A beautiful ode to the worst parts of old-school JRPGs

Alyse Stanley

THE WASHINGTON POST – Cris Tales reminds me of a lot of Japanese role-playing games I’ve played over the years. It’s undeniably an homage to the classic formula forged by series like Final Fantasy and Tales, though not always for the better.

You play as Crisbell, your typical bubbly, bright-eyed heroine, as she comes into her newfound powers as a time mage. The story itself is also what you’d expect: Crisbell joins up with a misfit crew of companions and gallivants around the world to take down the villain whose evil plan threatens to destroy everything. What sets Cris Tales apart is its whimsical fantasy setting and character design, which both proudly lean into the type of over-the-top anime tropes that no doubt helped inspire the game in the first place.

The world of Cris Tales is something plucked out of the pages of a children’s storybook: It uses marbles as currency; its colourful cities are populated by goblins, bird folk and other fantastical characters; and your main form of transportation is a giant floating statue of a woman. Oh, and throughout your journey, you’re accompanied by a frog wearing a bow tie and a top hat.

The game’s hand-drawn, 2D style particularly shines in combat, where the unique animations for each character’s abilities make battles feel like a production. You fight against a backdrop that reflects the area you’re in – such as salt mines, ancient ruins, or a river flowing from a rainbow-coloured waterfall. Personality is stuffed into every corner of Cris Tales.

Where Cris Tales is most innovative is with its time-manipulation mechanics, which play with typical RPG conventions in refreshing ways. When walking around towns, the screen is usually split into three sections to show the past, present and future of Crisbell’s immediate surroundings simultaneously.

Seeing three time periods at once can be a bit disorienting in practice, but for the most part it worked beautifully as a vehicle for visual storytelling. The game gets a lot of mileage out of these time-travelling hijinks, having you hop into the past or jump to the future to complete quests. Fetch quests and run quests in RPGs can feel like a slog, but getting to see how my choices influenced the future of those around me was a wholly unique and exciting experience; it made me feel like I really had an impact on this little make-believe world. These choices can be as trivial as helping someone pick what colour to paint their house or deciding the best emergency response as a wave of lava threatens the city.

In battle, this time-travelling mechanic plays on JRPG conventions in some interesting ways, though not nearly as well. Combat is mostly turn-based, with certain actions such as parrying, blocking and doing critical damage tied to real-time inputs. Unlike your companions, who stick to physical and magical attacks, Crisbell can send enemies into the past or the future to cause damage, enhance the effects of status ailments, or make enemies weaker or stronger. The game establishes several of these applications early on, but unfortunately recycles them throughout the game rather than building on them in any meaningful way. By the end of it, I hardly used Crisbell’s time manipulation powers at all. They just weren’t worth losing a turn that could be put to better use healing the party or buffing a stronger character’s stats to do several times whatever damage sending enemies whirling through time could.

While these time-travelling antics offer a refreshing twist on the JRPG formula, they can’t distract from the many ways Cris Tales takes its self-described title as a “love letter to classic JRPGs” too literally. As much as I love the games I grew up with, I’m quietly thankful for the quality of life updates like auto-saving and accessibility options that have become standard practice in the decades since. Cris Tales forgoes many of these.

You can’t skip or tweak the speed of dialogue, so you hear the same snippets on loop as you upgrade your equipment or complete other routine tasks. The game’s dependence on dedicated save points was similarly frustrating, as was its lack of a fast-travel system. But I might have been able to overlook all of those if I had the option to change Crisbell’s walking speed. Cris Tales bills itself as a 20-30 hour game, but I think it would have been half that length if you weren’t forced to stick to her leisurely pace. Your froggy companion, who you need by your side to hop to the past or present, is somehow even slower, often taking 10 to 15 seconds to catch up while you wait and twiddle your thumbs.

And while the game’s more populated areas were fun to explore, not even its gorgeous art style can hide the bareness of its dungeons. The settings themselves are fantastical, but its 2D art is unmistakably laid over basic 3D shapes and placed in a way that seems designed to needlessly slow the player down rather than add anything to the experience. Enemies are recycled throughout the game’s five regions with only minor tweaks to their design, and the main campaign forces you to revisit every boss and region several times over, all of which adds to the tedium.

While in dungeons, Crisbell can use her time magic to decay or restore certain objects to solve puzzles, reveal new paths or uncover treasure, though these abilities aren’t unlocked until later in the game and feel more like an afterthought. Some of its most interesting applications, like the ability to move objects before manipulating them, don’t show up until the game’s final hours.

While Cris Tales is occasionally difficult, that difficulty never feels intentional. This was especially onerous in boss battles where new mechanics were thrown in with zero explanation. The game’s confusing user interface made trying to determine the battle’s turn order – an essential element of landing some time-travel maneuvers – a headache. In more than one boss battle, I won, but had no idea how I did it.

Cris Tales is a game that sticks too closely to the shadow of its inspiration, and that’s a shame since what innovation it does offer by adding time traveling to the mix holds a lot of potential. The game realises this potential in an engaging and poignant way through the player’s interaction with other characters and choices that influence the fate of the game’s regions. However, the novelty of these time-traveling shenanigans quickly wears off as you spend dozens of hours trudging through tedious gameplay and repetitive battles.

While brimming with gorgeous visuals and charm, for a game about time, Cris Tales doesn’t seem to value yours.