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Cris Tales review: a beautiful JRPG that's full of heart

Time and tide wait for no frog

I've long loved the fact that Final Fantasy VI's opera scene has remained so iconic, because I reckon that great JRPGs are basically musical theatre anyway. Orchestral swells of emotion! Spotlighted line deliveries! Choreographed, dance routine-like combat! Cris Tales isn’t technically a JRPG - it's from Colombia, so I’ve invented the completely new term CRPG, a genius acronym I’m sure will cause absolutely zero confusion - but this modern tribute hits the genre’s high notes with gusto. Consider this a standing ovation for an enchanting show, then, albeit one that’s sometimes a little light on meaningful audience participation.

Cris Tales’ heroine is Crisbell, a young girl living a happy, ordinary life at an orphanage. She’s pruning roses one day when a talking frog in a top hat appears. One magic sword and one revelation that she’s a time mage later, and it’s adventure time. The world takes more or less the entire course of the story to fully reveal itself, initially relying on sumptuous pop-up book art, warm characters, and your own familiarity with JRPGs to draw you in.

As it progresses, Cris Tales reveals itself as a story far more concerned with the plights of favela families and exploited diamond miners than with knightly orders or royal bloodlines. There’s still plenty of whimsy, goblins, and time travel shenanigans, but magical and social realism holds it all together. Your party will cast fantastical spells, but then they’ll sip fruit juice boxes to restore MP. You’ll battle a teleporting crow-witch, only to decide whether the family inheritance she planned to steal should go to restoring a university or a museum.

Combat is your three-character old reliable. Turn ticker at the top, timed button presses for bonus attack and defence, and some seriously groovy chrono-twists. Crisbell’s crystals can send enemies on the right side of the screen into the future, and those on the left into the past. Ferocious giant wolf nibbling at your heels? Revert him back to a tiny baby wolf, barely noticing his adorable whine as you pound his diminished HP pool into dust! Just poisoned the goblin in front of you, but don’t want to wait for his slow demise? Send him into the future, where the poison has already taken effect, and watch him crumble like a crap blueberry.

There are six party members in total, each with a set combat role and ability path, though you can customise them with equipment. Character abilities often play off one another, so magician Wilhelm can plant a sentient fire shrub called a Yuca that Crisbell can then grow by speeding up time, at which point the Yuca sprouts and explodes. Please do this at least once; the animation is life-changing. As you unlock more abilities, the combat blossoms into this wider, complimentary puzzle. You won’t always need to be clever with it, but you’ll be more powerful if you are.

Combat is a delight while you're discovering its nuances, and a comfy if well-worn JRPG sofa you can slide into once you’ve got the hang of things. The game often introduces new characters and ideas, though. Combat animations are gorgeous, but elaborate enough to slightly overstay their welcome. I’m talking about a few seconds, not Knights of the Round, but it adds up in long dungeons. Many enemies have past, present, and future incarnations, each with their own unique art, animations, and move sets. Again, the trade-off is that the bestiary feels a little limited, even if, gram for gram, there’s plenty of variety.

There’s a certain type of clean, geometric design that I find a little soulless, maybe even corporate, but I never felt that with Cris Tales. To the contrary: I’m in love with how this game looks. A couple of dungeons feel a bit flat and haggard, but on the whole, there’s such detail and warmth throughout. Technically consistent but with a witchy slant that kept delighting me every time I found a new area.

Cris Tales shines brightest as you’re exploring its towns, meeting its residents. As Crisbell runs through ramshackle favelas and ornate cathedrals, the screen is separated into clean shards that show the future in front of you, and the past behind. Background NPCs become flip-book stories. Just by moving from one end of the street to another, you’ll watch a plucky witch go from a child with a pet winged-penguin-dragon to an adult mounted on the same creature, fully grown. A few yards away, a shopkeeper will fade in and out of existence, leaving behind an outline of static, begging questions about your own abilities to change fate. Sometimes, you can, and you’ll see the results manifest tangibly and immediately.

Cris Tales as a whole, including a soundtrack that's much more than a collection of pleasant tunes, knows it's a JRPG. It knows that you know it’s a JRPG, too. It knows it can name a daughter and mother Fira and Firaga and you’ll grin. But it’s playful rather than parodical. Cheeky instead of satirical. Reverent rather than referential.

It’s also idealistic and earnest. It’s tempting to end that sentence with ‘to a fault’ out of habit, but it wasn’t a fault for me, although it might be for some. I feel that if I had these powers, I would probably just use them to cook oven chips really fast, so I’m glad these kids are all about saving the world with the power of friendship. Cris Tales has bundles of heart, but I never found it too cloying or saccharine.

"It's idealistic and earnest. Cris Tales has bundles of heart, but I never found it too cloying or saccharine."

The only time I felt this sort of approachability for a younger audience as a problem was in the simplicity of the puzzles. I think about Chrono Trigger, The Sexy Brutale, Dishonored 2, and how the time bending could have been so much more here. Cris Tales is breathtaking in how it uses time to tell environmental stories, but on the puzzles and exploration front, it never gets more involved than noticing there’s a chest behind a crumbling pillar you might want to nab before you restore that same pillar to cross a bridge. Elsewhere, adventure-game style puzzles involving time hopping are basically explained to you, no thought required.

While I’m griping, I’d say bosses - and there are some great bosses - have, maybe 15% more health than they probably should relative to how quickly you work out what sequence to repeat to beat them. Cris Tales also features my least favourite RPG thing, namely different coloured slimes that are weak to certain types of magic, and that actively mock you for trying to deal damage with anything else. Why are you like this, slimes? Who hurt you? Not me, because I haven’t unlocked thunder yet.

Even those slimes, though, are part of why I loved my time spent with Cris Tales: it made me feel like a kid again, and that’s why I play JRPGs to begin with. I had a great time with Dragon Quest 11, Bravely Default II, and Octopath Traveller, but none of them made me feel like I was 10 years old, curled up in bed on a faked sick day playing Final Fantasy. This frequently did.

There’s frustration in those memories, sure. Grinding, running around looking for NPCs I couldn’t remember the name of, beating my head against a boss because I zoned out the one time the game explained some obscure feature to me. All that happened here, too. It’s not perfect. But when does time travel ever go off without a hitch?

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