Cris Tales’ beauty is mostly skin deep

Cris Tales is a game that I was never really sure I would enjoy. It caught my eye thanks to the amazing visuals, but I was left with mixed impressions after trying out the demo on PC.

Of course, with that demo releasing a while ago (and Cris Tales being delayed for extra polish), I expected the final product to fix things up. Unfortunately, that didn’t really end up being the case. Cris Tales is still a beautiful game on the surface, yet its gameplay and story leave a lot to be desired, made even worse by a poor Switch port.

Our impressions are based on the first 10-15 hours of Cris Tales for Switch and PC via Steam — it’s also launching on PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S (including via Xbox Game Pass), and PC via GOG and the Epic Games Store. Thanks to Modus Games for providing review codes.

Cris Tales story

Cris Tales stars Crisbell, a young orphan who awakens the power to view both the past and future. Using this power, she and her friends must travel the world in a bid to stop the Time Empress from destroying the world. It’s not an overly original story setup, though the time related powers did have the potential to add an extra layer to the narrative.

In practice, it doesn’t really change this up enough to make the story stand out. You’ll travel to a city, dealing with a few problems that are inevitably tied to the enigmatic Time Empress, then leave for the next one. You are able to make a few choices (more on this later) that could have an effect on the story later, but none of these feel particularly impactful.

The characters themselves aren’t awful, but you don’t really interact with anyone outside the main cast for long. This ends up being a problem for the aforementioned choices, when you’re asked to make a decision with little to no information on how they’ll affect the future. Said choices also don’t make a difference to the story at this point, so they presumably only matter in regards to events later on (or even just the ending).

Cris Tales town

City exploration is also where most of the time related stuff happens, thanks to Cris Tales’ main gimmick. In cities and other areas with no enemies, the screen is split into three sections — the past, present, and future. You can see each version of the area at all times, including chests and other items only present in certain times.

Visually, it’s an impressive feature. However, it’s never really used in an interesting way. Characters in the present are nearly always standing in the same place during both other times as well — implying that they don’t move for centuries at a time — and puzzles often boil down to “go to the past/future, take item/talk to NPC, switch back again. For something with so much potential (and frequently mentioned in Cris Tales’ marketing), the mechanic ends up feeling like it’s designed more to look interesting, rather than to make the gameplay more varied.

Cris Tales battle screenshot

A lack of interesting time power usage also applies to battles, despite a few decent mechanics. Battles are turn-based, relying on timed button presses to do more damage or defend against attacks — think Legend of Dragoon or many of the Mario RPGs. You never have to do anything more than a single button press per attack, but it’s a system that can make battles more involved. Cris Tales’ implementation of this system is a little rough though, as the animations often make it hard to judge the timing for blocks.

The main problems with battles (which apply to all versions of the game anyway) are down to how slow they feel, and the way time powers are implemented. Animations are not only an issue with blocking — they also kill the pace of each encounter. Attacking animations are often slow or overly lengthy, and could be cut down to help speed things up. For some reason, there’s also an animation that plays every time a new party member can act. I’m not really sure why characters can’t just be in set positions rather than switch back and forth.

As for the time powers, they once again feel like they should be more impactful than they are. Crisbell (and another character) has the ability to make parts of the arena go backwards or forwards in time — the area to the left goes to the past, the right to the future. Doing this can make enemies weaker, or interact with certain status effects. An early example of this is a boss whose defences can be weakened by hitting them with water, then sending them to the future — rusting their shield in the process.

It’s another area of Cris Tales that had potential yet fails to deliver. In most fights, it’s more beneficial to deal damage directly rather than waste turns messing with time. Most of the time (pun absolutely not intended) the only real use the time powers have is with some of the attacks that fellow time mage Willhelm uses, which are normally delayed without the use of Crisbell’s capabilities.

Cris Tales time manipulation

For such a central mechanic and selling point, time manipulation just doesn’t have the meaningful impact it needed to make Cris Tales stand out for anything other than its (admittedly beautiful) visuals. Without it, the game is just a slow RPG that can’t really stand up to other indie titles.

If you’ve read all this and still want to try the game out, just make sure not to get the Switch version — for now, anyway. Performance issues and the like aren’t anything new to Switch releases. Here, however, the downgrade is more than a little noticeable. FPS drops are common in each town, and the text has not been made with portable mode in mind at all. It’s also hard to keep track of playtime thanks to the game continuing to count time spent in rest mode — a small issue, but annoying nonetheless.

The main sticking point, which makes an already slow game feel even worse, is the frequent load times. Switching areas results in 8-10 second load times. Moving to the world map? 8-10 second load times. Entering and exiting battles? 8-10 second load times! Over 15 seconds of loading in total — or potentially more depending on the complexity of the encounter — just for a single battle, in a game with random encounters? It’s far, far too long, quickly becoming grating after exploring a single dungeon.

This is a problem that is potentially exclusive to the Switch, with the PC version only taking a couple of seconds to load on a regular hard drive. Still a bit of an issue for random encounters, albeit far more manageable in the long run. I’d imagine that load times will be OK on other previous gen versions — and theoretically a non-issue on Xbox Series X|S and PS5. On Switch, it’s enough to make Cris Tales unbearable at times. This is something that absolutely needs patching — it’s been a problem since the demo was released.

Cris Tales artwork

I wanted to wait until the end to at least talk about some of Cris Tales’ more positive aspects, since it does do some things better than other titles I’ve played recently. For one, the game’s 2D visuals (which I’ve already mentioned a few times) are absolutely stunning. They do suffer from compression artifacts occasionally, even on PC, though this does little to ruin the impressive work that has been put into this aspect of Cris Tales. Areas are like intricate 2D dioramas, each making use of eye-catching colour palettes.

Another special mention should go to the voice acting in Cris Tales. The game is fully voiced, including minor NPCs that only have a line or two of dialogue. Not every voice is perfect, and there are occasional issues with line delivery, but it’s an impressive effort for an indie studio — especially when compared to what was present in the original demo.

Ultimately, Cris Tales ended up fixing few of the issues that I had with the game’s demo back in 2019, while also adding a few more thanks to the Switch port. I can’t imagine the currently average story getting much better at the end, and most of the ideas and gameplay mechanics presented at the start end up going nowhere. It’s a shame, as there was a lot of potential there — hopefully some of the more glaring technical issues can be fixed in a post-launch patch, at least.

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Isaac Todd
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