For many fans of the epic genre, Japanese role-playing games have all but gone stale. With the exception of Demon's Souls, there hasn't been a single title that has unanimously pushed the genre forward. Even Square's behemoth Final Fantasy XIII couldn't live up to its hype. However, there is some hope, and master developer and publisher Atlus provides that glimmer of hope by moving forward through the past with its latest epic for the Nintendo DS–Radiant Historia.
What's It About?
Radiant Historia takes place in a country in the midst of a struggle between two kingdoms; Alistel and Granorg. Alistel is a kingdom with lots of military prowess, as players learn that they'll also be the first and only kingdom in the country to use machines as a means of combat. Granorg, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned, yet prosperous kingdom unfortunately under the rule of a corrupt Queen who earned her throne because of her husband's death.
Forget that information. All one needs to know is the fact that the entire country, and every kingdom along with it, is gaining absolutely nothing from this war, and the country constantly suffers as the wars continue.
Players are put into the role of Stocke, a former soldier and the top agent for Alistel's "Special Intelligence" sector, led by Commander Heiss. After a (long) conversation between the two, Heiss gives Stocke a book filled with blank pages called the "White Chronicle." Of course, only Heiss knows what the book is capable of at that point in time, so Stocke just goes about his mission. The first task he is assigned (with the help of a couple friends) is to receive intel from a spy located in the woods. Upon meeting up with the spy, Stocke and his party come to a crossroads at their mission. After taking what ends up being the wrong route, the spy is killed by a sniper. After a moment of awkward sadness and confusion, Stocke wakes up in Historia, an alternate dimension stuck in limbo.
There, he learns about the power of the White Chronicle. With it, Stocke can travel back in time to key moments in his journey after receiving the enchanted book. Using its power, Stocke corrects his mistake by traveling the opposite direction, thus saving lives and re-writing history. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of the White Chronicle.
Why Should I Care?
It's obvious that time travel is nothing new in video games, especially with RPGs. However, when done right, most games that include this power end up great–just look at Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In fact, because of the game's 16-bit nature, Radiant Historia will draw all sorts of comparisons to Chrono Trigger. But unlike Chrono Trigger, time travel in Radiant Historia is reliant on Stocke's journey and Stocke's journey alone. There is no jumping between epochs in time like the prehistoric era, the distant future, or the inevitable end of the world.
Early in the game players will meet Rosche, Stocke's best friend and the commander of the Alistel militia, and Stocke will be given a choice of whether to stay in Special Intelligence and work for Heiss, or come back and join the military as the second-in-command under his best friend. This is the first big decision to be made in the game. While it's not a matter of life or death (yet), the decision here becomes a big factor in which story arc the game will follow. There is no right or wrong answer, because history will force Stocke to go back in time and make the "right" decision in order for the story to really progress.
This gives the game a sort of "Choose Your Own Adventure" mantra, but in reality–it isn't. As players will learn early on, the world can only be saved if the perfect path is chosen, and in order to embark on the perfect path, a specific series of events must transpire in both stories. It's a pretty complicated idea (or set of ideas), but it works with the gameplay.
The one thing that people will gripe about is the surplus amount of backtracking. This is somewhat lightened by the fact that all dialogue scenes can be easily fast-forwarded or totally skipped, so you don't have to keep reading the same thing over and over. While that feature is great, the problem is if something new comes up in conversation because of something the player did beforehand, that dialog will also be skipped over. Other than that, backtracking really isn't too much of a problem because the enemies in the game stay close to the player's level.
Speaking of enemies, as with all other RPGs, there's combat. There aren't any random battles to worry about, but there are plenty of quick enemies in the environments. Players have the option of attempting to run away, or attacking them head-on to gain an advantage once the battle truly begins–just like in the Persona games, which really isn't all that surprising since that's also an Atlus title.
The game features a rather unique turn-based battle system. Enemies are spread throughout a 3-by-3 grid-like plain, and players have the ability to knock enemies back and forth around the plain in order to "stack" enemies. When enemies are on the same grid, they can both be attacked simultaneously, so players are inclined to force enemies as close to each other as possible to land more combos. In addition to this strategy, in exchange for making the controlled party more vulnerable, players also have the option to switch around turn panels on the top screen with warriors in their party and enemies as well. The battle system is a breath of fresh air as opposed to others where you just mash on the A button.
Why Should I Spend My Time And Money?
As complicated as the ideas and premises may be, Radiant Historia is simply a good game. Players who are into Japanese RPGs or simply miss the golden age of the Super NES definitely owe it to themselves to give Radiant Historia a try. The cast of characters and story fall short of being as epic as Chrono Trigger, but the nuances in gameplay are enough to make even the most hardcore RPG enthusiasts believe that there's still some life in the genre.
The solid story, fantastic gameplay, and unique ideas are more than enough of a reason to fork over some of your cash to Atlus. Sure, because it's a rather low-profile title, odds are it'll slowly start to disappear shortly after the price goes down. However, the first few lucky people who pick the game up will be treated to a free disc of the game's exquisite soundtrack composed by Yoko Shinomura of Kingdom Hearts fame. If anything, this should tide DS owners over before the release of Pokemon Black and White because unlike those games, this is something new.