Another hard to find DS game, this was a sleeping hit and was widely reviewed as one of the best RPGs for the handheld console market. I’m also quite a huge fan of Atlas games, having previously played Luminous Arc, Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei. Atlas has a wonderful reputation for publishing a variety of interesting RPGs, and although Radiant Historia is less well known than the Shin Megami series, it really is a shining gemstone in the sea of otherwise mediocre and badly translated J-RPGs.
Radiant Historia is a time-travelling RPG game which utilises the ability to travel between multiple timelines in order to find the one best path which will aid you in your quest to bring peace to a warring continent. You play as Stocke, an infiltrator working for the nation of Alistel which is at war with Granorg. After a failed mission, you awaken to two mysterious cherub-looking creatures who give you an ancient tome called the White Historia, which grants you the power to explore alternate timelines. From there, the story proceeds with many twists and turns, as well as lots of choices to make which create new timelines. At any point, you can travel between timelines to explore what the other choices would have led to: some may reveal important information or aid you in the ‘true’ timeline, whilst others may just be quirky dead ends. You’d be forgiven for being reminded of Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross, but Radiant Historia takes full advantage of the time travelling mechanic to allow you to travel freely between the past and future, and offers you many more choices which branch out into even further branches. Plus, there are several parallel endings which depend heavily on which choices you made. It is this mechanic which really makes the game shine above other RPGs, because the ability to live out what happens in parallel timelines really enriches the story of the game. For example, early on, you arrive at a blocked mine shaft and discover that the delivery man with explosives did not arrive. By travelling back in time, you can figure out what happened to the delivery man and prevent his misfortune, which then allows him to finish his journey to the mine and unblock the shaft, thus creating a way to progress on your quest.
But time travelling isn’t just a shallow way of padding out the story or a cheap way of resolving roadblocks. You soon discover how big of an impact one simple choice can make. For example, there are alternate timelines where you, as Stocke, have entirely different jobs within the Alistel army; naturally, this completely changes what kind of quests you embark on and your whole outlook on the war by giving you a different perspective on the different factions. Furthermore, it’s not always very obvious what timelines you need to live through to figure out how to proceed, because minor events which may seem insignificant at the time, can have some major consequences. The game is mindboggling clever, but luckily, the characters in the game provide a lot of help and hints. The White Historia itself is also very nicely laid out in a series of nodes and lines; the nodes correspond to certain events, and all of them can be travelled to. If you’re worried about nodes making it too easy to find the solutions to puzzles, never fear, for there are literally hundreds of nodes, and not all of them significant. All in all, the time travelling mechanic in the game is solid, very well thought out and adds a lot of depth to the story.
The story is an epic tale of warring factions, attempted assassinations and royal stowaways. It isn’t high fantasy particularly, there aren’t exactly fairies or elves, but there are magical rituals and some ancient supernatural powers. For the most part, the story is one concerned about politics and conflicting interests, and the fantasy elements are rather subdued in favour of a complex and realistic world. Think more Game of Thrones rather than Lord of the Rings. Plus, whilst the main story is often tense and serious, there are lots of side-quests which all contribute in some way to the ending you get. Helping out a villager with a small problem might later result in him helping you in a major battle. The main characters are also fairly creative, but they’re mostly what you’d expect from an J-RPG. There’s Stocke, the young Alistel intelligence officer who comes off as aloof and distant but has a heart of gold. You have a party consisting of ex-mercenaries and soldiers. Through the story, you encounter Princess Eruca, a beautiful young girl who is on the run from her dangerous tyrannical stepmother. Most of the story revolves around keeping Eruca safe, whilst also resolving the kingdom’s conflicts with the royal forces and the huge armies. A lot of this might sound very clichéd but in Radiant Historia, it is presented in an original and refreshing way. All the characters undergo genuine character development throughout the story, and because of the alternate timeline mechanic, you can see how different characters react to certain events.
The other main mechanic besides time travelling and exploration through the kingdom, is the combat system. Engaging in combat is optional, as you see enemies on the field and can choose to avoid them or to fight them. If you do fight them, combat is turn-based and set on a 3×3 grid, where each unit occupies on square. Different characters utilise different ways of attacking: some are melee and can only attack in the square directly in front of you, whilst others have longer ranged attacks. Also, the turn-based system is rather flexible, allowing your team to swap the order of their attack, at the cost of not being able to move. The combat mechanics are tight and compelling, with just the right amount of strategy. You can set up combos, you can flank enemies and this keeps the combat fresh every time. I know a lot of people hate turn-based combat systems in RPGs, but this isn’t a game where you can just spam attack over and over and defeat every mob. There is definitely an intellectual aspect to it, and planning out combos is the only way to defeat most enemies.
So, as well as an excellent story, really interesting and cool time travelling mechanic and a solid battle system, the game also boasts a beautiful sprite-based design with gorgeous colour pencil portraits. It’s not the most advanced artwork I’ve ever seen on the DS, but it is simplistically beautiful and reminds me of old-school RPGs in its aesthetic. The settings range from ominous, blue glowing caves to vast dusty deserts, and the range in settings really show off the fantastic background art. Plus, the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and composed by the same person who also did the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack.
If you’re looking for an interesting, slightly old-school but very clever and compelling RPG, then Radiant Historia might be exactly what you’re looking for. The story is like nothing I’ve ever seen in a video game, and it captured my attention the whole time. I was constantly making use of the time travelling stuff to get the most out of the story, even exploring the tiny little subplots and dead-end timelines just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This makes the game very long and I easily put in at least 60 hours into it, which is astounding for a DS game. The world is very well developed, and all of it, despite its fantasy twist, seems very realistic. The characters, whilst they may seem initially generic, actually develop into deep and remarkable characters in their own right. Overall, the game is highly polished and it’s an absolute masterpiece in terms of RPGs for the DS. If you’re a fan of the genre, then I highly recommend this game because it manages to retain a lot of old school charm whilst flawlessly integrating some seriously unique mechanics which enrich the gaming experience.