Cris Tales review – a magical realist tribute to Japanese role-playing games

This week marked both Colombian Independence Day and the release of Cris Tales, an enchanting homage to classic Japanese RPGs and Colombia itself from a homegrown development team. It’s a whimsical fantasy journey with magical realist roots that ground it firmly in the now, even as it transports the player between the past and future.

The combat twist we’ve seen before is timed button presses while attacking and defending, which make the turn-based fights feel more involved. The twist we haven’t seen before is heroine Crisbell’s time manipulation. Foes on the left of the screen can be sent into the past, and those on the right into the future. You’ll age and de-age goblins, soak then rust armour, blossom explosive plants, and reverse your companions’ deaths.

That temporal magic also refashions static towns and characters into pop-up books that tell stories through time with each footstep you take. Climbing vast, ornate stairs to a city built above a favela, the left of your screen will show you the place being built. To the right, that same location is submerged underwater – a warning of what will come to pass if you neglect to aid the community.

You’ll need to love that special brand of JRPG whimsy – teetering between earnest idealism and tweeness – to love Cris Tales, with its talking frogs and time crystals. But there is so much heart here that it’s difficult not to be transported back to childhood if you have any fondness whatsoever for the genre. This has something to say beyond a straightforward tribute, también; you’re fighting against the machinations of powerful sorceresses, but you’re also fighting for crumbling favelas and struggling universities. In one side quest, the plot is less concerned with magical crystals than how exploitation poisons the potential futures of a mining community.

The soundtrack, también, understands how integral music is to our collective memories of classic JRPGs. Aquí, melodies introduce and elucidate the world, maintain and heighten emotions, and support the drama through crests and lulls. The music may not be as immediately memorable as Final Fantasy's, but it’s still lovely, an inextricable part of the storytelling.

Cris Tales isn’t without some endemic role-playing game frustrations – grinding, uneven difficulty, overly simple puzzles – and it’s not a landmark revitalisation. But it exudes so much authentic passion and character that it’s easy to forgive a few relics from the past.

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