Though I enjoyed most of Cris Tales, one moment in particular really sold the game for me. I was in the midst of a boss battle that had already gone on for 25 minutes against a big robot–every time I destroyed one of the mechanical giant’s arms, a drone would appear to fully repair it, so the only way to end the fight was to scrap the drone. But the drone would only appear when an arm was destroyed, dragging the fight out as I slowly chipped away at the arms’ huge health pools over and over. Then I had an idea: What if I could use protagonist Crisbell’s Regression spell on an enemy? I had only previously used it for its described purpose of regressing allies to a previous state in time, returning them to full health after taking damage or suffering a status effect. To my surprise, my idea worked. By using Regression on the robot’s arms after the drone repaired them, it returned them to their destroyed state, causing the drone to reappear and giving me the opportunity to continuously whale on it. A few minutes later, victory was mine.
This gameplay mechanic speaks to Cris Tales’ overall narrative, which is about the importance of examining the past, facing the challenges of the present, and changing the future for the better. It’s a message that goes beyond trying to hurl the right magic spell at a murderous mining robot too, as Cris Tales is largely a story about humanity’s impact on the world at large and how exploitation of the environment, racism, greed, and hoarding cures to deadly diseases are far more dangerous threats to humanity’s future than an evil witch. It’s a concept that doesn’t neatly wrap itself up as well as I would have liked, but the journey to that point is an incredible RPG experience, one satisfyingly supported by the cool idea of being able to see the past, present, and future all at once.
In Cris Tales, you play as Crisbell, a young girl with no knowledge of her past who unexpectedly becomes a Time Mage. She meets a talking, time-travelling frog named Matias who explains that Crisbell can now perceive the past, present, and future of the world simultaneously, giving her the unique ability to glean knowledge from people’s histories and alter their fates. Matias takes her to meet Willhelm, also a Time Mage, who tells Crisbell that she’s key to stopping the Time Empress, an immensely powerful Time Mage set on taking over the world. With the help of young knight and mage Cristopher, the trio repel an attack led by two of the Time Empress’ lackies, and the squad, now of four, set out to find a way to enhance Crisbell’s powers so that she’ll be strong enough to save the world, stopping to recruit additional allies and help the world’s diverse assortment of kingdoms along the way.
The interactions between the growing band of friends in Crisbell’s party are the best part of Cris Tales–it’s not even close. The found family trope is a tried and true storytelling method at this point and Cris Tales doesn’t do anything revolutionary with that formula, but the charming character designs, superb voice acting, and regular interjections of quick punchy dialogue lodges this band of misfits into your heart. It doesn’t take long to become deeply invested in the individual motivations of each character, whether it’s Cristopher’s desire to avenge his dead brother or sentient android JKR-721’s quest to acquire purpose and discover their reason for existing.
Willhelm is an especially wonderful character. His unique power as a Time Mage is that his personal time is frozen, so although he appears to be one of the youngest members of the party, he’s actually the grizzled adult shepherding around a group of kids. Actor Lindsey Vega brings Willhelm’s lines to life with a tired exasperation and dry wit that betrays his actual age, leading to the funniest lines in the game and bettering the entire story as a result. The Time Mage’s friendly rivalry with Cristopher and mentor relationship with Crisbell are also very wholesome. Matias doesn’t provide much substance for most of Cris Tales, but the other three members of the core group all have meaningful developments that make the heartfelt moments all the sweeter and all the instances of tragedy that much more heartbreaking–and the excellent writing behind Willhelm’s character is the driving force for much of that.
But as important as Willhelm is, Crisbell is the one that ties Cris Tales together. Her ability to perceive the past, present, and future is at the core of Cris Tales, both in its story and gameplay. It works a lot better for the latter than the former.
In order to proceed in her quest, Crisbell will regularly need to help those around her with their problems. Her ability to perceive different points in time helps with this–if you wander into a new kingdom that looked beautiful in the past, has seen better days in the present, and is completely flooded by water in the future, then you know that part of the solution to save the kingdom is tied to learning why and how the water levels would rise high enough to engulf a city.
The information gleaned from Crisbell’s ability gives you some context for who you need to talk to and what choices you can make, but as Willhelm warns early on, there’s rarely a “right” choice that will fix everything forever. This part of Cris Tales’ storytelling is incredibly rewarding–it feels good to help people with their problems and see the effects of your actions appear in the future. Additionally, Cris Tales has several major choice-driven moments where Crisbell needs to decide the overall fate of a kingdom and you unlock additional, alternate futures depending on the optional side quests you chose to pursue up to that point. As Crisbell and her friends made their way through each kingdom, I felt like my choices carried actual agency and my small decisions in sidequests were having major ramifications on the big decisions in the overall campaign.
My issue with all this is that it doesn’t feel like the ramifications of those major choices then carry into the ending of Cris Tales. The final moments of Cris Tales feel like they’re amounting to something fairly significant based on what Crisbell and her friends have done up to that point. However, the ending quickly transitions into a slideshow of all the future events you managed to plan and then concludes with one of the characters implying that there’s more to the story. And then the credits roll. It’s very unfulfilling. For a game all about seeing how your actions carry weight and inform the future, leaving the future open to interpretation is a bit unsatisfying (though, I will grudgingly admit, is realistic). As much as I loved the 24-hour journey through Cris Tales, its final 60 seconds are unrewarding.
Crisbell’s Time Mage powers best come into play in Cris Tales’ puzzles, exploration, and turn-based combat. As Crisbell grows stronger, she unlocks new abilities that tie into her capacity to see the past and future, like being able to rewind or fast forward the time of certain objects. With abilities like that, you can restore a generator to when it was a bunch of pieces in a box, allowing you to push it against a wall, revert it to its present form, and then cause it to decay to the point where it breaks down and explodes, opening a hole in the wall. You can also rely on Matias’ time travelling abilities to solve puzzles, like moving a locked safe in the present beneath a dripping beaker of acid and then sending Matias to the future that Crisbell sees where the safe now has a big hole in it.
Combat is where things start getting really complex but in the best possible way, as Crisbell’s time powers open up a whole mess of different strategies and means of fighting enemies. Cris Tales is your standard turn-based RPG, where everyone in your party and all the enemies present are depicted on a timeline and folks take turns performing actions. But because of Crisbell, you can also send enemies backwards and forward through time. So the wolf in front of you could be rewound into a cute pup or aged forward into a slow, but furious pack leader. Depending on what stage of life an enemy is in, their stats can radically change. Perhaps an enemy has a lot of health in their infancy but less so as an adult–but time has afforded them the chance to learn powerful magic.
Crisbell can use her abilities to change how her allies’ attacks behave as well. For example, if Cristopher uses water magic on an impenetrable shield and then Crisbell sends that enemy to their future, the shield will become rusted and weak after being wet for years. Or if Crisbell rewinds a group of enemies to the past, has Willhelm plant a poisonous seed nearby and then returns them to the present on her next turn, it will be like the seed was always there, sprouting a poisonous plant amidst all your foes.
This adds an interesting wrinkle to the traditional turn-based combat, as you now need to consider not only how to beat your enemy but also how to bend time to make that process easier. Crisbell can only send enemies on the left part of the screen to the past and the right side of the screen to the future as well, adding another consideration. And Cris Tales continuously keeps throwing twists at you, encouraging you to evolve your strategies and think outside the box (like regressing a healed robot arm to its destroyed state to continuously bring out your true target: the repair drone). Even if you’re fighting the same enemies, if their ages are different or if they’re attacking you from different sides of the screen, you have to consider different strategies. So despite Cris Tales’ lack of diverse enemy types, combat isn’t boring because the makeup of fights changes enough that you need to keep coming up with new methods for dealing with the similar threats.
Additionally, very similarly to Ikenfell, Cris Tales incorporates a timing mechanic into its combat–you have to time a button press right when your attack lands for it to be more effective or when an enemy attacks you in order to parry their strike and limit the damage against you. This does add an element of satisfying success to overcoming Cris Tales’ challenging enemies, especially if you manage to pull off a clutch parry near the end of a 10-minute battle, keeping your party alive long enough to heal and finish the fight. Thankfully it’s never frustrating, as there are visual indicators to help you get the timing down for each attack even if you haven’t seen the move before. Unfortunately, however, there is no option to turn off this timing feature or increase the window you have for reacting to an attack, so players who don’t possess the physical capabilities to quickly time a button press (occasionally multiple times in a row) will likely find Cris Tales to be inaccessible, as failing to regularly parry the hard-hitting attacks from some of the late game bosses can kill your entire party in a single turn. I don’t have much issue with the timing mechanic (I think it helps the player remain engaged throughout the fight instead of just waiting for the enemy to complete their turn), but the lack of an option to make combat more accessible is disappointing.
When you’re not growing increasingly invested in Crisbell’s plight and second-guessing who the true villains are, or fighting things out in the rewardingly strategic turn-based battles, you’ll mostly just be exploring the world of Cris Tales and soaking in its incredible atmosphere. The game is visually stunning and the music is some of the best I’ve heard. The diverse assortment of instruments and vocal performances used to construct the unique themes for each kingdom really helps differentiate each setting, but the underlying similarities between each one also audibly convey an unspoken unity between all of the cultures. And I just think that’s really neat.
It’s occasionally a little too easy to get lost in Cris Tales as some of the side characters and landmarks you have to travel to don’t have very memorable names or appearances and the in-game hint system is not at all helpful. But even when you’re lost, Cris Tales is a pretty game to look at and listen to, and one that’s fun to explore if for no other reason than to see how characters and places change when viewed via the lens of the past, present, or future.
All in all, Cris Tales is the kind of RPG I traditionally love to play. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying story about a group of troubled individuals striving to save the world for their own reasons, and along the way finding a place to belong with each other. Hilarious characters like Willhelm keep things from getting too stressful, and Crisbell’s powerful Time Mage abilities lead to some intriguing narrative choices, fun puzzles, and engaging combat. The game’s final moments are not conclusive enough to tie everything up in a satisfying way, but the journey to get there is one well worth taking.