A gorgeous JRPG with a few too many issues
Genre: RPG, JRPG
Developer: Dreams Uncorporated, SYCK
Publisher: Modus Games
Release date: 20 Jul, 2021
Cris Tales is a new JRPG by new developers Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK that tries to capture the gameplay of classic JRPGs like the Paper Mario series, while adding the twist of time manipulation to the mix. The game follows a young time mage named Crisbell as she tries to stop the empress of time from destroying the world.
What stands out most with Cris Tales is its graphics though, and to a lesser degree its sound design. The game has a remarkably high production value for an indie game, even a high budget one. But does the actual game live up to the remarkably high production value?
Story & Setting
Crisbell, a young orphan, lives in a small peaceful town. Life is simple there, and the town’s only real noteworthy feature is a large cathedral. It’s not perfect though, and as of late there’s been talks of goblin attacks, and the town’s mayor is pushing forward with an unpopular industrialization plan.
When performing her chores a frog steals a rose from Crisbell. As she tracks the frog into the cathedral something awakens in Crisbell, suddenly she’s able to see into both the past and the future. The frog turns out to be no ordinary frog, but a very eloquent frog named Matias, who offers to help Crisbell with her newfound powers.
Crisbell hardly has time to get accustomed to her new powers before the town is attacked, but thanks to the help of a wandering warrior she’s able to drive back the attackers and save everyone. Sadly she gets accused of causing the attack and has to escape the city, but not before she finds out that the Empress of Time might be behind all of this.
And so begin the story of Cris Tales, with Crisbell and her party trying to stop the Empress of Time. Over the course of the game Crisbell has to visit several different regions, all with their own problems, as well as run into other characters who will join her on her journey.
The story starts off as feeling a bit incoherent, like there might have been a scene or two missing in the first town. That’s not a problem that’s consistent through the game, and only the very early parts of it really suffers from this, which is weird, as usually developers try to put their best foot forward in the early parts of a game. The story never becomes great though, and the main plot is very original. Some of the time manipulation stuff adds some wrinkles to it, but overall the main plot is pretty generic.
The writing is better than the plot, and is generally pretty decent. Characters have their own personalities, and it’s conveyed well through the writing. There are still a few moments where the game stumbles here, but overall the writing is more than acceptable, helped by the work put in by the voice actors.
As for the world Cris Tales is set in, it feels like the kind of world we would have got in a 90’s JRPG, that is it’s not very coherent and every region has its own distinct theme. That’s not a bad thing mind you, and Cris Tales is drawing heavy inspiration from 90’s JRPGs so it’s fitting that it also has the somewhat inconsistent approach to world building, where it’s okay to have a fire region, an ice region and a Brazil region (yes there is a city that seems to have been inspired by Brazil, or maybe Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay or Uruguay). Every region also has a main story and a few side stories that are unique to them, and that usually to some extent ties in with the main plot.
Cris Tales is great looking. The art style is distinct and cartoonish, and also remains consistent through the game. The stylized look also gave the developers a good amount of freedom to make up interesting character designs, and they did not squander that. There are some great designs on display here, both for enemies and also regular characters. The characters don’t just look good in stills either, they’re also well animated. The great looks also carries over to the cutscenes. During important moments in the story there will be animated cutscenes in the same style as the rest of the game, and these look great. Animations are fluid and expressive and these are a joy to behold. And these are not even all that rare, there’s a bunch of them through the game, although some of them are pretty short.
Sound is also one of the strengths of Cris Tales. Most of the games songs are good, almost good enough to be worth listening to outside the game (but not quite), and the sound effects have a bit of weight to them, which helps combat feel satisfying. Not every single sound effect is as good, but many of the most commonly played ones are.
Let’s not forget the voice acting. This game is fully voiced, and that includes all the NPCs. The voice acting is overall good, with a few small misses here and there, and there are some cases where it sounds like the voice actor switched microphone between takes. Most importantly though, the voice actors interject a lot of personality into the characters they’re portraying, which helps them stand out and be more memorable.
Gameplay in Cris Tales is very similar to the old Paper Mario games, or the original Super Mario RPG. For those who have never played those games (you should, they are actually really good), they’re typical JRPGs with the twist that combat has an element of timing to it.
In Cris Tales you’re controlling a party of characters that move across the world, fight monsters, level up and solve simple puzzles. The game can roughly be split up into two parts, cities and dungeons (there’s a bit of overland travel between, but apart from finding a few chests, the overland bit has very little to it). In the cities you’ll be talking to people, help them with their issues and progress the story. Most cities also have a couple of side quests that you can do.
In the dungeons you’re solving puzzles and fighting monsters. As you travel through the dungeon you’ll run into random encounters, though the encounter rate is mercifully low. When you do run into an enemy combat starts, and if you’ve played any other traditional JRPG the basics should be immediately familiar. You and the enemies take turns attacking each other and using spells and abilities, and you do so until one side is dead. When you attack an enemy, or you’re attacked, you have a chance of increasing the damage you deal, or reduce the damage you take, by timing a button press right. Hit the button right as your weapon or spell strikes the enemy and they’ll take more damage and maybe even have a status effect applied to them. The timing is tied to the character animations, and different attacks have different timing, so new attacks can take some getting used to. There are three degrees of success here, failure, success and a great success, with the later having a very tight timing. There’s also abilities that can require button mashing, which some people might have issues with doing. The random encounters are reason enough to install the game on an SSD though, as there’s a loading screen before and after each one, that can be somewhat lengthy.
What makes Cris Tales unique is your ability to manipulate time. Every enemy has three states, young, adult and old, and you can move time forwards or backwards to influence this. Some enemies are stronger at certain points in their lives, and if you try to advance time for an enemy that’s already old, or rewind time on one that’s young they’ll hit their limit and take a good chunk of damage, so there’s a bit of strategy here. Damage over time effects will also deal their full damage instantly if you advance time, so applying poison on an enemy and then aging them is in theory a good strategy, and one that the game introduced very early on. Sadly this is where the game falters. Most enemies are simply too easy to kill for it to be worth setting up a poison + advance time combo, and it’s easier to just hit them with your attacks instead. Also bosses are more often than not immune, or highly resistant , to status ailments which means that just attacking them is the best strategy.
Speaking of enemies being easy to kill, the game is not very well balanced. After the tutorial you have to fight through an area that feels pretty dangerous, and that gives the impression of this being a somewhat difficult JRPG. But you level up really fast in this area. The area following is also somewhat difficult, but you once more level up fast. Then the rest of the game is a breeze, and the rate you level up ends up being far lower. It’s like they put over-leveled enemies early on, and then made the level curve for the enemies you face very gentle after that. Most bosses are also far too easy, and just act as big damage sponges, though there are exceptions to this rule. Your healing is powerful enough that enemy attacks hardly even matter. Also mana is so plentiful that you can just spam your most powerful spells and abilities with no real worry of running out of mana, unless you just skip resting entirely. Cash is also something you’ll be swimming in pretty soon, as enemies are very generous with how much money they drop.
There are some light puzzles in the game, like press certain switches to have certain effects, advance time so an object crumbles, or retrieving an object from the past. Nothing too complicated, and overall none of the puzzles were very challenging. If you see a screenshot with a triangle in the middle of the screen, and both sides of it having visibly different things going on, that’s the time mechanic, you can see into both the future and the past with that, with the center triangle being the present. Sadly this gets under-utilized, though it is a neat effect. It can be ever so slightly tougher to figure out where you need to go for certain side quests though, but these are still very much on the easy side. Many side quests also have a fare bit of backtracking to them. Doing the sidequests is well worth the effort though, as you’ll influence the future of the world, in a visible way.
Cris Tales is a stunningly good looking game, that sounds great and plays well. It’s a JRPG that does random encounters mostly right, as the encounter rate is low and rarely feels frustrating. Sadly the games poor balance ultimately hurts the gameplay, and the story is rarely better than fine. It’s in other words a game with a few major strengths, but also a few big things it does not do too well.
Most of the issues, apart from the so-so main story, could in theory be fixed with a big update somewhere down the line, and the developers seem to be taking criticism to heart, so this is a game well worth keeping an eye on for the future, but right now it’s only for those who are JRPG-starved, absolutely love the genre, or find the art to be so good that they’re willing to overlook some pretty serious balancing issues.