Dusting off my Nintendo DS for a role-playing game sounded at first like an easy way to blow 35 bucks. With the dozens of hours that an RPG would require, I was apprehensive to re-spark my handheld gaming tendencies with something that might lead me to shelf it away for lack of time, effort and interest. But I really wanted to give Radiant Historia a try, and it was after all a time travel-based game from Atlus, the makers of Pokemon rip-off Robopon (which maybe only two or three other people played besides myself), with a much-hyped old school, 16-bit look to it.
It was a good thing I did, because Radiant Historia, which was released on Feb. 22, is an impressively solid RPG that mixes in the dozens of improvements the genre has seen in the last two decades while still keeping the core components clean and simple like they did in the good old days of 1995 and the SNES. However, its most impressive quality is its alarmingly interactive and complex storyline that…yes, does deal with time travel.
Now, Radiant Historia is not going to win any awards for originality. When the formula for a RPG has been re-worked in, out, up and down hundreds of times, it may be near impossible to come up with something that is still true to the genre and isn’t seriously borrowing from the dozens of landmark titles that came before. Atlus didn’t think their new title needed to gun for serious innovation, so Radiant Historia has it all – brooding hero with an unrealistic haircut, military storyline that starts narrow and becomes epically catastrophic, magical instrument that grants world-altering powers but can’t be explained…the list goes on.
In terms of mechanics, the game also borrows from some of the titans of the genre. Combat is set up in turns instead of time-based, and you can swap the whole list to meet your strategic needs, which was a well-done staple of Final Fantasy X’s system. Another borrowed element is the implementation of skills outside of battle, which is something that handheld RPG titan Golden Sun did quite well back in the days of the Gameboy Advance. For instance, your character can momentarily become invisible to enemies or you can drag and pull rocks or explosive barrels during elementary, yet not monotonous, puzzle solving.
Radiant Historia also seems to have a plot that nears a perfect blend of Chrono Trigger and its sequel Chrono Cross, for it has both time travel, like the 1995 classic, and alternate histories that you can switch between, like the 2000 sequel.
However, none of these factors make the game bad. In fact, Radiant Historia takes them all and beautifully blends them together to make for a very worthwhile experience, and any RPG fan knows that doing these old things in a fresh way makes for a great installment in the genre.
Speaking of time travel, it is indeed the crux of the game. You play as Stocke, a humble yet skilled agent in the intelligence division of Allistel, a nation at war with its neighbor Granorg over territory rights to fertile land. The fertile land is a precious resource in the world of Vainqueur because of desertification, which, at the beginning of the game, has no known cause and is turning everything to sand.
The game makes its formula clear early on when Stocke is faced with a crucial decision – stay behind the scenes with the intelligence division or go to the front lines with his best friend and championed war hero. That decision becomes the foundational split in Radiant Historia when Stocke is given the White Chronicle, a book that allows him to replay crucial events in the past, which initially allows him to split the timeline in two by letting the player choose both options at the beginning of the game.
By traveling between histories and throughout different points in time, you alter the different paths as they progress forward, all while Stocke experiences every instance and becomes more knowledgeable of the greater struggle and becomes stronger in battle.
The battle system is very much in line with the rest of the game in that is a familiar and comfortable style that RPG veterans will have no trouble grasping, yet is fast-paced and unique enough when you go beneath the surface that every battle becomes a challenge. The way Atlus achieved this was with a system that allows your characters to move the enemies around on a grid with push and grapple techniques. This allows you to hit multiple enemies at once if a previous character pushes or pulls them on top of each other, but Atlus also decided to make each battle difficult enough that you have to do that, meaning you almost always fight upwards of four enemies at once.
So if you’re looking for some RPG nostalgia with a refreshingly unique and interactive storyline, Radiant Historia is a no-brainer. It will bring the Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Golden Sun aesthetic right to the surface and maybe even enter your own RPG canon because yes, it actually is that good. Let’s hope Atlus can use this as a springboard for another even greater RPG down the line.