Chrono Trigger's Spiritual Successor?
HIGH Figuring out how to change a timeline in order to save one of your allies from permanent death.
LOW Skipping through the same story scenes for the fifth time.
WTF The main character was originally supposed to be a sword...thank God they changed that.
Fans of Chrono Trigger, rejoice! At long last there's another deep and engaging Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) that makes use of time travel. Radiant Historia, brought to us by the fine folks at Atlus, may be the most perfect spiritual successor to Square's classic game—yes, even moreso than Chrono Cross. Only a few niggling flaws keep it from being classic—but the end result is still one very good role playing experience.
Players take control of Stocke, a refreshing twist on the standard JRPG hero. Stocke isn't some lowly villager tasked with saving the world after his village burns to the ground or some other hoary cliché—instead, he's a highly skilled spy working for an outfit known as Special Intelligence. Stocke's city is at war with a rival empire, which is bad enough, but there's also a strange plague sweeping the land, one that turns people into pillars of sand. When our hero discovers a book known as The White Chronicle, he gains the power to jump through time—and Radiant Historia opens up into a game where players traverse two distinctly different, yet totally related, narratives in order to reach the best possible ending.
It's inevitable that Radiant Historia will be compared to Square's masterpiece if only because both games make healthy use of the concept of time travel. However, Historia ups the ante with the time-hopping storyline in a major way over its inspiration. Rather than simply travel to other timelines as part of the narrative, Radiant Historia allows players to move along the various events at will—and the decisions made in each area often have consequences (both obvious and unforeseen) on the future. Where Chrono Trigger's time travel was cool but rather linearly implemented, Radiant Historia works hard to create the illusion that the Stocke (and by extension, the player) has genuine control over all of the unfolding events. It's a clever trick, because ultimately there's generally only one real path through any portion of the game, but since Historia loves to show players the outcomes of their decisions (even the negative ones), gamers quickly become convinced that they're controlling everything. The immersion factor is quite impressive.
Once the player gets through the lengthy (and somewhat uninteresting) opening, things take off. Stocke moves along timelines at will, advancing the narrative until he reaches an event that stymies forward progress. It's at these moments that he must use the White Chronicle to jump to the other timeline and change some event so that the first can move forward again. What sounds (and is...) simple in the early going becomes much more complicated as the game progresses through its 200+ events. It is apparently possible to see everything in Radiant Historia's narrative in a single playthrough, but expect to spend a huge chunk of time doing it all.
While the time travel component is the game's main focus, it's worth noting that Historia also features a great deal of combat. Atlus has crafted an innovative battle system to handle the game's encounters— albeit one that doesn't always satisfy. When Stocke and crew encounter an enemy (seen on the screen, a la Chrono Trigger), the screen switches. Battles are waged on a 3x3 grid wherein Stocke and his team are often greatly outnumbered. Rather than engage in traditional turn-based combat (which would have been my preference...), Stocke and his party members have skills that allow them to "push" enemies around the board. Maneuvering enemies into clusters becomes vitally important in large scale battles as it allows the team to dole out damage to the entire group instead of just individuals. Adding one more layer of strategy is the ability to skip turns or swap positions in the turn timeline with enemies or allies. This is crucial to setting up chains where one or two players move the enemies into a group and the third unleashes an epic attack. The problem is, early on, it never feels like players have enough of the various push attacks at their disposal. Because of this some of the battles take a lot longer than they should. The other problem is that if the player targets an enemy with all three of his characters, but the first one kills it, the two other characters don't switch to the next target. Players can see the enemy health bars when targeting them, and you could argue that it adds a strategic element to the combat, but I found it made most fights take longer than they needed to.
Aesthetically, the game is gorgeous. The 2D character portraits are nicely done and the in-game graphics are largely pleasing. A few characters look a little odd, but all in all this is one of the nicer looking 2D Nintendo DS titles. The soundtrack, courtesy of Yoko Shimomura is excellent. Not every track is a hit (but neither was every track in Chrono Trigger) but many of the tunes are pleasing to the ear and players will be humming them for weeks after they've finished the game.
Radiant Historia is not Chrono Trigger 2, but it's not for a lack of trying. Atlus deserves kudos for crafting such an elaborately plotted tale (seriously, the time travel is well implemented and there aren't any major moments of "why would this still happen if they changed the timeline here?" that turn up in so many films and books with time travel as a plot device) and only a few minor missteps in the combat and gameplay keep it from being a new classic. While JRPGs continue to flounder on the home consoles, games like this one prove that the genre is alive and well on handhelds. Grab a copy of Radiant Historia now before it vanishes from store shelves and becomes a highly sought-after collector's item. You won't regret it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 15 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 0 times) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains fantasy violence, language, and use of alcohol. Content-wise, there aren't many reasons to keep your kids from playing Radiant Historia. Yes, there are taverns and an occasional swear word turns up, but other than that, it's fairly innocent. The real reason to keep this away from kids under the age of 10 is because it's a very text-heavy game that requires a fair amount of reading. Trying to solve issues on two timelines can be challenging even for older gamers and young kids will almost assuredly become frustrated and give up early.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Radiant Historia's tale is told entirely through text. Therefore, hearing impaired gamers can fully partake in the title's experience content in the knowledge that they're not missing any of the game's narrative nuances. They will, however, be missing out on the game's excellent musical score.