Since its announcement, Cris Tales has been billed as a “love letter” to classic JRPGs, and after dozens of hours with the game, that statement couldn’t be more true. It comes with a massive caveat, however, as Cris Tales reminds me of what I love about classic JRPGs, as well as how frustrating they could be at times.
Cris Tales follows a young girl named Crisbell, in a setup that’s pretty typical for the JRPG genre. Crisbell is an orphan that never knew her parents who one day after meeting a strange talking frog named Matias, finds out she’s a powerful Time Mage. This means she can see the events of the past and future, and use that knowledge to influence the present. That applies to both the story and actual gameplay, and Cris Tales has a unique way of using its time mechanics.
While running through towns the screen turns into three different sectors; the middle as the present, the left as the past, and the right as the future. It’s fascinating to run through towns and see how they change over the years. Past the visuals, however, you can interact with the different time periods, sending Matias through time to do things like find items and eavesdrop on people in the past or future.
Time-bending also translates into combat, as each encounter casts enemies on either the right or left side of the party, lining up with the past and future sections. Crisbell can activate her time crystal during battle to send enemies through time, which can both cause damage and change their physical form. For example, sending a monkey-type enemy into the future causes damage but also turns them into a more elite enemy with an attack that can damage your whole party.
This system also allows for interesting status effects and mechanics, like poisoning an enemy, advancing time, and inflicting all of that poison damage at once. Combat is built around these systems and they work well for the most part.
Unfortunately, combat also holds one of my biggest gripes, as it’s all based around random encounters; the kind of random encounters that feel like they should be a relic of a bygone era. Boss battles and pitched battles are oftentimes great, but Cris Tales has the common RPG problem of simply having too many random battles that take too long to get through.
The combat system is also slow, but the problem with that doesn’t really appear until you try to make your way through some of the lengthier dungeons, or have to return to areas for side quests. At least on Switch, each battle took roughly 10-15 seconds to load, and then another 10-15 seconds to load back into the game when a battle is over. I know that sounds like a small gripe, but battle after battle really starts dragging on and slows down the experience.
Pacing, in general, is a big issue with Cris Tales, as even the first ten hours or so really start to drag on. Early on the game sets up the Empress of Time as the main villain, but the game’s real story and point don’t become clear for quite a while. Side quests in each town can open up new dialogue options and choices that affect the story, but the side quests themselves are hardly interesting, usually deferring to generic fetch quests.
The good news is that there’s some seriously gorgeous scenery to look at as you wander around the world. Cris Tales’ art style is truly wonderful, with fantastical colors and sharp edges. There’s a kind of fairy tale wonder that permeates everything, and Cris Tales’ style just works on every level.
Despite the slow pacing of the story, the characters of Cris Tales are what really stand out. The ensemble cast feels like they truly develop meaningful relationships across the experience, and quality voice acting helps provide even more substance. Even though I didn’t much care for the overall narrative by the end of Cris Tales, I did care what happened to these characters.
I absolutely love the look and style of Cris Tales, especially in its unique Colombian influences. Even with that, however, I found that it sticks far too close to the idea of being a “homage” to JRPGs. It ends up feeling like it just tries to ape everything fans love about 90s JRPGs but doesn’t strike out enough to do anything uniquely interesting.
The modern JRPGs that stand out most to me these days are the ones that try to do something unique and different, but Cris Tales feels like it falls just short of that mark. Still, it’s a gorgeous experience with some truly wonderful characters, and any genre fan will find a lot to love, warts and all.