Radiant Historia follows the story of a young man named Stocke, a special intelligence officer for the country of Alistel, which is at war with the nation of Granorg. The latter is ruled by a despotic queen who seeks to conquer the world, and both sides are at a stalemate in a constantly shifting and seemingly eternal war. Stocke is sent by his commanding officer on a routine mission to recover a spy with critical war information, but the mission goes awry. His subordinates and the spy are killed, and Stocke barely escapes with his life.
Wounded and alone, Stocke is contacted by two mysterious children, who explain that they are the guardians of Historia, the nexus of time. The twins reveal that Stocke has the ability to use a magical book called the White Chronicle to travel through time and alter events. This revelation is followed by another one: The world will be destroyed in 10 years. There is a single path through the conflict that can end the war without ending the world, and it is up to Stocke to find it, or all life is doomed. As if that weren't enough pressure, Stocke is not the only wielder of a Chronicle. An unknown person wielding a Black Chronicle has also been gifted with the power to alter time, and while Stocke tries to fix history, he must compete with someone who wants to wreck it.
The tone and execution of Radiant Historia's story makes the game feel like a lost Super Nintendo title. The characters are far more reminiscent of the cheerful characters of the Super Nintendo Final Fantasy titles than the busier and more convoluted characters found in the PlayStation era. The plot is pleasantly straightforward, and the cut scenes feel like they belong in a 16-bit RPG. This may feel seem odd to people who grew up on Final Fantasy 7 and its ilk, but it's quite enjoyable for those of us who started on the SNES. It's simple, but that works to its benefit. The characters are likeable, and perhaps the biggest problem is that some of them could really use some more backstory.
Early in the game, you make a major decision that splits the game into two timelines: standard and alternate. As soon as this branch occurs, you can travel between the two timelines at any time, but you can only travel to nodes at certain critical points in the history of that particular timeline. These usually (but not always) correspond to important decisions that you have to make or places where your actions can alter the course of events.
These two timelines are separate, but events in one timeline can influence the other. Stocke can go to one timeline to get an item or ability that he can use to progress in the other timeline. A character may need an item that was destroyed in one timeline but is still intact in the other. The same goes for travelling backward through the same timeline. There's a scene where you travel with an item to a time before the split occurs and cause a ripple that alters the timeline where you got the item. Consequently, you never get the item, essentially creating a paradox version of the now-nonexistent item in your inventory.
Other choices are more metaphysical. The two timelines are connected, and the actions of a character in one timeline can influence the character in another. For example, there's a scene where a character betrays his cronies by joining another group. If you go to the other timeline and reduce his confidence in the new group, then he'll make a different decision in the original timeline. It's a strange mechanic to get used to because it does not initially make a lot of sense. You have to be willing to go with the flow on the idea that one universe can influence another. The actual mechanics behind this generally hold together, but it can get a bit weird. You'll get to a point where you have to take an action to advance the plot, but what you have to do may not be evident because it involves screwing with someone's emotions through time travel.
The combat system in Radiant Historia is one of the high points. While it isn't the most complex system, it lends an interesting and tactical depth to almost every battle. There are few fights that you can win by just mashing the attack button. In battle, enemies are positioned on a 3x3 grid, with their position determining the attack and defense strategies. Enemies in the front row do more damage and take more damage. Enemies in the back row are more durable but weaker. Combat is built around moving enemies around the grid by using various attacks. Stocke has the ability to move enemies backward with his Push Assault attack, and Marco can pull enemies forward with Grapple. This lends itself to the reasonably obvious tactic of pulling enemies forward when you plan to attack and pushing enemies when they plan to attack, but that's only the surface of the combat.
Combos are an important part of Radiant Historia. When you knock an enemy into a square that's already occupied by another foe, they remain lumped together on that square until another enemy gets a turn. Grouped enemies take damage from any attacks targeted at one of them, so the most effective way to fight is to bunch enemies together and then hit them with your strongest attack. It sounds simple, but enemies are positioned so you have to figure out the most effective way to move enemies around within your turns.
You can also only string together a combo as long as you have characters attacking in a row. Fortunately, the game offers the Change option, which forces a character to wait until his partners are ready or switches turns with another character. The catch is that using Change causes your character to take additional damage until his next action, so constantly using it to bunch up your turns means that you'll take a lot more damage. Some spells can get around this, but most characters are best off using it sparingly. Stringing together a long combo inflicts additional damage and yields extra gold and EXP, so even in simple fights, it's good to focus on a combo over regular attacks.
Most of the characters in Radiant Historia have a niche to fill. Stocke is probably the most effective at moving characters around the field, as he quickly gains the ability to move enemies. Aht can place highly damaging traps on enemy grid squares so that you'll do lots of damage to an unsuspecting enemy or group. Roche has the ability to hit entire rows or columns with physical attacks. Some characters can cast magic spells or buff your party members, along with various other gimmicks that can be used in an effective combo attack. There is some overlap in characters, but never to an excessive degree.
Due to the nature of time and dimensional travel, you don't often have a set party except for Stocke. Characters in your party gain experience even if they're not in the fight, but characters who are out of your party will not. This leads to a pretty large gap in levels, with Stocke often being multiple levels above his friends and characters who have been out of your party because of the plot. The good news is that levels are not that big of a deal. As long as a character can move people around, he can contribute to a battle even if he's not at maximum damage output. It's rare to be in a situation where you have a seriously inferior character. There's one exception, and that character's stat growth is designed in such a way that he'll be exceptionally durable even at low levels.
For the most part, the combat system is well designed. It starts to fall apart near the end, when strategies feel a little repetitive and characters feel less distinct due to their wide variety of abilities. The game does a good job of giving enemies lots of unique gimmicks. Sometimes enemies create "fields" that massively increase their defense or damage, forcing you to choose between doing damage and pushing enemies out of their safe zone. Other enemies force you to fight with limited supplies or challenging situations, such as a nasty boss who constantly summons self-destructing enemies; they must be quickly destroyed, or you risk killing your entire party in a single round. It keeps battles feeling exciting and fresh.
One of the annoying problems with Radiant Historia is the sheer amount of backtracking required. Because of the "time and dimension travel" gimmick, you'll go through the same areas pretty often. The continent is pretty small, so you'll travel through the same dungeons multiple times, even over the course of one timeline. The game attempts to vary the enemies and increase their power depending on when you visit the dungeon, but the dungeons rarely change and many enemies are mere palette swaps. You gain new abilities, which unlock shortcuts or new paths, but it's a poor substitution for level variety.
There are times when you have to backtrack through a lower-level dungeon to complete a side-quest or trigger an event. To the developer's credit, they attempt to make these trips as painless as possible. You can avoid most enemy encounters by simply running past them on the map or swinging your sword to stun them. Early on, you gain the Vanish ability, which lets you disable any random encounter at the cost of a slow drain on Stocke's MP while the spell is in effect. You can also skip or speed through any conversation or scene, so it's less painful to return to a cut scene-heavy area.
A major complaint is that you are not warned when something has changed in a scene. Returning to a scene and skipping the conversation risks missing out on Stocke using some information from another timeline to alter the flow of events. It's rare when it happens, but it's annoying to check the White Chronicle and realize that Stocke learned a new power in what seemed to be an identical cut scene, but you've already skipped it and missed the new dialogue.
Much like the story, the visuals of Radiant Historia feel dated. The character sprites are very simplistic and have a very basic range of motion. Most of the dialogue is expressed using little "emotion bubbles" over the characters' heads. Consequently, some of the scenes lack the impact necessary for them to work, and it would have been nice if more effort had been put into the character animations. The combat looks fine, although some of the special moves — e.g., the bland Mana Burst attacks — could have used some more "punch."
Characters are represented in dialogue by still art when they talk, but the still art never changes expression. It feels weird when characters have the exact same expression when they're angry, dying, happy or sad. There's no voice acting in the game, but the absence doesn't feel noticeable at all. The soundtrack by veteran composer Yoko Shimomura is absolutely top-notch and does wonders for the atmosphere. Despite the simplistic graphics, the excellent soundtrack makes up for the lacking visuals and adds emotion and excitement to scenes that would otherwise be difficult to take seriously.
Radiant Historia is an old-fashioned RPG, and it's a good one. The story is simple and enjoyable, and there's a likeable cast. The unusual time travel mechanic is engrossing despite being occasionally inconsistent. The high point of the game is certainly the combat system, which turns the frequent backtracking into an enjoyable experience. Radiant Historia doesn't quite manage to become a new classic, but it does enough right, so any fan of Japanese-style RPGs should find this to be a great experience. It's inevitable for Radiant Historia to be compared to fellow time-travel RPG Chrono Trigger, and unfortunately, it's can't quite live up to those high expectations. If you can judge Radiant Historia on its own merits, though, you'll find one of the most exciting and enjoyable RPGs on the DS.
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