[FEATURE] Cris Tales Hands-On – Stylish and clever 2D JRPG launching 2020

Some of you may remember E3 – long long ago there was this quaint little games conference, hardly caused much of a stir. A few games would get announced to much rejoicing in the streets. I remember one year, the 19th year of our current century it was, when a little game called Cris Tales came to my attention. I was young and naive back then, and little did I realise that there was also a demo I could have been partaking of. It was only during the lockdown of the 20th year that I finally looked to see if the game was still on track, and discovered to my delight, the demo still available on the service of Steam.

I won’t write the whole thing like that I promise.

Cris Tales just might be one of the most beautifully-designed indies on course for a 2020 release. Taking inspiration from the classic JRPGs of the last century, and combining them with wonderful 2D animation that looks nothing like a game so much as it resembles a living cartoon, Cris Tales is the story of Crisbell, a young girl living at an orphanage, who one day discovers she can wield a time crystal.

It’s got style coming for its every pore; from the Persona-esque turn-based battles and victory wrap-ups, to the stained glass and intricate artwork of Kingdom Hearts’ heartworld; from the prim and quaint Madeline-esque town to the patchwork world map and its time mechanics.

The demo will take you just an hour to complete, but the taste it leaves behind is succulent as a glowfruit. Like the Neverland crocodile who gets a taste for Captain Hook, I want more.

The time crystal gives Madeline, sorry Crisbell, the ability to see past, present and future all on one screen – see above seeds, flowers and harvest. Wander around the town and you can see young characters age and have children of their own from one side of the screen to the other. It’s completely integrated into a fantastic opening chapter of a town threatened by an evil Empress and modernisation. Crisbell uses the time crystal to go through a little series of item-gathering quests to fend off the encroaching future. One example is seeing in the future the damage caused by wood rot (such a wonderfully small town issue) – to solve this you need to find those who can aid you, do quests for them that lead to other items from yet more NPCs, each time needing the time crystal to peer either into the future or the past.

I loved it when it got clever, and I hope this kind of attention to detail goes through the whole game. In one scenario you couldn’t solve a quest only by looking into the past, you needed to actually go there. Crisbell is stuck in the present, so enter Matias, her trusty top-hat-wearing talking frog companion who can time hop (literally) into the past, check things and hop back. Or jump into the future and retrieve the fruit from a tree you planted in the present. It’s all just overwhelmingly wonderful. The best bit? When he hops into the past he becomes the cutest little tadpole. My heart!

The time mechanic is worked into everything, even battle. When the farm nearby is threatened by goblins, Crisbell enters turn-based combat with her new time-crystal sword, and can physically age or de-age enemy combatants. Make a younger inexperienced goblin that’s easier to kill, or age them and their equipment so that it breaks. It’s just achingly clever and fluid. There is a boss at the end of the demo with an unbreakable shield. No problem, water magic combined with time, means a splashed metal shield then rusts in future time and you can break it.

I was continually bowled over by little details like these, from the jaw-dropping art, to the gunblade-style trigger to do double damage in battle, or guard effectively. The demo at least is fully voiced, and every voice artist was stunning – I hope this continues into the full game.

Cris Tales is both incredibly cute and amazingly designed. If the full game is as good as this demo we could be in for a real treat. Cris Tales is slated for release before the end of the year but no firm date yet, and is hopefully coming to Steam, Switch, PS4, XBX1 and even Stadia.

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