As the J in JRPG suggests, this is a genre we primarily associate with Japanese developers, at which few western studios have tried their hand. Cris Tales is one of the rare exceptions, proudly calling itself a “gorgeous indie love letter to classic JRPGs”. It certainly is attractive – from the unique character design to the architecture referencing developer Dreams Uncorporated’s Colombian roots, Cris Tales is a joy to look at. Sadly, it isn’t even half as much fun to play.
The potential is there. Instead of staunchly copying age-old turn-based systems, the central conceit is a time-manipulation mechanic, made possible by heroine Crisbell’s magical powers. Your party faces enemies on both sides, and using her time crystals, Crisbell can send foes on the left-hand side into the past, while those on the right may end up in the future. This way, enemies can age, turning either into their toddler selves or sprightly young warriors in the past, and either aged shadows of themselves or experienced veterans in the future. The only way to find out which is through trial and error. Elemental magic may have different effects when combined with time magic – the first moments of the game show how soaking an enemy’s metal shield with water and then sending them into the future causes the shield to rust. It’s a fun idea that Cris Tales doesn’t seem to know what to do with. Time magic costs a lot of crystal points (the game’s MP equivalent), and executing combo attacks can take so many rounds that we often beat a large number of fiends before then. In several boss encounters, time magic doesn’t so much uncover a vulnerability as make foes stronger.
Dreams Uncorporated also includes familiar realtime elements, whereby pressing a button when an attack connects enables party members to parry or deflect incoming hits. This feature is balanced in a way that makes battles too difficult without it and not challenging enough if you use it. Yet an attack’s precise moment of impact can be hard to parse, especially since regular enemies don’t make visible contact with the party. Combat is still steeped in JRPG tradition in many other ways – for example, by your party dealing elemental magic and battling status effects such as poison, while turns are distributed in accordance with each character’s speed stat.
Cris Tales is grindy, too – it’s difficult to tell whether the random encounter rate is high or whether it feels that way because each area can only offer two types of foe. Different equipment and weapon upgrades have no immediately palpable effect, which is unsatisfying even when considering the classic JRPG problem of making players overly strong. Before each encounter, there is a loading screen (even on PS5, the delays are notable), which further dampens the joy of traversal, even as the beautiful 2.5D environments offer plenty of verticality.
The story also fails to measure up to its inspirations. The beginning immediately confronts you with a combat tutorial, only to then go back in time and eventually present you with the same fight again once you know what’s going on. The setup amounts to this: Crisbell is the chosen one, on a quest to a number of different cathedrals in order to become powerful enough to face the evil Time Empress. Failure to do so means the end of the world, but it turns out that even with Crisbell developing new powers at will whenever the story calls for it, she’s doomed to fail unless she makes time for every sidequest. She’s joined by a few other young heroes that, while equipped with unusual combat skills, undergo no particular character development.
In towns, Crisbell is framed by a triangle at all times. The middle shows her present, while left and right represent past and future. It’s an impressive effort, since it means every location had to be built at least three times, yet here, too, the time-travel mechanic can’t live up to expectations. It largely amounts to us finding treasure chests in the past or future; otherwise, we’re unable to explore the two temporal alternatives in any meaningful way. Moving around in time is only possible by assuming temporary control of Crisbell’s companion Matias the frog – and if there is something narratively significant to find, the game immediately tells us what to do and when, pre-empting any independent player action.
The basic narrative setup is broadly the same at every location. Each town introduces you to an evil adult, who will lead their city to ruin unless Crisbell steps in. The measures by which we do that are varied – from estranged families to deadly disease, every town has its own problem, necessitating different solutions. Then again, ruin will still befall everyone unless sidequests are also taken care of ahead of a fixed cut-off point. These are fetch quests, designed to make you return to dungeons you’ve already visited, only activating after the main storyline has already led you there. This is unfortunate, because the principle behind them – the idea that small actions are what leads to change, rather than a heroic battle – is appealing. But dooming a people over the refusal to engage with a set of pretty rote errands simply ends up feeling unfair.
That’s symptomatic of a game that feels like it doesn’t quite know how to make the most of its many good ideas. In many ways, Cris Tales’ biggest problem is that its inspirations have become its competition, while a noticeable amount of typos and out-of-place text (“I’m not running a charity here,” a robot innkeeper says after you stay the night, a script probably meant for when you turn them down) add to the feeling of incompleteness. It’s not so much that less could have been more here, but rather that it fails to replicate what made those classic JRPGs so beloved.
From estranged families to deadly disease, every town has its own problem necessitating different solutions