I was questioned in my last review
on whether or not I was a fan of JRPGs, and I think my track record
will show that I am a fan of them. There are times where the genre goes through some stale products, like the recently reviewed Ar Tonelico Qoga, and then there are times where they seem to break out of nowhere and impress the hell out of me. Atlus' Radiant Historia is one of the latter titles. With a time traveling premise that rivals Chrono Trigger (which may be blasphemous to some people), and a combat system that is consistently fun and challenging, developer Index Corporation seems to have completely nailed what makes a great JRPG.
I'll be honest, the first thing that hooked me with this game was the inclusion of Yoko Shimomura on the soundtrack. Known for great compositions for SquareEnix games like Parasite Eve and Kingdom Hearts, her musical penchant for the piano is immediately noticeable and it fits Radiant Historia perfectly. The battle music is well composed and is one of the strongest and most memorable pieces, even if it straddles the line of being too close to her work from Kingdom Hearts. The inclusion of a selection of piano pieces with the game is a nice little bonus and I'm glad Atlus included it, the music is good enough that I find myself listening to it outside of the game.
Visually this game is kind of on shaky ground, the game looks fantastic, the locales are nice and colorful and it's a decent 2½-D presentation with sprites running across 3D landscapes. But the animation is sorely lacking, in that there are just limited frames in every character's movement. Though they compensate well with some flashy moves that don't seem to take up much movement, it's just a surprisingly weak component of the game. The characters and portraits are aesthetically pleasing and I wound up really liking some of their designs. It kind of reminded me of Brave Story, where you had simplistic character designs but they all worked quite well because they didn't try to make things overly elaborate or had only one big piece of flare. As far as handheld games go though, Radiant Historia has the graphical chops to be compared with some of the great looking games of the past.
What I have to applaud most is the story and time mechanic that Radiant Historia has going for it. Alistel is currently at war with Granorg, a neighboring country that is expanding its influence while the world continues to go through a process called 'desertification' which will eventually lead to the end of the world as no fertile land will exist to keep humanity alive. You play as a special forces agent for the Kingdom of Alistel, named Stocke, known for covert operations and pretty much the best there is. He is presented with the White Chronicle, a book that allows him to return to points in history, allowing him to repeat the scenario, changing the outcome should he wish to do so. The wrinkle here is that he's got two time-lines that he has to live with in an attempt to set a true course of history that will prevent the destruction of the world. Jumping back and forth between the time-lines allows Stocke to learn abilities or see events that he might not have come across in the other time-line, so odds are if you're playing and have run in to a wall, you need to see what the other time-line has to offer. The game is pretty good about telling you when you need to switch over to the other time-line, the tricky part is trying to figure out where you need to go. For example, in one time-line you need to blow up a mine, but the merchant with the explosives never made it to the rendezvous point. By switching over, you'll find that on your way to your destination you'll find the merchant, being attacked by bandits. Saving him will result in the other time-line being corrected to allow you to move forward.
The White Chronicle holds over two hundred and fifty points of reference to the story, with key points that can be visited, and each node also offering an overview of what happened in that point of history. There are also a ton of short endings that aren't quite the true path, but offer interesting results for the decisions you make and they actually tell you why this line of history doesn't work, which I really appreciated, rather than just kill Stocke outright they explain how the enemy reacted to events and why they set in to motion the destruction of the world. You can also complete side quests that will save the lives of people or get them to offer you assistance down the road. It is a surprisingly well thought-out system, and the only flaw I found was in triggering alternate paths after completing the current scenario. For example, I had a piece of paper that would clue a commander in to an impending attack. Rather than present the document automatically during the conversation that had already taken place I was thinking, “This is probably not the right point.” I wound up running around a few other time-lines until I found out my first thought was correct and talked to the same character a second time, which advanced the story. But these moments are really rare and I think I'm just sour about running around for two hours accomplishing nothing. Or maybe it was that optional boss that I ran in to and was way under-leveled for and got steamrolled, losing another two hours.
Video previews of the combat system are the second thing that sold me on Radiant Historia. After the failure that was Cross Edge, I didn't want to deal with another grid based combat system ever again, but I figured I should stop being a little baby about it and see what Radiant Historia could do, and Index Corporation wound up making one of the most enjoyable battle systems I have ever encountered. Your party of three will fight opponents on a three by three grid, so it's reasonably small, but you'll quickly find that enemy placement is of the utmost importance. For example, enemies in the back row will deal less damage, if they get up to the front of the grid they can really pound your team. Here's where things get interesting, you can move your opponents around the grid with special attacks, and they can occupy the same square of the grid over the course of a combo, and will then spread out when all your attackers have taken their turns. This allows you to set up some ridiculous combos that will have you pushing and pulling, and moving enemies all across the grid in an attempt to round them up to do damage to everyone at once. Later on you'll encounter enemies that cannot be moved, or enemies that generate fields that can protect specific parts of the grid, and you'll find your focus shifting to moving enemies to bundle them up with immobile enemies or to keep enemies off the grids that can regenerate health, or raise defense or strength.
Every battle winds up playing like a bit of a puzzle game. You have to make the most efficient use of the turns you are allotted, and can even learn skills that will knock out enemy turns. You can also gamble by allowing the enemy to go before you in an attempt to get as many consecutive turns as possible, in exchange for slightly weakened defense. It's fresh, it's clever, and I cannot get over how fun it is. I think a game really succeeds for me when I don't ever feel compelled to run from a battle, and aside from Shadow Hearts 2, this is one of very few games where I won't run from a fight just because I am bored of combat. Another great thing about this game, no random battles, you'll see all enemies on the screen, and they are quite easily avoided. You can also stun them which will allow you to run past them or you can get a preemptive attack, giving you an extra turn or two. Another great thing is how the game rewards your clever combos with extra cash and experience at the end of battles; it might just be a miniscule one percent or so, but it's a really nice inclusion.
Up until about a week before Radiant Historia came out, it was not on my radar at all. And then I started watching some videos, and my interest was definitely piqued, but I wasn't completely sold. After playing the game I'm really glad I got a chance to do so. The juggling storyline wasn't too complicated, but still kept my interest and allowed itself for some interesting situations. The music was nothing short of fantastic, and the combat alone could almost save this game if everything else were terrible. Thankfully that is not the case as Index Corporation managed to create one of the most enjoyable JRPGs I have ever played on the DS. I think this just goes to show that you don't need to be on the latest bleeding edge hardware to make a successful game. Sure it's nice to have all the graphical bells and whistles of an HDTV, but I think this game proves that there is still plenty of space in the market for a title that can harken back to the 16-bit era in terms of graphical fidelity. Really, I cannot recommend Radiant Historia enough, it is a stand-out title that should be in every DS library if you're a fan of JRPGs.