I’ve written about Cris Tales a couple of times now and shared my thoughts on both the mechanical aspects of the game as well as the early story. It’s a promising RPG with lovely visuals, charming if simple characters, and combo-based RPG mechanics that challenge you to combine the abilities of your characters in interesting ways. While the broad story of the game focuses on an evil Time Empress bent on the destruction of the world, the game is broken into “chapters” which center on single communities and the problems they face. In the second chapter, this focused on the city of St. Clarity and its issues with classism as the literal sewage from the rich part of the city ruined the lives of the people living in the poor Floodtown below.
What interested me about Cris Tales early on was split pretty evenly between the story and mechanics. The Floodtown arc had me curious about what other issues the game would seek to tackle. While the storytelling was a bit on the nose, it was an age-appropriate look at the issues of class based on what I imagine the intended audience of this game to be. Mechanically, I liked combining the abilities of Crisbelle (the protagonist) with her teammates in order to create interesting combinations and find the most effective tools for dealing with each encounter. Moving out of chapter two, I was hoping to see either more characters or new abilities for the existing characters expanding the number of combo options and keeping combat engaging for the next segment of the game.
Chapter three of Cris Tales focuses on a university town called Tuliria. The city is considered the epicenter of learning in the setting and features a magical university as well as a museum full of significant artifacts and paintings. It is also the site of a grand annual parade. The story here focuses on the death of an important family matriarch named Gladys, who was a friend to party member Willhelm. Gladys’s unexpected death seemed to kick off a series of strange events in the city and the heroes need to focus their attention on unraveling the mystery behind her passing. There is once again class tension here but this time focused on the rich family and what is the best way to spend the inheritance money left behind on Gladys, as some think she would have wanted to invest it into the community while others argue that it is better kept in the family.
When you first show up in Tuliria, a moment is taken to highlight the racial tension between the folks who live here as well as refugees from the nearby land of Cinder. A Tulirian guard refuses to help a Cinderian craftsman whose workshop was destroyed and looks down upon him because of his race and his circumstances. This suggests that the issues of race or immigration will be more meaningful here, but they are relegated to side quests and have little real connection to the overarching plot in Tuliria. This is a shame because the game doesn’t do a great job of critically examining either topic as a result.
My biggest problem with this chapter from a story perspective is the thoughtless both-sides-ing that takes place here. The theme first appears with regard to the way the party indiscriminately slays monsters in the wild as Willhelm tells Cristopher that to the local wildlife, they are the monsters. This makes sense. But the metaphor and the broader theme attached to it loses its impact when the same logic is applied to the villain of the chapter. Rhallus is the ancient spirit of the first matriarch of the family who convinces some of her ancestors to kill their mother so that she can be revived and hoard all of the family’s money. Her actions have meaningful, material harm on an entire city of people, including directly resulting in a woman’s death. But Crisbelle has doubts that stopping her plan was a morally good thing to do, and her friends insist that she continue to feel that way and look at the issue as a grey one rather than black and white. In the view of Cris Tales, Rhallus should be humanized – “everyone would want to come back from the dead, everyone wants to hoard money for themselves” – despite the measurable negative impact of her actions. I’m all for humanizing villains and showing that their motivations are often driven by good intentions, but for a ridiculous mustache twirling cartoon like Rhallus it feels like a misfire.
Mechanically, as Cris Tales goes on the emphasis on combo abilities diminishes in favor of the sorts of strategies you can find in any other RPG – spam the attack button until the enemy is dead. Crisbelle, Cristopher, and Willhelm don’t stop gaining new abilities during this time, but the ones they do get are focused primarily on support (such as Crisbelle manipulating speed stats or resetting time for a character) or they are limited to the Synchro moves that can only be accomplished from time to time using a meter rather than being a normal part of your tactics (such as Cristopher learning Lightning Brand and Fire Brand). This means that the core set of abilities you start chapter three with are essentially the ones you’ll be ending with too, meaning your net number of combos in battle doesn’t change.
Now this wouldn’t be as bad if the new character introduced in Tuliria expanded your combo potential. Just as adding Willhelm after chapter one leading into two adds a lot of options using his plant-based powers, a magician with a unique way of combining their abilities with the existing party would do a lot to expand the combat system. Instead, you get JKR, a character who does not have any magic at all and instead whose mechanic is balanced around overheating. This isn’t inherently a bad idea – it certainly differentiates him from the rest of the team – but what it doesn’t do is create interesting new combat options. The one ability he has that interacts with Crisbelle or Willhelm is the power to relocate enemies to the opposite side of the battlefield. But with his immense attack power and speed, JKR’s addition to the party means that it is just flat-out more efficient to punch everything to death and ignore the combo setups entirely.
This problem is aggravated by the fact that some of the most interesting enemy designs are the ones that push you away from using combo abilities. An insect monster encountered during this part of the game can web Crisbelle’s time crystals into place, preventing you from changing times and thus shutting down combos with Cristopher and Willhelm. Salt creatures in the mines become powerful doppelgangers of a party member if sent into the future, creating an incentive not to manipulate time against them. In an unfortunate twist, the enemies who have the most interesting abilities to interact with are a one-time gotcha that teaches you not to use your coolest moves. Instead of making the combo abilities an appealing, smart approach to utilize against foes, they are inefficient and ineffective, so may as well just mash attack. It’s not a great setup for good combat encounters and while I’ve not had to do any real grinding in Cris Tales, it has also meant that the battles are getting less interesting as I get deeper into the game.
There’s a decent chance that I will keep playing and writing about Cris Tales if for no other reason than because it gives me something to cover here on the blog. But that motivation is unique to myself or other content creators – as the game goes on, I’m less and less sure that I can really recommend it to someone playing the game just for the pleasure of it. The weird misses in terms of story and combat squander the early potential that the game showed, and I’m becoming less confident that what’s coming down the pipe will turn things around.