The moment I first saw Cris Tales, it captured my attention. The striking visuals and the unusual gameplay design centred around the past, present and the future, made for such a unique combination of features that I've been eagerly awaiting a chance to get hands-on for myself. As we've reached release day, I've been able to spend the last few days immersed in this gorgeous world, to see how the game that regards itself as an "indie love letter to classic JRPGs" really performs.
Set around the story of young time mage Crisbell, Cris Tales follows a group of powerful youngsters as they trek across the dangerous world of Crystallis and its four kingdoms to stop a vicious being known as the Time Empress from rewriting the future of the world. With the guide of a talking frog called Matias, the companions, each of whom have special magical abilities that make them unique, will have to voyage across a variety of different locations to discover more about their abilities to be able to face the evil Empress, all whilst helping the kingdoms and its civilians along the way to influence their future.
Designed as a love letter to JRPGs, Cris Tales is mainly split between two styles of gameplay; exploring and chatting to various NPCs, and combat. The majority of the narrative is told through direct conversations and is, for the most part, interesting and engaging to indulge in. The overarching tale that revolves around Crisbell and her invigorated powers is quite heartfelt and packed with emotion, and will entertain. Likewise, the involvement of the other characters and how they fit into the overall storyline, be it as part of a side quest or as a tool to push the narrative makes you want to learn more about this intriguing world - which, as mentioned earlier, is stunning.
However, the exploration leaves a lot to be desired. There is a ton of rather dull walking between the various plot points in Cris Tales, which becomes apparent early on when you reach St. Clarity, a visually-mind-blowing city that is accessed by wandering up two incredibly lengthy stair sets. Needless to say, this downtime breaks immersion quite significantly, but, this isn't the extent of where exploration falls a little short, as often the world doesn't have a lot of places to venture around - mainly because the game is 2D, and relies on the multiple time frames to create depth in its exploration.
As for the time frames design, this is pretty intuitive. The screen is split into three sections; the past, present and the future. You'll be able to simultaneously see the world in each of these states, and can likewise use this design to find goodies or to solve problems, but it will come with some moral dilemmas. For example, at the beginning of the game you'll discover that a few of the houses in your hometown are afflicted with Ashblight - a sort of rot that over time will render the building inhospitable. Using your talents, you can use your companion frog, Matias to leap into the past and future to determine how to fix the issue before it ever becomes a major problem, but you cannot solve every issue, and it'll be up to you to choose what is better for the kingdom a lot of the time.
This system even stretches to combat, which can also abuse the multiple time frames. You could poison an enemy, and then hurl them into the future for the poison to take instant effect, dealing massive damage, rather than using it as a damage-over-time effect. The catch in using time is that by sending an enemy to the past/future, you'll change them into the creature they would be in that period, which can often make a deadly foe much deadlier, or rather the complete opposite.
So you might be thinking, this all sounds great? Well, yes. The time system is pretty cool, but the actual combat mechanics are far from it. The game plays like a traditional JRPG, meaning you select a move and Crisbell and Co. enact it. The problem is the combat is brutal and there is a strange timing mechanic that if not used correctly, will basically make it impossible for you to win anything. What this asks you to do is press an input (depending on platform) at the exact moment a character either hits or gets hit by an attack to drastically affect the damage it deals to you or an opponent. This can be a little frustrating to time correctly, but the major issue is that the combat is pretty savage. If you enjoy hitting enemies with attacks for middling damage, while they hit you with assaults that deal significantly more damage, then you'll be right at home in Cris Tales. Oh, and the fact that the enemies don't have health bars, meaning you have no idea how you're doing in a fight doesn't do anything to help this.
This wouldn't be too much of an issue if the health and other statistics for your characters didn't carry over between fights... but they do. If you have a particularly bad encounter, it basically means you're screwed in one of the next fights, and it actively encourages you to avoid unnecessary combat, which is equally hard as combat encounters in 'wild' areas, so to speak, are very, very frequent. Think of a Pokémon game, except the wild Pokémon push you to your limit and basically force you to head back to a Pokécenter after 2-3 battles, unless you are packing tons of potions.
You can of course outfit Crisbell and her companions with plenty of gear to help in combat, but this isn't cheap to do. In fact, early on in the game it's cheaper to rent a room to fully restore the statistics of your entire team than it is to buy a single health potion that won't even repair a single full health bar's worth of damage out in the field. It definitely feels unbalanced.
And this is a shame because Cris Tales has some of the most striking visuals I've ever seen in a video game. Seriously, this game is truly gorgeous. The cathedrals, where Crisbell learns more about her powers, have floors that perfectly reflect the room, which mashed up with the broad, yet well crafted colour palette make for some of the most beautiful scenes in gaming. Plus, the character design is similarly fantastic, and no two people seem alike. Dreams Uncorporated has done a brilliant job at bringing this world to life, which is why it's upsetting that it can often feel like a chore to move through it.
Cris Tales really is a game that, to me, has various hits and misses. There are parts that I adore, and parts I despise, and it makes for a conflicting experience. With some slight tweaks to make the combat feel less punishing and exhausting, Cris Tales can be something genuinely fantastic, but right now, it's hard to see it as more than a display of mesmerising scenes telling an unusual yet unique story, dragged down by hollow world design and often frustrating combat.