Cris Tales, brought to us by Modus Games, promises an “indie love letter to classic JRPG” experiences. I learned about this game late in its development, but it had been scooping up accolades at various game tradeshows since 2019. Boasting beautiful hand drawn art, fantastical music, great voice work, and inventive time manipulation mechanics, Cris Tales had my interest at first glance.
Kicking off with a stylish cutscene similar to the opening of an anime, it is immediately clear Cris Tales delivers in the visuals department. Beginning a new game drops you immediately into the combat tutorial. Goblins are attacking the city, which is the perfect chance to learn about the timing of button presses for attacks and defending. Similar to classics like Mario RPG or The Legend of Dragoon, hitting your button just as you connect your attack or are hit by the enemy causes your performance in that action to greatly increase in effectiveness. This turns out to be an essential skill to master, especially for defending attacks. Surprisingly, no rumble feedback is implemented anywhere in the game, making finding that perfect timing for attacks and defense largely guess work when fighting new enemies (the screen does darken slightly as a hint, but I found it largely unhelpful).
After the combat tutorial, we find our hero Crisbell tending to the rose garden at her orphanage. A talking, top hat wearing frog steals a rose and guides her to the cathedral, where the enchanted stained glass unlocks the power of the crystals of time within her. This frog companion acts as your guide through the game, helping explain and narrate wherever he can. He can also help Crisbell interact with the past and future to complete quests and help folks in towns around the world. With your new powers, the view changes in most areas of the game. The present is shown in the centre, with the past and future on the edges. Seeing people and buildings change in the future as you progress is a cool feature, one that unfortunately is seen less as the game develops.
The powers of the crystals of time are also used in battle. Party members in the middle of the screen are considered to be in the present. Enemies on the left may be sent to “the past”, while enemies on the right to “the future”. Crisbell can simply invoke a crystal power on either side of the battle to banish foes forwards or backwards in time. Strangely, each side of the screen is limited to only one type of time magic. Left enemies can only be put in the past, right enemies only into the future. This allows you to put poisoned enemies into the future so they take a big hit of poison all at once, or a large enemy may become younger and smaller in size when sent to the past. There were quite a few great examples of this battle mechanic in the first half of the game which I do not want to spoil. However, in the last half of my playthrough I found that invoking crystal powers outside of necessary boss mechanics wasn’t better than simply attacking or casting spells.
My overall enjoyment with Cris Tales felt very uneven. While I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack, the blinding white load screens between every area, every cutscene, any change to the environment, and loading battles… was simply jarring throughout my full playthrough. The addition of using time powers on objects inside dungeons to solve puzzles was really fun, but the lack of overall equipment variety and usefulness of items was poorly designed (I never had a use for “tents” at rest areas through the entire game, and never used healing items past the first area). The gorgeous hand drawn artwork was striking and stylish, but it could not distract me from needless prompts when getting in and out of my boat on the map (why ask if that is my desire at a point on the map where that is the only thing to do in that position? Just get me in or out of the water without wasting my time!)
On the topic of wasted time, the final act of the story is padded with what I will call “dialog fetch quests”. Retracing your footsteps over familiar terrain to talk to one NPC, only to leave and go to another town to repeat the process. The game does have excellent fully voiced dialog for all character interactions, but those voices do not fill the empty air between characters you are forced to travel to. When compared to the first half of the game the finale was rushed, contained reused content, had poor pacing and left me feeling unsatisfied. Combine that with the game’s main hook (time manipulation mechanics) fading away from the spotlight as the story progressed and you’re left with a disappointing culmination of around 20 hours of gameplay.