Saturday, June 15, 2024

Cris Tales Follows Through with a Shocking Time Loop Adventure

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This summer has seen the release of many interesting indie video games, including Cris Tales on July 20th from Columbian developers Dreams Uncorporated and SYCK (and publisher Modus Games), pitched as a a love letter to JRPGs.

We actually reviewed the demo of Cris Tales earlier this summer! Both Molly and I were provided a copy of the game in return for a fair review, so where her review focuses primarily on gameplay this review is an analysis of the game’s plot and execution of said plot.

While there are some general plot spoilers, I do not spoil the final twist so you can read this before playing the game!

As a whole Cris Tales is a gorgeous first entry for these developers and while there are some bugs and plot concerns, I really appreciated this game and am super excited to see what’s next from the team(s).

Cris Tales follows Crisbell, a young orphan who acquires the amazing ability to slip from the past, present, and into the future as she aids citizens across Crystallis’ kingdoms and battles enemies. To help Crisbell save her world from the evil that threatens it, she must gather allies in her quest and work with different people across the five kingdoms to make sure everyone’s future is a positive one.

As seen in the above opening cinematic, the art and music in this game is absolutely gorgeous. In the vein of JRPGs, there’s plenty of characters to meet, both NPCs and characters who are ultimately available for use in the player’s party as they work through the locations in the game and fight multiple bad guys leading up to the Time Empress, who is trying to bring the end of the world as we know it. For reasons…

Here dungeons are in the areas prior to and around each city: Narim, St. Clarity, Neva Tulira, and Cinders, and finally, where the first major climax occurs in Crystallis. While there’s no automatic save, there are multiple locations within each dungeon and the city to save before embarking on the next leg of the journey, or as Crisbell and the player are sent back through previously seen locations.

As Crisbell moves throughout the cities and gets new allies, she and the player are presented with numerous opportunities to go on quests. Unfortunately, there is not a solid system in place for warning the character if they’ve skipped a step and therefore won’t be able to finish out a quest. This is problematic, because to get the best of three options for each city’s future, you have to succeed in all quests available.

Otherwise, you may be offered one or two other options which, while fine, are not the happiest ending for each city. In fact, even if you only get one or two options, the future may still be bleak without finishing certain quests. In St. Clarity, Christopher’s home, if you don’t save a little boy, no matter what ending you pick, the city will be flooded in the future. After the ending is chosen though, going back and talking to all the residents is a lot of fun because they all have an opinion.

crisbell in st clarity flooded future cris tales
A look at St. Clarity before Crisbell can choose how to help the city.

Similarly in Cinders which is threatened by a volcano, not fulfilling each and every quest means no matter what Crisbell does to save the city, it won’t lead to a solid happy ending. Sadly, even the best ending leaves the city charred but considering its name and place in the world, it fits.

Overall the story of Crisbell navigating around the world and meeting people holds up to what a player would want in a JRPG inspired game. There’s some bad guys in each location, the Time Empress is battled multiple times, and at the end there’s a twist that changes the story entirely. It’s an expected twist if you’ve played many games in this genre, but the execution is slow in some places, especially due to numerous backtracking moments.

cris tales battle scene
A screenshot during battle.

When you’ve been through the same dungeon for the tenth time while attempting to find X item or help Y person, it gets slightly redundant. Additionally, the diversity of the characters leaves a lot to be desired, which is really disappointing considering how gorgeous the existing characters and animation is and the overall impact on the central conceit of the game. That is Crisbell trying to save the world from the Time Empress, where nothing is as it seems at first.

One-Note Bad Guys and Racism

For example, as Crisbell moves through the story, we learn that each city has a character (or more) who are working with the Time Empress or the Time Empress’s henchpeople. One of them actually ends up in your party, which is a fun twist on the redemption approach to a character while two go against the Empress and help Crisbell.

However, while this game is based on Columbian locations, and therefore one could assume this is an alternate universe to Columbia with Columbian characters, there is literally only one voiced main character of color who doesn’t look like any of the mains. (Fortunately there are a couple NPCs/characters Crisbell can interact with who are also not white.)

Specifically Enzo, a Black man, is dating Christopher’s mother Sophia, and is one of the bosses working with/for the Time Empress. Had the creators included multiple voiced characters of color, this wouldn’t be as frustrating, but within the context of what’s happening in St. Clarity, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

As Crisbell talks to more residents of St. Clarity and meets Christopher’s father, Armando and Sophia (who as youths were very active in pointing out oppression), we learn that the rich live both literally and figuratively above the poor who deal with the regular flooding that occurs.

st clarity inn area
How nice is this area?!

In a sub-plot about inequality and what could be considered a slum-like area in relation to the rich and beautiful areas, having Enzo be a bad guy who does everything for his own goals falls flat. If instead, Christopher was Black (like his voice actor), and his parents are Black too, making Enzo a white man who doesn’t give a damn about the people within the context of the game’s setting in Columbia-lite is much more impactful especially due to the real world antiBlackness that exists everywhere, and in Latin America.

Christopher’s parents wanting to help everyone would also feel elevated with Sophia becoming a person who went from fighting against oppression to thinking her new boo Enzo is good, and then realizing she was wrong this entire time and must go back to helping her people.

This isn’t at all to say that people of color cannot be complex villains or bad guys, rather that if there’s only one person of color, who is also a bad guy…well, that’s problematic. Especially since Crisbell learns from talking to other St. Clarity residents that the poor are also dealing with the lack of opportunities and many have health issues due to what’s in the flood water. (Sewage!!) Having a true inclusive cast would make Enzo stand out as a realistic bad guy who would rather make money then do anything to care for his city’s people.

Social Commentary Done Well

By contrast, the characters in Cinders (the third city) all feel much more well-rounded and the commentary on inequality is much stronger as a whole. Here, Crisbell learns that the Volcano Sisters are actually two of three sisters whose royal parents were deposed in a rebellion by the people.

Surprisingly, the sisters genuinely care about their people, and the entire reason they linked up with our favorite Time Empress, is because most if not all their citizens are dealing with glass lung, an illness caused by particles from the nearby forge.

redhaired volcano sisters
I love them. They’re great.

Crisbell then must go on a quest to find a cure ASAP, not only for the residents, but because Cristopher (and Wilhelm) are removed from the party when Christopher gets the disease, and Wilhelm stays back to watch over him. Throughout this process and by talking to more characters both in the present and the past, we learn about the sisters family and that they’ve lost a third sister (hint, she’s in the game somewhere that you’ve been already and you will meet her again later).

Of course, Crisbell is a young character so at first she doesn’t understand why people even like the Volcano Sisters, but as more of the Cinders plot is revealed, it’s clear the writers do actually have a deft hand with the social commentary. The women in this game are truly incredible and are all very compelling characters. Even the Mother Superior’s in each city are fascinating and I would love a short adventure with those ladies!

I’m not going into detail on the plot of Neva Tulira but the commentary is similar there in that the bad guy is someone pretending to be the rightful heir to the city’s main (and richest) family. Crisbell must go on quests to save the family’s remaining members, and again we learn more about Crystallis and how the Time Empress’ actions are affecting everyone in small and big ways.

Once Crisbell makes it through the first four cities, her and the player are finally ready to go up against the Time Empress and this is where the game takes a sharp turn.

Decision Making in an Endless Loop

Alas, no matter what level Crisbell and team are, or how hard the player tries, Crisbell cannot defeat the Time Empress once she runs into her in Crystallis. Instead, we sadly lose a member of the party, gain another, battle the Time Empress again, go back in time, and then must lead Crisbell through all of the previous locations yet again in attempts to stop the Time Empress for good. Woof, that’s a mouthful.

The back half of the game follows Crisbell going to each ruin to turn off a machine which allows for more exposition to unfold, as well as generating more character interactions. Then, once all the machines are turned off, Crisbell and party fight the Time Empress again and this time actually manage to beat her, and find out the major twist in the story. Dun dun dun.

This leads to yet ANOTHER section of backtracking through all the same locations to bring a set of characters together who will be able to turn off another set of machines, which finally gets Crisbell and the player to the end of the game where you battle the real main boss (which takes for frickin ever) and can get one of two endings.

neva tulira ruins
I never want to see these ruins again.

Once that occurs, based on how many quests you completed and endings for each city, the ending cinematic will have a few extra seconds for each of the five locations.

Every pun about a time warp and time loop apply to the last third of the game. Between the what feels like unending backtracking and interactions with the characters, Crisbell and the party realizes that nothing has been as it seems this entire time. If you figure out the twist before it happens, props to you. I had an inkling but wasn’t ready for the full ramifications.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of the twist, there isn’t a cut and dry happy ending. Rather, there’s a somber ending, and a more hopeful ending, leaving space for the developers to create a sequel or another game in the same world. The ending cinematic also leaves the player with more questions, which too could lead to a sequel.

Overall, Cris Tales follows through on its promise to be a love letter to JRPGs. With some polishing and extra care in the writing, any sequels or future games from these developers are sure to be a hit!

Images and review copies courtesy of Modus Games

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