It's common for RPGs to use time travel as a gameplay mechanic, a background narrative, or both. 1995's Chrono Trigger for the SNES is probably the best-known example. Chrono Trigger's exciting travels across the past, present, and future made it an easy choice for USG's Best RPG of All Time. It's not surprising, then, to learn Dreams Uncorporated's own RPG about time travel, a lovely-looking adventure called Cris Tales, names Chrono Trigger as one of its main inspirations.
Chrono Trigger is just one name in a list of retro RPGs that helped build Cris Tales. Dreams Uncorporated also names Final Fantasy 6 and Valkyrie Profile alongside modern classics like Persona 5 and Bravely Default. Despite its pedigree, nothing about Cris Tales looks or feels derivative. Whereas most RPGs inspired by the heyday of the SNES and PlayStation opt for sprite-based graphics, Cris Tales presents its realm and characters with hand-drawn graphics that are without equal in the RPG genre. The game's expressive heroes and imaginative monsters would be at home between the pages of a storybook.
In the same vein, playing with time in Cris Tales doesn't simply involve linear travel a la Chrono Trigger. The past, present, and future are laid out in real time. Enemies can grow old or young in an instant. The actions you take in the present have immediate consequences that you can observe through a slice of the screen that lets you observe the future. Chrono Trigger's scent is on Cris Tales, but make no mistake: it's thoroughly its own RPG.
Cris Tales' unique graphics alone suggest Dreams Uncorporated is intent on making a game that looks different from other RPGs, without sprites or realistic graphics. "For us, it was about creating our own personal art style," says Dreams Uncorporated CEO Carlos Rocha Silva. "We're not just trying to emulate old RPGs, we're trying to set our ideas into this new generation of RPGs." Silva goes on to say when the team created Cris Tales' heroine, Crisbell, after asking "How would a Disney princess look if she was Columbian?"
Cris Tales' flowery visuals are just one example of how Dreams Uncorporated intends to make its mark on RPGs. The old RPGs we still carry torches for serve as the foundation for Cris Tales, but the game seizes those classic ideas and performs impressive development witchcraft to make them into new—and ambitious—ideas. Time travel isn't just part of Cris Tales; it is Cris Tales. If Crono is H.G. Wells' Time Traveller, Crisbell is Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim. Her powers allow her to see the past, present, and future in a single moment—a power you share in.
When Crisbell walks through a town, the screen is divided into three triangular sections: the past on the left, the present in the middle, and the future on the right. The decisions Crisbell makes, both big and small, impact the past and future as you watch. In one memorable instance, Crisbell and her friends enter a town and witness a child get washed away into a sewer. If Crisbell decides to rescue him, he's reunited with his mother in the present and all seems well. However, when you observe the mother and child through the wedge of the screen reserved for the future, you see the mother as an old woman, grey and childless. Crisbell can send her time-hopping frog friend Matias into that sad future, where he learns the child was saved, but sickened and died because he swallowed sewer water during his misadventure. If Crisbell hands the mother an antidote in her own time and warns her to use it on the child, the child will survive.
These time-traveling rescues aren't simply about making yourself feel good, though. Some change the story in vital ways. If the sewer-boy takes the antidote and survives, he grows up to become a plumber and saves the town from becoming waterlogged far in the future. Indeed, when you first enter the town and observe the right-hand future wedge, you notice parts of the town are underwater. Once the child is saved, the town you see in the future is bustling instead of a drowned mess.
The sewer child saga is just one example of Cris Tales' time trickery that Modus showed to us. The hour-long presentation rolled through examples of a pushy mayor becoming an iron-fisted king depending on Crisbell's actions, a nihilistic street busker becoming a star or a thief depending on a gift he receives, and more. Again, these are all events you observe in real time. It's a little overwhelming at first, but once your brain becomes unstuck in time alongside Crisbell, you start to appreciate the labor Dreams Uncorporated put into making Cris Tales a standout amongst RPGs.
Dreams Uncorporated deserves the kudos since it easily could have called it a day after implementing Crisbell's time travel powers into Cris Tales' turn-based battle system. Fiddling with time opens creative ways to dispose of tough enemies. A goblin becomes a young weakling if Crisbell throws it into the past while she remains in the present. An enemy inflicted with the poison status will take a lot of damage at once if Crisbell pushes it into the future.
Magic and time travel often work in tandem, which is an important strategy in heavy-duty fights. A troublesome, heavily armored boss will find itself at a major disadvantage if one of Crisbell's companions wets the shield down with water so that it becomes rusted and useless in the future.
But time travel doesn't have the same effect on all enemies. The aforementioned goblin will become old and weak if it's sent to the future—but it also gains the knowledge to utilize a strong fire spell. Pushing wolves into the future seems like a good way to enfeeble the critters but aging simply turns them into viciously strong werewolf-like creatures.
Even in its unfinished stage, Cris Tales is brimming with passion, personality, and ambition. Dreams Uncorporated is seemingly on track to give us an RPG that tips its hat to classic RPGs while simultaneously delivering something new to the genre. The question is, is it possible for Cris Tales to hold up all its big ideas across the 20-plus hour experience Dreams Uncorporated has planned? It's still a small indie team, and Cris Tales' aspirations are huge. It's easy to imagine the project collapsing under its own weight.
Still, when you play the demo and observe the Cris Tales for yourself, it's hard not to get pumped up. Dreams Uncorporated might be onto something special here. We'll find out for ourselves when we peer into the past, present, and future with Cris Tales on November 17. Look for it on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.