Many RPGs dabble in time travel and ever-shifting destinies, but the idea that no future is guaranteed is Cris Tales' thesis statement. When a young girl named Crisbell learns to harness the power of mystical time crystals, the player reaps the benefits through innovative mechanics both within the turn-based combat and the environmental exploration. Unfortunately, while these unique mechanics evolve throughout the adventure, they stagnate before the story concludes.
Cris Tales wastes no time showing its strengths; the downright gorgeous, hand-drawn aesthetic delivers surface delights, while terrific turn-based combat mechanics offer thrills that are more than skin deep. Fighting droves of monsters and minions is simple due to easy-to-understand combat menus, while a wide array of combat abilities lets you tackle encounters in various ways. Cris Tales adds a timing mechanic to keep battles interesting; pressing a button at the right time during your attack lands a critical hit while doing the same for an incoming enemy attack lets you parry to minimize damage and status ailments. This active approach injects excitement, though it requires that you memorize the animations of each enemy type. Even then, the timing sometimes doesn't feel aligned with the on-screen action.
Your party members bring a diverse set of powers to aid you in battle. I always felt competent and creatively enabled in combat, from Willhelm's collection of offensive and defensive vegetation to Cristopher's effective elemental magic or Zas' fun roulette abilities. However, the main attraction is Crisbell's suite of time-crystal powers. Using her ability to shift parts of the battlefield forward or backward in time allows you to get inventive with your approach to fights. In one encounter, I used her powers to revert two vicious beasts to younger, less-powerful versions of themselves. I also poisoned the enemies with Willhelm before accelerating time, causing the poison to hit them all at once. In these sequences, the combat of Cris Tales truly shines; I felt powerful as I masterfully wove Crisbell's time powers together with the rest of the party's abilities. However, the more I played, the more I felt stuck in a time loop.
As you travel through each dungeon in Cris Tales, you repeat many of the same battles. Fighting through random encounters with the same subset of enemies is nothing new to the genre, but the repetitive fights encouraged me to take the most efficient route possible despite the awesome powers at my fingertips. Since this strategy prevailed in the random encounters, I hoped boss battles would encourage more time manipulation, but that's also rare. While some bosses feature different forms depending on how you manipulate their time, the most potent foes offer no incentive to play with these unique tools. Rather than serving as a culmination of everything you've learned, Cris Tales' later bosses ask you to ignore the battle system's most distinctive mechanics by rendering them ineffective.
I also liked using the time powers to solve simple puzzles in dungeons, like turning a pillar into rubble to get through a blocked path, then restoring the pillar so I could bridge the gap above. Sadly, these mechanics never progress beyond a rarely used gimmick. The dungeons also lean towards long, mundane pathways seemingly designed to trigger random encounters on your way to an isolated treasure chest instead of enticing exploration.
The time-shift systems carry into the towns, as you can see every destination's past, present, and future. I found it rewarding to see my actions and completed sidequests affect people or locations in real-time; folding these consequences into an already endearing and enthralling story (albeit one brimming with whiplash-inducing twists and turns) made me more excited to engage with the optional content.
Sadly, a lack of labels on both people and places hinders world exploration. For example, if one sidequest tells me to talk to a specific person and I can't remember who that person is, I must talk to each character, so their name pops on the screen with their dialogue. Similarly, towns in the hub world are frustratingly unlabeled, meaning you need to keep track of each area's name and location. These are minor inconveniences in the grand scheme but were particularly annoying due to many sidequests that require you to talk to several specific people. This problem came to a head in the endgame, which tasked me with retrieving people from each town, but with more than 30 hours of gameplay between my interactions with some townspeople, I had no idea who some of the characters were going off just their names.
Despite these issues, RPG fans still have an enjoyable and often delightful adventure to play. However, with myriad frustrations, repetitive action, and mechanics that don't live up to their potential, Cris Tales falls short of the greatness for which it seemed destined.
Despite its shortcomings and frustrations, Cris Tales is an enjoyable adventure for RPG fans to take.