For anyone keeping tabs this blog is actually coming about 6 months late, I had said I would write it for the “Gush about something for Valentine’s Day” thing, but well, I guess something came up at the time and it was never finished. When I last had a brief ramble, it actually did descend into a ramble and I ended up leaving many wondering why or even if I actually liked the game (things which you think are implicit more often than not aren’t, it’s like rule one of extended writing). I have tried to ensure that it doesn’t happen again- firstly, this ramble will be more structured than the last, although I still would rather call it a ramble than a review. Secondly I’m talking about Radiant Historia, not the TurboGrafx 16 version of Ys I & II, so there are no “this game is terrible but honestly it’s also brilliant, trust me” disclaimers to be made this time. That’s because, without nit picking, it is very hard to actually complain about Radiant Historia.
For the uninitiated, Radiant Historia is a 2011 JRPG for the DS whose principal selling points were a fairly unique combat system and a plot revolving around time travel. For many, the only real reaction to this can be: “were they mad?”. And whilst basically asking for your (fairly budget) modern JRPG to be compared to Chrono Trigger should by all intents and purposes have been suicidal, it really wasn’t- these guys clearly knew what they were doing. From what I understand of its development, Radiant Hitoria was something of a budget passion project, developed by staff who had previously worked on the Shin Megami Tensei series and Radiata Stories for the PS2 (which I have never played). Unfortunately, the low budget shows in several places: each character only has a single portrait for dialogue, which is mirrored depending on the side of the screen. The main character Stocke’s sprite only has one horizontal set of frames, meaning his shield and sword switch every time he turns around and arguably the game’s greatest flaw is its lack of enemy and environment variety. If you do play the game expect pallet swaps and back tracking galore. BUT WAIT. Before this Blog gets all negative as well, I want to tell you that you won’t care. I’ve played the game 3 times since buying it on release (pre-ordering a copy from America turned out to be a very good idea) and it has never once bothered me. The game will certainly never be called pretty, but its visuals are serviceable. Character designs are distinctive and environments resemble the DS Dragon Quest remakes, with 2D sprites wandering around simple 3D environments. Whilst the over world sprites are nothing special, you get the impression that a lot of effort was put into the relatively simple (but visually very appealing) character sprites during battles. Everybody’s animations fit their character, with the excitable young satyr Aht being bubbly and bouncy, whereas calm and collected Stocke seems just that (although I can’t find a handy gif of Stocke). In summary then the visuals are alright, they do their job and that is really all that matters at the end of the day. The game’s soundtrack is pretty good, the songs help give each scene and area a suitable atmosphere and there are a few stand out songs, although I can’t see the game being remembered for the quality of its music.
So then, in terms of its visuals and soundtrack the game is good, not bad and not great either, just good. It is elsewhere that Radiant Historia shines. The combat system is fairly unique in that it is heavily based around manipulating turn order to build combos for extra damage and also on moving enemies around a 3x3 grid to hit groups of them at once. It’s a very solid combat system. It’s fun to use and forces you to pay attention since if you don’t take advantage of its systems, you will have a hard time with most encounters, something which is played around with by certain boss fights. Each character in the cast of seven is largely unique, and fills a slightly different niche in the party, even if there is a certain degree of overlap. Radiant Historia is that best kind of JRPG, the difficulty curve is competently balanced and it is never necessary to grind for levels (as long as you don’t avoid too many fights of course) and status ailments are both genuine threats to your party and useful tools in combat (although not to the same extent as something like Etrian Odyssey). It is also complex enough that you will find certain skills and abilities change up the way combat flows and warrant experimentation rather than just a new spell to hit a new weakness. Because of this your second playthrough will be much easier than the first as you learn the little tricks and exploits which make systems like this fun to play around with. As I mentioned above however, it is really in this respect that the limited budget rears its head. There is not nearly enough enemy variety, nor even really enemy combinations in encounters and it can suck some of the fun out of combat when you are fighting the third palette swap of a fiery chicken paired with a the second palette swap of two goblin archers. You also see far too much of the opening couple of areas, however, again these are nit-picks and there are plenty of original areas and dungeons with varied themes throughout the story to mix things up (including a sewer level leading into a castle, this is a videogame after all). Exploration itself is standard fare, areas are littered with hidden treasures to find and towns are all distinct and it is interesting to wander around talking to the various NPCs. I think this is very much a case of quality over quantity, it’s not an expansive game, but this also means it isn’t spread thin and no element outstays its welcome.
I mentioned above that the plot is heavily centred around time travel. Unlike Chrono Trigger where this was more so a plot device to allow for you to have a greater variety of environments (not that there is anything particularly wrong with that) Radiant Historia’s plot revolves around it. Similar to the memory-microwave from Steins Gate, early on the in the plot Stocke receives the White Chronicle- a magical book which records his life and allows himself to travel back to key moments and superimpose the present Stocke over his past self. In another similarity he is granted this power on the terms that he uses it to rectify the problems in the “standard” and “alternate” branches of history in order that he may reach the “true” history, in which the world does not die. A lesser game would have then bogged itself down trying to explain away paradoxes or why the two different timelines are able to subtly (and in some cases directly) alter each other, Radiant Historia however does not insult us. Early on in the game saving a merchant in one timeline results in him arriving on time in the other, a bit of a plot hole? Maybe, or you could argue that perhaps he had an uneasy feeling due to the bad things which were happening in the other timeline and turned back (a theory which makes sense within the concepts established in the game). Essentially the game says: “This is how time travel works in this world; if you have a problem, work out the solution on your own time”. And the story is much stronger because of this attitude.
This is of course not the only aspect of the plot: you play as Stocke, an officer in the special intelligence of Alistel, a small but technologically advanced theocracy which is beginning to lose in its near perpetual war with its larger neighbour, Granorg. The war is over what little viable farmland remains available to them, due to the steady expansion of the desert to the south. As you’d expect there are twists and turns, you find that not everything is peachy in Alistel and not all of the Granorgites are evil, and by the end you have a party comprising of members from all sides and all corners of the continent. As plots go it’s not really ground breaking, but it is enjoyable and very engaging throughout. I need also to touch on the pacing, that is to say, it’s good- unlike FFXII and XIII, where 15 hours in you might still be wondering what, exactly, your motivation is, within a few hours of starting the game you watch your subordinates cut down by a Granorgite general and only narrowly escape yourself. Mortally wounded you jump into a river as a last resort when the odd book your boss gave you begins to glow, you then meet two mysterious children who offer you the power to save your friends, if you agree to help them in return.
You mean I’ve actually been given a reason to care? And before I’ve started to get bored? Yes. Yes I have. Even better is that there is no FFVI or Chrono Trigger style lull at the beginning of the second act (or train wreck in the case of Bravely Default, even if I still love that game to bits), the pace and tone of the story remain consistent throughout, and whilst there isn’t a huge amount of side content, most of it feels meaningful and it never bogs down the core plot. A fact which vastly improves the overall experience. Another nice feature of the side content is that, in addition to the usual items etc. several also add additional scenes to the end of the game and getting the true, or in this case complete, ending means you are rewarded with a genuinely great ending- it gives closure whilst not seeming sappy and basically laughs as it says: “Go on, just try and make a sequel from this.” The best kind of ending for a nice little standalone game such as this.
Before concluding I’ll briefly discuss the characters, the glue which holds any good RPG together. Again they aren’t the best, most likeable, most well developed characters ever but they are still all of those things. Each character develops over the story, is likeable (even the obligatory-cute-little-girl-who-is-for-some-reason-also-the-strongest-member-of-the-party won me over, rather than making me want to hurt things) and importantly, is believable- most of these people are soldiers, who react to the things they encounter like you imaginge they would, there are no moping teenagers here. Special mention must be given to Stocke, who is not only capable and cool, but also has a dry witted charm and is one of my favourite protagonists, well, ever, regardless of medium. More modern JRPGs need remember that melodrama is comical unless we actually care about the people involved; when Celes tries to kill herself it’s heart rending, if Lightning tried to I’d be cheering her on and laughing all the way (not that she’d go through with it anyway, she’d probably just mope around for half an hour and then chicken out).
Fig 1. Stocke, a good JRPG protagonist.
Fig 2. Lightning, not a good JRPG protagonist.
OK, in the interest of balance, there is a lot of text and with the whole time travel thing you’ll encounter much of it more than once. At the same time however it is well written and easily skip-able, so is it really that much of a negative? Moving on.
Radiant Historia is one of the few games on my “Best Game Evar” list in which I don’t really need to put a but at any point in my overview. It doesn’t do one or two things exceptionally well and then largely fail in other respects, in fact Radiant Historia doesn’t really do anything exceptional. Its combat mechanics are not the best I’ve ever played. Its plot is not the best, nor are its characters (apart from Stocke). What sets it apart from the crowd is not that any one thing stands out but rather that every single individual aspect of the game is so well done that when you take a step back and look at the game as a whole you realise that you may be looking at one of the finest JRPGs ever made. The tagline for Shovel Knight seems to be that it doesn’t just emulate old 8-bit platformers but rather that it belongs with them, I’d argue the same for Radiant Historia and perhaps take it even further. Radiant Historia not only belongs in the same category as the old 16 and 32 bit greats of the genre, but in my opinion it has surpassed many, if not most, of them. As a standalone game, it is fantastic. If Atlus decided to treat it as a proof of concept for a spiritual successor on the 3DS which can expand on the concepts established in it I will be elated. Just release that one in Europe as well, alright?