Time travel in video games has been present practically since they started—likely due to humankind’s fascination with the concept—but it’s still always interesting to see it utilized in new ways. Cris Tales, by the Columbian developers Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK, incorporates it into their traditional JRPG both in terms of combat and by trisecting the screen when in towns between past, present, and future segments. What results is an engaging, if flawed, trek through classic JRPG tropes, with ultimately mixed success.
From the jump, Cris Tales shows its biggest strength with its character and creature designs. The playable characters, townsfolk and bosses are bursting with personality. Even random encounter foes are memorable, helped by many of them having three different periods in time they appear at, giving them their own unspoken stories across a battlefield. The designs of your party are clear and memorable, even if they fall into some fairly standard categories.
The environments are closer to a pastel Paper Mario than most other games, with flat, almost papercraft characters moving through a 3D environment. It works well and the general blocks of color making up the environment, with embellishments built on top, give the game a distinctive and successful art style. It’s almost like a playable storybook.
The music and sound effects are sufficient if unmemorable, with no tune from my thirty-odd hours with the game being something I could sing or even tap out. The game’s flaws start showing through with the graphical errors and mistakes. The most egregious are likely the missing animations—some actions in combat, such as certain enemy deaths or non-standard ways of foes exiting combat—result in the enemy being there one frame and gone the next. It’s jarring.
Less jarring but more prevalent is the simple glitch of the non-combat graphics for characters, primarily Crisbell, the main character, being not quite at the correct Y-Axis point in regards to the map. This has the result of characters’ shadows, shoes, up to their calves in some instances, just…being inside the ground. It makes any given scene feel slightly off, slightly less finished.
The game centers around the orphaned Crisbell who, during an attack on her home by the Empress of Time, unlocks her own Time Magic. With the help of various others impacted by the Empress’s conquests, she sets out to save the world. It’s fairly standard fare, right down to the Empress’s shock troops being goblins. Their journey takes them across a relatively small world, roughly divided into five chunks, with only three full towns between them. That said, the game isn’t overly short—due to padding later in the game forcing you to revisit every location multiple times. At most stages, you have a narrative within the town or location to contend with, with warring factions or agents of the Empress, and some kind of binary choice in resolving it.
One of the game’s narrative faults is that it starts with that pattern: solve the problem and set the area on one of two paths, each with pros and cons. It’s a pattern that’s been used by many games—prominently by Bioware in their RPGs—but it doesn’t amount to much. You don’t see the results of your choices other than some visuals. In a game about time, one that includes time travel in the narrative, it’s a missed opportunity not to be able to visit the future state and see the results of your choices.
Some of those individual areas suffer in terms of their local plots too. The early-game town of St. Clarity contains a “Floodside” with waters so fast and so voluminous that it would tear away any buildings there. So of course, people just…stand in it. As I played this section, the flooding in Germany and Belgium was decimating towns and costing lives, making it even stranger that people just…stand in a flood.
More impactful to the game’s enjoyability is the pacing. The game starts in media res, with Crisbell in combat before it flashes back—teaching you its combat in the flashback—leaving a very awkward first fifteen minutes or so. It’s a technique often done in other games, like Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy IV, but is more successful in those.
The largest issue is the game’s decision to have the back half of the game contain not one, but three separate loops around the game world. It’s a draining, time-consuming effort that left me wanting the game to reach its resolution, rather than functioning as a “look at all the cool places and continuations of plots,” particularly since the plot continuations stop after the first loop.
All of this isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have powerful moments. The moment-to-moment character acting so-to-speak is pretty solid, and the game doesn’t pull its punches when raising the stakes and showing the depths of the danger that the party (and the world) are in. If leaning cookie cutter, the characters are at least well-realized, and I enjoyed seeing them interact with each other and the world. One of the nice touches (that gets thrown out when the binary choice pattern does) was your ability to ask your party what they thought of the choice that you made—and they don’t just say “you did the right thing” but sometimes “I’m not sure there was a truly correct answer.” It shows that they were trying to tell a more ethically complex tale, though it sadly ends with more of a “don’t kill all the humans please” fight.
The core of the gameplay is the combat. Taking place in turn-based fashion with enemies that can attack from either side, your party of three does their best to whittle them down using physical and elemental attacks before the enemy does the same to you. It does use the kind of timing-based attacks and dodges that the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series popularized, though without quite as much precision. The monotony of that style of combat is alleviated through two major features: each of your characters plays very differently in terms of their abilities and resources, and Crisbell’s Time Magic.
The main application of that Time Magic is the ability to spend Crisbell’s turn either moving the right-hand side of the screen into the future, the left hand into the past, or restoring either to the present. Most enemies have three states, and this moves them between them, changing their attacks, weaknesses, and even sometimes setting off their in-progress abilities. It’s an interesting system, but a limited one, as of the six playable characters, only Crisbell can change the time, so in battles where she needs to be using other special skills or healing, the system goes unused.
Other characters have their shticks—ranging from managing an overheat system with JKR721 to a monster taming mechanic of a late-game ally—so late-game that gathering the monsters for them to tame, even with the backtracking, is a hassle. They can be fun, but I entered into a fight several times only to find that my combination of characters was uniquely ill-suited to victory. In one case I managed to stay alive for over an hour against a boss while doing so little damage that I reset the game in resignation.
Combat is also where the game’s glitches and the overall need for more polish come to roost. Enemies will sometimes not take damage, or be immune to abilities like “scan,” which feels more like a bug than a feature. The largest issue for me was a boss during the loops back around the world, who was a rehash of a previous fight, glitching out multiple times during my attempts. It took five tries to beat—three times it soft-locked, forcing a reset, once I realized that my party as it was couldn’t defeat it, and then finally the victory. It took hours to do what was effectively a 10 or 15-minute piece of content.
In the end, combat lacks the depth that it would need for how long the game lasts. There aren’t enough enemy types or ways to interact with them to keep things feeling engaging and dynamic through the runtime. There are difficulty spikes, notably in the first real dungeon area, that also lead to that kind of frustration.
There are other odd choices in the game’s mechanics as well. One of the features is that in towns you can move between past, present, and future states. The ability however is tied to the location of a top-hatted frog that travels with you, who moves independently from Crisbell and your control. While he doesn’t wander off, he can easily fall behind, leaving you to have to sit and wait for him to catch up in order to open a box or interact with other items in another time period. It doesn’t add anything for him to be separate, if he just sat on Crisbell’s shoulder it would have saved the developers and the players’ time.
I wanted to love Cris Tales, and I’m walking away mostly loving my screenshots of it. It’s just stretched too long, and is a bit too rough around the edges to be a truly rewarding experience. If the art style appeals to you, or you want a middling-length JRPG instead of the 60-80+ hour behemoths that the genre tends to produce, it’ll likely be worth your time. For anyone else, there are better, tighter games to play.