Radiant Historia gets so, so close to being a bona fide classic. For three quarters of its length, it was my favorite genre-piece since Demon’s Souls. After that, it segued into its (shockingly) boring, generic final act. The biggest surprise of 2011 became the biggest headscratcher.
Radiant Historia is a classically styled jRPG with a time travel mechanic at its core. The player guides the protagonist through two different timelines, with the ability to travel to the past or present of either of them at will, maybe to fix a mistake, or to ensure that a certain event occurs. Time travel is at the very core of the game’s design. It drives, and explains, so much of what goes on. For example, while the hero can travel between the timelines, he can’t travel into the future (at least, not any future he has yet to experience). Furthermore, the Time Children who grant him his power are not allowed to feed him information that would alter his decisions. This provides a neat explanation for why the grand secrets and plot twists are secret in the first place. The time travel mechanic also gives the perfect setup for sidequests. You might open one at one point in time, but discover the solution is located elsewhere. It gives you a reason to bounce around the timelines, and even an excuse for talking to every NPC (since the progression of time is marked, they frequently have new things to talk about).
Most importantly, it allows the story to take on multiple scopes all at once. The characters, settings, and conflicts which make up the game are all well worn cliches, but the way in which they interact is tremendous. At the highest level, the story is technically about saving the world. But as mentioned, the hero doesn’t know the cause, the culprit, or the solution to this dilemma. For practical purposes, his task isn’t really to save the world, but to live his life in such a way that his actions will lead to salvation. So the meat of the game focuses on his role as a soldier and intelligence officer, serving a kingdom at war. Any one decision could tip the scales in favor of either side, and so many of the game’s events revolve around characters adjusting battle plans and using politics to try to get an advantage, while the hero has to ensure that the war doesn’t end too quickly or too late. From this perspective, the story has a surprising amount of intrigue; after a number of game overs and bad decisions, you come to realize that the conflict is balanced on the edge of a knife.
The opening setting is a city reminiscent of the Empire from Final Fantasy 6.
There is yet one more, even smaller narrative scope. As a soldier, the hero and his mates are very much grunts. Their daily routine is to participate in battles and carry out dangerous undercover ops. This isn’t a game in which the war is just a backdrop for the party’s isolated (and far more important) goals. Rather, they are small cogs in the machine, their lives of little overall importance to the people world (though important to its fate). The danger of their missions, and the decisions they are forced to make along the way, bring out the best and the worst in each character, in turn allowing them to express their personalities in real, genuine ways. A sharp script and excellent translation make Radiant Historia an enjoyable jRPG to read. The conversations don’t tend to mince words, so even the longest chats are packed with information and useful interaction. Better still, the characters are shockingly logical. There are no snotty teens around who endanger the safety of the group through rash decisions. If a plan is stupid, it won’t be used, and if anyone disagrees, their dissent is shut down quickly. This is a game in which (mostly) grownups deal with serious topics, and it is more than welcome in a genre overwhelmed by juvenile ideals.
Radiant Historia’s combat is a hodgepodge of ideas from many other games. The best way to describe it is to state that it gives you multiple options to help defeat enemies swiftly and efficiently, and that the enemies themselves react in simple ways which force you to reformulate you plans. It is a system in which each battle is important, and no enemy mob can be beaten with a single strategy with guaranteed success. Levels also scale in such a way that grinding is unnecessary from start to finish. Combat manages to avoid many of the most obvious, illogical pitfalls of the genre. (Before we move on, I would be remiss in not mentioning how most of the game’s equipment only offers bonuses to a handful of stats, making weapon and armor selection a matter of deciding which tradeoffs you’re most comfortable with. Only rarely do you encounter something which provides nothing but upgrades.)
Putting this all together, you wind up with 25 hours of smart, sharp gaming. How, then, does it fall apart? The kicker is that the endgame doesn’t feel rushed. It simply feels generic. Out of nowhere, the game has you entering uninspired dungeons with hidden treasures and end bosses, something which the rest of the game avoided entirely. It also begins to test the player’s patience. As the game winds down, the politics and military engagements vanish, and the Big Bad is revealed. At this point, it becomes like any other jRPG, with the party chasing their target in order to put an end to their plan. At this point, the plot twists are a matter of great importance, but are kept still hidden not because they could destroy the time-space continuum, but because certain characters simply decide to toy with you. This is not just frustrating, but is stereotypically so, and it saps away most of the motivation for pressing on.
It kind of looks like an early PS1 game, but the battles are quite engaging.
The game also dulls mechanically. Combat becomes a joke, due mostly to a certain character, whose tier-2 elemental traps become ridiculously powerful. Time travel is made into a slog. All throughout the game, you can only travel to key checkpoints along each timeline. Early on, they appear frequently, and you can jump right directly to the time and place that a sidequest is taking place in. By the end, checkpoints are too far spread out, and you are forced to make long trips, and replay battles, just to hand over an item to somebody. All in all, Radiant Historia runs out of gas, and it resorts to bad genre habits and trickery to eke out an extra eight or so hours of play time.
I struggled to think of an obvious cause for the game’s shift in quality, until a few outside opinions nudged me in the right direction. Part of the problem is a lack of budget. There are obvious signs from the very start, but they only start to become bothersome at the end. The same spider sprite, for example, gets used in multiple boss battles, and a major villain does not even take part in a showdown because the developers couldn’t draw him a custom sprite. And after enough times running through each environment, it was inevitable that I learned to navigate them with my eyes closed (or literally, with my eyes on the television).
But I think there is one more issue at stake here. Even at 35 hours, Radiant Historia is simply too long. It stretches the story out far after it has run out of ideas, and forces the designers to recycle art assets one too many times. You can trick players with a bit of sprite reuse, but sooner or later it becomes blatant and obvious. Why they insisted on pushing this far is beyond me, but the only people who will benefit from it are those who judge an RPG on its length, and who are particularly immune to lazy anime-eqsue storytelling.
I don’t think the bad parts of Radiant Historia outweigh the good, but I do think they keep it from being a classic. If you’re at all interested in seeing what this genre is still capable of achieving, you need to play this. Just don’t expect it to last all the way to the finish line.