A Different Kind of RPG
Chrono Cross likes to buck the trends and stray from JRPG norms in many different ways, and its leveling system is no exception. Seeming to cap character stats at every step of the way, Chrono Cross at first appears restrictive and opaque ... and to a degree, it is. Yet, in the long run, leveling in Chrono Cross isn't that difficult to understand, even if you don't get everything happening under the hood. The whole system can be boiled down to one pretty simple rule.
This guide will take you through the ins and outs of leveling in Chrono Cross. Don't worry; it's not as complex as it seems.
The majority of RPGs award levels when the player accumulates enough experience that is gained through combat. That level then rewards the player with boosted stats that make their character--or characters--more powerful. Every RPG has its own variations on this system, but that's generally how it works.
Not Chrono Cross. Removing experience altogether, Chrono Cross instead uses Star Levels. Star Levels are awarded whenever you defeat a particularly difficult enemy, such as a boss, and they apply to every playable character in the game, whether you have them yet or not. Star Levels come with stat bonuses, so gaining a Star Level will immediately grant every character, active in your party or not, a nice boost to most of their stats.
Star Levels also expand Element Grids and will occasionally grant each character a new Tech. In doing this, the game keeps everyone relatively even, ensuring that nobody is left behind.
There's only one situation in which a character can miss out on Star Level stat boosts, and that's if they die during a fight and are not revived at the end of the battle where the Star Level is gained. Element Grids will still expand, and Techs will be learned, but the character will miss out on the stat boost. For this reason, it's wise to have all three party members alive when you end a boss battle so as not to miss out on the statistical bonus.
Mini Stat Boosts
Star Levels boost your stats. Simple enough so far. You will quickly notice, however, that your characters occasionally gain stats in combat against normal enemies. What's with that?
This is where Mini Stat Boosts come into play. Mini Stat Boosts are small rewards, typically in the form of minute amounts of HP, that pop up after you complete a normal battle. Once you've gained a new Star Level, you'll often see a character receiving a few Mini Stat Boosts, as well as one larger boost that can improve multiple stats before the stat gains end altogether. Only active characters will gain Mini Stat Boosts.
Why does this happen? Think of it as an extra reward for active members of the party. If there's a character you particularly like, they will rise slightly above the ranks of their peers, having more health - and occasionally higher stats in other areas - than characters you don't use as often. In this way, you can conceivably stick with a party of the same handful of characters over the course of the entire game and have them come out statistically above average when you beat the final boss.
The important thing to note here is that Mini Stat Boosts are a sort of limited-time offer. Each character has a chance to receive Mini Stat Boosts for a given Star Level until they reach the next Star Level. Once that happens, the slate is wiped clean, and you can no longer receive Mini Stat Boosts for the previous Star Level.
The Golden Rule of Leveling in Chrono Cross
There's more to explain in Chrono Cross' leveling system - the likelihood that a particular stat will go up, when a stat for a particular character is capped, etc. - but very few of these details matter to the average player. You only need to remember one golden rule to get through Chrono Cross: The more you use a character, the better they will be in the end.
Every character makes statistical progress whenever you gain a Star Level, but only living party members will gain Mini Stat Boosts after normal fights. Does this mean that inactive party members will lag behind? Not really. Yes, active characters will turn out better than inactive characters--which probably explains why Serge and Lynx are almost always going to be your strongest party members since they're mandatory--but Chrono Cross is designed in such a way that every party member winds up being useful, whether you use them a lot or not.
You could, for example, throw Poshul into storage after the events of Viper Manor at the beginning of the game, ignore her until the final boss, take her back out, and still find her a useful ally in the climactic battle. She wouldn't be as good as, say, Glenn, who perhaps you've used for a long time, but Chrono Cross is an easy enough game that you don't need to worry about maxing out your characters.
Because Star Levels are tied to bosses in Chrono Cross, it is not possible to reach the max number of 99 Star Levels in a single playthrough. If you defeat every boss, you'll receive 48 Star Levels in your first playthrough, meaning that most of your stats will not be maxed out.
Want to reach Star Level 99? The path there is simple enough: Begin a New Game+ based on your old file. You'll jump back to the beginning of the game with all of your Star Levels intact, and each boss will, again, grant you a Star Level when defeated. If you go this route, you'll gain a Star Level of 99 shortly after you begin your third playthrough. Granted, you'll you don't need 99 Star Levels to crush this game to smithereens--once you reach the 60s or 70s, just about every boss becomes easy to defeat--but completionists will no doubt need to see '99' before they're satisfied.