When I initially checked out Cris Tales via PAX Online last year I was impressed with its visual style and time-manipulation mechanics. With the full version the game still has many impressive points but falls short of greatness due to some legacy JRPG tropes it decided to embrace.
Cris Tales features the charming and vibrant Crisbell, a young Time Wizard who can see into the past, present, and future simultaneously. Fairly quickly into the story Crisbell learns of her powers and uses them to solve some minor tasks and then learn how to leverage these powers in combat to weaken or harm enemies.
The time mechanics are an incredibly interesting hook and I really enjoyed how they were used both inside and out of combat. In exploration mode your talking frog sidekick named Matias (this is a JRPG after all) can be sent to the past or future with a quick command.
This element is used to manipulate the environments, whether it be planting a seed, moving a box, or opening a chest that only appears in a certain timezone. Further adding to this neat touch is that Matias is a young tadpole in the past and old frog in the future.
In combat the time manipulation is used tactically. If a heavily armored enemy boss is faced, have a companion cast a water spell and then activate the future crystal. This will cause the armor to rust and greatly lower defense.
Further tricks like aging a poison to expand the poison effect or make enemies younger and therefore weaker are also utilized. Crisbell also can trigger a chargeable Syncro move with her companions that activates a time-based team attack.
Despite these interesting mechanics leveraging time in battles, I actually found combat to be the weakest part of Cris Tales. Mostly because developers Dreams Uncorporated and Syck stuck to a very archaic random-encounter model.
As with many games that use this mechanic I quickly became tired of combat in each area. I still had to battle and fight round after round of slimes, robots, soldiers and wolf creatures because grind is needed to get resources, but it did annoy me.
The various characters that join Crisbell are at least interesting and have an evolving stable of special moves and attacks that help fight combat fatigue. The battles are sequenced with each party member and enemy taking their turn till the round is over which allows for some tactics but still gets repetitive quickly.
Thankfully there is much more to enjoy in Cris Tales than the combat. The story itself is fairly predictable once it gets going but it unfolds in a charming way. The varied people encountered along the way have problems, personalities and roles to play that help make the game flow fairly well.
The time mechanics in exploration mode in cities and non-combat areas is really the star of this game and makes for some interesting story and puzzle sequences. I really enjoyed wandering through towns and cities and seeing how the area was and where it would go; often the future looked relatively bleak which added a compelling hook for me to keep investigating.
Graphically the game is both stunning and downright plain to experience. Characters and major environments are breathtakingly realized and while animation is light in the frames department it looks great next to the visual style.
When exploring combat areas however the landscapes are so toned down and texture-free that it looks like a pile of construction paper tacked together. It was jarring at times seeing the vibrant and detailed Crisbell passing over these barren areas.
Character designs are fun, interesting and highly varied adding a depth to the game I appreciated greatly. The audio design is also handled extremely well with an impressively large voice cast and a well implemented soundtrack.
In the end I found Cris Tales to be a charming, at times beautiful game with a great time manipulation hook, but also a game that struggles under the weight of some odd design choices. It is well worth checking out to get some great classic JRPG magic but falls short of being a masterpiece.
I reviewed Cris Tales on PlayStation 5 with a review copy provided by the publisher. It is available right now for Switch, PS4/PS5, Xbox One/Series S/X and PC via Steam, Gog, Stadia and Epic Games Store.