Radiant Historia Review: An RPG Renaissance

Radiant Historia is a steampunk, time-travelling RPG created by Atlus. At least, that’s how it’s marketed. But deeper than the gearpunk, deeper than travelling through the timelines, there’s that traditional Japanese story of environmentalism mixed in with sentiments of loyalty and the general idea of good versus evil. And beyond the depth and immersion of the story is even more: brilliant character development, a challenging and satisfying battle system, a plethora of sidequests, and a gorgeous soundtrack. This is not just a successful game; this is a game that should be used as an example for what a successful RPG is really all about.

Platform: DS
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Clockpunk Time-Jumper
Release Date: February 22, 2011
ESRB Rating: E 10+

Radiant Historia begins with an ominous tone: it seems that the end of the world is imminent. Destruction by a process called “desertification” has already begun, and the sands creep into the last remaining vestiges of civilization throughout the continent. Lippti and Teo, two children, give a cryptic introduction, and then we are lead to our main character, Stocke. Blond and dressed in red from head to toe, it’s hard not to be reminded of Vash the Stampede from “Trigun,” but Stocke’s serious and somber personality put that comparison to rest early on.

The two main countries at the beginning of the story are Alistel and Granorg, and they are at war. Stocke, a member of Alistel’s Special Intelligence (SpecInt), is given the White Chronicle (no, not the White Knight Chronicle, sorry) for his next mission by his boss Heiss. He’s basically told to use it in case of an emergency, though Heiss doesn’t give him any details on how to use it, or how a book could come in handy. He also meets his first of several companions, the mercenaries Raynie and Marco. And shortly into the story, we discover how everything overlaps: the White Chronicle can help Stocke journey through time, going back and changing things, all the while being guided by Lippti and Teo.

Initially, there’s one major decision to be made, and at that point, the timeline for the game splits into two. As you play through each timeline, you can change the outcomes of events in the other. In one timeline, you will cross paths with a certain character who teaches you a skill or a fighting maneuver, and that will play a key part in getting through some objective in the other timeline. Your paths are sometimes obvious and sometimes not, but almost always fit together in an amazing way to further the progress of the story. There are also specific moments in the story that are created as “nodes,” meaning you can travel to and from those by opening up the White Chronicle, which can be accessed at save points as well as from the main map screen (which you can only get to from certain locations). That will take you to Historia, which is the nexus of time. All told, there are 236 possible story pieces – I finished the game with 171 completed, but even now, I want to go back and find out what is in the other 65 that I missed.

It may sound overly-simplistic, and at first, it seems difficult to imagine that the choices would lead to gameplay that didn’t feel deliberately pushed in a certain direction, or that the answers would take you on an obviously linear path. However, it’s been set up to be more challenging than I initially expected; sometimes you have to spend a considerable amount of time discovering the answer to a riddle by visiting various nodes and playing out the story again in the other timeline. Occasionally, the options involved go against the grain of the characters – at one point, you’re privy to Stocke’s thoughts, and then given a choice that goes directly against what he was just thinking. These are very few and far between, though, and aren’t detrimentally distracting from the story.

The characters are a shining point in Radiant Historia. I grew quite attached to Stocke, and as such, had a very emotional time with the game. As a protagonist, he is nearly stereotypical in his perfection: handsome, intelligent, charismatic, mysterious, and a mix of the loner who still has best friends he can lean on for support. He’s also a renowned fighter as well as a top agent at SpecInt. The other characters follow similar molds, each one filling specific roles in the story, and likewise each one fitting into the party and fulfilling a different need depending on the enemy situation.

Instead of random battle encounters, the wandering monsters are physical monsters that appear on the screen. They can be stunned using Stocke’s sword, which can also be used to slash down overgrowth. Hitting the monsters a few times will stun them, and Stocke can then either choose to run around them or fight them, at which point the party will get an advantage with a preemptive strike. This becomes crucial as the monsters start to become more difficult and every advantage counts. Not all monsters can be avoided, though, so it’s important to be as prepared as possible, especially when coming into new territory.

The battle system itself is set up with the characters in their traditional position on the right-hand side, while the enemies are on the left in a three-by-three grid. This is on the bottom screen. On the top screen, the next ten turns are listed, showing you when each participant will be taking their action (similar to the CTB system in Final Fantasy X). Enemies can use turns to move within the grid, and some party members have special skills they can use to manipulate enemies on there – Push Assault pushes the enemies back, and Left and Right Assault can move them from one side to the other. It’s especially important to note that damage changes depending on where on the grid the monsters are – physical attacks will do more damage to those in the front row than those in the back. The same goes for them as well – they do more damage from the front – so using a move to drag them to the front to optimize damage will also increase damage done against you. It can be a tricky balance but it makes for interesting battles nearly every time, to the point that even grinding becomes an enjoyable experience.

All of this becomes important as you can stack your attacks – so if you use Stocke to push one enemy into another and then have your next party member cast a spell on that same enemy, damage will be inflicted on both enemies. Stacking up moves like this creates bonuses later in the game, when your “Mana Burst” option becomes available. You also have the option to “Change” your party member’s slot with either another party member or an enemy in any of the ten turns you can see on the top screen. This makes it easier to stack up your moves – for example, I would change up the order so that one party member could cast a spell to boost everyone’s magic before the other party members would cast their spells, or switch a party member with an enemy in order to stack up more physical hits in a row. Precision in these battles becomes important, though. Hitting a monster and killing it doesn’t direct your next stacked attack to another monster – you continue to hit that enemy until all consecutive moves on that enemy are exhausted. This can get frustrating but simply forces you to pay more attention and focus on how much damage you’re doing. It’s reminiscent of the first Final Fantasy game, and reminds us that button mashing doesn’t have a home in RPGs.

Also enjoyable are the sidequests, scattered throughout both timelines. Some are simple to arrive at and require little effort; others are time intensive, sending you all across the continent on a search for items. Sometimes, one part of one story leads to a seemingly unrelated part, and you find everything curiously connected across not just time, but the two timelines – to the point where even the characters themselves admit to not quite understanding what they’re thinking and feeling, as their beliefs cross time and space. While it can be confusing, it’s not unpleasantly so, and it all weaves together quite nicely in a solid and cohesive gameplay experience.

Wrapping everything up in a beautiful package is the soundtrack, which is both typical and extraordinary, composed by Yoko Shimomura (known for her work in the Kingdom Hearts games, Legend of Mana, and Super Mario RPG). Each area has its own music, as do the fights and the “successful” cutscenes (which have a very fitting celebratory theme). Random encounters have different music than boss fights which have different music than the bigger boss fights, which don’t even hold a candle to the final boss tunes. I have to admit, though – even after the credits rolled, I still felt that the Alistel music was my favorite in the entire game. Hardcore JRPG fans should definitely get their hands on the special edition of this game, which comes with a CD containing piano arrangements of five of the songs by Shimomura herself – a haunting addition to an already remarkable soundtrack.

Radiant Historia is a must-have game for RPG fans. This game did more than utilize time travel as a mechanic – it time-travelled me back to when I was a kid, waking up early in the morning to sneak in some RPG time before my family woke up. It’s nostalgic, yet at the same time innovative and creative. With a great story, characters you grow to truly care for, and gameplay that never gets boring, Radiant Historia can be chalked up as yet another Atlus success story.

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Radiant Historia was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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Nicole Kline is Warp Zoned's Senior Editor. She first began preparing for the job by climbing a milk crate to play Centipede in an arcade. You can find her on PSN under the name toitle or you can email her at nicole AT warpzoned DOT com.

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