Review: Radiant Historia (Nintendo DS)

Radiant Historia
Genre: RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 2/22/11

Atlus, as a developer, is mostly associated with three franchises at this point: the Shin Megami Tensei game series, the Trauma Center franchise, and the Etrian Odyssey series. This isn’t to say that they haven’t released good games outside of these franchises, as they’re developed games like Maken X, Lunacy, and Hell Night, but these games are the exception, not the norm. Megaten is easily its money franchise, as evidenced by the fact that there are more games from that series than there are non-series affiliated titles on their development roster, but even beyond that, it’s just easier to stick to what you know. Also, even the best intentions sometimes produce something like Kartia. In between their numerous franchised releases, however, Atlus has opted to give us Radiant Historia, a quirky DS RPG with no affiliation to anything that was handled by a team of folks from both Atlus and Tri-Ace. While that immediately conjures images of Grandia with demon summoning aspects, the actual game somehow manages to be even more involved, featuring tactical RPG combat and non-linear time travel mechanics that make for an interesting RPG experience in concept. Does that actually make for a good game? Let’s take a look.

Radiant Historia starts off in a familiar fashion: you take control of Stocke, a member of the Special Intelligence division of the Alistel armed forces, who is generally the prize employee of the force. Alistel is at war with the nation of Granorg, one that Alistel is not winning as the game begins, and it falls to Stocke to acquire some information that will help turn the tide of battle, along with two newly assigned subordinates, Raynie and Marco. The mission pretty much falls apart in record time, unfortunately, and Stocke is heavily wounded and nearly dead, when the story suddenly takes a right turn into the bizarre. He is saved by the White Chronicle, a book full of blank pages given to him by his commanding officer, and brought to Historia, a world beyond time. The two residents of the world, Teo and Lippti, tell him that he’s basically the one hope the world has of not being ruined. The world, you see, is falling to a process called “desertification”, where, as you’d guess, everything everywhere is turning into sand, hence the war for land and power. Stocke is sent back in time by the twins to resolve the previously failed mission, which he does, and it is at this point that the game begins, as Stocke has to flip back and forth between major decisions in his life that will shape the fate of the world, for better or ill. The story takes the standard concepts of typical JRPG’s and combines them with some interesting time travel mechanics and political plot points, and as a result, it presents a story that’s interesting to follow along with and enjoyable as a result. There are also multiple endings to see, based on how many of the optional subquests you complete, for those who want the option to see how things go based on their actions in the game.

The game uses a combination of sprite-based characters and 3D backgrounds, and for the most part this gives the visuals a solid feel. The character models are visually appealing and well animated, sporting a somewhat super deformed style that’s appealing, and the enemy units are often similarly modeled, be they humanoid or otherwise. The backgrounds are interesting from a design standpoint, and while they’re not technologically impressive, they look nice enough that this isn’t a concern, as they make good use of the 3D capabilities of the DS. The spell effects and such are also well implemented and add some nice personality in combat, and the character pictures that pop up in menus and dialogue are nicely drawn, though they’re not animated and don’t change at all, unfortunately. The audio is fantastic, mostly due to an expertly crafted soundtrack from one Yoko Shinomura, who you’d know as the composer of the Kingdom Hearts series, among many, many other things. The music is very fantasy inspired and beautiful in non-combat scenarios, and the battle music is fast paced and energetic, as it should be. The music also does a good job of matching the tone of events and locations, adding to the immersion of the experience and giving the game more personality in the process. The sound effects are perfectly fine, all in all, though some are better than others, and the game does nothing with voice acting to speak of so for good or ill, you won’t have to be concerned with that.

Radiant Historia is, at a base level, mechanically similar to most standard JRPG’s, both in and out of battle, and fans of the genre should be able to pick up the basics with little problem. You’ll spend most of your time either wandering around towns talking to NPC’s and such, walking around dungeons solving puzzles and navigating to the end, and fighting enemies in instanced turn based battles. Movement is controlled with the D-pad, allowing you to move your character around and navigate menus with ease. The A button allows you to interact with the environment or choose options from the menu and the B button lets you walk instead of run or cancel choices when in combat. The other buttons have widely different functions depending on whether you’re fighting or exploring. When fighting, X toggles explanations of what actions and items do on and off for easy use, and Y can kick in auto battle so you don’t have to interact with combat directly. When exploring, X brings up the menu for you to use items, change party members and other such things, Y swings your sword, and the triggers perform other special actions you’ll learn as you progress through the game. You can also use the stylus to perform various actions, if you like, though these controls are no better than the D-pad controls and you likely won’t feel the need to use them much. The game is easy enough to play either way, though, and should be easy for new or experienced players to get into without a problem.

The biggest new concept Radiant Historia employs is the White Chronicle. Early in the game, a huge choice is presented to Stocke that splits time into two paths, the Standard route and the Alternate route. As you play along a particular pathway in time, events pop up that you cannot resolve, either because you lack a specific ability that you need in order to progress or because something has happened that you need to resolve. At this point, you can jump into Historia, the land that exists in the White Chronicle, and jump to the other timeline to try and resolve the issue. You can jump backward and forward in existing events as needed, sort of like Quantum Leap with controlled jumps, allowing you to pick up information and resolve situations as needed to ultimately try and resolve the smaller issues that come up, in order to resolve the larger issue that’s plaguing the world, which is interesting for several reasons. At various points in the story, also, the game will present you with choices that you’ll have to make to progress, which either progress the story or present a false ending where you’ve failed, forcing you back to a previous point in the story to try something else, and while this ultimately means that the storyline is somewhat linear as a result, it’s an interesting element that hasn’t been done to this effect. The game will also present various side quests that require you to venture back and forth in time to grab items for people or answer questions of some type, meaning that someone at the beginning of the game might, for instance, ask you for information on how to do something, which you’ll have to learn about several chapters later and then deliver to them back at the beginning of the game. Granted, this isn’t any different from how normal subquests work, but it’s presented in an interesting enough manner that the execution feels fresh, even if the activity itself isn’t. The game also keeps track of storyline events you’ve completed, be they main or side quests, allowing you to know what you have and haven’t done, so you can attempt to see everything the game has to offer.

The combat also isn’t your run of the mill turn based RPG combat, either, thanks to some interesting tweaks. Your characters occupy a small area on the right side of the screen, while your enemies sit in a three by three grid on the left. During your turn, you can attack, cast spells, use items, flee, and other such things you’d expect, but you can also perform some more advanced actions to influence the tide of battle. For one thing, the various characters learn techniques that can shift where enemies reside on their side of the field, meaning that you can move them around by using such a skill. You could, for example, pull or push them off of a square that imparts a bonus onto them, or shove an enemy into another enemy and have your allies follow up with attacks that now affect both enemies at once, allowing you to turn the tide of battle in your favor. The combat flow essentially has you assign actions to whatever characters are going in the turn order at that time, meaning that you’ll assign orders to everyone who is prepared to act, wait for enemies to act, then start again. You can exploit this, however, with the Change option. Change allows you to change the order of combat by either switching places with an ally or an enemy in the turn order with whatever character you’ve chosen to make the switch. You could, for instance, swap your present character with your default healer if you want to heal someone immediately, or swap to someone who can start a big combo you want to use, or swap out to an enemy repeatedly to encourage a situation where you get ten turns in a row, depending on how you want to play it. Changing turn order leaves the character who initiated the change in a state of lowered defense, however, leaving them at risk of taking greater damage from enemy attacks until their turn comes up, which will need to be taken into consideration. However, the resulting large chain of attacks is often worth the risk, as you’ll garner added experience points and money for making large combination attacks, meaning that there are benefits beyond simply chaining together big damage combos with your party on enemies.

Beyond those two major elements, there are also some minor things here and there that give the game a life of its own. As the story progresses, you’ll learn Mana Bursts, which can be used when your Mana gauge is full. Everyone learns the Turn Break MB immediately, allowing you to remove an enemy turn from the turn list, but each character can also learn unique MB’s that can deal some solid damage, depending on how you make use of them, and being able to remove an enemy turn is useful if for no other reason than to jack out combos, if nothing else. You’ll also learn various techniques that can be employed in the exploration section, allowing you to detonate bombs to open paths, cut down foliage to open paths, make yourself invisible to enemies to sneak through areas, and so on, as the storyline progresses. In a nice touch, the game also allows you the option of changing out party members from your available pool whenever you’re not in combat, and non-active party members still earn some experience points even when not in battle, allowing them to keep pace with the more active characters as needed. The game easily clocks in at forty or so hours, and features multiple endings based on what side quests you’ve performed throughout the course of the game, allowing players who want to see everything the game has to offer a reason to come back for more, though if you complete everything in one run through you likely might not have to do this thing. The game also comes with a soundtrack CD featuring several songs from the game soundtrack, which is nice, as the songs in the game are rather good and enjoyable to listen to.

Radiant Historia does have its shortcomings, however, with the most obvious of the lot being that the concepts the game employs largely seem to be based around the idea of masking that it’s still a somewhat linear RPG. Jumping back and forth between timelines, going back and forth in time and making choices that can end the world are nice additions that cover up the linearity of the experience, for a time, but your actual ability to explore is hampered somewhat and you’re going to end up at the same place no matter how many times you jump around in time. The time travel mechanic is also odd at times. While it makes sense that one could retrieve knowledge or items from one timeline and carry them to another, saving someone’s life in one timeline so they live to the other one is a bit odd, as both timelines occur concurrent to one another, and the idea of events in one timeline affecting the events of the other is kind of awkward at first. The game also has a tendency of dumping you in places that are, frankly, annoying when you choose to get the non-standard game over sequences. It’s one thing when the game dumps you back about fifteen minutes and has you go through a short cutscene before you can jump back into Historia and try again, it’s quite another when it dumps you back to the beginning of the chapter and has you go through six cutscenes before you can do ANYTHING, especially when nothing has changed from one viewing to the next. Finally, the sidequests the game tasks you to complete amount to little more than backtracking exercises, and even the storyline quests occasionally put you into positions where you have to repeat segments of the game or run back and forth between places you’ve already been to accomplish things. This certainly isn’t that hard to deal with, but it does become noticeable as the game goes on, unfortunately.

The flaws that Radiant Historia possesses don’t make it a bad game, however, as it’s still one of the best RPG’s on the DS and it’s likely to be one of the best RPG’s released this year, all in all. The plot is interesting and well written, the game is visually and aurally pleasing to the player, and the gameplay is familiar enough to be easy to learn but comes with enough extras to make it unique. The White Chronicle is an interesting gimmick that the game makes solid use of, all in all, and the added mechanics that the combat system employs are fun to play around with and very useful in more complicated fights against bosses and such. There are also plenty of sidequests to play around with, tools you can use to explore a little, and extra endings you can unlock through completing sidequests that will keep interested players involved in the game for a good long while. The game doesn’t manage to do enough to obscure its linearity or lack of true exploration, and the time travel mechanic the game is based on doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it a while. There are also some annoying bits relating to where the game dumps you if you get a bad ending just to see it, and it also makes use of fetch quests and backtracking enough that it becomes noticeable. These issues aren’t enough to hurt the game significantly, however, and fans of RPG’s will easily find these shortcomings to be minor, at worst, as Radiant Historia is one of the best games to come out so far this year, and is well worth the time and effort for fans and newcomers alike.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC

FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Radiant Historia is a fine effort from Atlus and company that’s well crafted and interesting, and while it travels many of the same roads that other JRPG’s have gone down, it does so in a different way. The storyline is engaging and interesting to follow, the visuals and audio are nicely crafted and implemented, and the gameplay is simple to work with but engaging and full of depth. The White Chronicle system of time travel is a neat concept that makes game exploration and puzzle solving elements feel different from your average RPG, and the involved combat mechanics and ability to change character turns to rack up big combination attacks make for an interesting combat system that is involving and useful. Thanks to the multiple endings, large variety of sidequests, and tools you can use to explore around the game maps, you’ll find an acceptable amount of depth to the game beyond the story, and the game is lengthy enough to give you your money’s worth, all in all. The game is noticeably linear, however, and the actual time travel mechanic, while neat, doesn’t make a lot of sense if you devote any thought to it. The game also has some annoying aspects, making you view the same cutscenes multiple times if you want to see all the non-standard game over sequences and forcing you to spend some time backtracking to accomplish things, unfortunately. However, these are small complaints against a game that is ultimately able to rise above these things and still be enjoyable overall. Radiant Historia is one of the better RPG’s to come out for the DS, and is likely to be one of the best RPG’s to come out this year, as it does what it does well enough to obscure its flaws and offers an experience that’s satisfying and enjoyable.

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