Cris Tales is adorable. Set in a gorgeous world where everything and everyone looks like they’re part of an ornate pop-up book, you play as Crisbell (Kira Buckland), a young girl with a very high-pitched voice who quickly befriends a talking frog in a top hat, Matias (Cody Rock). It’s not long before Crisbell discovers her ability to look into the past and future, leading her on a quest to realize her full potential as a Time Mage and save the world along with some friends.
It’s a cozy beginning that seems to set the tone for the entire experience. When I played the first hour of the game a year ago, that’s exactly what I was led to believe the rest of the game would be like, and so I jumped at the opportunity to play it for review. I was expecting the difficulty to creep up over time, but overall, I was ready for a comfortable RPG with lovable characters, a stunning art style and a familiar but fair battle system with a time-travel twist.
Sadly, that’s not what Cris Tales is. Its characters are likable enough and its art style remains the best element of the game throughout, with some later locations taking my breath away. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make up for the rest of the game’s many, many flaws.
Cris Tales suffers from a lack of polish, sometimes to a startling degree. Some problems are small annoyances, such as there being no incidental music during cutscenes, which makes for some tonal dissonance when the same cheery town music plays over serious moments. Other issues, such as the game disconnecting my controller every time I exited a battle in a certain area, made it nearly unplayable in some parts, literally so in a few areas.
One of my biggest peeves was its dialogue’s desperate need of an editor, with some sentences ending with a period and others not, grammatical errors abound and voice actors’ lines not matching up with their written ones. It’s not something you might think would ruin a scene, but it was enough to completely take me out of the moment, not just here and there but throughout the entire game.
Also, the story seldom impressed me. There are long stretches of dialogue without anything to break it up, with lots of it feeling like they were padding for time. The writers love their ellipses, so much so that I had to skip past multiple voice lines to save my sanity, as characters would be a fifth of the way through their line before I was done reading it. I suspect the aforementioned distracting elements had something to do with my engagement in the story, but regardless of the reasons, the result was a collection of individually likable but one-dimensional characters that seldom came together in an interesting way.
But it’s the combat that turns Cris Tales from something underwhelming, with both charms and annoyances, into something that’s actively aggravating. There’s a solid system in there, with Crisbell’s ability to turn time forward or backward occasionally having good synergy with her teammates, leading to some moments of strategy where you can have characters wait and build up strong combos to take down powerful enemies, aided by fluid animation that helps you time each attack’s hits to do bonus damage or take less from enemies. But these positive elements are wasted by a wildly fluctuating difficulty curve, with one boss in an area going down in a few hits only for the next one to require hours of grinding levels for me to even stand a chance against it. That may have been the norm a few decades ago, but it shouldn’t even be legal for a game in 2021 to necessitate any grinding to get through the story. We’re civilized now!
My favorite part of the game was when I didn’t need to worry about its combat or story, when I was simply left to look around its towns, with a third of the screen in the past, present or future. I loved moving from side to side to see how each character and location looked in each time period, with its saddest moments not in the scripted story but when I looked through to the future to find that a character had disappeared. At the end of each area, I was asked to make a choice that would affect its future. The results were entirely aesthetic in my experience, and a number of times a glitch meant that the choice was completely taken away from me.
And so, throughout most of my time with Cris Tales, I would wade through the mountains of forgettable dialogue waiting for my next chance to play the actual game, only for the gameplay to be just as monotonous and frustrating, with me then begging for the next story beat to have a respite from it.
It’s a shame, because all of these elements do a disservice to just how beautiful the game’s world and animations are. The hand-drawn art style is slowly becoming more popular in videogames, and Cris Tales’ art is among the best I’ve ever seen in one. The way characters move and express in combat never gets old, even as everything around it quickly does. I can see the massive amount of love and care put into one element of the game, which conveniently is the most visible one for observers. But once I pick up the controller, it becomes clear that level of detail is only surface deep.
Cris Tales was developed by Dreams Uncorporated and Syck, and published by Modus Games. Our review is based on the Xbox Series S version. It is also available for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia and PC.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.