Cris Tales has been described by its developers as a “gorgeous love letter” to classic JRPGs, including the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and Valkyrie Profile. If that was not enough, they also take additional inspiration from modern classics like Bravely Default and Persona 5.
That is a bold claim to say the least, especially coming from a team which is about to make its debut; this is the first game developed by the Colombian indie studio Dreams Uncorporated. The spotlight is entirely on them as Cris Tales is being released straight into Game Pass, leading the way into an out-of-this-world line-up with highly anticipated titles like The Ascent, Hades and Twelve Minutes.
The high bar has definitely been set, but can Cris Tales live up to its aspirations?
In Cris Tales you play as Crisbell, a young girl who lives in an orphanage under the care of the Mother Superior on the small town of Narim. While following a suspicious frog named Matias, you end up unlocking a mysterious power by using the crystals kept in the town’s cathedral.
As it turns out, Crisbell is now a newly awakened Time Mage capable of seeing both the past and the future — and the future is a terrible sight mainly because of the evildoings by the Time Empress, who aims to conquer Crystallis. But with the help of Matias, you can peer into the past and act in the present to change this terrible future.
And as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility: even though the future can be changed, Crisbell cannot save everyone. While traveling through the kingdoms tracking down the Time Empress you will face many choices with far-reaching consequences that will impact the world you will experience. Will you prevent Mrs. Miller becoming homeless alongside her newborn child, or will you save the town’s only Apothecary in order to keep the place stocked with medicine?
Even with the time-changing twist it is clear that Cris Tales follows a traditional JRPG formula: you are a young protagonist who travels the world making new friends and learning new powers with the ultimate goal of saving the world. But this overused formula works thanks to the game’s charismatic characters and how you are able to meet and interact with them not only in the present, but also in the past and the future.
The game also feels very lighthearted, which is no small feat since the story can get dark at times due to a future you are able to see that is not yet written in stone. There is a certain point in the story in which the future sight of a city looks weird – that is when you realize that said city will eventually be flooded, and everything you see there is under the water. But even then the game is still able to warm your heart thanks to Crisbell and the friends she makes along the way.
While Cris Tales is pretty honest about its inspirations, the game still feels fresh thanks to its unique time mechanic.
This is first and foremost a turn-based role-playing game, and as such you can attack, defend, use skills, items and even run away from random encounters. The uniqueness of Cris Tales comes from Crisbell’s powers: as a Time Mage you can warp your enemies into the past or future and mold your combat strategy around that.
The best example happens pretty early on the game. During your first boss fight you will face an enemy with a powerful steel shield that will prevent you from causing any damage to her. The game instructs you to use Cristopher’s water attack and then use Crisbell’s skills to send the boss to the future. The shield will then become rusted, allowing you to finally damage the boss.
Mastering the game’s combat mechanics is essential since it can be pretty challenging at times, especially during its first half. While going from kingdom to kingdom you will travel through dungeons full of random encounters, and your HP and mana are not refilled after each fight. You can try to flee from those random encounters, but that also means you will not level up and consequently not learn new skills, making upcoming fights even harder.
As mentioned before, you will recruit many allies throughout your journey. At any time you can have three members on your party, each with their own set of stats, skills and equipments. Leveling your party up will let you learn new skills, which will enable you to hit the enemies’ weaknesses more easily. You can also find new equipment on chests scattered around the world or buy them from merchants.
You can freely save the game from the pause menu when you are in the “overworld map”, which is some kind of a hub you go when traveling from a city to a dungeon. But once you are in a dungeon you will have to reach certain places in order to save the game — and even then your HP and mana will not be refilled, unless you use a special item which is kind of scarce during early game. Said item can be bought by spending 10,000 marbles, but you will need that money to upgrade your weapons and, to a lower priority, buy new and better equipments.
Hundred years of gorgeousness
While the inspiration taken from classic JRPGs was explicitly talked about by the studio during the pre-release period, you can also notice inspiration from yet another classic franchise: Paper Mario.
Cris Tales has a gorgeous world, mostly because of the hand-drawn 2D art, animated frame by frame. The protagonist’s movement tied with the vivid colors on the screen really reminds me of Nintendo’s classics, and the artstyle never gets old as you keep getting surprised when travelling between different kingdoms.
And once again, even though Cris Tales takes inspiration from other games, Dreams Uncorporated’s personal take makes the artstyle feel very unique. You can clearly see how the studio’s home country is used as an influence, and its CEO even went as far as mentioning Literature Nobel compatriot Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (Spanish for Hundred Years of Solitude).
But a great artstyle only gets you half of the way towards building a great world; a great soundtrack is also necessary, and once again Cris Tales nails the requirement. It matches the game’s set pieces perfectly, and it never feels monotonous unlike many JRPGs out there.
The only problem with Cris Tales’ world is that its nature contributes to a somewhat slow-pace that permeates throughout the game. There is no map, fast travel or even a way of making the protagonist walk faster, so the extensive world can make traveling between areas a chore. The lack of a fast-forward option during battle also does not help, but it is understandable due to the “parry” and “perfect-hits” combat mechanics.
Accessibility is Cris Tales’ true Achilles’ heel. Whenever I start a new game the first thing I do is to dive into its options, and Cris Tales surprised me with a barebones menu that provides nothing but volume sliders.
Subtitles are activated by default and I cannot deactivate them nor change its size. Even though the game supports 10 different languages — including French, Deutsch and, obviously, Spanish –, if I live in a region with an unsupported language the game defaults to English and gives no option to change it. If you live in Portugal or Brazil, for example, and have a better understanding of Spanish instead of English, you are out of luck.
There is no closed captions nor features that primarily target disabled players. As mentioned before, the combat can be quite tough at times, and yet there are no features designed to help less-able players make the game easier.
While those are things that do not affect me personally, it will definitely let many players down — which is never a good thing.
Cris Tales sets a high bar when describing itself as a love letter to some of the best JRPGs of all time, but indie studio Dreams Uncorporated manages to exceed expectations by delivering a charming game with unique and challenging combat mechanics and a gorgeous artstyle. The characters are interesting, and the ability to peer into their past and future makes you care even more for them – especially the protagonist and its allies, which will travel alongside you during the game’s 20-30 hours of gameplay.