Chrono Trigger writes itself into the definition of the word epic so well that it becomes the bar against which all other games that strive for that adjective should be measured
Epic. It is a word that gets thrown around a bit too often for its own good; so much, in fact, that one might say its excessive application has diminished its value. In its definition, the term is related to poetic compositions that center around a hero, speaking of their achievements in an elevated style, which means that – in a way – given the gaming world is filled with these brave characters who go on to execute daring journeys, the adjective could apply to numerous titles.
However, more than being related to a series of marvelous feats, the word epic intends to describe undertakings of unusually great size or extent. And if that is indeed the case, then the frequency with which it is employed is absolutely off the mark, as it should be reserved for games whose narratives embrace a scope that is far above the medium’s average. Certainly, qualities like courage, valor, grandeur, and determination are abundantly found in many electronic adventures, whether they feature a plumber battling an army of over-sized sentient turtles or a boy in green wrestling against forces of evil that have been around for centuries, but when the formal meaning of epic is considered, it is easy to notice that a game has to go above those standards to earn that label. That is where Chrono Trigger comes in.
Developed by Square in the midst of a period in which the Japanese developer, specialized in RPGs, was at the height of its power – that is, during the days of the Super Nintendo – the game forces one to re-evaluate the usage of the term epic. And that is because although, both before and after its release, there have been a lot of games that have presented scopes whose size and extent were unusually large, Chrono Trigger – quite nonchalantly and without trying too hard – seems to leave them all in the dust.
As its opening minutes roll, it is easy to get deceived into thinking the title was made using the same mold that Square applied to give shape to many of its excellent role-playing efforts of the era; after all, there is nothing too special about a boy named Crono being woken up by his mother as she tells him to go to the local medieval fair, where a celebration is taking place. Numerous similar scenes have been used to get adventures started, and veteran players know that sooner or later the wheels of fate will turn and the boy will be sent on a life-changing unexpected journey.
Such assumption is absolutely correct: Crono does go to the fair; as the event unfolds, an unforeseen occurrence does take place; and, unsurprisingly, half an hour later, the weight of the world does land on his young shoulders. However, no amount of accumulated knowledge on the rules of RPGs can prepare gamers who are new to the world of Chrono Trigger for what is to come. Where most role-playing games are guided by threads that span a continent, a world, or a handful of planets, Chrono Trigger spans time.
More specifically, it covers the story of its universe for millions of years, as its starring characters are sent time-traveling through five different eras of the continent in which they live. Prehistory, when primitive humans battled reptile-like creatures for supremacy. Antiquity, when society was divided into two very distinct classes, one that lived up on the clouds and was given to intellectual pondering, and another that – whilst on the ground – struggled to survive against harsh weather. The Middle Ages, when the kingdom waged war against dark wizards. The relatively peaceful present. And a foreboding future of an apocalyptic nature.
That transcendent quest is triggered when Crono, while at the fair, bumps into an energetic young girl, called Marle. Alongside her, the silent protagonist heads to meet his longtime friend, the intelligent Lucca, who is about to demonstrate – with the help of her father – their latest invention: a machine that teleports its users between two pods. Crono tests it successfully, but when the excited Marle gives it a try her pendant reacts oddly with the device and she is swallowed up by a mysterious portal, completely vanishing under the watch of a large audience. A worried Lucca calls off the show and starts working on rescuing Marle. Quickly, the girl finds a way to recreate the gate and she walks into it with Crono by her side, only to arrive in a kingdom that is much like their own. Soon, though, the pair discovers they have been transported 400 years into the past – straight to the Middle Ages, and that Marle has been mistaken for the queen, who has been kidnapped.
As they decide to locate the real queen and set Marle free, a series of unfortunate events that has the group hopping across time makes them land in a bleak future, where humans starve inside domes and the kingdom is nothing but a barren wasteland. They come to learn that such scenario has been caused by the sudden emergence of a parasite, called Lavos, that had been sleeping for millions of years in the depths of the planet. Horrified by what they see and disturbed to realize that the destiny reserved for their descendants is one of hopeless agony, the party chooses to take it upon themselves to try to change it. And like so, Chrono Trigger opens up the doors to an adventure that will have its unlikely group of heroes interfering with the world’s standard timeline so that the ripples they cause in the many periods of time they visit can have significant fate-altering ramifications in their future.
That incredibly clever mechanic, which is used to stunning degrees, is possible because, as it turns out, Lavos has – from within the Earth’s crust – played a major role in the events of all moments of history Crono and his friends visit. Like a conductor, the alien being has, sometimes quite obviously and sometimes very quietly, exerted an influence over various happenings for his own sake. Chrono Trigger has, at its core, a particularly stellar premise and an overarching storyline that could have carried the game to greatness on its own, but Square chooses to take it over the top by fantastically tying the very good individual plots that unravel in each era to the general tale and to the evolution of the world itself. Everything about its script is neatly integrated, and given actions that echo through time abound, it is sort of mind-blowing how the writers at Square were able to leave no loose threads, untied knots, or inconsistencies.
There is a lot of boldness to a game that is centered around altering the reality of one time period by taking action in past eras, even more so when one considers Chrono Trigger chooses to do that over five distinct ages. But the title is so comfortable in the shoes it wears that ramifications are its theme in both plot and gameplay.
Be it in its main quest or across the handful of interesting sidequests the game offers, Chrono Trigger is always toying around with changing what is to come: saplings that are preserved and planted can become forests, the outcome of conflicts can determine how the very fabric of society will turn out to be, generous actions in the past can yield positive results in the present, haunted locations can have their ghosts exorcised if measures to stop their existence are taken, and more. Crono and his companions, who come from all ages, will experience moments of various tones – for Chrono Trigger knows how to conjure tears and tension as well as it knows how to make one laugh – and players will delight in intervening with the timeline and taking in the game’s wonderful writing.
Obviously, Chrono Trigger would not be rightfully revered as a classic and as one of the best games of all time if its excellence was limited to those fronts. Although it is arguable that, ultimately, its premise, stories, and writing are what makes it stand out from and climb above other fantastic RPGs of its era, its gameplay and design are also remarkable, producing an experience that is thoroughly engaging and has no weaknesses in sight. The party walks through the overworld via an overhead view that presents scaled down towns, forests, castles, houses, mountains, and other noteworthy locations. That way of traveling turns navigating through the continent into a breeze. There are little to no long trips or moments of tedious walking that feel like filler, for Crono and the gang can move through the entirety of the map within a minute in order to go where they need to.
The same applies to hopping between the eras. That kind of traveling, which is done via portals, is equally efficient, as not only are those gates positioned in places that are easy to reach, but entering them will lead the party to a hub where all portals that are currently opened can be accessed from the same room. Those measures play a considerable part in making Chrono Trigger pleasant because differently from many JRPGs, and in what is a quite nice turn, the game, at times, does not blatantly point out where players need to head to in order to advance the core story, leaving it up to them to think about the current state of affairs to figure that out.
Therefore, the path to exploration and discovery is smartly paved, and Chrono Trigger takes advantage of that by being satisfyingly open-ended. Sure, the game does have a linear sequence of events that must be followed, but it is possible to visit various places before they can actually be cleared as well to skip many little actions and finish the adventure in numerous ways. That degree of freedom translates itself into what is one of the game’s most well-known traits: the fact it holds more than a dozen different endings, which depend on what players did or forgot to do, and on how, when, and where they defeat the final boss.
When not traveling (be it through time or space) or visiting a town to look for items, services, or information, Crono’s party – always composed of three members – will be, from a traditional perspective, walking on fields or in dungeons that are filled with enemies. The game does away with random encounters, instead opting to display the bad guys’ sprites as an integral part of the scenario.
Occasionally, they will be hiding and waiting to ambush the heroes; in other occasions, they will be peacefully roaming around, giving gamers the choice to face them or avoid them; and sometimes they will take the aggressive approach and attack the group whenever it comes into their view. As a nice feature, when the party and the monsters touch and conflicts are triggered, the skirmishes happen right on the map. Consequently, needless transitions to separate battle screens, an RPG staple that breaks the adventure’s immersion and flow, are eliminated.
These battles, which abandon traditional turn-based fashion, hold a few nice twists that work towards building their identity and making them exciting. When the game begins, players are prompted to choose between two kinds of battles: Wait and Active, an option that can be altered at any point via the menu. Those options come into play in the fact that each character has a bar that fills up according to their speed stat, and once that gauge is complete the menu that lets them take action is unlocked, allowing players to choose whether they want to unleash a standard attack, select from one among many physical or magical techniques that consume MP, or use an item.
In active battles, even when players are choosing what to do, time will continue to elapse, which means that enemies will be inching ever closer to the point when they will be able to act; whereas in wait battles, time stops while a choice is being made. Although the former is far more challenging and exciting, since players need to react and think about their strategy quickly, regardless of the choice that is made the battles of Chrono Trigger are thrilling and offer plenty of options for numerous reasons.
Firstly, there is how if two or three characters are ready to act, double or triple attacks that combine their powers into eye-popping moves are made available, and the more a set of characters goes into battle together the more they gain experience working alongside one another, consequently unlocking more of these attacks. Given that, in total, Chrono Trigger presents seven playable heroes of widely varying natures – with a couple of them being optional – it goes without saying that the deck of moves the game carries is impressive, giving players a whole lot to experiment with. Secondly, as battles go on, enemies will walk around the map and change their position, creating formations (be it vertical or diagonal lines, or even circles) that can be exploited, because many of the special techniques have points of impact that can hit more than one foe if their placement is just right.
Although a good portion of the encounters against regular enemies are manageable and can be cleared without the extensive exploration of these alluring quirks, Chrono Trigger is packed with great boss encounters and other remarkable tougher bad guys that will require that players explore these possibilities to a good extent.
Just like it knows how to challenge, Chrono Trigger is also a game that succeeds in averting the creation of any harmful frustration. Its save points are very well-placed, and there is no major boss battle that is not preceded by a shiny spot on the ground where the party can not only save their progress, but also rest by using a shelter, a purchasable item that automatically fully recovers the heroes’ HP and MP. Additionally, saving is also possible whenever characters are traveling through the overworld, an action that is as simple as opening a menu and pressing a button, immediately creating a point of relief to which gamers will be returned to in case they die while tackling a particularly hard segment.
Both in the grand scheme of things and in the little details of its design, Chrono Trigger is an immaculate gaming experience. The quality of its plot and the way through which Square is able to materialize a complex web of alternate timelines, distinct eras with their own interconnected tales, and fate-altering actions into a story that is engaging, funny, emotional, and easy-to-follow is without parallel. And that achievement is coupled with more than thirty hours of content that is stunningly designed on all fronts, from effective visuals and a touching soundtrack, to an exciting battle system, and an effective approach to traveling long distances through space and time.
Combined, these parts amount to a quest that exhales so much grandeur that it writes itself into the definition of the word epic, a term that may have been debased by how frequently it is employed, but that is the perfect adjective to define Chrono Trigger. After all, no other expression could describe an adventure that unfolds so perfectly across millions of years, that unites great characters from distinct eras, and that includes five time periods (each with its own mysteries), unforgettable moments, and challenges. Chrono Trigger is the bar against which all other games that strive to be epic should be measured.