Review by Matt S.
It usually does my head in when developers, authors, film makers, or any other creative tries to tackle the topic of time travel. That’s not to say it can’t be done, and the body of philosophical thought around time travel and associated themes (morality and so on) is just fascinating. But it’s a ridiculously difficult subject to visualise and then execute in a way that isn’t so filled with painful logic flaws that it’s impossible to take seriously.
Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is a sprawling JRPG that makes time travel everything to the experience. And it does it remarkably well. It’s a complex game in its breath and themes, but it’s also so compelling that it’s difficult to put down… and that’s despite a surprisingly functional and uninspiring combat system.
Radiant Historia follows the story of a fellow called Stocke. He’s a spy and soldier in service to one nation, which has found itself embroiled in a war with another nation as a curse upon the land is slowly turning everything to sand. Desertification, in other words. Desertification is going to cause an awful lot of wars in the real world in the not too distant future. It’s just a pity that no one in our world has access to the Historia that Stocke does, because that would solve a lot of problems.
Throughout the adventure, Stocke is presented with critical decisions, and, obviously, the decisions he makes will affect how the narrative pans out. Sometimes it’ll result in catastrophe. Other times it will take him one step closer to resolving the war and uncover what’s really going on with the desertification. Thankfully, though, bad decisions don’t mean so much. At any point, Stocke can pull out a book of incredible power, the Historia, and use it to travel back to one of those crucial decisions, and alter his decisions. Handy trick, that.
It’s not always so easy though. Soon enough you’ll find yourself having to leap back and forth between multiple time lines. Information you’ll get from a historical event in one time line will give you the information you need to progress through a barrier in another timeline. This won’t be always as obvious as you might want it to, either, and the plot of Radiant Historia starts to become a web-like mess of narrative strands to puzzle through.
Credit has to go to the writers to keeping such great control over it all, though. It would have been so easy to lose a sense of character, place, and even time with the sheer dominance of time travel over everything that goes into the game, but it doesn’t. Indeed, even given the fact I wasn’t such a great fan of the artistic design of the game at first – think bland environments and generic character portraits – I was quite impressed by how much I quickly came to find all the characters quite endearing. This game takes a lot of time to really write out characters – perhaps to compensate for the humble visual presentation – but it absolutely works to the benefit of the game. Quite a lot of the story’s impact rests on you caring about the characters, and this one achieves that, against my every expectation going in.
It’s just as well that I couldn’t put the game down for that reason, because the combat is the most incredible example of a purely functional combat system I’ve ever come across. In each battle you’re facing enemies arranged in a 3 x 3 grid, and your goal is to push them around using abilities to try and concentrate as many enemies on a single square in that grid at once. And then have your side gang up on that cluster to deliver maximum damage at once.
It’s enjoyable and strategic enough, especially when you also need to deal with enemies getting statistics boosts depending on how physically close they are to your characters in the grid. Radiant Historia is also a challenging enough game that you won’t be able to go through and just assume that you’ll win every battle, but thankfully it keeps the grind to a minimum – indeed, enemies on the map are surprisingly sparse. But I’d be lying if I said it was an inspiring combat system, either. Enemy sprites are outright bland in design, meaning there’s no particular joy in exploring new areas and fighting new monsters. The actual abilities of those enemies tends to be limited too compared with some other JRPGs out there, so beyond the manipulation of the 3×3 grid, the combat lacks the dynamism of more interesting turn based combat systems.
It’s hard to call the combat system a “flaw” as such though, since it gets the job and is clearly secondary to the narrative in terms of what the developers wanted players to focus on. And indeed there’s a difficulty mode that lets you skip most battles entirely. Really the only problem that the game has is in its poor effort to direct players around the map. I appreciate that the game wanted to be just obscure enough with the time travel part so it’ll be a puzzle for players to sort through, but not always being clear on where you need to actually travel next is of a pleasant experience. Games lose nothing for having clearly defined objective markers.
This game is a remaster of an original DS game, which unfortunately I didn’t play. I do know what the new story additions have done for the game though, because they stand out as so separate from the base story. Given how tightly the original narrative was, it’s not surprising that it was difficult to integrate new plot points, but I do feel that people who have come to this game for the new story will be disappointed by how disjointed it is. It is meant to also have some improvements to the gameplay that have apparently improved it compared to the original.
The small gripes I have with the gameplay don’t detract from Radiant Historia’s strengths, though. This is an intense, clever, thoughtful and intellectually challenging JRPG that should remind people that when it comes to this genre, visual presentation and even the gameplay itself aren’t the drawcard. It’s that story that counts, and Radiant Historia manages to achieve something truly remarkable in giving players a time travelling plot that is genuinely interesting and worthwhile.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld