Let’s talk about video games again, instead of childhood trauma! Woo!
So my husband got me this DS game for Christmas. It was one that I remember being excited about when I read reviews online and in my Game Informer…but I was broke when it came out, so I never got around to playing it. I remember hearing good things about its plot and characters, which are two of my favorite things about any RPG, so my interest was piqued. I didn’t remember reading anything about its battle system, which is a pity, because it is surprisingly fun and novel.
Radiant Historia puts you in the role of Stocke, an experienced intelligence agent and soldier in an ongoing and bitter war between two powerful nations, Alistel and Granorg. A large part of this conflict seems to be over the fact that the continent on which both countries exist is rapidly running out of arable land due to desertification. No, seriously. They even call it desertification in-game. Lots of JRPGs feature countries at war, but seldom do those wars hinge on something as practical and real-world as climate change. There’s also a religious dimension to the war, as Alistel answers to an individual named the Prophet Noah, who hands down proclamations through a probably corrupt guy named General Hugo. There’s a lot of politics in this game, enough to remind me of the complex political machinations of Final Fantasy Tactics.
Early on in the game, Stocke’s boss, a steely bastard named Heiss, gives him a mysterious book called the White Chronicle. Stocke almost immediately heads out on a mission and is killed. Instead of a Game Over, however, our protagonist finds himself in the presence of a pair of otherworldly twins named Teo and Lippti, who are apparently all-powerful time travelling fairies of some kind (I don’t know if they are actually fairies, but hey, no one else in this game has elf ears). They explain that Stocke can use the White Chronicle to travel through time and change history so that the world doesn’t end. Only by pushing history into its proper course can that goal be achieved.
The way that this ends up working in game is that whenever Stocke is faced with an important decision, the timeline branches. His first decision upon returning to the real world is to determine whether he wants to continue working as an intelligence officer under Heiss or form a new military brigade with his best friend, Rosch. This creates two related, alternate timelines that Stocke jumps back and forth between for the rest of the game.
So I’m about ten hours in. In the Standard timeline, the one in which Stocke stays an employee of Heiss, he infiltrates enemy territory and is sent on a mission to assassinate one of the princesses of Granorg. In the Alternate timeline, the one in which Stocke joins the Rosch Brigade, he helps to defend strategic points like a mine and an important fortress from the Granorg army. He can travel between the timelines at will using the White Chronicle at save points, and the skills and levels he gains in each carry over to the other.
The timeline is pretty useful, because it has a handy little synopsis of each point on the timeline. Otherwise I think I’d get the two timelines confused pretty easily.
Things that happen in one timeline affect the other. For instance, at one point in the Alternate history there is a surprise bomb attack on the Sand Fortress that Stocke’s brigade is supposed to be defending. The bombs are hidden, though, so even if he goes back in time on that timeline, he can’t find them. Instead, when he returns to the Standard timeline, he meets a group of travelling Satyros performers. The Satyros are a race of beastmen with special powers. One of the young Satyros, a child named Aht, takes a real liking to Stocke and teaches him how to use one of her powers, the power to see hidden things using the force of Mana. Now when he returns to the other timeline, Stocke can use this power to find and disarm the bombs in the Sand Fortress. This back and forth interaction between the two timelines is pretty clever, and forces the player to spend equal time in both timelines. The developers worked to make this constant time travel as convenient as possible – you can travel through time and between timelines at any save point, you can access the timeline for reference from the main menu, and when you return to a dialogue sequence you have experienced before, you can fast forward through it so you don’t have to read the same dialogue sequences over and over again. You can’t fast forward through sprite animations, though, so you will have to watch the same sprite army march out like six or seven times.
I was also impressed with the battle system. For one, encounters are not random. The enemies wander around the map, and if you can approach them without them charging into you, then you have a chance to whack them with your sword. Successful whacking forces the enemies away from you and has a chance to knock them unconscious. Unconscious enemies (indicated, somewhat adorably, with a speech bubble with “zzz”s over their heads) can either be avoided or preemptively attacked, which I founded to be a nice feature. Low on health or mana? Whack enemies into unconsciousness and avoid combat all together!
Battle is turn-based, but very strategic. Turn order is displayed on the top screen. This is important, because characters can select “Change” as an option from the combat menu, and switch their turn with an enemy’s turn. This causes their sprites to flash red and enter a status called, for some inexplicable reason, “Baroque.” When a character is “Baroque,” their defense is lower. So why switch turns at all? Well, it has to do with the intriguing combo system.
Enemies appear on a 3 x 3 grid. Many of your skills can move them around on this grid. For instance, a character can use a Push Assault to push an enemy backwards, or a Left Assault to push them to the left. The goal of all this pushing around is to get as many enemies into one section of the grid as possible, because every attack will hit every enemy in that section of the grid. So in the screenshot above, Stocke is using his action to push that goblin into the same section of the grid as that purple dragon. For the rest of the combo, any attack against that section of the grid will hit both enemies. Success in battle depends upon pushing as many enemies as possible into one section of the grid and then whaling on all of them at once. So reordering your turns to have as many of your characters act one after the other allows you to build punishing combos to murder your enemies as efficiently as possible. This combat system turns every battle into a kind of spatial puzzle, made trickier by the fact that not every character can push enemies in every direction. Stocke can push enemies back, left, and right, but his ally Raynie can only push them back, while Marco can only push back or pull them forward. So turn order becomes very important.
My only gripe about this system is that all of the enemy movement abilities cost mana, and in the early game, mana is in short supply. You will run out frequently, and if you are out of mana healing items while out in the field, you are shit out of luck. Entering a battle without enough mana to move your enemies around and create combos turns the battles into a frustrating, boring slog. You can use mana crystals at save points to completely restore your hit points and mana points, but you only get one of these crystals to start out, and new ones cost a staggering 5,000 gold apiece. By ten hours in, I have amassed enough gold that I can pretty much stay stocked up with tea, the mana-healing item in this game, but for a good chunk of the game up to now, I kept having to escape encounters because I was out of mana.
I am really enjoying this game, though. The characters are engaging, the plot is complicated and full of unexpected twists, and the time travel is a really neat plot device. The sprites and character portraits look really good on my 3DS XL’s giant screens, too. Atlus did a great job with the localization. The music isn’t staggeringly awesome, but it’s good enough. I play my 3DS in lots of situations where I can’t have sound, anyway, so I don’t mourn its loss.
You can pick this game up for about $2o now, so if you see it and you’re a plot-heavy JRPG fan, it is definitely worth your time. And I think that at only ten hours in! I bet things will get even better from here on out, as I learn more and more abilities to make combat even more exciting.
Thanks for another great JRPG, Atlus! You’re my favorite publisher for a reason.