Cris Tales: a time-warping JRPG homage

Just playing through the opening turn-based battle of Cris Tales, it’s evident that it borrows elements from many a great JRPG. There’s the battle timeline at the top displaying character turns, like Octopath Traveler; the turn-based combat takes a leaf from Paper Mario, where a well-timed button tap will increase your attack or defence; even the stylish battle menu is straight out of Persona 5.

But as much as developer Dreams Uncorporated are happy to wear their influences on their sleeves, Cris Tales isn’t just a JRPG homage, but one that hopes to add new ideas to the genre’s established structure.
Its big party trick is time, a popular theme and mechanic in games such as Chrono Trigger and The Legend of Zelda series (for my money, the Timeshift Stones in Skyward Sword were genius). But rather than simply rewinding or warping between different periods, Cris Tales splits the screen in three, allowing you to see the past, present, and future simultaneously, with each era denoted by its own distinct palette.

This was, in fact, the starting point for the game, as Dreams Uncorporated CEO Carlos Rocha Silva explains. “We thought it would be really interesting to see different ‘times’ on the same screen,” he says. “So we started thinking about what type of game would it work on, eventually settling on RPGs. Ultimately, it was a lot of experimenting with the combat system, but that made us fall in love with it.”

Given Cris Tales is a JRPG-inspired indie game, it’s a pleasant surprise that voice acting features throughout.

It takes extra ingenuity to make turn-based combat dynamic, whether it’s being able to interrupt enemy attacks on the timeline, as in Octopath Traveler, or the Active Time Battle gauge used in many classic Final Fantasy games, but Cris Tales gets even cleverer, turning its battles into puzzles. By invoking time crystals, you can send your enemies to the past or future, which affects their abilities. For instance, sending a goblin into the past turns it into an infant that’s too weak to put a scratch on you. More fascinating is a boss duo who combine their shields, making them impenetrable. But apply some water magic and send them to the future, and voilà: the shield goes rusty.

These powers also come into effect outside of combat. Plant a seed in the present, and if you forward in time, you’ll see that, in the future, it’s grown into a tree bearing a rare fruit, or you might see a townsperson’s decaying house that you can fix by preventing its rot in the present. Such a presentation isn’t without its limitations, namely, that the past and future visions are always presented to the left and right of the screen, respectively. This may also be a blessing, though, because if you can only view something from the left, then chances are there’s something in the past worth exploring.

Cris Tales establishes its lore early on. The people worship a goddess referred to as The Lady, and the mayor is kitted out in fancy armour.

Cris Tales also stands out from a visual standpoint, neither leaning on predictable pixel art or anime styles, but instead opting for a unique and strikingly beautiful hand-drawn 2D look that’s animated frame by frame. Even though there are clear influences from classic and modern JRPGs – there are genre staples like magical girls and a pint-sized sidekick with a knack for running its mouth – Colombia-based Dreams Uncorporated is keen to celebrate its country’s own identity. It’s a refreshing break from the usual negative stereotypes. “We actually want to create something called ‘Colombian Fantasy’,” Silva explains. “A new style of magical world and the creatures within it, focused on Colombia as our main inspiration. Hopefully, it will motivate lots of people to learn more about our roots.”

Indeed, the game frequently references its country of origin: the town of Narim with its cathedral in the centre is directly inspired by Nariño, home to a beautiful Gothic basilica called Las Lajas Sanctuary. The protagonist Crisbell was the result of art director Sebastian Villarreal envisioning how a Disney princess would look if she was from Colombia (and could fight with a really big sword).

Sending this enemy into the future makes it too old and frail to wield its axe, so it resorts to magic attacks instead.

“For Cris Tales, we created our own look and feel, based on Sebastian’s background as an artist, and combined that with many art styles, as well as references to our country,” says Silva. “The way people dress, the way the environments look, and even the architecture is inspired by Colombia and its culture.”

There are still a few genre elements the studio has purposely kept in Cris Tales, so you can expect the final game to include random encounters, dungeon crawling, and minigames. Right now, though, the team is still focused on perfecting the core aspects of the game, which are still under wraps.

Before embarking on Cris Tales, its dev team was called Below The Game, and cut its teeth on kid-friendly, fairytale games for mobile, so taking on an ambitious RPG like this is a considerable evolution for the studio. With its release several months away, there’s still more work to do. You might not be able to peer into the future, but if you’re impatient to try the game out, the opening demo is available on Steam.

With three eras displayed simultaneously, you’ll see some NPCs at different ages, though it gets disturbing when you see nobody at all.

What’s in a name

Aside from the title, a wordplay on the Spanish spelling of crystals, it’s also no coincidence that the protagonist is called Crisbell, while another companion who joins you early on is named Cristopher – and it’s likely not the last character you’ll meet whose name begins with Cris. Silva teases that there’s a tremendous significance for this in the game’s lore, though of course, he doesn’t want to spoil anything here.

Genre: RPG
Format: PC / Switch / PS4 / XBO
Developer: Dreams Uncorporated / SYCK
Publisher: Modus Games
Release: 2020

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