Living her life in a beautiful little town, Crisbell is an orphan with not a care in the world, until two things occur to shake up her idyllic life. Firstly, the rose she picked that very morning was stolen by a frog in a top hat, leading to her having to trek all over her town to retrieve it. Secondly, a bunch of monsters attack the town, setting the crops alight, and resulting in a battle for Crisbell and awakening her new powers as a Time Mage.
After defending Narim, you embark upon a quest to take on the big villain behind the attack and the wider war occurring in the world, the breathtaking Empress of Time. A large portion of this sees you lightly jogging around cities and other locations. Here you can speak with the people around you, pick up side quests, or visit the adorable cat-girl shopkeeper for items and upgrades for your equipment. Furthermore, each major location has a larger problem to resolve.
Here is where the first time-related aspect comes into play in Cris Tales. When exploring the towns and cities, the powers of Crisbell will show the player the past and future of the location at the same time as the present. The side quests you complete and the decisions you make in the story can then change what you see in the past and future for each location. This can be something as simple as helping out someone in the past to affect their present, right up to affecting the entire future of an area.
There are occasional chests and items hidden in one of the other timezones too, so you’ll be sending Matias the frog back and forth a lot to find everything in the game – Matias even turns into a tadpole in the past and an older frog in the future. Alternatively, you’ll need to hop to another time zone to bring items that have either disappeared or don’t even exist yet in the present to progress elements of the story.
Outside of the central locations, there are a variety of dungeons to explore, which mostly take place entirely in the present. In these areas, the use of Crisbell’s powers shifts to solving puzzles, with each dungeon having new types of puzzles that may or may not use time as a factor. These segments contain random battles to break up all that exploring goodness and end with a powerful encounter to overcome.
The combat, on the surface, is a standard turn-based system heavily reminiscent of the classic JRPGs of the 90s. Your foes and your party take turns to hit each other, with the turn order represented along the top of the screen to let you plan out your battle strategy. As each of your party members has different strengths, weaknesses and abilities, you will need to factor in all of these skills to succeed – especially in the challenging boss battles.
Crisbell’s time powers also affect the battles in a lot of subtle and obvious ways. On her turn, you can send enemies on the left of the party into the past and the opposite for those on the right. The most obvious affect is that the enemies will age in these directions and will take damage if they are the younger version of an enemy forced back in time (or vice versa) in what is called a Temporal Break.
More subtle effects of this mechanic lie in the use of status effects and manipulation of the tide of battle. The earliest instance of this is in the first boss battle, where the enemy holds an impervious metal shield. For a while you can’t inflict any damage until the game instructs you to use a water spell on the enemy to cause the ‘Wet’ status and send the enemy into the future, which causes the shield to rust.
This also applies to status effects like poison, which can either be left to cause damage over time, or can be turned into a single damaging blow by forcing enemies into the future. It can’t be understated how well these time mechanics are implemented in game and how they interlink with other mechanics such stacking status effects to cause more damage, or simply that the act of moving an enemy along their timeline changes which attacks they can do.
Visually, Cris Tales takes on a distinctive cel-shaded semi-blocky cartoon style which, with the simple animations, then ties into the idea of seeking out cathedrals and specifically the stained glass windows. Furthermore, you guessed it, the time powers even find their way into the visuals, with many of the characters and all of the enemies having different representations for different timezones. These are most impressive for the characters, where you can see their story arcs without any dialogue, acting as subtle storytelling among the heavier narrative.
The score is also phenomenal with one of the best battle themes I can think of from the last few years, a simply sublime boss encounter track, and a theme for each location that is both distinct and thematically relevant to it. Taken altogether, it’s an incredibly tight visual and auditory package and it’s obvious how much care and attention went into every facet of Cris Tales. The only thing missing, and this is a bit of a personal gripe, is the lack of an audio cue for battles beginning, which simply just load in and start, but that is a hugely specific detail.
As a final point, the time-twisting hook of Cris Tales could have easily been its downfall. We’ve seen several attempts of time being used as a core factor in the narrative to mixed results in popular media. However, the use of time here not only manifests itself in every aspect of the game, from the story to the battles, but does so in increasingly clever ways. The future can be changed by your decisions, but every choice you make holds weight whether in the narrative, combat or other gameplay mechanics.
Cris Tales is an absolutely incredible homage to classic JRPGs, whilst taking care to modernise their core mechanics for modern audiences. The gorgeous visual style, superb voice acting, clever mechanics and emotive story-telling all combine together here to make an incredible title. Then, with the addition of comprehensive and innovative uses of time in all parts of the game, it becomes a near perfect experience. Cris Tales has arguably surpassed its JRPG inspirations and absolutely deserves your time (pun entirely intended).