Chrono Trigger is one of my favorite JRPGs, and one of the few that we've always covered here at GameBanshee, so it was certainly welcome to come across a new Gamasutra featured article on the game. Victoria Earl discusses how the game balances its narrative and open-ended play through the structure of its game world, leveling mechanics and more. It's an interesting read for any fans of the game.
However, with this freedom comes a challenge: how does the developer guide the player along the critical path? Although there are easily-accessible narrative hints given to the player on what to do next, the developers still need to make sure the player doesn't wander too far off-course. Completing a mandatory dungeon out of order would mean certain narrative arcs get triggered too early, not trigger at all, or simply make no sense because the player lacks context.
To solve this problem and prevent players from feeling hopelessly lost, leveling is used to guide players through the main path of the game.
Enemy levels in each narrative section are set according to what the player level should be when they enter the dungeon, and are not adjusted based on the player's actual level. Players who wander too far off the course or attempt narrative arcs out of the critical path are met with exceedingly powerful enemies and are thus encouraged to turn back and find a different route.
For example, one of the first time periods the player can visit outside the critical path is 65,000,000 BC, which is accessible right after the player finds The End of Time. Although the player can freely wander around the map, talk to NPCs, and explore peaceful sections, their progress in the dungeons is halted by powerful enemies that significantly outlevel the player characters.