opened for them so they would change the future, and the gates led to places in history impotent to some entity who made them. They use the analogy of a person neer death having his life played back before them with all the things they regret. Some online have said this entity could be the planet it's self (though there is a character in the game who could be it).

Time travel in Chrono Trigger then is more like visiting dreams and rewriting bits of a story. The time-line is not a linear line of cause and effect, but more like memories that get retconed or rewritten into something else. There are people and places that exist "outside time" and the heroes don't so much change history as much as insert new history which overwrites the old. It even becomes more apparent in the squeal which involves two parallel worlds. It's not that it is like the many-worlds theory where the time-line splits for each event and there are millions of possible worlds (even though there is some indications that there may be many more worlds then just the two), rather both timelines are like different alternate versions of the same story, or if you go back to the entity in the first game, two different ways of remembering the same thing, the truth of which in the end will be found from both. Even another version of those events exists in the form of Radical Dreamers, a little side story text-adventure like game (which Is really well written BTW).

I get the feeling reading though some people's theories about the series online, that people miss the important thematic element of dreams and memories and try and apply science and time travel theory (all of which if you ask me is bogus) to the games. I think this is kind of missing the point. Unlike most time travel stories, Chrono Trigger consciousness and free will first. The world and time is merely a backdrop that can change. Even in the one part where a grandfather paradox situation that caused one character to not be born existed, she was not simply erased, but but elsewhere, outside of time... even if it was a cold dark void, she still experienced it and existed. Every other time history changed it was only the memory and situation that changed. I think thats why Chrono Trigger is one of the best time travel stories to me... it's approach to time is much more humanistic and not fatalistic. It's still a bit hard on people who can't time travel though.

Actually it sort of reminds me of the show Quantum Leap only without being mindlessly dull and without having Scott Bakula in drag. Though it does have someone else in drag, but they actually look good in it.

Anyway, before I stop, I want to quickly rant about the gameplay in the game and it's sequels. I could go on in more detail about the story (especially for Chrono Cross which becomes very very complex and hard to follow after a while) but the actual details of the story really arn't a big deal for me. There are a few interesting bits and plot twists sure, but what story doesn't have some these days eh? Especially in a square RPG. The gameplay details are the things that really stand out to me, because they are the most original part of both Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.

Chrono Trigger it's self used the "Action Time Battle" system used in a lot of Final Fantasy games, but with a twist. Unlike most ATB systems, Chrono Trigger had everything be done on the map screen with large animated map sprites for enemies. No loading (except the crappy psx version), no swirly battle, no random encounters. You see an enemy show up, WAM! Fight begins. Not only that, but enemies move around and a lot of your moves relied on waiting until they lined up in such a way that you could hit a bunch at once with an area attack. The thing that always disappointed me though, is although enemies would move about randomly, your characters could not move at all, and you could only really target moves at enemies not at any spot where they might be more effective. I guess I just would like to see a tactical RPG battle in such a quick and well integrated manner, but Chrono Trigger's battles are not very tactically deep aside from timing your attacks in a manner to hit the most enemies, which in of it's self is a welcome addition.

The other original and fun thing is the way you can do moves that involve multible people, the "doubletechs" and "tripletechs". They are a nice way to give you a lot more situational moves depending on who is in your party at the time. My only problem with them, the whole "tech" system that gives you moves, is how they are learned. Each character has "techs" they learn when they gain enough "tech points" from defeating monsters. The problem is, there is no customization, and each character only learns a set of moves in a linear list. Once you learn all of them, that's pretty much the extent of building your character asides stat grinding and equipment. The "doubletechs" and "tripletechs" are learned simply by having the characters who know the required moves that they use win a battle while in the party together. Thats it. Oh I guess some of the triples need you to hold a rock for some reason but whatever. It's all so simple. Way too simple if you ask me.

Oddly, each character has a different element type that shows up next to their name on the menu, except the ones who can't use magic, who just have it blank. But that element thing? It means nothing. There is magic, but "magic" is just a "tech" with a star in front of the name and doesn't have any other difference except most characters have to visit someone to be able to learn any (and all non-magic techs on the list past the first magic). After that you just learn it by grinding for tech points like everything else. You would think you would be able to learn or equip magic that matched your type but no. There is even two characters that use the "water" element, but one uses ice-based attacks and the other actual water-based attacks which do the same thing but look different. They also have one spell that is alike but no others. One character you get late in the game can use 3 spells other characters have but gets no doubletechs and only a few tripletechs that aren't like anyone else's despite that those spells are used in other people's multitechs. Of course he isn't really a team player, but still. Why not give a tiny bit more freedom with spells and have miltitechs linked to skills not player? Eh, I guess it's just a nitpick. Oddly another game in a different series by the same company known as Romancing SaGa 3 did do this... sorta... but it was only in a limited fashion.

Now let's talk about the squeal. Chrono Cross is... completely and utterly different in every way. No more ATB, no more same-map battles, no more careful positioning, it's much more like a standard RPG, but with a few oddities, like the way time flows. In Chrono Cross, each of your party members has stamina and an "element" meter. You can attack basically as much as you like in a row and your stamina will go down. Enemies just interrupt you every once and a while with an attack as you hack away at them. Every time you do anything your other party member's stamina goes up. You can switch between three party members to have them attack while the other guy rests. You can also skip a while to recover everyone's stamina. When someone hits something they gain some power on the element meter. Elements are magic equipped on a grid that has slots for them in different levels. You can equip any type of element magic, but each character has a type they prefer which is more effective, while the opposite is less. Some magic requires higher levels which usually have less slots, but you do have some freedom to put it a few levels lower (and it gets weaker) or a few higher (and it gets stronger). Now when you gain power on your element meter in battle from hitting bad guys, it adds up and you can cast elements. The more power, the higher level element you can cast, and the higher level, the more it costs. When you cast one in a slot, it can't be used again till the next battle, so you need to equip more then one of any type to use it more then once. And thats not even getting into field effects and summoning. It actually isn't that hard to figure out in practice though, and is kind of interesting.

But it of course, has problems. Besides the fact it's way different to not even the first game but basically ANY game I mean. I never much cared for having magic be something you buy and equip (even in Final Fantasy 7, even if like everything else about it's gameplay). I mean yes, it's customization, unlike the first game, but now too much so, to the point everyone is almost the same. The few techs that exist just occupy a permanent spot on each character's grid, and there are maybe one or two multitechs in the whole game. Of course with 40+ characters who can join you, I understand not every combination was thought of, but most of those 40+ characters are completely pointless or redundant anyway.

And of course, Radical Dreamers, being little more then a text novel with some menus, isn't really remarkable gameplay-wise. But it does have some randomized encounters and battle scenes, but about the only game play element involved in them is the player has an HP counter that decreases if you choose the wrong thing. Other then that, all battles are just pure choose-your-own-adventure things that have set outcomes for set responses. But the thing is, Radical Dreamers is amazingly well written (or at least the unofficial translation is) and as a result it really doesn't matter. The one complaint I guess is the random encounter segments should have been one-time events or more variable, though there is some randomness involved. Still, by the end you may encounter the same skeleton with the same choices a few times and the urgency in the dialogue seems sort of off.

Man that post may have been my longest yet... maybe I should have split it in two but eh.

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