I’ve done it! After thirty-six hours of gameplay and a handful of short games to stall for time, I’ve finished Radiant Historia for the NDS!
Years ago, as a result of being forced to read Melville, Dickens, Dumas, and other people desperately in need of an editor, much of my fantasy intake shifted from Tolkien, Dragonlance novels and Terry Brooks (or as I call him, “Diet Tolkien”) to RPGs. I tell you this not because I’ve made a habit of starting my posts with boring personal stories, but to let you know ahead of time that I like a lot of games that probably don’t deserve it, mostly based on the story or the setting.
If you’ve ever read a fantasy novel or slogged through any fantasy RPG, you’ll find Radiant Historia comfortingly familiar as it follows the genre’s traditional format of taking ideas used elsewhere and slapping them together like the last few leftovers in its fridge; it’s never eaten them together before, but going to the store before dinner would take too much effort. As a result, fantasy always gives us something new and exciting that may not always smell right or look right, but damn it, it’s new!
The story opens with your standard issue ongoing-war-between-two-nations and has your run-of-the-mill vaguely-supernatural-force-working-behind-the-scenes. The main villain wants to annihilate existence, a motivating force brought to absurdity in Final Fantasy, and most of the plot twists were dragged kicking and screaming right out of Star Wars. Also, following the current trend of modern games, the characters look as though the artist took the Sumo Diet approach to design, where they put the pencil on the paper and didn’t stop drawing until their jaw got tired.
Special Intelligence operative, Stocke, receives a book from his superior along with instructions to rendezvous with an informant. On his mission, a battle breaks out and he has to get to safety with his two comrades. The game forces him to choose between the escape route on the left and one on the right. He immediately picks one that leads to a brutal slaughter at the hands of the executioner for the enemy kingdom. However, the book warps him into an M.C. Escher painting which gives him the option of replaying portions of his life. Already knowing the wrong answer, Stocke takes the right path, his comrades survive, the kingdom repels the invasion, and the very fabric of space and time accidentally splits open into two separate histories. Teo and Lippiti, two children who guard the gates of history, give him the quest to set history back on its intended course.
Honestly, I could think of a hundred more useful applications for time travel than “setting the course of history right,” many that make me wonder if naming the protagonist “Stocke” was entirely coincidental, and the rest of which had previously been suggested by Scott Evil, only to be shot down as inconsequential paradoxes.
While people may complain about cliches and hackneyed writing, I might remind you that no one actually wants an original story. Tolkien himself just blended images from Norse myth, Arthurian legend, Shakespeare and an ungodly knowledge of European languages. And don’t forget Terry Brooks, who drew from a list of sources all the way from Fellowship of the Ring to Return of the King. So I find that area of the story highly forgivable.
But the aspect of multiple histories sets it apart from other stories in the genre. Promotional material compares the game to Chrono Trigger because of the ability to travel through time, but that doesn’t tell us anything other than Atlus wanted to boost sales by comparing their game to one of the most popular RPGs ever released. Time travel in Chrono Trigger extends outside of the characters’ lifetimes and manipulates events important to the world, much like Back to the Future (and while I’m on the subject, look up your dates people before posting those ‘this is the date that they went to’ on your Facebook or Pinterest page). Radiant Historia more closely resembles Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist relives events on a personal timeline with the opportunity to rectify poor decisions he made earlier in the game. The tutorial at the beginning explains that these choices will branch off into alternate histories.
I’d like to pause here because this idea spices up the game with a mechanic that shouldn’t really be as original as it comes off. RPGs and video games in general spring up from the excitement a player gets over influencing the course of events; however, most often they have no more choice than whether they’ll win this battle or pursue a new career as electronic carrion. The availability of alternate histories means that the story no longer carts the player from battle to battle; it actually becomes part of the process of playing. I would play more games if they worked this into their concept.
Unfortunately, Radiant Historia falls short of using this expertly. You make one decision early in the game that splits the universe into two different histories, but nearly every choice you make afterwards has two possible outcomes: continue along the path of history, or die suddenly and miserably, at which point the game warps you back to a point so far back that you’ll have to warp forward just to make the correct decision to move forward with the game. It gives you the option to skip cut scenes, but if you fought any battles between where you are and where you need to be, you just have to suffer through them. For most of the game, I actually felt as though I were playing through a poorly constructed choose-your-own-adventure book.
While the game does include some novel uses for time travel, it feels like the developers discovered what they could do with it as they went along. Early on, you fall into a noticeable groove of moving ahead until you needed a skill or item that could only be obtained in the alternate history, switching over to that time line, then repeating that process. I didn’t find it incredibly difficult to figure out how to progress when they began to deviate from that process, but on one or two occasions I felt more like I was playing Pong than an RPG, warping back and forth, fighting the same battles over and over while trying to figure out at which specific point in time the game wanted me to swipe the tools lying out on a table in a room I visited at during at least five different game events.
An hour or so into the game, I began to notice that I hadn’t had the chance to fight yet. The game opens with a long expanse of plot, after which you have the opportunity to swing your sword once or twice in a tutorial, only to return to another stretch of story. While I enjoyed Xenosaga, I managed to tolerate the endless hours of expository babble inserted between game events, but on the NDS, the amount of backlit text I need to read makes me acutely aware that my eyeballs are slowly melting back into my head. Furthermore, like most RPGs, dialog has a tendency to repeat itself, adding Radiant Historia to the list I mentioned earlier of people who desperately need editing.
But when the combat did pick up, the battle system really showed some ingenuity. The game places enemies in random locations on a 3 x 3 grid. The characters, lining up in a style only seen in classic RPGs and firing squads, concentrate special attacks that push or pull the enemies into specific locations, giving them the chance to employ other attacks that target specific shapes or areas, or just allowing a single attack to hit multiple enemies at once. Effective manipulation of this system results in combo, with longer chains giving you a higher combo level. For higher combo levels, the game awards greater experience at the end of battles. At first, I enjoyed this system. It gives the player options. All too commonly, RPG battles get repetitive and boring since for all the special attacks available, “Attack” usually ends up being the best option, so you can win most fights by holding down the “enter” button. Radiant Historia, however, forces the player to use special attacks, and the random placement of enemies requires a different strategy for each battle. Furthermore, for the cost of a slight drop in defense, any character can exchange turns with any ally or enemy to change the order of attacks.
I enjoyed having such a complex, yet easy-to-use system, so it disturbed me quite a bit when I found out that the battles still felt repetitive. It took me a while before I realized why: this game is incredibly easy! After I learned how to effectively manipulate the system, I became more of a photographer than a medieval warrior, making slight adjustments to line up the enemies, make sure they didn’t close their eyes, and then snap the picture to end the fight. In fact, only the final boss gave me any trouble at all, and mostly because he occupied all nine spots on the grid. See, while the player has an arsenal of choices for finishing a battle, the enemies can’t do much except fight. As Valkyrie Profile 2 taught me, allowing either the enemies or the player to do something that the other can’t tends to make the game as balanced as someone who blows up abortion clinics to show how pro-life they are.
Still, by the time combat turned into a bad date that I somehow couldn’t ditch at the restaurant, the story had arrived with the meal that gave me the excuse to ignore it. I always enjoyed something about the game, which I understand doesn’t ring praises to high heaven about it, but Radiant Historia deserves attention at the very least for pioneering concepts I hope to see more often in the future. Or, perhaps, they could go back in time and introduce them into past games instead.