Cris Tales – It’s About Time
Time. It’s inherent to the human condition. It plays on our minds constantly; what if’s and future plans plague our presents. The most valuable currency we have to spend, one that we have a limited and an unknowable amount of in our lives, is time.
Time in media is a tricky plot point to balance. Anything involving alterations of the past and the causality of affecting the future is rife with plot holes and illogicalities. Fans argue endlessly over whether this or that story beat or mechanic makes sense in the timeline – despite there being no actual definitive laws of time travel in human history. That we know of in the present, anyway.
Time is an important commodity for anyone that plays video games. “Time sinks” are games that soak up hours upon hours of life. “Grinding” is sometimes enjoyed, but often seen as a time-waster. How Long To Beat exists purely to help players find the right game to fit around what time they can afford amongst their busy schedules.
Cris Tales’ time-hopping adventure places time front and centre in all things, from story arc to mechanical plaything and back again. It’s a delight and a struggle across multiple time vectors, a JRPG homage that wrenches time-honoured traditions from the past into the present, at a time when maybe they were left there for a reason.
Throughout the entirety of this year, I’ve been (extremely slowly) chipping away at a somewhat obscure PS1 JRPG called Lunar. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, even after 7 months of 20-30 minute play sessions when the mood strikes. It’s a tale of friendship and heroes, it’s excessively linear to a sometimes infuriating degree, and comparative to what’s “normal” in 2021, it’s extremely unconcerned with the value of my time. Which is perfectly fine! as long as you’re both expecting and seeking out this type of experience.
Cris Tales imagines 30 years post-Lunar as small and novel tweaks on that formula, with positively gorgeous art direction, professional voice work and a modernised orchestral score. It’s lavish with a capital L – painstakingly exquisite in its direction. It massages the well-known formula somewhat, while still retaining key elements of that bygone era.
Where Lunar is choc-full of grinding encounters purely to get the numbers up, Cris Tales is more finely tuned for a smoother upward curve, saving hours of time. Cris Tales’ lavishness then adds that time back on, thanks to extraneous animations, drawn-out sequences and very long load times. It’s a tough notion to pin down, but everything in Cris Tales just feels like it takes just a little too long to execute.
Take a regular random battle as an example. It takes several seconds of a mostly white screen to hang before entering the fight. whichever of your character’s turns it is first jumps to the centre of the field. They make their attack, which requires at least one button press at the right time to be more effective – several seconds worth of animation. The character then must jump to the background before whoever is next up can jump to the fore. It’s a long cycle to get through everyone’s attack choice, animation and swap, making even quick battles disorientating when getting back to the field.
Even saving the game feels like an excess of time. Click on the save point. Dialogue box pops up. “Shall we make a record of our adventure, Crisbell?” Click. “I want to record our progress.” Click. Click to save. Click to overwrite. Click to back out to the game.
There are so many smart decisions behind the scenes making this game a fun one to play. The core mechanics behind the battles feel fun and differentiate plenty from other traditional fantasy tropes to make them exciting. But there’s also this element of getting bogged down I couldn’t quite shake – like the game stumbled to get out of its own way to let me actually enjoy that design. It’s so well crafted, but at the same time, I just wish there was less of it, and that it was much more streamlined.
To stumble in matters past/future shenanigans is, to my great delight, not something that Cris Tales does. There are so many ways in which the time manipulation of Crisbell’s world could’ve gone awry, but any potential “well why didn’t they just” scenarios are well obfuscated if they even exist. It’s a refreshing take on handling a time-focused story, pulling on tropes enough to help get your head around it without falling into the traps that most media of this nature tend to do.
That being said, the game’s adherence to what came before affects the ways in which its storytelling is done to a sometimes negative degree. While the tale is incredibly well-paced – there are clear peaks and valleys throughout each “chapter” if you will, pulling off a real adventurous feel – the game is still about a quarter too long.
This isn’t helped by the entire through-line being incredibly linear. There is no sequence breaking. You spot some flowers that you’ll clearly be interacting with – you can’t pick them until you’ve reached the point in the side quest where you need to go collect them. You know this projector you can clearly see is going to reveal some story related info – your time hopping pal Mathias literally says “there’s nothing to see here” when it’s clicked on, up until the specific time in the story has come for that information to be unveiled to you.
Even the sections of the game where you actually get to choose where to go next, it’s simply choosing which linear thread comes first in a line, with zero impact either way. They may as well have decided for you as your choice is pretty much moot.
The only real effect your “choices” have on the game is based on the side quests you completed (which are less side quests and more linear diversions). At the end of each town’s mini-arc through the first portion of the game, you have a choice on what can happen. Do you want to fund the museum, or the university… or both? Basically, do the optional bits along the way to secure the best outcomes. The only real “choice” is whether you want to get through the game a little quicker or take your time.
Getting to the end of this piece kind of bums me out, to be honest. There really is a lot to like about Cris Tales, but the frustrations I bumped up against clouded the joy the game offered somewhat. There is also plenty to be positive about it though – which you should read about in my first piece on the game here.
Sadly, while I was hoping for a patch on a couple of niggles, those are also still problems (at least in the Switch version of the game). You can’t take screenshots, which is just maddening, and should be a fairly straightforward fix. Accessibility options would take more time to implement, so they still might be patched in in the future, but this review is on the game that is, not the game that might be.
I really don’t know if the time Cris Tales has taken from my life was fully worth it. There were definite ups throughout my adventure, but the frustrations mitigated my excitement somewhat. I do wholeheartedly believe that there is a lot to love for the right person at the right time in their lives for this type of game, but that’s not a decision I can make. Time waits for no one; spend yours wisely.
Cris Tales was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by the publisher.
When not playing games, Chris enjoys chilling with his Fiancé, cats and dog. He will probably never stop banging on about how amazing Outer Wilds is. Forever in search of the best Margherita pizza.
Chris writes on Latji Latji and Barkindji land.