Cris Tales extended demo impressions from E3 2019

When I went to attend the PC Gaming Show at E3 2019 this year, I was initially most excited to finally get a chance to see some gameplay from Bloodlines 2, or maybe spot some footage of Baldur's Gates 3 (spoiler: we didn't get any), but I wasn't expecting the highlight of the show to be an artful homage to JRPGs in Cris Tales from Colombian studio Dreams Uncorporated. 

Sandwiched between zoo simulator games and RPG-shark-GTA mashups was this colorful Paper Mario slash Chrono Trigger hybrid that couldn't help but confidently stand out at its showing on Monday. I was luckily able to meet up with publisher Modus Games for a behind the scenes preview of Cris Tales that covered an extended area of the available demo, including stuff not currently live on the public download.

Cris Tales is a multi-faceted cross between Paper Mario, Persona, Sailor Moon, and Chrono Trigger -- which makes it pretty unique.

Cris Tales stars a young time mage named Crisbell, who gains the ability to see possible futures as well as the distant past simultaneously. In-game, this is manifested in a sort of windowpane view where the past is represented on the left side of the screen while the 'current' future is on the right. Crisbell can move in "2.5D" across the environment, while the panes constantly present each area's past origin along with each eventual future state. 

Of course, any game involving time manipulation also involves being able to change the future, and Crisbell's journey sees her set out to prevent local hardships, aid townsfolk, and stop the threat of the Ash Blight, a mysterious plague threatening the land. 

Crisbell manipulates time to both solve puzzles as well as turn the tides of combat to her advantage.

Unfortunately, the puzzles presented to me were a bit simplistic, involving a few basic note-gathering tasks that ultimately led up to a binary choice between two disparate outcomes. In this case, Crisbell had to look to the past to find a label for a poisonous vial of mushroom extract, and then track it down in the present in order to craft an apothecary's brew to save a rotting building. While the specific example given wasn't altogether engaging, it was a sort of proof of concept that I could easily see fleshing out into more elaborate multistage puzzles down the road.

Artistically, it can't be stated enough how striking Cris Tales is to look at. Every piece of art is hand-drawn with a lot of care to make sure animations are fluid and expressive -- even every animation frame is a hand-drawn sprite. Supposedly, every single window in every building is a completely unique design as well, which is a testament to the sort of care the developers are taking with the game from a presentation standpoint.

Carefully considered color design is essential when viewing three periods of time simultaneously, giving each its own identity.

The style actually features minimal shading and a level of simplicity that seems to couple well with the focus on expressive animations, along with an energetic color palette that ranges from pale pastels to darker blues and greens in the environments and fierce reds and purples in combat. It all comes together to really set a sort of Saturday morning cartoon vibe. 

When it comes to art, these considerations are especially important since each area of the game much be represented in three time periods (or more, if -- for instance -- one future is swapped out for another). Since up to three timelines are shown to the player all at once, the smart use of color and small supporting details must be used to convey this information in the cleanest manner possible, and it seems to have been pulled off pretty well.

The presentation and dialogue seems to lean for a somewhat younger audience, but is charming all the same.

On the right side of the screen, statues and buildings in the future are often presented in darker colors, with some areas starting to get worn and overgrown with vines; conversely, locations in the past on the left are often more pristine and brightly or more vibrantly lit.

Impressively, Cris Tales is set to be fully voice acted, even for each minor character. Notably, protagonist Crisbell is voiced by Kira Buckland of NieR: Automata fame, and the sampling of voiceover work we were able to listen to featuring her was well acted and honestly seemed to fit the character perfectly. Some of the other performances in our demo such as for Matias the frog and the villainous Volcano Sisters seemed a little more stilted, but there probably wasn't enough of a sample size to really make a strong judgment either way. 

From a combat standpoint, Cris Tales plays most similarly to the early Paper Mario games. Crisbell will form a party of three with other time mages and they will each use their unique powers in combat in a mostly traditional turn-based format with a timing-based system where additional button presses can be used to initiate followup attacks, deflect damage, or even induce status effects. It's something we've seen before, but in the absence of new entries in the series that shepherded these sorts of combat encounters, it's still pretty exciting to see in here in a new gorgeous coat of paint.

Characters are vibrant with mostly good voice acting, and there's a lot of impressive small attention to details.

Beyond this, there are some intriguing time-based features that provide a number of interesting twists. For one, enemies can be sent into the past or future to change their stats and weaknesses. One example given was a set of female knights that can be sent to the past to change them into younger and more aggressive versions of themselves with weaker defense, or conversely into the future to turn them into more shamanistic crone-like enemies with more potent magic but act slower overall.

Another example of manipulating time is sending an enemy underneath a status effect such as burning to the future in order to force that unit to take multiple ticks of damage at once. Or an allied character can be sent to a point in the past where they had more MP in order to recast a spell or undo recent damage taken. There are enough wrinkles here involving turn-order and status effect manipulation that could really end up becoming a super intricate part of the game.

Battles play out like Paper Mario at a surface level, but several unique time-related mechanics that make it seem far more intricate.

Our demo showcased three of the games playable characters, and there are four more yet to be revealed. Each uses a unique weapon along with individual spells, so setting up the battle party to suit the current object will just be an additional layer to consider. According to Modus, Cris Tales is slated to be roughly a 20 hour RPG, with several branching outcomes that players may seek to replay to see alternative outcomes to the choices made in their first playthroughs.

Altogether, I'm pretty glad I had a chance to try out Cris Tales on a whim, and I definitely think there's an audience looking for unique takes on familiar premises. If you're still reading at this point and interested, there's a free demo currently available on Steam, but it's seemingly only going to be around for a couple weeks, so anyone currently interested in trying out the game should make sure to prioritize it before the demo ends on June 24.