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SummaryTime! There's so little and so much of it...
The GoodReleased at the twilight of its prolific home system's life, Chrono Trigger was created by an all-star team assembled by the big names of Square and the makers of Dragon Quest. To this day it remains one of the most beloved Japanese RPGs - and one of the few that gained considerable respect from the more hardcore PC-centric people of the West.
Chrono Trigger was obviously put together with a lot of thought and care. Everyone likes time traveling, and the designers made an excellent decision by turning it into a concept that serves the story as well as the gameplay. It makes the game particularly tight and cozy, since no convoluted plot devices are longer needed to justify the motley setting, and hopping from location to location doesn't feel stale in the least. In Western RPGs you need time to adjust and get used to one large location; but Japanese RPGs are merry kaleidoscopes of self-sufficient areas, and Chrono Trigger understood it, embraced it, and turned a weakness into a strength through the power of its design.
As the game opens up, you learn to appreciate the subtle touches with which it tries to challenge the genre's major weakpoint - linearity. Chrono Trigger is by no means a free-roaming game, but it does give you some very interesting choices. You can, for example, go and fight the final boss even before the "required" plot events have been completed. Depending on the time of that decision the game will reward you with a different ending. It is so cool and simple that I'm surprised how come other games haven't thought of this.
At a certain point, the player has to decide whether to kill an important character or to let him join the party; at another point, he has to rescue the main character, but he can also choose not to do so and to confront the final boss without him. After the game is finished, a New Game+ option becomes available: keeping all the items and the stats from the previous game, you are whisked to the beginning and can choose to fight the final boss very early in the game (which was previously impossible because the characters were much too weak), adding more possible endings to the list.
The game makes a great opening statement by eliminating one of the most annoying building blocks of the genre - random battles. The rest of the gameplay is simple, elegant, and effective. Each party member has unique skills (called "techs") and magic. After spending some time fighting together with another character, he or she learns "double techs", which are possible to execute only when both characters are ready to perform an action. If three people have learned appropriate single techs, they can learn an even more powerful triple tech, which requires all three characters to be available. It is interesting to experiment with different party members and try out various double and triple techs. The game is very fluent, locations change all the time, regular enemies are not annoying, and due to finite encounters there is always plenty of time for exploration once an area is cleared out.
The heroes travel through seven different time epochs, witnessing pseudo-historical events and participating in various conflicts. They visit the Stone Age, with its cavemen and anachronistic dinosaurs; Ice Age, where the Earth is deserted and the world is controlled by a race of mysterious magicians; typical medieval fantasy with their noble knights, kings, and queens; a grim, dark post-apocalyptic world of ruins, where humanity dwells in isolated "domes" and the planet is possessed by an evil outer force, and so on. The variety keeps the game constantly fresh and is complemented by a good plot with fleshed-out characters and a few really nice twists.
The BadThere is a definite "light" edge in the game that may not be to everyone's taste - the characters lack the immediate emotional impact of their Final Fantasy brethren, and you won't encounter certain "grown up" topics that were more or less seriously treated in its great contemporary. I can imagine the game can be qualified as "childish", but I'd rather go with that than the pretentious pseudo-philosophical material the genre grew to like with time.
I'm therefore fine with the setting and the plot, but I'd appreciate more challenge and perhaps a bit more depth in basic gameplay mechanics. I feel that Chrono Trigger could have been more open to experimentation and irregular features. The small size of the overworld maps is an alarming symptom to me: locations are accessed with too much ease, and you can't get lost. The dungeon-like areas themselves also tend to be too neatly arranged, too well-measured. Most items are placed too conveniently, and resource management plays next to no role. You won't even need to discover the game's optional content because techs can be learned very quickly and battles won with minimal effort.