I have a love-hate relationship with “love letters” to older games. It can be great to relieve the glory days of a genre that are either defunct or greatly changed. But it can also be frustrating to remember why these genres changed so much in the first place.
Games these days are a lot more fast paced than they used to be, especially roleplaying games. There’s a reason roguelites, action RPGs, and metroidvanias have quickly become some of the most popular formats for RPGs.
Even games that stick to classic formulas like Dragon Quest have upped their presentation, and adapted a few quality of life changes to make them less of a slog compared to the “golden age” of JRPGs.
Cris Tales confidently advertises itself as a “love letter to classic JRPGs,” and it makes no apologies about this. It’s an ambitious undertaking to recreate the feel of retro JRPGs, and an even greater feat to do it well.
Developer: Dreams Uncorporated
Publisher: Modus Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed) PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Release Date: July 20th
Price: $39.99 USD
Opening with what we already know: Cris Tales is a fantasy roleplaying game inspired by traditional JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest; or at least that’s what it tries to be. This isn’t meant as a condemnation, but the game has more in common with early Paper Mario games; though some aspects of traditional JRPGs are present.
Dungeons, towns, and wilderness areas take place in 2.5D stages, with Crisbell being a stand-in for the entire party. Encounters are entirely random in true JRPG fashion, and pop up whenever you walk enough steps (or any steps if you’re unlucky).
Which brings us to the first point of mechanics that haven’t aged well: random encounters. Grinding is fun and useful, but Cris Tales repeats the mistake of ye olde JRPGs in an attempt to emulate them. The hardest part of the game isn’t the combat, it’s the patience to sit through your fifth random encounter in just as many steps.
The combat is where things get a little more like Paper Mario. Attacks can be enhanced by tapping the action button at the time the hit connects. It’s a useful thing that adds at least a little interactivity to the combat.
But in this case, Cris Tales would benefit from more clear animations. One of Crisbell’s starting companions Wilhelm attacks with a stick… Whip… Thing? The point is, it’s really awkward to know when the weapon connects for the button press. Although Wilhelm is the most egregious offender in this regard, some of the other companions are only slightly better.
Cris Tales can proudly boast a unique mechanic with its use of Crisbell’s time powers. Crisbell can shunt enemies on her left into the past and enemies on her right into the future. What this usually accomplishes is changing the form of enemies to younger or older, but these can be combined with other abilities to great effect.
For instance, Christopher who is one of the first companions we meet has a water spell. Hitting an enemy using a giant shield and giving them the soaked effect before sending them to the future will cause their shield to rust.
Another common interaction is poison, sending an enemy into the future while afflicted by poison will cause all the poison damage to happen at once. Also enemies who cannot be made older or younger being sent into the future or past respectively will take big damage instead of having their forms altered (it’d be rather anticlimactic to OHKO an opponent with old age).
Even without her time powers, Crisbell is also the rock of the party, with better than average stats compared to the rest. This isn’t to say other party members don’t excel in their niche’s main stats, but Crisbell remains a solid all-rounder with a martial focus.
Better than the combat is the way dungeons and exploration are handled. I know I mentioned how tedious the random encounters are, but outside of that there’s a lot of good that’s easy to miss. Dungeons have their own mechanics and puzzles like moving platforms that make them a little more involved than just a gauntlet of random encounters.
In keeping with the puzzles of the dungeons, there are also logic puzzles in the towns and other places Crisbell visits. These puzzles largely make use of Crisbell’s time powers, which a talking frog Matias can take advantage of by being the only one able to travel through time directly.
By controlling Matias, players can do things like interact with small objects (such as planting a tree in the past so it will be grown in the present) and also listen in on conversations that have taken place. These conversations can give Crisbell clues that will help her in the present, and maybe help inform the decisions they make.
Speaking of which, where Cris Tales shines is its story-telling and aesthetic. The world of Cris Tales is saturated with pastels and solid colors which work together to make a distinct and cartoonish style.
No detail was spared when designing the many locales of the game either. Not only is the present world filled with detail, but the developers had to design most places thrice over to reflect their past, present, and future which appear on the sides of the screen.
The world is also easy to digest in a “don’t think about it too hard” kind of way. It’s a colorful fantasy world that’s a mishmash of city-states and independent regions. Though this loose realization of a cohesive world is fitting for a game trying to recapture the feel of old school JRPGs.
Ultimately Cris Tales accomplishes what it sets out to do, recreating the feel of classic JRPGs with its whimsical aesthetic, turn-based combat, and random encounters. Its unique elements like the time travelling in combat are enough to give the game its own identity, and it doesn’t fall into the trap of being too derivative.
Fans of classic JRPGs will find a lot to like about Cris Tales, and a high tolerance for random encounters will help. Casual gamers will have an easy time digesting this game, but those random encounters will quickly become a problem for those lacking the tenacity and patience.
Cris Tales was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review copy provided by publisher Modus Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.