Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: Q4 2005
One of the pleasant surprises about E3 was the presence of the special Radiata Stories localized demo. This game caused quite a stir when it was launched in Japan, debuting at #2 on the sales charts and receiving some astronomical review scores from Famitsu. Import fans were more divided on it; while the game was enjoyable, it was almost totally unlike anyone's expectations. A lot of the micro-management that fans expect from RPGs was simply not there, replaced with what was obviously an experiment in Western-style, open-ended gameplay to a very traditionally Japanese genre.
I played the import and was pleased by the quality of the translation Square was showing off at E3. Radiata Stories has a heavy emphasis on comedy, and none of the game's sense of humor appeared to have been altered or changed outright. Instead, the demo did the best job possible to try and introduce players to the ideas behind Radiata in a short span of time.
In the E3 demo, you are initially addressed by a goat who claims to be the game's producer. You were asked if you'd like to go save the world for a bit (of course you do!), then sent out with a fairly high-level party of characters and equipment. Since Radiata is an action RPG, changing your equipment or simply shuffling your selection of equipped "moves" changes how the protagonist looks and handles in combat. Every outfit and weapon has a unique look to it, which makes experimenting with different kinds of weapons more fun than it should be.
Combat is an active free for all, where every character can lay into the enemy as they see fit. Your allies are AI-controlled, and while the AI is decently intelligent, you won't win by just letting your allies doing whatever they want. To play the game well, you need to keep an eye on your Volty meter, which charges up slowly while you play. Burning Volty points would let you issue commands to your allies, such as attacking a particular enemy or healing an ally, or let you assemble your party into a particularly useful formation. Some formations optimize your party's attack ability, while others might emphasize defense or healing. You can only keep your party in formation until your Volty meter runs out, and keeping a party in a given formation consumes Volty constantly. Using formations is the best way to use your team efficiently, and will eventually make your team overwhelmingly powerful. You can also use Volty to fuel maneuvers called "Volty Breaks," spectacularly damaging maneuvers unique to the character.
Who's in your team is, of course, entirely up to you. Certain characters will become recruitable automatically as the story progresses, while others you'll have to go on a series of sidequests or outright fight in order to beat them. You initiate combat, amusingly, by kicking people in the shins, and you can kick pretty much anybody. You can even kick the producer-goat during the E3 demo, and trigger a ridiculously difficult battle. In the game proper, you can fight almost any NPC if you kick them in the shins enough times. Sometimes this is the key to unlocking secrets, and sometimes it is a way to quickly commit suicide. Of course, you also have the option of not kicking things to make them fight you, and can actually avoid a lot of fights by sneaking around enemies if you like.
The hub of the game's story and character recruitment in Radiata Stories is the city of Radiata. While there are other cities in the game, they all seem like small towns next to the sprawling urban mass of Radiata. This is the first RPG city that feels alive and gigantic the way a real city does, complete with blind allies, an uptown, downtown, and locations that actually require a lot of walking to reach. As the in-game clock progresses, you'll see the various NPCs move through the town, going from their homes to work and then to wherever else they like to spend their days. If you want, you can pick a character and simply follow them around for a full day's worth of activities; this would take two or three hours of actual gameplay to accomplish. Sometimes this can come in handy for figuring out how to recruit a particular character, but otherwise it's just another fun weird thing you can do. Radiata Stories is full of them.
The proper storyline of the game concerns a young man named Jack who goes to Radiata Castle to become a knight. He is not at all qualified, but mysteriously makes the cut anyway. Jack quickly becomes wrapped up in events much larger than himself, as events set in motion by his father start coming to their logical end during Jack's lifetime. Eventually the game's story diverges into two distinct paths, each showing a different side of the war's development, and each offering different gameplay options to the player. Fully experiencing the game requires playing both routes, especially if you want to recruit all of the allies in the game who can possibly help you. There are about 177 of them, counting some guest characters, and getting them all to join you is much harder than just finishing the game.
You'll notice I haven't commented much on graphics and sound for Radiata Stories. As far as sound goes, the game has a nice soundtrack and the import I played features absolute tons of top-notch voice-acting. However, E3 being the immensely loud thing that it is, I never actually heard anything from the localized version. As far as graphics go, well, Radiata Stories is a PS2 game; you won't see huge poly count or anything especially cutting-edge. However, the graphics have a nice, clean look to them that recalls the look of anime, and the characters have unusually expressive faces and body language. Nice and solid, although Kingdom Hearts II outdoes it a bit in pure visual spectacle.
Right now Radiata Stories is slated for fall 2005, where it will be hitting amidst an avalanche of other games and a tidal wave of new console launches. It's the sort of game that might get lost in the shuffle, so keep your eyes out for it if you like the sound of its novel take on the RPG genre. If nothing else, Radiata Stories and the rest of Square's lineup proves that the PS2 will remain a strong RPG platform well into the beginning of the next generation.
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