radiant historia – very little innovation, great execution

Radiant Historia caught me off-guard. It came as a traditional (read here: uninspired) Japanese RPG, it went as one of the most enjoyable I’ve played recently. Last games of this genre to ever be graced with such merit were P3FES and P4, all of them by Atlus… I think I’m unofficially joining the ranks of its niche fanbase, little by little.

Despite all my fanboyism towards the last Persona games, I definitely wouldn’t consider buying a game just because it was developed by Atlus. I’ve played the first Persona game before, and I’ve seen friends playing Strange Journey and Etrian Odyssey (both share some of its development staff with the team that worked on Radiant Historia). I wasn’t terribly impressed by not one them, nor by gameplay videos of other SMT games I had seen so far. I actually have no idea why I dove head-on into this game. But I’m glad I did.

My expectations towards turn-based jRPGs were reaching new lows. Dragon Quest VIII, for instance, made me fall asleep whenever I was in an area with random battles. I just don’t see the fun in going through dozens of slow-paced battles that I can’t avoid, where I just use the exact same strategy over and over again. I could name some other PS2 games that, even though didn’t disappoint me like Dragon Quest, weren’t all that great or fun in its entirety.

Moving on to this console generation, I can’t say I was satisfied with my Final Fantasy XIII experience, even with such interesting battle mechanics. I also briefly played Eternal Sonata, but wasn’t impressed at all. On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed Valkyria Chronicles and Demon’s Souls, both developed in Japan with strong RPG traits, but far from being a “normal” jRPG (some wouldn’t call them jRPGs at all). So, what’s the point of all this? My skepticism towards traditional jRPGs started growing more and more, making me avoid games like Resonance of Fate and Star Ocean 4 altogether. So, once again I say, I’m glad I picked Radiant Historia, as I could finally enjoy wholeheartedly a new game of one of my old favorite gaming genres.

So what’s the deal with Radiant Historia, you ask?

At first, you’re given a superficial introduction to the setting: a dying world, two nations in war, and a sense of foreboding. Nothing new, you say? Well, don’t worry, soon some pretty interesting characters are introduced… A silent, antisocial male lead. A loli sidekick who can’t help but fall in love for the protagonist. Hey, why are you looking at me like that? The gameplay! Turn-based battles in which you can attack, cast magics, defend, use items, flee… And you can also travel back in time. Yes, these all seem like overused premises that could easily lead to an awful final product. Except, in this case, it doesn’t.

The gameplay revolves around time travelling. The game gives you choices, and sometimes one of them inevitably leads you to complete world destruction. No biggie! Since the protagonist holds the White Chronicles, the power to go back and forth to certain places in time, the ability to change history to, I don’t know, a no-world-destruction scenario perhaps. That’s one downside of this particular game mechanic: critical choices stop sounding so critical once you realize you’re not penalized for making a bad move. But the good news is that it offers you plenty of side-tracking without sacrificing the pace of the plot.

Basically the game follows two different timelines, and occasionally you’ll hit a point where you’ll have to travel between them in order to advance further. These points are not all that frequent, so you’ll still be able to enjoy the plot progression for quite a while on one particular timeline before having to jump to another. And if you ever get bored, you could just use this ability on a whim, maybe go complete some sidequests (which also involve time travels) or even re-explore old areas with newfound techniques (like exploding rocks to clear the way).

The game doesn’t use random battles (one trait I’m starting to like better and better in jRPGs), they appear on maps, and you can either get the upper hand or be caught off guard. I admit, I oversimplified the battle mechanics up there, there’s really much more to it. The enemies are placed in a 3×3 grid, and depending where they are placed may alter their offensive and defensive capabilities. Your characters can learn abilities to push the enemy to a particular area of the grid, and soon you’ll start using them to attack a group of monsters in a single turn. If you command your party to attack the same enemy, you’ll start a combo, which increases each subsequent attack/ability/magic’s power while it lasts. There’s also another command that I didn’t comment on: Change. It lets your character trade its turn for another character’s in your party, or even the enemy’s. It’s a command that should be abused if you want to make the most of grid manipulation and combo racking to end the battle faster (or even win it at all). However, each time you use it, your character will take higher damage than usual until his/her turn is back again. So using it too much can also be a bad idea, as enemies can kill you easier before you can unleash that so desired combo. All in all, the battle mechanics offer a good amount of strategy without being too slow-paced. A very nice combination, I must say.

One thing I’d like to mention, though: Aht (the loli). Once you start using her trap magics, you’ll want to use the same strategies with her over and over. Simply because it’s too damn effective during the whole game. You’ll still need to plan your turns, and where/when to move your enemies, but it doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t found a better overall strategy using a party without her (except on battles against certain giant spiders).

Once again I admit, the characters aren’t all that cliche as I made them look like (I exaggerate to impress). Stocke is indeed the silent type and sometimes cold, but he can also be caring with others and doesn’t make a big deal about wanting to be alone (it’s not like any other jRPG protagonist would do that, right…?). Not to mention he’s actually logical with his way of thinking and acting, for most of the time. After going through the initial cutscenes I expected the worse, and in the end I can say he’s one of the best lead characters I’ve seen on this genre. As for Aht (in case you forgot, the loli), well… it is what it is, but it may not be such a big deal considering the cast, just as the plot, manage to be pretty consistent and somewhat well-developed without depending too much on the jRPG cliches.

I don’t consider myself to be a good judge of music, and I usually don’t pay attention to it, unless I become addicted to one particular track or two. So I can’t say anything in particular about this aspect, except it’s done by Yoko Shimomura. I don’t know if that’ll count as an incentive to try this game, or not.

I honestly think that few things in this game will surprise you if you’re a japanese-role-playing games veteran. Maybe except how it skillfully dodges certain overdone plot and character developments while offering a competent gameplay. I won’t say this is groundbreaking, nor that it’s the best of its genre. I’ll just say it’s a shame. Shame this’ll probably be overlooked by many except for some its niche market. Shame some developers will miss the chance to learn how to use traditional elements and actually make something fresh. A real damn shame.

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