Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition Review

I’ve come around quite a lot since first playing Chrono Cross. What was once one of my most disliked games of all time has become one I hold dear, all thanks to a second playthrough after almost a decade. I’d go as far to say that now I like Cross a tad bit more than Trigger, so I was primed for this new remaster. Proper AI upscaling on backgrounds, new character art, and a full localization of the Radical Dreamers sound novel? I was giddy to jump back in, and I’m thankful that from an artistic perspective, Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is a home run.

I adore Chrono Cross, and no matter how you play it I really recommend it. However, just don’t expect Chrono Trigger 2. That’s not meant to brush aside criticism, but you can certainly go in with your expectations out of line and come across hating it. It fundamentally has less wide-spread appeal, but the eccentricities might just be the reason you could fall in love with it. It’s far more open-ended, covers more mature themes, and in my opinion is a more poignant experience. From story to gameplay, it’s rather ahead of its time even if it doesn’t always land. It’s a more flawed game than Trigger, but far more interesting to think about. Each time I return, I find something new to appreciate. This time was no exception.

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The new models are faithful, wonderfully so, but it is worth noting that not everything was remade. The important things were, like all of the main characters, designed under what I can only assume to be the principle of making them as good as we remember them being. I was hoping that everything was enhanced in similar fashion, but noticed quickly that some of the bosses like Solt and Peppor had their original models.

I’m quite impressed with all of the touched-up pre-rendered backgrounds.I’m not sure how exactly Square Enix is approaching the backgrounds here, whether it’s a simple filter or AI upscale, but  it’s been a big improvement over what has been done before with the likes of games like Final Fantasy VIII Remastered. It’s perhaps not as nice as SaGa Frontier Remastered or Legend of Mana’s redrawn backgrounds, but Chrono Cross’s look pretty good, and work together well with the new character models and artwork.. 

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One of the most valuable improvements is that the original character designer, Nobuteru Yuki, was brought back to redraw every character portrait in his modern style. None of the characters were redesigned, just redrawn. Of all the new portraits, I think I preferred each one over its original version. They’re sharper, more expressive, and offer deeper colors. Some just look better because of the changes, with Kid’s new portrait being a vast improvement. I don’t know what happened with her original dialogue portrait, but I’m glad they fixed it. One of Cross’ biggest selling points has always been its beauty, and this can be appreciated now better than ever before. This is all massively subjective, obviously, but the updated aesthetic works for me rather well. 

I’m a font guy. I like my games to have a nice font, and that's something that can be tricky for remasters of games in this era. The new font is adequate, but not special. I’ll give them props for making it far more visible than it ever was, even at the cost of it looking a bit generic. It helps that I don’t think the original font was anything special either, and an attempt was made to try to recreate it when playing with original graphics.

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For those wanting an unaltered vanilla experience, thankfully you can change that with a simple toggle on the collection’s main menu. Every part of the original PS1 version is simply presented at a higher resolution, with the original artwork intact. The font in this mode is not the exact same, being a new pixel-based font, but I feel it's more legible than the original. I The backgrounds will probably stick out the most here, because the models lack the low resolution pixelation that allows them to mesh seamlessly with the environments, but this will likely still be the ideal way to play for those wanting a more purist playthrough.

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Regardless of the graphics option, there are a series of optional gameplay adjusters that fans of Square Enix should be used to by now. There's autobattle, high-speed, low-speed, turning off encounters, and battle boost. Most of those are self explanatory, but the last two are worth praise. Chrono Cross has a unique leveling system, where you only gain levels when you defeat a boss. Normal encounters are for slight stat increases (for the next couple of encounters after a boss) and materials to craft weapons. You're likely to reach a point at the ends of dungeons when you just don't want to waste time fighting since you gain no rewards, and this is perfect for that. Battle Boosts is more of a traditional cheat, where nothing can hit you and your element grid for each character is instantly full. Great for replays.

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The only thing left dangling are the FMVs, which were untouched and have a lot of pixelation. I get why they probably left them alone, damned if you do damned if you don’t, but next to how clean the rest of the game looks now they stand out. Quite an ironic situation, given that the opposite was surely true when this game originally came out. Regardless of the graphics option I picked, the FMVs looked the same.

I wish I could say that these visual improvements didn’t come with a cost. For whatever reason, playing with the new visuals proved to somehow be too powerful for the Switch to handle. Specifically when playing with the updated visual options, the framerate is quite bad, especially in battles, and to a lesser extent in towns. Visiting Termina for the first time in this playthrough, I started to feel as if something was off. Running around in the larger areas tends to make the performance stutter, which is strange, since these are 3D models on top of 2D backgrounds. Battles having framerate problems are a bit more understandable since they’re entirely rendered in 3D.

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Cross always had performance issues, but battles on Switch run even worse than they did before. As soon as I got to Viper Manor, everything from there on seemed to be a constant battle with low framerate leading to unresponsive controls as a result. Navigating battle menus felt off, and animations played off very choppy. The Switch should have no issues playing a cleaned-up PS1 game, so I imagine this could be pre-release optimization. Both docked and undocked, this was an unavoidable issue, unless you decide to play with the original graphics. Battle and town exploration played about as smooth as I remember it being on the PS1 version. Square has informed us there will be two patches on launch week, but we are unsure if either will address these performance issues. If you want to experience this game for the first time, and find yourself in love with the new visuals, I suggest avoiding the Switch version until these problems can be addressed. 

There seemed to be some confusion with the state of Chrono Cross’ soundtrack in this re-release, thanks to Square Enix’s confusing marketing. Eight new orchestrations were composed for this version, with some being brand new and some being new arrangements. When these were sampled to the public, because of how different in tone they were from the original tracks, a lot of people were worried that these new tracks would be in the game and change the vibes of the scenes they were supposed to play during. It’s a valid fear even if I personally love the new tracks, because of how this information was initially presented. To those worried about this, don’t be. The new music only exists on the main menu, and the ‘refined’  versions of the soundtrack Square Enix mentioned at announcement are just higher quality versions of the original tracks, not arrangements. In short, when playing Chrono Cross, it’ll sound as you remember it, with only some slight tweaks to noise compression or equalization.

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Maybe it’s because Chrono Cross is fresh on my mind, or maybe it’s just because I adore adventure games, but the true reason this collection holds so much value to me is the preservation of Radical Dreamers. That Square decided to localize this after 25 years was the coolest part of the announcement to me. I had never played it before now, but hearing that the first go at a sequel to Chrono Trigger was an atmospheric ADV game was the coolest thing to me.

I don’t think Radical Dreamers will be everyone’s cup of tea, but it absolutely was mine. The entire game is presented with text, with a branching narrative based on your dialogue decisions. Instead of a traditional VN that follows a strict path with diversions that continue forward, Radical Dreamers instead has you basically play out a text-based dungeon RPG. Serge, Kid, and Magil are set to infiltrate Viper Manor and steal the mythical Frozen Flame. Fans will find a lot recognizable here, which makes sense, since this served as the prototype blueprint for Chrono Cross.

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Instead of presenting a tropical paradise aesthetic, Radical Dreamers is all about a horror-tinged atmosphere. I wouldn’t say the game is ever downright scary, but this middle sibling is easily the most unique of the bunch. Animation is used subtly but to great effect, pairing well with great use of framing on the art that makes it feel as if your vision is limited. Cross is about exploring luscious nature, whereas Radical Dreamers is about surviving in an oppressive, man-made castle. The sound effects and music are also top-notch, making the experience come together beautifully. While your first playthrough will only last a couple hours, there are plenty of new unlockable stories after you hit credits that I implore you to look into. 

The mechanics of Radical Dreamers I can’t really offer the same amount of praise, but they’re inoffensive enough to not take away from the experience. Since this is a text-based RPG, there will be random encounters woven into the narrative as you travel the corridors. Your decisions in these segments will be timed, and there’s a slight amount of randomness on if what you choose will work, but once you learn the patterns of enemies you can sort of game the system. 

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What is sure to annoy some is the way it invisibly tracks your health and affection level with Kid. Both are displayed to the player in discrete ways after every bout, but it can be a lot to get used to as you fumble through the early stages and keep finding your Serge on the edge of death. There are three saves, use them well. Radical Dreamers has been seemingly presented as is, so to get the most out of it you have to be able to put up with some old-school design. I don’t think this is a hard game to get the true ending of, however. It just presents itself as more complicated than it really is.

Being a text-based adventure game, I’m happy to say that the localized script reads excellently. Despite the dark stakes scenario, the characterization of the main trio and their comedic banter is the core of the experience. The game is an absolute riot when it wants to be, and it frequently made me laugh out loud in ways I wasn’t expecting. However, it knows when it takes itself seriously, showcasing a maturity that had to have been surprising for Chrono Trigger fans in 1996.

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Serge, who I had known only as a silent protagonist, is overflowing with personality here. Since he narrates the entire game and frequently interacts with his teammates, we get a good idea of who he really is. He’s not your typical hero, he’s a clumsy young man who happens to be the weakest link in his group of thieves. I really wish this approach had been taken for his Chrono Cross depiction, because he could have been Square’s most memorable protagonist of that era. Kid isn’t too different from her Chrono Cross counterpart, but being a larger focus in a smaller cast allows her to shine. Radical Dreamers is technically not “canon” to the Chrono series anymore, but when the pillars of said series are multiple universes and time travel that really doesn’t mean anything to me. The story is short and sweet, and doesn’t pack Cross’ thematic ambition, but it is worth getting this collection for on its own. I loved every second of it.

Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition is a wonderful remaster marred by an unoptimized Switch port. While you could argue that they could have gone further in places, like maybe offering players the ability to further customize which parts of the experience they wanted to be presented with old or new graphics, it feels nice that one of my favorite PS1 era JRPGs got so much love. I adore both of the games in this collection from the bottom of my heart, and I’m glad they’re more accessible than ever. I hope the Switch version can be an easier recommendation in the future, especially since the only way to own it physically seems to be on that platform. 

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