Release Date: September 6, 2005
Buy 'RADIATA STORIES': PlayStation 2
I really wish I could like Radiata Stories as much as I want to.
After all, it's made up of a lot of things I like.
It's got the most refreshing tone and cast of characters I've encountered in a good while - since my beloved Skies of Arcadia, in fact. You play as Jack Russell, who's been inducted into a branch of the Knights of the kingdom of Radiata. Mind you, Jack utterly failed the entrance examinations, but he made it in anyway because his father has the reputation of being one of the greatest knights in the history of the kingdom. Jack is let in under billing as someone with "great potential," which, as we all know, is a nice way of saying, "you're useless right now, and we doubt you'll ever amount to anything, but we're taking a gamble on you because we really don't know what else to do."
The Rose Cochon Brigade, which Jack ends up being assigned to, isn't exactly the highest on the food chain. They're the guys who get the bottom-of-the-barrel assignments, because it's where all the new recruits go. Its current members are: Jack, Ganz, an idealistic and pudgy knight, and Ridley, a cynical girl who happens to be the top recruit. It's a motley crew if one ever saw one.
So now, with absolutely no skills, tact, or expectations from anyone, it's up to Jack to prove that he's got the stuff to live up to his father's name - or make one of his own - and make himself tons of friends in the process to vouch for him.
Tons of friends indeed - the game boasts over 170 recruitable characters, reminiscent of the Suikoden series. It also contains two significant branching story paths for ensured replay value; depending on which side you choose about a third into the game (humans or non-humans), the game plays out differently, quests and all.
In all, Radiata Stories has the makings of one rip-roaring adventure. It's got a huge collection of endearing characters, good dialogue, and an environment that makes you want to keep going just to see what's about to come next.
Hence, my dilemma. I really wish I could enjoy it, but the darned thing doesn't want me to. While the actual story elements are quite nice, it's when you actually hunker down and try to play the game that you realize it's not all it's cracked up to be. In an RPG, gameplay and story may go hand in hand, more so than in other genres, but still, if one aspect fails, it's quite hard for the other to save the game on its own.
Let's start with the battle system. Tri-Ace developed this game, a house which I know can do action-RPGs. I've played Valkyrie Profile, and as a fighting game fanatic, I was in absolute heaven. Combos, chain attacks between party members, super attacks … wonderful. This game's a bit different, as it offers three-dimensional free-roaming open-air battlefields for fights. Since I've played Kingdom Hearts, I can dig the notion.
Knowing all of this, I have to ask just what's going on here. The fighting mechanics are clunky and unpredictable, and that's on a good day. Combination attacks are present, but only between teammates (super attacks are over here, but the same rules apply). Normally I can understand this, but I must ask why individual combo technique had to be neutered. Why is it, when I knock down an enemy, it is completely invincible until it decides to clamber back up and get back into its ready stance? In the case of large enemies, i.e. the bears and buffalo in the early game, that takes several seconds and slows down the pace of the fight immensely. It can also leave one wide open to attack.
Another way to leave oneself needlessly open is to use the well-meaning targeting system. Let's say you're attacking an enemy, and he makes a run for it. Press the attack button, and you will follow him until he's hit again, or until you miss your swing. It's very hard to get out of chase mode, and I know it's impossible by using the analog stick alone, which would be the intuitive solution. I can understand why this is the case, but again, it leads to lots of vulnerability along the way.
In short, the gameplay is full of … potential, which has sadly gone unrealized. Fights consist of lots of hitting and running, and hoping your dodge/parry button works. You can have your teammates help out as well, but you can't directly control them yourself. Fortunately, the AI seems smarter than in most games of this type, especially when it comes to healing.
Radiata Stories also implements a rudimentary time-passage system. Some buildings will only be active at certain times, such as bars and shops. Basic 24-hour rules apply here; the game has a day cycle and a night cycle. It'd actually be pretty nifty if it didn't extend to inns as well, and the save points therein. It's bad enough that save points in the game are sparsely placed and/or hard to find wherever you travel, but trying to figure out ways to activate them, especially when you've been playing for hours and just want to take a breather as soon as possible without losing all of your progress? Sorry, but it just doesn't work.
I've talked in other reviews how badly executed fundamentals can put a black mark on an otherwise good product, and this is a textbook case. This game's all about the story and cut scenes - they're what makes the player want to keep going. Unfortunately, once they're over and control's relinquished, it sinks in that the game actually has to be played once again, and it becomes a chore. Anything that wasn't a cut scene in this game had the tendency to put me to sleep.
Points to Radiata Stories for actually looking quite nice; detailed, vibrant backdrops and environments are the order of the day here, with very little loading time to show for it. The art style, while far from realistic, fits in with the overall light-hearted tone of the game, and the characters themselves are designed with a whimsical flair. When one of your characters is an egotistical obsessive-compulsive scientist who constantly rides hover-platforms in the heat of battle, you know you've stepped into a completely different world from most Japanese-created RPGs. The game's voice-acting is also more than adequate, and the music switches between happy and serious, but never too serious. It all fits.
When all is said and done, Radiata Stories isn't all that bad of a time. However, depending on how you like your RPGs, it may also not be that good of a time. It has good ideas - all of which have been attempted before - and executes them in a way that leaves the title covered in mediocrity at best. Rent it first to see whether or not it's to your tastes.
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