I thought I'd write a user blog about reviews..., Pt. 2 (Some talk about reviews inside!)
I can't be concise. I want to explain just about everything. That's why this is a blog and not an editorial. Also please note: This is all from memory of over a decade ago. Facts might very well be wrong. This is just how I remember the story. At least this time I'll actually talk about a review, unlike last time. Last time: Had a poor impression of Final Fantasy VII for a variety of reasons, and perhaps that jaded me in regard to the gaming press. This time? Chrono Cross.
By this point in time, Chrono Trigger was absolutely one of my favorite games. It had a fun story, an interesting battle system, and New Game+ with several secret, special endings, as well as a challenging (for me at that age) final boss, particularly if you try to fight him early.
With the lack of RPGs on the N64, and my inherent awareness that Quest 64, however different, wasn't all that fun, I eventually let my jadedness toward Final Fantasy VII and general PSX RPGs slide. Pokemon could only hold me over for so long, right? Chrono Cross, the long-awaited sequel to Chrono Trigger, was coming. I was aware, that like Final Fantasy “III” and VII, that the main characters wouldn't be the focus of the story, but for whatever reason, I had the impression the game would at least take place in the same world, in that sense. You know, familiar locales, people, or at least themes and ideas. A few weeks before Chrono Cross came out, I found a review in what I recall was an EGM. The game was looked at by three members of their press magazine, and had a full page, including screenshot, for coverage. Everyone loved it. It was EGM's game of the month. It wasn't perfect, it didn't win a “Gold Medal” or whatever the top award a game can receive, but it did win second prize, silver. I remember that review, and that's substantial.
August 15th is just a few days after my birthday. In the year 2000, I turned 13. I received Chrono Cross as a gift. I played Chrono Cross for some time. Probably not any serious length if one were to analyze it now, but to me, I played it a substantial amount of time that first week or two. The graphics stunk. No, they weren't as bad as Final Fantasy VII's non-cutscene characters, but the screen, which was made of polygons, rather than prerendered, like in FFVII. To me, this looked like differently-colored static, though characters and enemies could be made out. The battle system was weird. Rather than getting one turn and one attack, characters had stamina. Attacks took resources, magic could be used without long-term limits, but only once per spell in battle. There was the field-effect system. To me, bizarre. I knew Pokemon's “Super Effective” system. The same thing was in Final Fantasy VI, in Chrono Trigger, and to some degree, even Super Mario RPG. Whatever was going on with whatever the yellow element was, and how it related to fire and water attacks eludes me to this day. How altering a field worked made no sense to me, too. The fact that a character had an inherent element type was confusing when they could equip items and spells outside that class without much penalty. Equipping more than one of the same spell felt redundant and happened without apparent reason. Level-ups didn't even exist, at least, not traditionally.
More, the meaning of choice felt pointless. The internet existed in this day. I knew what secret characters were. Instead of secret characters, Cross had something like different story pathways that were all similar, but lead to . At points in the game, the player is asked to make choices. The choices would primarily alter the available roster. Sometimes, the choices were meaningless, sometimes momentous. Regardless, they exist.
I remember one choice, an early one, a major one, fairly well. Recall there are two (at least two?) dimensions in Chrono Cross. One with Serge, and one without. Early in the game, at least in regard to the understanding I had as a 13-year-old, I believed that essentially the worlds played out like “It's A Wonderful Life” in RPG form. From my perspective, Serge's existence and non-existence was paramount to every difference in each dimension. If one world had one type of enemy in one place, while another didn't, it was a result of the butterfly effect, all going back to whether the world had a living Serge.
Anyway, back to the one choice: Someone close to Serge's character was dying. She had been poisoned. Death was imminent. Only one cure was possible: The venom from a now-extinct hydra thing. Only it turns out, conveniently enough, in the world where my virtual avatar was long-dead, this species of hydra was still alive. Yippee! Let's cross over dimensions to hunt down one of the endangered species to harvest something-or-other to make the antidote! Upon arrival to the hydra's swamp, it turns out this one hydra might be the last one.
So let's recap my perspective: Serge is alive in one universe, dead in another. In the one Serge is alive in, just from being alive, this creature went extinct. In the one where Serge is dead, this creature isn't extinct, just in danger. Now, to save the life of a friend of Serge's in the first universe, Serge has to kill the last of a species that's dead in the other universe just because Serge lives, thus eliminating these hydra things from existing in any version of the worlds. So Chrono Cross presents the player with a choice. Faced with this difficult choice and looking into the future, it turns out my party of characters would get one group of characters if I chose to protect the last of a species that just happened to be pregnant, or if I chose to save the life of a childhood friend.
Let me stress this: The game presented me with the choice to save a friend's life or with the choice to save an entire species, and the only real thing that mattered was which would net me the best or most characters. Does anyone else think that's a little messed up? From this point on, I believe the illusion of serious choice in most video games was shattered for me.
I looked at situations and saw that from option A came outcome A, and from option B came outcome B. Chrono Cross taught me the reasoning behind making a decision in a video game wasn't about how characters would feel. It wasn't about a storyline. It wasn't about the world. It was about the rewards. Remember that psychology experiment people talk about? The one where when some subjects are made “guards” while others are made “prisoners,” the guards always abuse their power, provided certain important things? Chrono Cross made me the parallel to a guard, and made all videogames the prisoners.
Back to the relation between Chrono Cross and reviews: I played on, I think until I got to Viper Manor, and then I just couldn't play the game any more. I wanted all the characters the first time. I wanted the characters to mean more than just “'Hello!' PAUL joined your party!' I wanted a storyline in this game, which was supposed to take place in the same world as Chrono Trigger, that actually involved elements from Chrono Trigger. I would have settled for a story that actually made sense. Of course, by this time, I knew the game was supposed to have later ties to the Chrono Trigger world, but in a lot of ways, I just refused to accept it. There was no archipelago in Chrono Trigger. Serge didn't exist. Hydras didn't exist. The Frozen Flame would have been a Marle/Lucca dual tech. This world wasn't created as one for me to experience, for me to explore, nor for me to protect. Instead, it was made to look deep, expansive, and offer the illusion of maturity. To me, Chrono Cross was (and remains) a terrible game.
And so I felt betrayed. Here's a game with massive scores in the only review I read, but from three different people. Best game of the month, silver medalists. By this time, I probably had seen that GameSpot rated it a 10/10. Chris, a friend then and my roommate now, couldn't put the game down. Was everyone else crazy? Was there a scandal behind this thing? Was I insane? Were these people just too shallow? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The answer is probably a “Yes” to all of those questions. After all, I already had a relatively unreasonable dislike of FFVII, and now, the next best game, Chrono Cross was a bomb. At this point, I knew it was likely that a review is just one opinion from one source, but when multiple sources all say the same thing, reviews definitely were a point of rage.
Oh, and don't worry. The next part is going to actually be about reviews and less about long-ago life experience.