Cris Tales is a game that left me conflicted. It’s a similar ambiguity you feel after rewatching a film you enjoyed a long time ago. On the one hand, all the good memories come bubbling back up. But then you see the clumsy directing, campy acting, and janky story threads, all of which lead you to the realization that maybe it wasn’t as great a movie as you remembered. But you still love it. Cris Tales’s love for the past of JRPGs came bursting out of its vibrant wrapper, reminding me of all the good times I had with the games of yore and how glad I am we’ve grown past them.
Right off the bat, what grabbed me about the game was its stunning art style. It’s a feast of color for your eyes to gobble up. While the character and background designs are meant to look cartoony, I feel bad to put it in such a term. It’s more like a unique piece of art from a time when painters played with form and shape. There’s a deceptive simplicity to the way Cris Tales’s world and characters are drawn that manages to communicate the story’s deeper complexity.
Similar to its visual aesthetics, Cris Tales also impressed me with its music and sound design. The score is some of the best I have experienced from an indie RPG. If I’m allowed to be so shallow (who am I kidding, of course I am), a JRPG’s soundtrack lives and dies by its battle tracks, all of which are absolute bangers in Cris Tales. Even after long past my playthrough, I’m still humming the main battle theme wherever I go. It really is that good but maybe I’ve also listened to it one too many times.
As I mentioned earlier, Cris Tales is a love letter to the JRPGs of the past. That means it wears its inspirations on its sleeve and not always in a good way. If there’s one thing we all wish the genre would leave firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s random encounters. In a time when games like Bravely Default are innovating by giving us ways to control the number of battles that pop up from out of nowhere, playing Cris Tales felt like a forced chore at times. For instance, I was making my way through an area, dealing with one repetitive battle after another, until the boss completely annihilated me. It was understandable because I was out of resources. With no way to return to town fast – another infuriating omission – I had to go through more random battles on my way back to the entrance of the area. Thankfully, the impact these repetitive battles had on my blood pressure was mitigated by the game’s intriguing combat system.
At the core of Cris Tales lies a time manipulation mechanic that can be used both inside and outside of combat. Crisbell, the game’s protagonist, experiences the world’s past, present, and future all at the same time. This split is represented by two diagonal cuts that segment the right side of the screen into the future and the left side into the past. During battle, Crisbell can send enemies in either time depending on which area of the screen they’re in. In tandem with the rest of the party’s abilities, this time mechanic can be used to create powerful attack combos. One of my favorite ones involves poisoning enemies on the right with Willhelm’s skills and then sending them into the future to take the full brunt of the damage they were going to receive over time. The same can be done in reverse with enemies on the left side. As the party builds up their unique assortment of skills, you gain new fun ways to take advantage of the time manipulation mechanic.
The bottom line is that Cris Tales is a gorgeously crafted game that is too in love with the good old days. Everything about its design, art, music, and mechanics communicates a clear desire to create something that looks beautiful and feels magical in the same way we felt with the first few generations of JRPGs. But the past wasn’t always perfect. It hides lessons that lead to evolution, the kind that makes for design that’s more elegantly placed in recent times and not firmly rooting its feet in the past.