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A year ago I vented how Persona 3 and Odin Sphere had destroyed my love for Japanese RPGs, one of my favorite video game genres growing up. I might have been a bit dramatic about the situation, but the two games left such bad tastes in my mouth I had to take a break from the genre. This lasted about six months before I ventured back into the land of turn-based rising sun with Sega’s Infinite Space, a game that has all the trappings of crappy JRPGs but turned out to be pretty great in the end.
Since then I’ve beaten Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, and Radiant Historia. It’s been a mixed bag and a reminder that I’m not back in love with the genre, but one game in particular pretty much brought me back into the fold: Atlus’ newest Nintendo DS title, Radiant Historia.
Released in February, Radiant Historia chewed up more portable gaming time than anything I’ve played in recent memory. The idea that a 50 hour game should be imposing to someone with limited gaming time like myself didn’t matter, I plowed through it and the game was worth every minute. Here’s my review of Radiant Historia.
In many ways, Radiant Historia could be mistaken for a classic Japanese RPG on the Super Nintendo. The graphics are sprite-based and carefully drawn and animated, the gameplay is streamlined to minimize downtime and item management, and the battle system is simple yet fun and addicting. But it also displays a level of maturity that can only come from generations of success and failure. The plot is complex but trusts in the gamer to understand and does more “showing” than “telling” of its most interesting aspects.
Radiant Historia is a JRPG that employs many of the genre’s basic tropes and cliches, but manages to turn them all on their head and come out on top. At the story’s core we have time travel, a device used to enormous success in Chrono Trigger but nothing nearly as good since. Instead of trying to repeat Trigger’s multi-millennia triumph, Radiant Historia is focused on the immediate events on hand. Our hero, Stocke, can jump at nearly any time to different important decisions he made and try the other side of the coin. If things don’t work out, he can always go back to before his choice and “fix” the timeline.
More importantly, Stocke can jump between two timelines, a Standard and Alternate History, using a mysterious book called the White Chronicle. A key decision at the beginning of the game branches Stocke’s life into two allowing him to see how both play out at the same time. In a curious decision that has huge ramifications on the game, the two distinct timelines are not so distinct. Some sort of ripple effect that is never properly explained allows NPC A’s experiences in the Alternate History to influence NPC A in the Standard History. While it feels like one of the game’s few major flaws, this is simply how timelines work in Radiant Historia - though a little more explanation would have been nice.
Stocke’s ultimate goal is to stop a war and save the continent from desertification, and he can only do that by using the White Chronicle which allows him to experiment with the timelines and travel between them. While there are many decision nodes to visit across both timelines, the game isn’t as quite as open ended as it sounds. You can’t, for example, kill a random NPC at the beginning of the timeline and jump ahead a few months to see how the world has changed, partly because that would make the game insanely hard to play and partly because a little linearity in a time traveling game goes a long way (plus it probably would never have been released).
Most of the game is spent traveling as far as you can along one timeline until you run across a block in the road, literal or otherwise. These obstacles can usually only be overcome by traveling to the other timeline to either obtain some item, rescue an NPC (that will ripple/echo to the other timeline), or learn a new skill. You then proceed as far as you can on that timeline until you can go no further, then return to the other one and move on. Now Radiant Historia may sound too linear, but in actuality the balance between structure and freedom walks a thin line successfully.
Along the way, Stocke recruits new party members from a little girl to a princess (it wouldn’t be a proper JRPG without either), and manages to juggle both lives in Standard and Alternate History as best as possible. As the gamer, trying to remember two similar yet distinct storylines can be difficult at times: “did so-and-so die in this timeline or this one?” But there’s a comprehensive event-by-event description available in the White Chronicle at any time. Plus the game does a pretty great job reminding you of important bits of information whenever you return to the other timeline.
The battle system deserves mention next, as it procures the best pieces from games over the last 20 years and merges it all into something that is a joy to play. To start, there are no random battles in Radiant Historia, everything can be seen and avoided from the field. You can also hit enemies on the field with your sword to daze and get a preemptive strike a la Super Mario RPG. Once in battle, turns are laid out just like Final Fantasy X, with the next 12 moves displayed on the left side of the screen. Turns can be adjusted and interrupted, but the biggest change from FFX is that no party members outside your current three can be swapped in, you’re stuck with what you have.
The enemies are spread out on a 3x3 grid revealing Radiant Historia’s coolest feature, the ability to push and pull enemies around on the grid to stack them, build combos, and increase damage. If two enemies are positioned next to each other, Stocke can push one onto the other and the next character delivers a single spear thrust that hits both of them. This simple mechanism is built on throughout the game and becomes more and more important as the hours go by. There are very, very few battles in the game that can be won just by hitting the auto-battle button (which I’m thankful is still there as it’s useful for mopping up enemies close to death). Radiant Historia requires thinking and strategy.
I haven’t played many JRPGs lately that actually required you to think about what you were doing in battle. Golden Sun 3 has one of the most complex and deep battle systems I’ve ever seen, but it’s all superfluous as 99% of the enemies in the game can be beat by just tapping A (sadly, the game that needs an auto-battle feature doesn’t have one). Radiant Historia forces you to be creative and evolve as the game goes on.
The varied party members allow you to do this however you want, too. For much of the game, I used Aht, the little girl who somehow wasn’t obnoxious, as a trap layer. She can lay a variety of traps on empty spots on the grid and other characters can push them onto the traps for massive damage. As the game went on and some characters couldn’t be pushed, I moved over to Eruca who could knock tons of hit points off with her magic attacks, especially after a large combo had been built. Other characters allow you to buff up attack more or group many enemies together with a single attack. I want to replay the game just to try a different combination of characters.
The story itself is a not-so-typical JRPG tale on politics and sacrifice. There isn’t some asteroid heading towards earth or time compression or a magical Big Bad that has been looming overhead since hour one, but a deep story that slowly unravels across both timelines. It’s never quite clear who are the real bad guys, and sometimes the good guys do questionable things too. I loved Radiant Historia because it didn’t think I was stupid, it let me try to figure out the complexities of time traveling and dimension hopping without constantly holding my hand. And it offered up a mature story that wasn’t littered with androgynous pretty boys. Atlus deserves a lot of credit for not falling for the typical crap we see in Japanese RPGs these days... for most of the game.
Where the game falters is at the end, where it features a string of uninspired dungeons with bad guys waiting at the end of them. The last few hours reminded me I was playing a Japanese RPG with all of the genre’s baggage. Traveling through time is mostly pushed to the side near the end in favor of dungeon crawling. In my opinion, I think the end portion could have wrapped up more efficiently and effectively if it resembled the end of The Dragon Reborn where Rand chased Ba’alzamon through gateways in a really exciting sequence. Replace gateways with time portals and my dream might have come true.
Radiant Historia’s translation is also stellar, both Nate and I commented to each other how smart it was throughout and that we actually learned some new words from it. Great job to the localization team.
The game features an amazing soundtrack from one of the top working composer in the industry right now, Yoko Shimomura. The track list is incredibly varied and always powerful. Themes weave their way into every song making the game very hummable. Hey, when you pack in a CD for preorderers featuring piano renditions of some of the tracks, you know you’re on to something good.
Graphically it’s gorgeous on the DS. Nate mentioned some issues with the backgrounds but I looked and looked and never saw them. Yeah, there’s some palette swapping for the enemies but beyond that I don’t have any complaints.
Radiant Historia also features a ton of side quests which factor into the game’s ending. Completing everything probably tacked on an extra 10-15 hours putting me at just over 50 in the end. The quests can be quite obscure to complete though, and I think beating this game 100% without some guide would be a real feat, but even with a little help you feel like you’re really accomplishing something. There’s also a bonus boss that is much tougher than the final boss, a nice extra for those of us who really enjoyed the game and its battle system.
Though the side quests can extend the game by quite a bit, they do require a fair amount of backtracking and repeating some of the same events over and over. I wouldn’t really have minded if I didn’t have to fight a surprisingly tough trio of drunken soldiers about six times, but in the end I really enjoyed my experience and am glad I 100%’d it. Plus the game instantly allows you to skip scenes by pressing Start or fast-forward over text by holding X, so there’s really not a lot of repetition outside of fighting.
Radiant Historia is currently at the top of my list for Game of the Year, something a bit odd to be talking about in March, but it’s always on my mind as I play. It’s the best Japanese RPG I’ve played since Suikoden II and a must-have for any fan of the genre.