Cris Tales Review
Cris Tales had been on my radar ever since I saw its reveal at the PC Gaming Show at E3 2019. Its stylized cartoony artstyle and colorful palette immediately captured my attention, and two years later, the game has finally seen release on consoles and PC.
Developed by a small indie team in Colombia, Cris Tales is a title inspired by classic JRPGs. When I got a chance to meet with the development team in a preview session last summer, studio head Carlos Rocha Silva talked about how those growing up in a country like Colombia often get to experience small bits of other world cultures through media like video games, as well as western cartoons and Japanese anime.
For Silva and the dev team, Cris Tales is an opportunity to both pay homage to these sources of inspiration while also hoping to return bits of Colombian culture to a worldwide audience.
Cris Tales is inherently, then, a love letter to classic JRPGs with Colombian flavor distilled throughout. It opens up with main heroine Crisbell living as an orphan in the countryside city of Narim. Her adventures kick off on an eventful day where her town is razed by malevolent forces led by an antagonist known as the Time Empress. In all the commotion, Crisbell meets a talking frog (with a top hat) and gains time powers to view into the Past, Present, and Future simultaneously.
After teaming up with wandering elemental mage Cristopher and veteran nature mage Willhelm to save her hometown, the trio sets off to stop the Time Empress from doing any more harm.
Crisbell's time manipulation powers manifest both in combat and in questing. Battles are classic turn-based affairs, with Crisbell's party in the center of the screen and enemies appearing on the left and right sides. While in some RPGs, this may look like a sort of special pincer attack by the enemy, this is a standard formation in Cris Tales.
One of the stated inspirations for the game's battles is Paper Mario, in the sense that the player can press an action button either during their own attack or while defending in order to either deal a critical hit or parry, respectively. This isn't the most unique component of Cris Tale's combat, however.
Crisbell can send enemies on the left-hand side of the screen to the Past and enemies on the right-hand side of the screen to the Future - an ability that has multiple consequences. Firstly, the enemy types you meet will change depending on which time period they are in. For example, Wulfs get more powerful as they get older, so sending these to the past can make them easier to manage when they are little cubs. Alternatively, Goblins because more squishy the older they get, so it can be worthwhile to send them to the Future, where they become mage-like Goblins instead. While they have might more potent magic here, they are otherwise pretty harmless in this state.
Several combat mechanics, at least early on, center along these time-manipulation powers in battle. For instance, Willhelm can poison enemies with his nature magic. Send a poisoned enemy into the future, and they'll take a bunch of poison damage all at once, since it has accumulated through the time you send them through.
Some bosses also play around with these time mechanics. A sewer monster boss fought early on occasionally swims around from the right side to the left and back. If you play your cards right, you can use this to your advantage, poisoning the creature on the left side in the Past, and then having it effectively damage itself as it moves through time to the Future.
Sadly, the usefulness of manipulating time in these ways does strongly wane in the latter half of the game. Once you proceed far enough in the storyline, your damage dealers become quite effective on their own without the need for time tricks - specifically Cristopher's elemental magic and JKR's physical damage. It's more effective and efficient to simply have these two characters dish out their strongest attacks while Crisbell sticks to support with healing and her Haste-equivalent spells, instead of bothering with her time-shifting. Ultimately, time manipulation in combat boils down to an initially promising gimmick that fails to reach its potential, simply because it becomes less and less useful the further you get into the game.
Time manipulation also makes an appearance in the game's sidequest system, although here it's hardly interesting to begin with. Oftentimes during a sidequest, you'll be tasked to collect something or talk to someone that, unfortunately, doesn't exist in the Present day. Well, that's no big deal for a Time Mage; simply move to either the Past or Future to do what you need to, and come back. Easy.
It's especially dull because the game's cast of characters will often just outright tell you the obvious, that you need to manipulate time in order to solve the quest. One quest NPC asks for blueprints that have worn out over the years. So, simply grab them from the Past instead. Another sidequest asks you for proof from an event yet to come. Simply hop to the future, grab it, and come back. Unfortunately, time mechanic incorporation into quests doesn't ever amount to more than this, which is just a tad disappointing.
It's not all bad though. Cris Tales has a cozy, comfy atmosphere throughout. With a run time of about 20 hours, the whole experience is a refreshingly brief one when compared to the ever-more-common lengthy JRPGs or massive open-worlds often seen throughout the genre today. Everything moves at a pretty brisk pace.
You'll move from one city to the next in a mostly easygoing manner, solving some sidequests along with each city's localized troubles as you make your way to your ultimate showdown with the Time Empress. The cast of characters is pretty lovable overall, and most of the voice performances are quite solid. Even if the quests are not very intricate, or if the main storyline ultimately falls a bit well-worn and predictable, Cris Tales is a pleasant and nostalgic romp that mostly doesn't overstay its welcome, although the finale section still feels a bit stretched.
Cris Tale's biggest strength is undoubtedly its unique visual style, and the soundtrack by Tyson Wernli is a perfect accompaniment for it - with several cozy town themes, energetic battle tracks, and more. Several of the game's town areas and architecture are aesthetically impressive with many based on real-world Colombian cities. The walled area of the in-game city of St. Clarity houses a clock-adorned spire situated on an archway, for example, which is a direct reference to a clock tower situated near the Plaza de los Coches in the Colombian city of Cartagena.
It's worth keeping in mind the Cris Tales is a passion project developed by an inexperienced team working on their first major game. Some of the polish or elements that you might take for granted in similar titles might be missing here. For example, the are traditional random encounters, but there is no proper visual transition into battle. Instead, as you are walking along the field, you'll simply be hit with a random white loading screen before combat engages. No screen crack, swirl effect, or the like. This is perhaps a little nitpick, but these lacking transitions are just one small way in which Cris Tale's modest development is apparent.
Some of the game's presentation is a bit odd too. While there are a handful of nice stylized animated scenes throughout the game, several major events take place with the usual character portraits and limited animations of the standard character models. Sometimes during pivotal dramatic moments, the standard town/field themes are still playing in the background, which can lead to some weirdly jarring tones where distressing events are taking place while the music accompaniment at the time is a leisurely melody of the town. This is clearly a consequence of the game having a limited production scope, but it's worth knowing these are the sorts of things to expect throughout.
There are also some strange balance issues throughout in terms of stat tuning, money gain, and such. The first dungeon, for example, heavily restricts your healing capability until you gain a few levels. Some enemy types you can encounter feel much, much more tedious than others for no discernable reason, and some areas seem to drop enormous amounts of money, for some reason, which makes purchases of better equipment a bit trivial. Ultimately these nitpicks didn't affect my enjoyment too much, but regardless it did feel noticeably wonky in places.
There are a few places I wish the game felt snappier as well. Characters take a second to take their turn in battle, due to the need to animate jumping into position every time. Outside of battle, Matias the frog moves slowly behind Crisbell, meaning sometimes you have to wait a moment for him to catch up before you are able to time shift.
Despite these issues, the game still has a lot of heart throughout. Everything feels incredibly earnest, and Cris Tales fits the bill for those looking for a lighthearted RPG adventure.
I played Cris Tales on PC, and I generally had a good time with it in terms of performance. However, it's worth noting that the game has no configuration options whatsoever, outside of some volume sliders. It plays effectively in a borderless fullscreen window, and while there is keyboard control support, the PC version doesn't seem to support any mouse/cursor functions. Ultimately I was lucky and didn't have many performance issues with the game at all, but some have reported some screen-tearing or similar issues with the PC port. Additionally, acquaintances of mine and other impressions have stated less-than-ideal performance and load times in the various console versions of the game, and while I cannot touch on these myself, it seems like these are things to keep in an eye out for if you are deciding to pick up Cris Tales.
Cris Tales is an enjoyable experience if you go into it with the right expectations. It's an easygoing ride through a colorful world that, while somewhat uneven & unpolished, is a comfy & familiar adventure. The interesting time mechanics that help the game stand out unfortunately never realize their full potential, and the storyline falls a bit rote, but my experience with Crisbell and company was still a pleasant one.