I’ve had my eye on Cris Tales for quite a while, and that isn’t just because it was showing up in every possible E3 season showcase since COVID hit. No, it’s because this game is full of creative guts. Cris Tales’ hand-drawn art, time-traveling combat and multi-world storytelling had the intrigue pinging around my brain like a pinball table. Ultimately, what you see with Cris Tales is more or less what you get. A lovely-looking RPG with impressive-looking time travel hooks. But that’s it, for better and worse.
Cris Tales Review
The main hook is that Crisbell (Cris), a Time Mage, can see the past and future along with the present. In practice, the screen is split into thirds whenever this power is active, and all three states scroll along as you move. It looks absolutely amazing, and some of the ways it’s used are clever.
For one, there’s an element of time travel, but not for Cris. She can interact with puzzles in different ways, but it’s actually her frog companion who can hop back and forth, changing to a tadpole or an… older frog depending on the side. Then, he can interact with the environment in some ways to solve puzzles, such as determining which of an alchemist's bottles is a safe ingredient versus the poison missing its label. Eavesdropping is another good, early example, which has you visit other characters in different timelines to get additional context.
There’s, ostensibly at first, an element of impact as well. Some of them are more individual, such as giving money to a down on his luck busker to prevent his initial future as a thief. Other moments are a bit larger scale, such as deciding whose home you can free of a ruinous mold. But many of these choices aren’t terribly relevant to the story. You see the results of your choices in the moment, but to the side of the main plot.
In combat, Cris Tales kinda tries to have its cake and eat it too. Time manipulation is a huge factor, often being the route to a Good Time instead of a Bad Time (or sort of a pass/fail situation in some cases). The ones everyone likes to point to are dousing an armored boss in water then sending them to the future to rust their defense, or planting a poisonous vine/plant/creature thingy in the ground then moving time up to make it grow immediately.
These are very fun and impressive, especially the first time you see them! But the cracks start to show after a while. Some of the clever setups become “why does it take so many turns to do this thing,” or “these effects are basically the same in function,” and so on. Since you can’t change the left/past right/future structure, sometimes battles just won’t accept what would be an ideal solution if Cris could just, turn around. Add in some practically grind-required difficulty spikes and noticeable load times before and after battles (the load screens were very bad in the Switch version; on Steam the screens were faster but still bookended every battle) and engaging with the tricks was often something I’d not bother with unless forced to. I am a staunch supporter of random and turn-based battles, but for a game about time travel it sometimes moves at a jarringly slow pace.
Everywhere else, Cris Tales is full of charm, heart, and some pretty amazing examples of visual and technical skill. Not only is it full of unique ideas, it’s also another recent example of indie-adjacent games made by small teams coming out looking closer and closer to stuff out of larger outfits. It’s cool to see progress in action, in real time. But I feel like Cris Tales tries to be a bit too clever for its own good, and those flashier pieces don’t feel like parts of an organic whole. In sum, we have a creative, solid and flawed game. The kind of game that makes a service like Xbox Game Pass sing.
Gorgeous-looking experience at every level
The time travel stuff is really creative
Memorable characters and excellent voice acting
Loading screens before and after every single battle is a huge problem
Long-term, the time abilities in battle lose their novelty and get cumbersome, turning familiar effects (poison, etc) into multi-step fumbling
The past/present/future events you encounter in towns/cities feel like they don't have weight