When I first opened up Cris Tales, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I had initially played the demo over a year ago and back then I had enjoyed the premise. However, I was not entirely convinced that Cris Tales was going to make for a great game. Nevertheless, there was a whole year left for the game to be fleshed out, to be refined and improved upon. In fact, the game was delayed even further, giving it ample time to become what I had hoped it would be. Unfortunately, here I am, still not convinced that it makes for a great game, yet without the hope that it could be better. To some, it may still be an okay time, but I feel that it is perhaps simply not for me.
Cris Tales is about the story of Crisbell; a young girl who, after chasing a mysterious frog in a top hat, gains the ability to see simultaneously into a ‘possible’ future as well as the past and present. With her newfound powers as a time mage Crisbell has the potential to alter the future. She must, at certain key points, make a typical binary decision with usually uninteresting outcomes. As she goes about her journey Crisbell will deal with a whole slew of issues facing her world. This includes helping the local townsfolk and facing down the Time Empress. She must also try and prevent the threat of a plague, simply known as Ash Blight, that is rotting towns from the inside out.
“With inspiration taken from shows like Samurai Jack, it is hard not to fall in love with Cris Tales‘ charming world.”
I want to start by stating that Cris Tales is by far one of the most beautiful games I’ve played this year. The environments are simply stunning; each city has such a unique personality represented perfectly by amazing colour palettes and expressive character design. The insides of buildings are just as impressive, especially the absolutely gorgeous cathedrals found in each city. I cannot get over the pristine reflection of the ceiling on the cathedrals’ floor or how the overworld looks so adorable in its stitched blanket style.
With inspiration taken from shows like Samurai Jack, it is hard not to fall in love with Cris Tales‘ charming world. One could easily take hundreds of screenshots to be used as their PCs’ background. The developers have outdone themselves when it comes to implementing this amazing art style in a 2.5D world space. The animation quality in both cutscenes and combat is outstanding, with super satisfying fluidity. It is a treat to repeatedly watch characters launch their attacks in battle. The developers have even added additional visual flourishes for when you attack an enemy in the past or future. It causes a purple haze to surround your character as they send a version of themselves into the future or past.
“It makes the player feel that side-quests have a significant impact on the world.”
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how unique the way Crisbell’s powers are demonstrated in-game. It uses a panel split three ways which, from the left, display the past, present and future all at once. It was captivating to see towns and their people change depending on which part of the frame they were in. Watching villagers turn old in the future frame or seeing how a town looks different in the past, was mesmerising.
There are even hints about how a character might be evil in the future even if they are good in the present. For example, someone who was a thief in the future changed their moral compass after I helped them out. It is a successful way of making the player feel that side-quests make a significant impact on the world. This panel only applies to towns, however. When exploring a dungeon, you will see exclusively in the present. However, you can revive the past or invoke the future in battle through the use of Time Crystals.
Complimenting the games’ wonderful art style is the fantastic original soundtrack composed by Tyson Wernli. Sweeping orchestral town themes, bombastic battle tracks with the occasional melancholic piano piece make it feel very reminiscent of earlier Final Fantasy soundtracks by Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo. This is unsurprising considering these are the inspirations that Wernli had cited.
“The UI is ultimately disappointing, especially considering how beautiful the rest of the game is.”
From a technical aspect, Cris Tales is near perfect. I feel that most of the problems I will list can easily be fixed with a day one patch. The main issues I mostly encountered were animation and camera hiccups. For example, the camera would occasionally get stuck at certain angles, obscuring my view. Additionally, there were a couple of hitches such as battle animation transitions not working. This left battles feeling very stilted and awkward.
Furthermore, there are a few questionable UI design choices present throughout the game. These include text being indistinguishable from the panel behind it. Moreover, there is no change to Crisbells’ overworld sprite from the start of the game. This is despite her experiencing a significant change in her appearance early on. They have also made several UI changes since the demo that I feel, in my opinion, make the games’ UI look dull. This is ultimately disappointing, especially considering how beautiful the rest of the game is.
“Currently, the game lacks the standard features found in most PC titles, as well as accessibility options, which feels like a must in today’s society.”
One of the games weakest aspects is its inordinate amount of loading screens. It is understandable as this was an indie development team and likely did not have the manpower to reduce loading times. However, I saw more of that white screen with the little Crisbell running animation than anything else. Since dungeons can be quite small or broken up into multiple areas you will inevitably encounter these seemingly endless load screens. It significantly ruined my overall experience.
Additionally, I found that there were too few options I could alter. The only options that you can change are sliders relating to sound. Currently, the game lacks the standard features found in most PC titles, like the ability to change display sizes. Worse still is the complete lack of accessibility options, which feels like a must in today’s society.
“The time mechanics do make combat somewhat unique and do offer a level of strategy that similar JRPGs lack.”
It is no secret that Cris Tales is a love letter to the JRPGs of yesteryear. I do feel that it has nailed that aspect to a tee, although arguably also to a fault. It has all the necessary ingredients that make up a classic JRPG. There is the turn indicator at the top, HP/MP bars to manage and a simplistic levelling up system. However, in my opinion, Cris Tales lacks a lot of the quality-of-life features that JRPGs of late have embraced. As a result, it has suffered for it. In its pursuit of paying homage to the JPRGs of yore, it has inadvertently taken on board the issues that contemporary titles in the genre have long since ironed out.
In terms of combat, it is easily comparable to the first Paper Mario game. There is also clear inspiration from Final Fantasy and the Persona franchise. The time mechanics do make combat somewhat unique and do offer a level of strategy that similar JRPGs lack. For example, you could send an enemy into the future, which may rust its armour. However, it may also get stronger as it has aged. Additionally, Crisbell has an extra bar to manage called CP. This is used for sending enemies into the past, future or present.
This is where your companions come into play. For example, party members Willhelm and Cristopher, can each help assist Crisbell with their respective magics. You could have Willhelm plant a poisonous Yucandra in the present. Once Crisbell sends it into the future, it will speed up the rate of the poison and kill certain enemies instantly. You can then ‘break’ the future crystal, restoring the enemy to its first encountered stage.
“Cris Tales offers a variety of traditional JRPG elements.”
While the enemies designs often feel a little uninspired, they function mechanically quite interestingly. Thanks to the game’s central time mechanic, enemies have different stages which typically differentiates them by age (although not always). For example, a monkey in the past may be a baby, in the present an adult and in the future an elder. Changing which time they’re in will affect their stats and health bars. So choosing to send an enemy either into the past, future or present, will dramatically alter the difficulty of any battle.
Enemies later can even begin to affect Crisbells magic, such as a worm-type monster that can freeze a crystal once activated. This can then potentially leave them in a stronger stage. They also have very generous, well-telegraphed attacks. This, I feel, will be of particular benefit to those who may struggle with the game’s other systems such as the active timing button inputs that offer extra damage or defence buffs.
Cris Tales offers a variety of other typical RPG elements. For example, there is Cris Tales’ equivalent of weapon enchantments, known as Time Synthesis. These can improve (for a hefty sum) a weapon’s damage output. There’s equipment, item gathering and status ailments too which often are elemental (burning, poisoned etc).
“I feel that turn-based combat can sometimes feel as if you are watching paint dry.”
It is also clear that the developers spent a long-time fine-tuning companions’ abilities to suit Crisbells’ time powers. Fortunately, it pays off. I never felt like any of my companions were useless to the party which is often the case in JRPGs. They have created a system that I would say is easy to learn but still manages to remain fresh thanks to the steady additions throughout the journey that force players to adapt and learn new strategies. Once you get into a groove, it becomes mechanically interesting and you will churn through battles like a very well-oiled machine. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean it is fun.
It might be age and experience catching up to me, but I feel like there is a reason even Final Fantasy has ditched both the turn-based and ATB systems in favour of the more standard real-time combat. I feel that turn-based combat can sometimes feel as if you are watching paint dry. I am not saying I just want to breeze through every battle. But in my opinion for this genre of gameplay to continue, it must go the way of the Persona franchise. When games like Persona 5 mask the paint with funky music and unique presentation I can easily get lost in the combat. This is especially the case when they offer a ‘rush’ option for the times when you are grinding. Unfortunately, Cris Tales lacks any such option.
“The problem isn’t that Cris Tales is too difficult, it’s that it drags on for far too long.”
Battles feel long and arduous in Cris Tales, and even the standard enemies take a long time to defeat. It caused grinding to become a chore. Bosses in particular dragged on, usually just ending in a war of attrition. Even once you have understood what the gimmick of the boss fight is, they still tend to have large health pools or multiple stages.
There is nothing wrong with that in theory. But for me, it meant that I was repeatedly going through the same motions which can feel somewhat demoralising. This is particularly the case when money, and by extension items, felt hard to come by. To make matters worse, the prices of items often felt rather high for what they offered. Cris Tales doesn’t even have any serious difficulty spikes. In fact, there were often times when I was woefully under levelled and underprepared. And yet I still managed to come out on top during both optional and story-related bosses. The problem isn’t that it’s too difficult. It’s that it drags on for far too long.
“Cris Tales is fortunately very generous with its save points, a factor I imagine will be very beneficial especially for those playing on the Switch.”
Exploration of dungeons is extremely simple, very linear, and only occasionally offers an alternate path. However, these usually just have a chest at the end. While towns are visually incredible and sometimes technically impressive, there is not much to do outside side-quests and shopping for equipment and items. Nevertheless, one thing I did thoroughly enjoy is the way side-quests are handled. While they were not interesting in terms of gameplay, typically being a fetch quest, there was usually around less than a handful of them per town. Fortunately, most of them reveal important story information or conveniently could be completed alongside the main story. Backtracking, however, be it for the story or side quests is excessive and made worse by how slow Crisbell moves.
Cris Tales is fortunately very generous with its save points. This is something I imagine will be very beneficial especially for those playing on the Switch. When exploring you can also send a character called Matias into the past and future via a ‘Time Hop’. While this does have an adorable change on his appearance, it is mostly for gathering items, information, or chests that Crisbell could not access herself in the present. It does add a slightly unique twist on the exploration. However, I felt it did not do enough to make it interesting and I would often forget to use it. Additionally, it does not help that Matias moves at such an extremely slow speed, especially in comparison to Crisbell. This means you would often have to stand still to wait for him to catch up before you could even use the power.
“The narrative is very simplistic and does not dive into any particular theme with much depth.”
I had hoped that even if the combat and exploration were subpar at best, that the narrative and characters would make up for it. Unfortunately, they are worse. So much worse. I want to preface this by stating that while adults can enjoy games meant for kids, this game is clearly not meant for a mature audience. Because of that, there are multiple design choices that I just do not enjoy due to being older.
The narrative is very simplistic and does not dive into any particular theme with much depth. The pace at which things happen reminds me of kids shows with a 10-minute per episode run time. So much happens in such a short amount of time it felt like the writers must have taken a handful of Adderall before putting pen to paper. Unfortunately, this level of speed meant that no time was spent dedicated to exploring characters’ feelings or motivations.
There are moments, usually after each towns story arc, where you can ask your companions some questions. However, it rarely reveals much about them aside from some small personality quirks. There is the occasional swear word or hot take on religion and government. Unfortunately, outside of this, it is otherwise very basic. I would definitely recommend it to parents who are looking for a starter JRPG for their little ones.
“Much like the recent Biomutant fiasco, I discovered yet again why convincing voice acting is crucial to a games ability to immerse me.”
Additionally, every conversation felt like it went on forever. This is in part thanks to the absence of an auto-advance feature but is especially due to the absolutely nauseating voice acting. This is, in my opinion, Cris Tales biggest issue. Much like the recent Biomutant fiasco, I discovered yet again why convincing voice acting is crucial to a games ability to immerse me. Due to the games presumed target audience, I can forgive the choice of the exaggerated tones. But frankly, I feel that this may be the worst voice acting I have heard in years.
I will be the first to admit I am not the world’s biggest fan of English dubs in games. But this really takes the cake. The issues start with the fact that most of the voice actors speak with the exact same American accent and with the exact same level of enthusiasm. It made it difficult for me to tell characters apart. There is hardly any difference in accents or inflexions to the point that it genuinely surprised me the first time I heard a character speak with a Spanish accent. This means that it comes across as everything sounding very stilted. If anything, it is impressive that they have managed to have everyone give nearly the exact same performance, especially when it comes to NPCs.
“The fact that it became incredibly difficult to remember anyone as they all sounded the same, ruined a lot of the interactions and important moments for me.”
There are even a few notable actors here, such as Crisbells’ voice actor being Kira Buckland (of Nier Automata fame). Yet they have all managed to have them give the same performance as the rest of the cast. The worst offenders are Matias, the top hat frog, who has such an incredibly irritating transatlantic accent and Elizabeth the cat lady who says ‘meow’ at the end of every sentence. Fortunately, the performance of the Time Empress, the villain of Cris Tales, was such a treat to listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed every time she appeared on screen.
Unfortunately, no matter how good her performance was, it failed to elevate the rest of the cast. It got to a point that the voices became so irritating that I genuinely wanted to turn them off. What made it worse is that they bizarrely decided to have every line voiced including lines like “I want to save my progress“. This just made me even angrier than I already was. While I am glad it is not yet another game that features Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as literally every character, the fact that it became incredibly difficult to remember anyone as they all sounded the same, ruined a lot of the interactions and important moments for me.
“Unfortunately, outside of Cris Tales’ few innovations, it sticks too rigidly to its inspirations and takes with it all of their faults.”
Cris Tales does tickle that nostalgia I have for the days where my brother and I would farm for EXP in games like Dragon Quest IX late at night. I did feel like once you stepped into the groove of combat it does get better. However, overall Cris Tales is just not for me. The long-winded battles, boring repetitive characters and the uninteresting story left wanting to turn the game off at every turn. There was just too little depth to warrant venturing further into its already lacklustre narrative. While I would certainly recommend this experience to those just starting to get into the genre, for anyone looking for a serious JRPG experience, it is simply not worth it.
It is a shame too, as Cris Tales has some genuinely fantastic ideas that truly innovate on the often tired JRPG formula. Unfortunately, outside of that, this game sticks too rigidly to its inspirations and takes with it, all of its faults. While this could have been a unique blend of Saturday morning cartoons and an epic JRPG narrative, it ultimately falls flat. Play it if you’re a kid looking for something simple, but for veterans of the genre or those looking for something more complex, I recommend you avoid this one.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC, code was provided by the publisher.