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Cris Tales Is A Timeless Adventure, Warts and All

Despite its unfortunate shortcomings, Cris Tales is a stellar tribute to classic JRPGs that stands out thanks to its time-based mechanics.



Cris Tales St. Clarity

Cris Tales Review

Developer: Dreams Uncorporated, SYCK | Publisher: Modus Games | Genre: Role-Playing | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, Android | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch

Whether or not one enjoys Cris Tales will largely depend on their fondness for and tolerance of classic JRPGs. Although its eye-catching art style and novel time-based mechanics set it apart from its contemporaries, Cris Tales very much wears its JRPG influences on its sleeve, to the point where it implements several old-school gameplay elements that remain controversial even amongst diehard fans of the genre. Since recent JRPGs have largely abandoned mechanics like random battles and limited save points, their presence in Cris Tales may turn off those who are otherwise allured by the game’s more distinctive elements. However, those who are open to these mechanics may be surprised over how much they end up enjoying themselves. While Cris Tales is far from a perfect game, it executes its core ideas with a staggering degree of finesse, and it exudes a kind of passion and sincerity that is almost impossible not to admire.

A Potentially Rough Start

Having said that, mentioning the aforementioned random battles and limited saving really is important, as the beginning of the game can potentially blindside those who are not accustomed to those mechanics. As mentioned in our preview for the game, Cris Tales features a fairly slow prologue segment that eases players into the world and mechanics whilst making sure players do not veer too far off course. Immediately after the prologue, however, players are thrust into a fairly stressful trek where they are continuously bombarded by random encounters that slowly dwindle their resources.

Since players start with extremely limited resources and cannot save until they reach the end of the area, players have to perform somewhat efficiently or, in a worst-case scenario, flee certain battles before getting a chance to save again. Granted, this is not an especially difficult area, and players will likely not have much to worry about if they simply rush to the end, but I can imagine players getting very overwhelmed by the random battles and save system if they choose to stick around and explore, which may leave a sour first impression.

Cris Tales boss
Image courtesy of Modus Games

The Right Time To Strike

As soon as this segment ends, however, the game becomes much less stressful, as players are now free to explore and stock up on supplies before heading out to dangerous areas. At this point, it becomes much easier to appreciate the work that has gone into the turn-based battle system, which is nothing short of excellent. On its surface, the battle system seems fairly derivative, as it incorporates the timed button presses seen in other RPGs like Paper Mario.

This is not to say that the basic battle mechanics are boring; timing a button press to augment an attack’s strength or duration is an effective way to make players feel involved in the action, and hitting a button right when an enemy attack lands to reduce its damage encourages players to engage with enemies and their attack animations more deeply. The exact timing of this guard mechanic can be somewhat unclear at first, especially since the game punishes players for simply mashing the button and hoping for the best, but players will inevitably grow more accustomed to the mechanic over time, and attacks’ visual language and guard timing mostly stay consistent throughout.

Ultimately, though, the time-based mechanics are where the battle system really comes into its own. Crisbell, the main protagonist, can transport enemies on the left side of the screen to the past and enemies on the right side to the future, which adds a fun puzzle-solving element to battles. The most obvious use of the time powers is that they can accelerate certain status effects. For example, if an enemy is inflicted with poison, instead of waiting for several turns while the enemy slowly takes damage, players can send that enemy to the future or send an enemy from the past back to the present, which will inflict all of the poison damage at once. Another creative use of the time powers is that most enemies have different forms depending on the time period, and players can take advantage of this to make otherwise difficult enemies easier to manage. So if a guard enemy is giving players trouble with its varying moves, they can opt to send that enemy to the past, at which point it will resort to using easy-to-counter fire spells.

What makes the time-based mechanics even more interesting is that they can backfire on players if used incorrectly. For instance, a potentially devastating fire ailment inflicted on an enemy can be completely nullified if the foe is sent back to an earlier time period. A cocoon-like enemy may be relatively easy to deal with in the present, but those who choose to send it to the past are in for a nasty surprise when it turns into an enormous monster that takes considerably more effort to defeat. Situations like these encourage players to think carefully about how and when to use their time powers, which makes battles that much more strategic.

It helps that Cris Tales balances the difficulty of its battles remarkably well. With the notable exception of the final boss, battles are generally somewhat light on difficulty, and as long as players approach battles carefully, they will rarely, if ever, see a game over screen. This does not mean that battles are trivial, however; certain enemies can and will do massive amounts of damage to the party, and the game is not afraid to throw players into complicated situations that must be thought through extensively to survive. But since grinding is never necessary to progress through the game, even the most seemingly daunting encounters can be conquered without much preparation if players approach them correctly. The game mostly excels at providing a comfortable playing experience while keeping the brain engaged, which makes Cris Tales a potentially fantastic introduction for those who are new to JRPGs.

Cris Tales also succeeds at providing an engaging world to explore, if only because of its fantastic visual aesthetic. It has been said multiple times, but Cris Tales’ art style is one of its most consistently appealing aspects, with absolutely stunning pseudo-3D environments incorporating distinct 2D depictions of Colombian architecture. Characters are similarly appealing, with even the most minor NPCs sporting bold, expressive designs reminiscent of a Genndy Tartakovsky cartoon. This aesthetic design combined with the sweeping soundtrack lends the game a wonderfully welcoming and charming atmosphere, which allows the towns in particular to stand out.

Cris Tales time split
Image courtesy of Modus Games

Around-The-Clock Exploration

What makes the towns even more engaging is their incorporation of the time mechanics. At nearly all times, the screen depicts the past on the left side, the present in the middle, and the future on the right side, much as it does in battles. Each portion of the screen gives players at least some idea of how the locations and NPCs fare within each time period, and these elements seamlessly shift between time periods depending on players’ position within the game world. It is a clever mechanic that incorporates remarkably intuitive visual language to enhance both the exploration and overall atmosphere.

What really justifies this time mechanic is its enhancement of environmental storytelling. Even if players ignore all of the dialogue, they will still get an idea of each town’s future plight simply by looking at the right side of the screen. This serves as a strong motivator for players to partake in sidequests and make crucial decisions that will change that town’s future for the better. Even the most minor NPCs have little stories that can be deciphered by observing them within each time period. A certain aristocratic individual wearing a fancy dress in the present wears a more casual outfit while carrying protest signs in the past, and several elderly characters in the present will, tragically, be nowhere to be seen in the future. These subtle instances of storytelling pull players into the game world in a way that few other games manage to, and they make even the simple act of wandering around and taking in the sights an incredibly engaging experience.

Where the time mechanic falls short is in its overworld puzzle-solving opportunities. The vast majority of time-based puzzles in Cris Tales involve sending Crisbell’s frog companion Matias into either the past or future to retrieve an item before returning to the present. Not only is this interaction incredibly basic, but the game outright tells players what they need to do almost every time these puzzles crop up. The game could have incorporated much more engaging time-based puzzles in the dungeons, which tend to feature slightly more robust puzzles, but the split-screen time mechanic is completely disabled during these sections, and any time-based interactions are limited to very specific objects.

Not helping matters is that anytime players wish to send Matias to the past or future, they have to wait for Matias to get close to Crisbell, which is less than ideal considering that Matias moves much slower than she does. Granted, this issue does not occur too often since most required time puzzles occur right after story moments, but the game gains nothing by restricting the time mechanics in this way.

Image courtesy of Modus Games

This Clock Needs Some Dusting

In fact, Cris Tales features several instances of poor polish or streamlining. While the voice acting and writing are of generally high quality, there are bizarre instances where a character will mispronounce a name or word that it pronounced correctly just moments before or will change voice actors mid-conversation. Dialogue text contains a distracting amount of grammatical and formatting errors, and while they hardly ruin the story, they can definitely get in the way of immersion. Numerous bugs, including one where the character portraits become completely whited out, can potentially occur, and the Switch version played for this review has load times that are irritatingly long for how frequent they are.

One minor sidequest, which sees players tipping a musician 1,500 marbles, forces players to count up from 0 to 1,500, with no option to instantly pay the full amount. Even holding the directional buttons will only cause the marble counter to tick up or down at an agonizingly slow rate, which means the most optimal way to complete this sidequest is to literally press up on the controller 1,500 times. Of course, players can completely skip this sidequest if they wish, but this is bafflingly poor UI design that should not have been in the final release to begin with.

Image courtesy of Modus Games

The Full Picture Matters

As frustrating as these issues are, they are ultimately understandable given the game’s context. For Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK, two relatively unproven indie studios, Cris Tales is an exceptionally ambitious undertaking, featuring a massive 30 to 40-hour campaign with countless detailed animations and full voice acting for almost every piece of dialogue in the game. A few rough patches are practically inevitable for a debut project of this scale, so the fact that the game turned out as well as it did is nothing short of impressive. This does not make the game’s shortcomings any less worthy of criticism, of course, so hopefully, at least some of these flaws can be addressed in a future patch.

Ultimately, even when taking its flaws into account, Cris Tales is an overwhelmingly positive experience from start to finish. It excels at evoking the “classic JRPG vibes” that instill a sense of wonder and excitement every time players reach a new town, find a new party member, or uncover the next big plot twist. It is easy to spend hours upon hours immersed in the world that Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK have created, soaking in every little detail and admiring the amount of love and care put into each screen. There is not an ounce of cynicism to be found in Cris Tales, and considering the modern gaming industry’s relentless chasing of popular trends and questionable business practices, that is truly worth celebrating.

Daniel Pinheiro has an M.A. in Community Journalism. He is deeply passionate about gaming experiences and the lessons they can teach us. Although he tends to gravitate toward platformers, he is willing to try out any game made with love and care. He also enjoys seeing the world and what it has to offer.

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