There’s something reassuringly familiar about a classic JRPG. Sure, we can get all cynical about turn-based combat, meandering plots, grinding and so on…or we can just order a pizza, break out a soda and settle down to smash some goblins for an evening. Are there any experiences more relevant to the video game experience? Well, maybe hopping on Goombas, but that’s neither here or there.
Anyway, there’s been a fair number of games trying to recapture the glory days of classic JRPGs, and the latest challenger is Cris Tales, which hopes to capture hearts with a little bit of time travel.
Crisbell lives at an orphanage run by the Mother Superior, living a simple life in her simple town. This game’s trying to be a classic JRPG, of course, so that town’s days are numbered – but that number isn’t up just yet. Crisbell knows what’s coming because she possess unique powers thanks to a pair of crystals that allow her to see the past and future. Armed with the timey-wimey ball, Crisbell sets off on a journey to save the day before the day needs saving, gathering a party of allies along the way.
Chrono Trigger taught us that time travel is a great concept for RPGs, a concept that Cris Tales runs with. Messing with time is boiled into the foundation of the experience. Exploring towns, for instance, casts Crisbell in the center of a triangle. This splits the screen into three parts, with the left side viewing the past, the center viewing the present and the right side viewing the future. At any given time, you’re viewing all three time periods at once.
You can’t typically interact with the past and future directly, but Crisbell’s frog friend Matias can hop into either time period to make little tweaks. More typically, you’ll use the past to discover information that can be used in the present to avert an unfortunate future. Think some of the best sidequests from Chrono Trigger lengthened to cover a whole game and you’ve got the idea. Speaking of sidequests, there’s plenty throughout Cris Tales’ run time, and you’ll want to finish them all to ensure the future turns out the way you’d like.
Time’s just as malleable in combat, of course. This is where Cris Tales really shines. The triangle idea is still present here, and it allows you to get a leg up on your foes by futzing about chronologically. Your characters battle in the center of the screen, with enemies on the left and right. Enemies on the left can be sent into the past, perhaps reducing them to a younger state that’s less dangerous, while enemies on the right can be sent into the future and possibly aged into becoming feeble.
There’s more going on than just that, though; try sending an explosive time-bomb sort of attack into the past, for instance, and then forcing it back into the present where it’ll immediately explode! A particular favorite trick that the game encourages is poisoning baddies and then sending them forward in time, causing the entirety of the poison damage to occur at once in a massive burst.
Enemies can even use your own time manipulation against you by subverting your expectations about when they’ll be at their most powerful. A soldier forced into the future might become decrepit and easily beaten…or you might find yourself facing a more experienced and powerful combatant instead. You’re encouraged to experiment with the mechanics and find what works.
The only misstep here is a focus on timed button presses for attacks a la Mario RPG, which is a great and thematic idea let down by poor signposting on when to actually press the button.
One thing that works without question is the way Cris Tales looks. It’s not likely that anyone remembers Cartoon Network’s classic show Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends these days, but…well, that’s what Cris Tales looks like. Even the backgrounds nail that sort of early Flash-animated-meets-hand-drawn look. This style is clean, but it’s a friendly sort of clean rather than the sterile look that many animated games verge on.
Animations are pretty nice as well, though, as mentioned, they’re not especially conducive to a combat system that encourages precise timing. The lovely graphics are paired with some of the best English voice acting to show up in some time, which is a nice treat, as well as some appropriate if unremarkable music.
It’s unknown if we’re ever going to see the Chrono series make a return. We might not even want it to – is anyone really hankering for a mobile Chrono game packed to the brim with gacha and microtransactions? Rather than contemplating that possible dark future, you might just want to play Cris Tales. It scratches both that time travel and JRPG itch in a faithfully old-school style, tossing in some unique and quirky combat as well.