Time travel is a complicated concept. In addition to several different theories on how it could work in reality, there’s a ton of fiction focused on the idea, how it could be used, and its dangers. While it may have started with The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, video games are particularly suited to let people play around with this idea. Games like Chrono Trigger, Radiant Historia, and Zero Escape: 999 allow players to mess around with the timeline to discover new information, see the outcomes of different choices, and solve puzzles. Cris Tales is the latest entry in the pantheon of time travel games, and it looks to be one of the most interesting and involved yet to use the concept.
When Crisbell suddenly gains the power to see the past, present, and future all at the same time, she discovers that in the future her hometown of Narim will be reduced to ruins. In her effort to change the future, the young girl discovers that she’s a Time Mage with extraordinary powers chosen by The Lady to stop a woman known only as the Time Empress who’s trying to destroy the world. Joined by new friends like the nature magic wielding Wilhelm and Elementalist Cristopher, Crisbell needs to journey across the world and grow her powers if she wants to stand a chance against the Time Empress.
Cris Tales is a stunning JRPG inspired by classics like Chrono Trigger. Players use Crisbell’s Time Magic both in exploration and battles. In areas like towns, the screen is divided into three sections, with a view of the past on the left, the present in the center, and the future on the right. While simply looking at the different time periods is a joy unto itself with a gorgeous, 2D animated art style, you can also interact with the timeline wherever you want. Crisbell is accompanied by a wise frog named Matias who she can send through time by pressing the X button. I’ve been using this ability constantly to solve puzzles or just see how characters looked or will look. For example, so far I’ve mostly sent Matias into the past to retrieve an object that’s been stolen or destroyed in the present. Even if it’s less freeform than something like Chrono Trigger, it’s still a lot of fun to use, though it does have one caveat: Matias needs to be close to Crisbell to activate it. You see, since he’s a frog, he hops along fairly slowly and I’ve frequently found myself needing to wait for him to catch up before I can progress. It’s frustrating, but relatively minor, and I just wish he would instead teleport to me to remedy this.
As you explore the world of Crystalis, you’ll also come across dungeons filled with monsters. These areas forgo the split view so you can focus on navigating these dangerous areas and avoiding hazards like fast moving sewer water or restoring or destroying obstacles to progress. Cris Tales uses the tried and true method of random encounters in these locations, but the time between battles is fairly generous so you’re not interrupted too often. Besides, it’s not much of an interruption if you’re having a blast.
Cris Tales’ incredibly fun and unique battle system makes it stand out even among some of the best JRPGs out there like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. Just like when exploring towns, the screen is divided into three sections, your party of three in the center and enemies grouped on both sides. Using her sword, Crisbell can send enemies on her left into the past, and those on the right into the future. Enemies often have past, present, and future forms which change up how they fight and their strengths and weaknesses, so you may want to send a creature into the future to make it more vulnerable to physical attacks; as a consequence, it deals more magic damage. However, you’ll mostly be using this power in combination with your allies abilities. For example, as a Time Mage specializing in nature magic, Wilhelm can throw or plant Yucadras to poison an enemy. Throwing will only affect one enemy instantly, while planting will make the Yucadra sprout later but hit all the enemies on that side. You may see where this is going at this point, but if on Wilhelms turn you plant a poison Yucadra on the right, you can then send it into the future on Crisbell’s turn to have it blossom instantly and poison everyone quicker. Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Let’s use the first boss, Volcano and Galley, as another example. They wield a massive shield that prevents you from attacking the sisters. However, Cristopher can use a water spell to make their shield wet, while Crisbell sends the shield and the boss into the future so it rusts. You might use Cristopher’s fire spell to burn an enemy who’s in the past, then return them to the present so the burn effect does all of its damage at once instead of over time. If you can think of a way to use the time magic creatively, it’ll probably work to your advantage (or disadvantage if you’re not careful). JKR is a strong physical attacker who’s the least affected by Crisbell’s powers since he’s a robot, while Zas and her magic bag or roulette magic fundamentally changes her moveset based on the time period she’s attacking. The final party member (who I won’t spoil) is essentially a blue mage who learns attacks from enemies and, you guessed it, those spells completely change their effect on different eras. For example, a weak attack with a defense debuff will become a massive double damage buff for the party when used in the future. Figuring out how everything interacts and using it to your advantage is a ton of fun from start to finish.
Even if you put the time shenanigans aside for a moment, battles are still a ton of fun. Attacking and defending, much like Paper Mario, have moments where you can press the A button for a special effect. With normal attacks, pressing the button just as your hit lands will trigger a follow up swing for more damage with a perfectly timed press resulting in an automatic critical hit. Defending works the same way: with good timing you can deflect for slightly reduced damage, but with perfect timing you parry for greatly reduced damage. It’s a system that’s worked well in other games, and works just as well here, if not more so with how difficult the game can be.
Prepare to die quite a bit, especially early on as you get used to how everything works. The game certainly rewards mastery of its systems, as you’ll need to use every trick up your sleeves to survive some of the bosses here. It’s been a while since I haven’t just breezed through an RPG, so this is very refreshing. It presents just the right amount of challenge to make you consider your every action, actually use items, and equip yourself with gear that tailors to your specific playstyle. At least, for the first half of the game anyway – my party eventually became so powerful that normal encounters were that typical, easy fare, but some boss battles could still rough me up a bit. I wish the difficulty persisted throughout the game, but it was still enjoyable throughout if for different reasons.
The story also feels like some wires got crossed as you near the end of the game. Each kingdom you visit has at least three choices you can choose from to decide its future at the end of the arc. You only have two by default, but you can unlock more by completing the side quests in the area (supposedly there can be more than three, but I did every side quest I came across and was only ever presented with three). This choice will immediately result in the future changing in the area, so you can see, for example, improved living conditions on the right side of the screen. You’d hope that you could interact with the fruits of your labor later on in the game in a revisit, right? It seems like that might have been the intention at one point, since you do go back to each area multiple times, but these visits are always short and only mention your choice in passing. It’s nice to have that acknowledged in some form, but I can’t help but want more.
I think that speaks to just how good the story and characters in Cris Tales are: I simply want more. Sure, there are a ton of typos, inconsistencies (Crystalis is referred to both as the world and a single kingdom), and instances of confusing or repeated dialogue, but aside from those issues the game presents a solid story pushed forward by some fantastic characters. The main party has some great banter and chemistry; while Wilhelm and Cristopher bicker they’re offset by Zas’ zany antics or JKR’s deadpan logic, all held together by the far too sweet Crisbell. You won’t be surprised by any of the turns the story takes, but it’s still a fun ride with a ton of heart.
A lot of love was also poured into the visuals with the game’s mix of western cartoon and anime aesthetics into a gorgeous 2D art style. Some areas almost have an art deco feel to them, with abstract shapes in the sky and patterns on the ground, though I’m not entirely sure that’s the right term. Every area you visit is lovingly rendered, and the people who inhabit these locations are wonderfully animated and drawn. As I said before, the game has a unique joy of seeing how characters look in each era especially after you’ve solved their problems. The music that accompanies each moment of the game is similarly excellent, the battle themes are especially catchy and never get old. If I had one complaint about the visuals and sounds, it’s that music can sometimes play on top of animated cutscenes and sound effects can occasionally lack impact in battle. Some enemy attacks just don’t have sound effects and certain animations make it hard to know when you’re supposed to press A, but these are mostly nitpicks.
That’s the majority of my problems with Cris Tales: nitpicks. Sure, it feels like the developer’s initial scope was larger than what they could accomplish, but the game that’s here is still fantastic. However, there is one big problem with the version I played for this review: loading times. I counted on average 20 seconds of loading minimum for each transition, including random encounters. While the game took me 41 hours to finish, I suspect at least an hour, maybe two, were spent simply on loading. It’s very frustrating, so unless you’re dead set on playing this portably (which is very nice) consider another platform or wait for a patch. If you are willing to wait though, you’ll find a fantastic JRPG at the end.
Cris Tales takes the best parts of classic RPGs, mixes them all together, and adds its own spin to make it truly unique. While it can stumble a bit near the end, fans of the genre don’t want to miss this gorgeous game.