Radiant Historia is a game that effortlessly blends its own unique style into what you’d expect from a JRPG. There are the anime-looking characters and members of royalty tasked with saving the world, along with everything else that’s pretty much a given in the genre, but interwoven with these familiar tropes is a story that’s anything but expected. This is basically what you’d get if you threw a ton of old RPGs into a blender, added in time travel, then poured the mixture into a Nintendo DS. Frothy JRPG goodness.
First, the plot: From the very beginning there are things happening that you don’t have all the answers to, and this helps to suck you in early on. The story revolves around time travel, and a large portion of the game is spent jumping back and forth through time. That’s not all, though; in addition to time travel, a choice made early on splits the game into two timelines with completely different events, so you’ll be jumping back and forth from timeline to timeline in order to progress. The two timelines affect one another, for some reason, so changing someone’s mind in one timeline will have an impact on them in the other. Why this is, I have no idea. I don’t know if I missed an explanation or if it was just thrown in with the assumption that I wouldn’t be asking too many questions, but it struck me as odd.
While the time travel/parallel universes thing works for the game and gives it a unique edge, it’s not perfect. Games with time travel will inevitably be compared to Chrono Trigger, but the fact that the main character in Radiant Historia isn’t silent like the main character in CT is a bit of a problem. Chapters often begin with him thinking to himself, so going back in time can often mean your character sits there asking himself questions that he already knows the answers to. The whole thing is very linear, as well; while Chrono Trigger has many separate endings, Radiant Historia has a single ending with sidequests determining how much you see. If you miss a sidequest, you won’t see the end result of that sidequest in the ending, but none of these affect the sequence of events leading up to the end or lead to completely different endings like in CT.
Well… that’s not technically true. There are many different “endings,” but they’re not true endings. Throughout the game you’re given several choices (almost always between two things), usually indicated by your character going, “I need to think this one through carefully,” and while one is the right choice, the other usually manages to destroy the world. This happens right after making the choice and requires no further input from the player, so you’ll know almost immediately if you chose the wrong decision. These false endings aren’t “game over” situations in that you end up going back in time and can easily teleport forward again to make the right choice, so they’re not technically endings in the strictest sense of the word. Still, it’s added content, and reading how your choices lead to the end is always an entertaining thing (I went out of my way to make the wrong decisions and see as many of them as I could).
Dialogue comprises a large portion of the game, but it never feels out of place or unnecessarily wordy. You’ll quickly find yourself attached to the characters, and the dialogue always serves to advance the plot (fleshing out those characters in the process), so the dialogue is actually welcome. There’s always something happening in the game, which makes Radiant Historia feels very fast-paced and full of content. This is in stark contrast to most games, where a large portion of the game exists solely as filler. Very little of this game can be considered filler: There’s a single quest that involves collecting branches that felt like filler, but this particular section only lasts for a few minutes, and there are no other quests like it in the rest of the game. You’ll constantly be jumping back and forth through time, making progress in both timelines and piecing together answers to the many questions you’ll have.
Combat also plays a significant role, and like a lot of things in Radiant Historia, it’s unique. Enemies are placed on a 3×3 grid (see screenshots), and combat is turn-based. What makes this interesting is that you can hit enemies into other enemies using special skills and deal damage to both of them at the same time. To help with these combos, you’re given the ability to swap out your turn for that of an enemy. If you can survive enough of their hits, you can arrange things so that you have 9-10 turns in a row, allowing you to rack up huge combos. Larger combos increase the damage dealt, so combat ends up being very strategic compared to most turn-based games.
Leveling up and equipping weapons/armor/items is exactly how you’d expect it to be, given that this is very much a JRPG. It’s familiar and it works, even if it’s not particularly innovative, and that familiarity makes combat very easy to settle in to. Grinding is more or less necessary at certain points, but leveling up is actually surprisingly fast, so the grinding is less mind-numbing than in most games. Outside of combat, enemies show up on the map, and combat is initiated by touching them. You have the ability to swing your sword pretty much anywhere, and hitting enemies with it sometimes stuns them, allowing you to attack first if you initiate combat before they become “un-stunned.”
The art design is really nice. I can’t exactly be called a fan of the “anime aesthetic,” but it’s not pushed too far. What this means is that the character portraits are all nice-looking, and you don’t have to deal with any of those exaggerated expressions. The portraits are static, so the dialogue carries most of the weight of expressing emotion, something it does surprisingly well. There’s a pseudo-3D effect used for cutscenes that can come across a little awkward at times, but gameplay and most of the game plays out in a comfortable view reminiscent of old sprite-based Playstation 1 games.
The music is another strong point. There’s something about it that captures each moment perfectly, though there’s a single song—the “sad song”—that’s used a little too much. Overall, however, the music is memorable and you could very well find yourself humming one or two of the themes without realizing it.
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