I can think of a laundry list of events from my past that I’d alter or undo if I had the ability to futz with time, which is probably why someone like me doesn’t get to do so. With the power to affect time comes the potential to affect causality, and if you’ve ever seen The Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher, you’d know precisely how dangerous such an ability is. But when someone’s running amok in history, all you can do is send a time cop after them, and in Cris Tales, our newest recruit is none other than a little orphan girl.
In a far-off fantasy land, four kingdoms are under siege by the Time Empress, an all-powerful, seemingly ageless Time Mage seeking to claim the seat of power in the ancient city of Crystallis. This campaign of terror isn’t of much concern to young Crisbell, an orphan girl living in the city of Narim. However, when a mysterious frog in a top hat leads to her stumbling into unlocking Time Mage abilities of her own, she finds herself suddenly thrust into a journey to discover the secret of powers and save the world from the Time Empress, alongside young spellcaster Cristopher and childlike Time Mage Willhelm.
Cris Tales bills itself as a love letter to old school, SNES-era JRPGs, and it wears its influences pretty plainly. The general structure of the story reminds me very much of games like Chrono Trigger, with perhaps a pinch of Tales of here and there. Every kingdom has its own problems and politics going on in addition to the war against the Time Empress, which Crisbell and company often find themselves roped into in typical JPRG protagonist fashion.
While the story is nothing groundbreaking, it’s got a good production value, with nearly every line of dialogue fully voiced, not to mention the beautiful storybook art aesthetic. That said, some incidentals of the plot could’ve benefitted from a closer look; while the voice acting was fine, I noticed multiple typos in the written dialogue during my playthrough, including misspellings, missing punctuation, weird font changes, and even just entirely wrong words. In addition to that, some sounds and animations seemed to be either glitched or missing during in-game cutscenes. None of it was bad enough to wreck my interest in the story, but it does get a little irritating, especially during important moments.
Speaking of important moments, the primary problem solving shtick in Cris Tales is using your knowledge of the past and future to influence the present. At almost all times, Crisbell can observe the past, present, and future simultaneously, and with the help of her froggy friend Matias, she can listen in on conversations and obtain items lost to history. I wouldn’t precisely call these instances “puzzles,” since the game is usually pretty clear about when it’s time to jump forward or back, but in all honesty, I actually appreciate a bit of brevity in this matter.
I’ve had too many experiences with frustratingly obtuse puzzles in JPRGs, so it’s nice to get something straightforward for a change, especially since solving these little problems will subtly inform the direction of the story. In every major story section, there will be a critical juncture where you’ll need to make a decision that will permanently alter the future of the kingdoms and their residents. There is no right or wrong answer here; the overall story goes in one direction, but it can take on numerous permutations depending on the choices you make.
These time shenanigans also form the backbone of the game’s dungeon-crawling segments. The dungeons are a pretty typical JRPG fare, most similar to the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, as well as Paper Mario. Your progression is mostly linear, but occasionally you’ll have to take a detour to solve a little environment puzzle. Some of these rely on the environment itself, such as navigating the flowing waterways of an underground sewer, while others utilize Crisbell’s time manipulation abilities.
A little ways into the game, Crisbell gains the ability to restore and decay environmental objects, creating footholds and opening paths. There are some pretty nifty avenues of problem-solving, though I do wish some quality-of-life considerations had been made in the dungeons, such as a faster run or an instant exit item, as a combination of a notably high enemy encounter rate and frustratingly long load times can make even shorter dungeons a bit of a slog. There is an equippable item you can obtain that stops encounters, though you don’t get it until the fourth kingdom, and even then it’s just something you buy from the shop, so it’s easy to miss.
On the subject of encounters, let’s talk combat. Again, it’s standard stuff; you’ve got a team of three party members in the center of the arena, with enemies flanking you on either side. This placement isn’t just for kicks, though; depending on where an enemy is standing, Crisbell can shove them into the past or the future, altering their stats and abilities. Most enemies don’t necessarily become weaker in different time periods, just different. For example, an enchanted knight can use both magic and swordplay in the present.
In her past, she’s too young to use magic but is capable of faster swordplay, and in her future, she’s too frail for a sword, but her magic has been magnified. Of course, that’s not all there is to it; by using Crisbell’s time manipulation in tandem with her friends’ abilities, she can turn the tide to her advantage. One fun example of this, learned during the first boss encounter, is when Cristopher blasts an armored foe with a ball of water. When Crisbell forces that enemy into the future, they’ve become slightly stronger with age, but their armor has become a rusted mess, leaving them defenseless. Nearly all boss fights require a spot of low-key time or element-based problem solving, though thankfully, much like the sidequests, they’re never too obtuse that you can’t logic them out in a couple of turns.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention another missed moment for quality of life. The only way you can see an enemy’s health is by using a Scan ability. Once you do it for the first time, it’s there forever, which is fine for regular enemies, but if you want to Scan bosses, a party member with Scan has to be in the party for the whole fight, as there’s no way to switch out party members mid-combat. Also, while a KO’d party member will still get EXP at the end of a fight, inactive party members don’t get any EXP, which is an old JRPG quirk I really wish would just go away.
Overall, Cris Tales is a pleasant enough JRPG experience that perhaps could’ve used a little extra time in the oven. The story’s interesting enough to keep you going, even if it’s a little awkward in spots, and while I really wish the encounter rate wasn’t so high, the combat has enough rhythm and variety to keep things from getting stale too quickly. If you’re hoping for a deep RPG where every battle is a massive puzzle in itself, you’re not gonna get that here, but if you’re looking to relive a little of that 90s-era RPG love, Cris Tales will suit you fine. You might want to have a YouTube video or something in the background during those dungeons, though, just for when you have to go back and forth up a hill a few times to solve an environment puzzle.