Review: Cris Tales

29 Jul 2021

There’s no denying that Cris Tales is one of those games that immediately catches your eye. Regardless of how you first come across it, something about the art style adorning the videos and images promoting the game (like the one directly above what you’re reading now) draws you in to find out more.

Especially as a fan of JRPGs both old and new, direct confirmation that the game was influenced by the likes of Final Fantasy VI, Valkyrie Profile, and Persona 5 does a lot in the way of setting expectations. When you couple an inspirational pedigree like that with a traditional turn-based combat system and an intriguing time travel mechanic, what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, sadly.

Cris Tales is available as of July 20th, 2021. It was developed by Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK, published by Modus Games, and is available for PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Stadia. The PC version was played for this review.

Empress Who?

Our story begins in a quaint town called Narim. An orphan named Crisbell is pulled from her home in search of a rose carried away by a talking frog in a top hat. This leads her to the local cathedral, inexplicably awakening her ability to peer into the future and the past simultaneously. The talking frog, Matias, informs Crisbell that she’s a Time Mage, and introduces her to Willhelm, another Time Mage living just on the outskirts of Narim.

Without warning, goblins attack the town, putting a character named Cristopher in the path of the Crisbell, Matias, and Willhelm. After fending them off, a townsperson claims they must have had something to do with the attack, prompting the four to flee. With nowhere else to go, they decide to venture to the other known cathedrals in order to foster the growth of Crisbell’s newfound powers and take the fight to the Empress that sent her forces to lay siege to Narim.

This series of events, which comprised the game’s original 2020 demo, plays out in very rapid succession. The player isn’t given much of a chance to breathe or get to know what Crisbell’s daily life is like before its upended, and there isn’t a whole lot of tangible connective tissue uniting these characters together to the main push of the story.

Cris Tales‘ tale spans through multiple large cities with vastly disparate cultures and civil struggles as the party travels to and from each cathedral. Though their goal is predominantly to learn more about the Empress and Crisbell’s powers, they inevitably become deeply embroiled in the betterment of the citizens of each settlement. This culminates in a binary decision by the player that (hopefully) ends up in more positive than negative repercussions.

Within these individual, more episodic storylines is where the narrative of Cris Tales does its best work. The game is much more focused on telling its individual character stories rather than its overall plot, which is more or less sidelined for the game’s first 10 hours, with only glimpses given here and there of something greater than the immediate concerns of the town you’re visiting.

It’s important to note that Cris Tales successfully sticks the landing when it comes to getting you to care about these characters and their plights. When you get to a new town, it’s not about the politics or crises that you come to care about—it’s the characters that are affected by them. The game isn’t afraid to touch on themes like excessive industrialization, economic inequality, and familial discontent right alongside more lighthearted issues and humorous character quirks. The fact that Cris Tales can pull off both elements is worthy of just as much praise as the writing of the characters themselves.

And this extends just as much to the main cast as it does to the side characters. Their dynamic is a fun one to watch over the course of the game, and their individual backstories are typically interesting to unravel, but there’s a constant dampener on the fun when you think about the larger arc at play. The player knows there’s an ongoing war and an evil Empress behind it all. They also know it’s directly influencing the typically crumbling states of these cities, but the game never goes out of its way to concretely illustrate the finer points of this connection for a huge chunk of its runtime. Even when it comes down to the party members’ motivations for sticking around, it all feels very nebulous—like it’s simply a given—and nothing the game does in its later hours is enough to save this story from feeling like wasted potential when it comes to weaving the two aspects together.

The Old Without Much of the New

As Cris Tales is a self-proclaimed love letter to classic JRPGs, it sports a turn-based battle system with random encounters as you make your way through its dungeons. The unique spin that sets the game apart is found mostly in its time travel mechanic.

Throughout the beginning parts of the game, Time Magic is a treat to use. There’s a special type of joy in seeing a ferocious wolf turn into a puppy version of itself, or sending a battle-hardened goblin into the future to see it become elderly, hunched over, and exhausted. It’s a cute little gimmick, and the fact that it readjusts their stats accordingly gives the concept mechanical benefit as well. It also isn’t always the correct thing to do, as sending a certain version of an enemy into the past or future might actually make them stronger, requiring you to figure out and remember when it’s best to use this particular tool in your arsenal.

At the top of the screen, you can find the turn order for both allies and enemies, and I very much appreciated being able to see this information at a glance. Initially, it was good for deciding which enemy I should focus on in a given encounter with the hope of defeating them before their turn came up. As Crisbell learned more abilities through leveling up though, I was eventually able to give my allies a boost to their speed stat and inflict a slow effect on enemies, enabling me to really feel like I was turning the tide of battle in my favor.

Unfortunately, this is where I start to run out of positive things to say about Cris Tales‘ battle system. Despite the unique flavor of the time travel mechanic, combat gets very repetitive very quickly. The same strategies work for a vast majority of the battles, and new abilities are almost universally basic and unsurprising when you get them. Nearly every standard encounter plays out the exact same way, and when you combine this with an encounter rate that’s higher than it needs to be and a lot of repeat enemies, you have a recipe for mind-numbing on your hands. Boss battles are a notable exception to this and offer engaging situations, but are too few and far between to save the combat design.

The mechanics of time travel are given more depth by the way they interact with status effects. If you place a damage-over-time attack on an enemy, such as poison or burning, sending them into the future will cause all of the damage to apply at once instead of incrementally at the end of each enemy turn. One might expect this to make combat more engaging, but in many cases it ends up causing you to feel like you have to take two turns to do what other turn-based games allow you to accomplish in one.

For every attack of every battle, for both you and the enemy, there’s also an active element to the combat. You have to time a single button press to deal extra damage if you’re attacking, or receive less damage if you’re being attacked. This is not an ignorable mechanic; a properly timed button press can reduce damage taken by significantly and cause you to deal up to double damage. This concept in and of itself is going to be hit or miss regardless of execution depending on how you like your turn-based combat. For my own part, I like active layers added to traditionally inactive battle systems, but it doesn’t take long for this feature to also speak to the repetitive nature of the rest of the gameplay. It’s always the same button to press, and always the same timing.

A Feast for the Eyes (and Ears)

My issues with the gameplay aside, I feel confident in saying there is no other game that looks like Cris Tales. In one screenshot, you can see a seamless meld of visual stylings: environments evocative of art you might find woven into a tapestry, vibrant character designs reminiscent of those found in cartoons, and excellent manipulation of shadows and lighting all interlocking to create an aesthetic that feels wholly original.

Exploring the towns is made extra fun by the way the game implements the Time Magic concept. When inside city limits, the game is split into thirds by means of a triangle. In the center of the screen, you see your surroundings as they presently are. On the left, you see the way they were in the past, while the right shows them in a possible future. It’s especially novel when you walk past characters, enabling you to see them age in one seamless path. It’s absolutely impressive that every single city had to be drawn and redrawn three separate times with different details for them to be rendered simultaneously like this, and it’s executed so smoothly that it makes you wish every area of the game was represented in the same way.

Characters are rendered strictly in a hand-drawn, two-dimensional style, while the lion’s share of the environments they occupy are three-dimensional and heavily stylized. Putting 2D and 3D assets together can be a difficult tightrope to cross for a lot of games, but nothing ever feels out of place in Cris Tales. It all feels like it belongs there, and it looks good while doing so.

Peppered throughout the journey are beautifully animated cutscenes, and every single line of dialogue is fully voice acted. More importantly, every voice line is delivered well, with very few hit-or-miss actors. The game does fall victim to the classic voiceover mistake of two characters pronouncing another character’s name differently when speaking to each other, but it only happens a handful of times and is easy to overlook in the grand scheme of things.

When it comes to sound, the music is absolutely stellar. The sheer variety of different musical genres and the demonstrable quality of the compositions is the only place where Cris Tales fully delivers on its premise as a love letter to classic JRPGs. I have nothing negative to say about any music in the game whatsoever, from the rocking upbeat battle theme to the somber percussive tones that echo when you’re exploring a sewer.

It would be wrong to say the presentation is flawless, however. There are a few peculiar moments where the music doesn’t fit what’s happening on the screen, the first of these being a scene where an established villain suddenly appears and taunts you to a soothing, serene melody. Several hours later, there’s an unexpectedly intense argument between characters that goes on for a decent amount of time while a joyful, triumphant song blares over it. It isn’t a consistent problem, but when it does happen it’s incredibly jarring.

Dialogue will also sometimes refer to things you haven’t done yet (or never did at all). In the second town, an NPC acted as though they’d met the party before, and even referenced a previous event like they were involved when I’d never gone anywhere close to the NPC until after I finished said event.

Moments like these, in conjunction with grammatical errors and typos found sporadically in the dialogue are unfortunate missteps that briefly pull you out of the experience. Skill descriptions and mechanical explanations aren’t exempt from nonspecific and confusing wording, either.

Style Over Substance

Cris Tales is the type of game you really want to love. You see the gorgeousness on the screen and hear the lovely score… but then you remember you have to play it. The visual and auditory elements are so stand-out in quality that they cause the more simplistic gameplay and unexciting narrative to feel stunted in comparison.

Despite this, it’s clear a lot of heart went into this project. There are good character interactions and moments here, but the actual meat of the game—the gameplay and overarching thrust of the story—falls too short of the bar raised by its presentation to make it an easy title to recommend for its length. As it stands, it’s a quintessential example of style over substance. If Cris Tales fails to grab you by the end of its opening few hours, it won’t do anything to change your mind in the time that follows.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Modus Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Modus Games.