Japanese role playing games are one of the industry’s stalwarts. Turn-based combat emerged out of technical limitations, remaining a part of gaming even as technology evolved enough to represent the genre’s concepts in a real-time manner. It’s a mode of play that’s endured because of its familiarity and cerebral underpinnings. In a post-modern JRPG renaissance, whereby gamers haven’t been privy to so many successful turn-based games since the 90s, Cris Tales positions itself awkwardly. It’s a love letter to classic JRPGs that neither captures the genre’s essence nor does its existence feel potent in an era during which IPs such as Shin Megami Tensei have spawned offshoots that have reached mainstream penetration wihout sacrificing much.
Cris Tales and Crystals
If Cris Tales learned anything from the genre’s 40 year history, its early narrative beats come briskly. JRPG veterans are used to waiting upwards of five to ten hours before being introduced to the protagonist’s motivation for the journey that awaits. Even then, it can often take a dozen or so more hours before the training wheels are lifted. By the end of the first hour, protagonist Crisbell already has access to the time crystals, which grant her the time manipulation powers that are this title’s conceit. Shortly thereafter, players find themselves in the first proper enemy-filled environment. It doesn’t waste time in its first act, immediately beginning with the events that set the universe’s downfall in motion. After her village is attacked, Crisbell sets off on a journey to confer with each city’s religious figurehead, referred to as Mother Superior, in an attempt to stop the Time Empress from taking over the world.
Crisbell makes friends along the way and learns more about the world. It’s run of the mill JRPG fluff, but fluff can come in two flavors: impactful or frivolous. Many games in the genre have plots dealing in broad strokes because they’re less concerned with the bigger picture than the individual moments. You’re often not meant to remember rising action number one or plot revelation number four. You’re meant to grow attached to the party, finding solace in minor conversations. The typically gargantuan runtimes exist, in part, to aid in developing a connection among a party’s comradery. This is Cris Tales‘ first failing.
Its characters and script seem architected in such a way as to distance players from the proceedings. Its character designs so clearly communicate the villains from the heroes much of the time. Coupled with the performances, it’s difficult to grow attached to anyone. Every character’s voice feels as if it belongs on a B-grade Saturday morning cartoon that becomes a cult-hit fifteen years later because it’s unintentionally funny. In fact, many of the deeper moments elicit a similar feeling, approaching heavier subject matter on a surface level.
To its credit, individual dialogue scenes don’t overextend themselves. Even if the plot itself overstays its welcome with at least three sudden plot revelations that extend the playtime another few hours, you’re never stuck listening to characters drone incessantly. You won’t come upon a boss and listen to a nearly ten minute monologue, for example. At least the developers understood the unremarkable writing well enough to pull back, leaving long stretches of gameplay between cutscenes. That isn’t to say some characters can’t be endearing. JKR-271 and Zas are the cast’s highlight, providing humorous banter in the sea of monotony.
Cris Tales‘ Combat
Most RPGs can attribute their success to strong storytelling, characters, and/or deep mechanics. With the former failing to hit the mark, Cris Tales needs strong gameplay—and there is a solid foundation with neat alterations underpinning the turn-based combat. The party is situated in the center of the screen with enemies positioned on either edge of the arena. This spacing exists because of Crisbell’s time powers; she can regress the left side of the screen toward the past and progress the right side toward the future. Depending on the enemy, time state, and player actions, these systems can be manipulated to interesting effect. Christopher’s AOE poison ability takes a few turns to activate. By using it in the present and then invoking a future crystal or using it in the past, then breaking the past crystal, the poison effect activates immediately. Once players gain access to JKR, they’ll also have the means to manipulate enemies’ positions.
Timing also plays a crucial role. All attacks and damage dealing magic are more devastating when players press a button at the right time. This timing element can also be used on the defensive to minimize damage from enemies. Deflecting and parrying attacks even prevents party members from being afflicted with status ailments. On paper, it sounds like an extravagant upheaval in a traditional genre. In practice, it falls apart because of its difficulty.
Turn-based RPGs operate under a different wavelength than action RPGs. Where their real-time cousins can get away with haphazard mechanics, turn-based games aren’t afforded that same leisure. An action game can rely on engaging combat even if some of its RPG systems come up short because the combat’s depth is a wholly distinct entity from the depth on the RPG side. Due to the nature of turn-based games, however, the mechanics are the combat. Using Nier Automata as a basis for comparison across different modes of RPG, its plug-in chip system is surprisingly deep. Players can lose quite some time into a plug-in chip deck to maximize their playstyle or offset a weakness. The moment-to-moment combat, however, occupies a different part of the brain. Pulling off visually stimulating combos, dodges, and counters is a distinct experience from that of upgrading weapons and min-maxing character progression. Because of this, players are given the acumen to have fun without touching the plug-in chips.
In Cris Tales, if you’re not using the time crystals and mixing them with various abilities, you’re not doing anything meaningful. You’re mindlessly pressing buttons on a menu screen. Turn-based games are excellent when they test you to a certain degree—they don’t need to be demoralizing. However, they need to push back enough to reward planning.
Players probably aren’t planning in the midst of a Nier Automata combo, but the sheer spectacle and variety make it exciting. Without the same spectacle to bank on, menu-based combat only works when it’s challenging. Otherwise, it feels as though the game is playing itself with its disconnected approach to gameplay as compared to real-time combat. No genre, outside of simulators, benefits from difficulty to the same degree as a turn-based RPG.
Back to the Beginning
Cris Tales is a mediocre JRPG-inspired indie that neither captures the strong characters nor the interwoven mechanics that make the genre so appealing. The systems are interesting, but with such poor balancing, its ancillary mechanics don’t feel necessary. Most encounters devolve into shutting one’s brain off, defaulting to physical attacks and each character’s most devastating abilities. Cris Tales‘ combat makes its time travel antics feel like a bullet point rather than an integral piece of a considered whole.