Afterthoughts: Radiant Historia

Radiant Historia is a wonder. It’s like and unlike every JRPG from the SNES/PS1 eras, and just when you think the story and gameplay are growing trite, the game’s dual-universe concept takes over. That’s the only way to describe it: taking over. The game erupts once you realize how you can jump between standard and alternate history, pushing through the main story and chasing sidequests. Whereas this may have been a so-so RPG with a fresh battle system, Radiant Historia will go down as memorable in my mind for the dual-history concept and all the engrossment that arises from it.

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Time forks right from the start, but the split history concept really takes off at about the midway point of game.

When I said RH was familiar, I meant it. From a story standpoint, it’s like every other RPG from the 90s: War, magic, good kings, evil queens, world domination, romantic tension that goes nowhere… you’ve been here before. But where you likely haven’t been is jumping between one version of time and another. Friends in Standard history may not even cross your path in Alternate History; powerful enemies in one timeline may be lackeys in the other; and saving an ally’s life may depend on going back in time or learning a technique in another timeline. It’s both fun and thought-provoking, and there’s also a little philosophical meat to it in terms of fatalism.

If all the time-jumping complicated, it shouldn’t. RH makes temporal travel smooth by giving you a map with two dotted lines for Standard and Alternate history. Click any blue point–past or present–and you’re there. Then you can tweak history, save lives, foil plots, and reclaim lost items. It’s engrossing. It’s compelling. It’s simple. Most of all, it’s what distinguishes RH as one of the better handheld RPGs out there.

The odd thing about Radiant Historia is that even though it immediately introduces the two alternate timelines in the game’s opening scene, the concept doesn’t exactly take off until about 15 hours in. It’s kind of like the Wedding of Cana–you know, the Bible story where the reception runs out of cheap wine, then Jesus miraculously provides an abundance of better booze. With Radiant Historia, just when I thought I’d had my fill, the second half of the game went down like a cold slurp of rejuvenation.

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You start fighting Thaumachines near the end of the game. The trick to beating them? Plant an electric mine and knock the metal titan into it.

Along with the story and quests, the battle system also jacks up the intensity around the midway point of the game. As I discussed in my First Impressions post, RH’s battle system challenges players to knock enemies around a 3-by-3 grid, setting up two-birds-with-one-stone style attacks. In the forty hours I spent with RH, the battle system never went stale, although it was too easy for the longest time. A welcome jump in difficulty comes around the midway point, with tougher baddies and a couple new wrinkles, like shields and power strips. Much as I loved the battle system for it’s freshness, I’d have loved to see it evolve more over the course of the game.

I’m not sure if I’ll have time to write a review of Radiant Historia, so this might be the closest thing to it. If you want a score, how’s 8/10 sound? Great game, brilliant concept… I just would’ve liked to see a more comprehensive battle system and a deeper supporting cast. Other than those gripes, it’s mostly praise for the ages. Both of them.

Playthrough Update: Radiant Historia (DS)

If Radiant Historia were a chick, she’d be the type who ditches the make-up, keeps her conversation smooth, and ends the evening like a lit quarter-stick in the sack. Well, on some nights at least. I’m closing in on the 20-hour mark in Radiant Historia, and my outlook on the game is simple: Cliched storyline, forgettable characters, nifty battle system, brilliant plot concept.

The plot concept is well-executed and largely original. You play as a mercenary named Stocke who jumps between two separate storylines in order to create the true history. For instance, when Stocke runs into an impasse in Storyline A, he can shift to Storyline B in order to learn a new technique or salvage an item that was destroyed or lost in A. From there, he can either return to A with the necessary skill/knowledge/item or continue through B until he hits another wall.

The main quests involves plenty of storyline-hopping, and some crafty sidequests flesh out the concept even more. For example, in one mission I had to grab a widow’s medicine in the present and go back in time to deliver it to her ailing husband. Simple, yet empowering and philosophical

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Though fresh and enjoyable, Radiant Historia’s battles don’t throw enough complications your way.

Though tweaking fate is a blast, the battle system as tapered off since my initial play sessions. On my honeymoon night with the game, I fell hard for the grid-based battle field, as well as the ability to knock enemies around to kill multiple birds with one sword. Unfortunately, the game throws minimal battle complications at you down the stretch. One character, Aht, has the ability to plant mine-like magic spells on empty grid spaces; once the mine is set, you can whack enemies toward it for serious damage. It makes Aht’s character unique, but she’s the only intriguing new ally from a battle perspective. As for enemies, they’ve learned to zap various grid squares as strength and defense pads. If they’re standing on a strength square with they attack, that’s double damage against you, son. And if you hit an enemy while he’s camped on a defense square, your attack comes out Nerfed.

The story and characters are cliched yet likable for the most part. The world is at war, there’s an evil queen, her step-daughter is recruiting rebels, Stocke has to pick a side… You get the picture. What saves the story is the timeline-jumping concept, but at it’s core, the tale is nothing ground-breaking… yet. I have a feeling that once (if?) the storylines intertwine, something mind-bombing will happen.

Now, to be fair, the concept doesn’t always serve the story well. It actually diminishes some of the emotional impact. For instance, when characters die, there is no mourning, just time-traveling to tweak the events for a less lethal outcome.

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Raynie has the best personality of Stocke’s bunch. Unfortunately, she takes a backseat to a prim princess in the story.

As for the characters themselves, it’s a vivid, balanced cast. Stocke is rather stoical on his own, but his chipper companions beat spurts of personality out of him. His rival-friend Rosch, a burly army commander, serves as a compelling foil, especially when he and Stocke debate their roles as soldiers and where their loyalties must lie. My antenna tends to go up when those two enter verbal conflicts together. Just wish I could say the same for any other cast member, particularly the vague, clandestine villains.

At the moment Radiant Historia has the feel of a 7/10 or 8/10 game. At heart it’s an average RPG, but the concept and battle system tick things up a notch. The game feels like it’s beginning to open up in terms of side quests and story complications, so I’m holding out hope that it finishes the way it started.

First Impressions: Radiant Historia (DS)

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “JRPGs are dead. Cremation or burial? It’s your call.” I hear it all the time, so much that the so-called demise of the JRPG genre doesn’t faze me anymore. Yeah, I realize JRPGs are fewer and further between than they were ten years ago, but we still get some instant classics these days. Xenoblade and Valkyria Chronicles were the titans of the PS3/XB360/Wii era (at least in my book), but Radiant Historia is shaping up as a contender all its own.

Radiant Historia is magical in the sense that it’s nostalgic and fresh all at once, right out of the dual-screened gates. Odd as it sounds, I missed playing RPGs without voice acting; nothing beats reading text and letting characters speak in your head. If that didn’t stir the nostalgia pot enough, the game looks like Final Fantasy Tactics and boasts a soundtrack that (so far) rivals those of my favorite PS1 RPGs. I literally wandered around the opening town aimlessly just to hear its theme music. Have a listen below.

As for what’s fresh, RH has a battle system that reminds me of Mega Man Battle Network crossed with Final Fantasy. Your enemies appear on a 3×3 grid and deal more damage as they claim the rightmost spots on the grid. But don’t sweat it: your party members have skills that can throw them backwards (as well as up, down, or even forwards). This is where the fun comes in. If one of your guys pushes an enemy into another enemy’s grid-square, your next attacker can deal damage to both of them. Two birds with one slash.

Scrambling up enemy positioning is a blast, and the game even rewards you with bonus EXP for doing so. Any time a game rewards you for turning straightforward skimishes into puzzles, you’ve got yourself a battle system.

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Mess with the turn order up top. Mess up enemies down below.

I only fought a handful of battles last night, but RH also introduced a “Change” system that that lets your character swap out his or her attack turn for someone else’s–ally or foe. Not only does this enable you to set up your attacks in strategic order (follow a push skill with two attacks), but it also adds to strategy by splitting enemy turns and limiting their chances of comboing your ass.

As for the story, I love where RH is going with its “rewrite history” concept. Early on, the main character Stocke obtains a special book called the White Chronicle, and soon after he has visions of his companions dying. If you’ve played Xenoblade, you should be somewhat familiar with the concept. Anyway, Stocke’s vision comes true and his companions die on the same dirt road he saw in his dream.

Sucks, right?

Not so fast. Once Stocke hits a dead end where the “true” history is no longer attainable, he manifests inside a trippy realm full of staircases and two odd prophet kids. The two reveal that the war will end civilization if this “false” history continues. Next thing you know, Stocke is thrust back into his world, into the same scene where his subordinates died minutes earlier. This time he’s a hero–but there’s a catch: he still possesses the same wounds from his time in the false history…

I’m dying to see where the story goes and how the battle system develops. If you’re interested in rewriting the history books with Stocke, Radiant Historia is currently going for less than $30 on Amazon.

Top 5 Tuesday: Games on Nintendo Handhelds

The next couple of months are going to be huge for handhelds, particularly the 3DS. Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Pokemon X/Y are the obvious headliners, but don’t sleep on Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies or Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate. And on a personal note, I just received the Radiant Historia (supposedly one of the best handheld RPGs ever) in the mail.

Needless to say, there may be some shakeup among my top favorite handheld games. Before the storm hits, I thought I’d churn out a top five list of my favorite games on Nintendo handhelds. The list’s only requirement is that the games had to originate on a handheld (otherwise the list would reek of SNES ports). The top 3 were easy picks, but any number of games could’ve snagged #4 or #5.

Honorable mentions: Metroid: Zero Mission, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Castlevania: Order of Eccelesia, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Mega Man Battle Network, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.

5. Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow

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Professor Oak’s Lab: Where life’s biggest decision goes down.

Why it made the list:

It was a tough call, but I gave Pokemon the nod over Metroid: Zero Mission and Mario Land 2. The fact is, Pokemon was a colossal part of my childhood, not to mention the first RPG I ever played. And while its story and characters pale in comparison to those of most RPGs, the quest is a total joyride. 151 party members, eight gyms, and all kinds of elemental weaknesses made the game perfect for multiple playthroughs. Then there were the Missingno glitches, surviving the Elite 4, farming Rare Candy, mashing A until you could afford Porygon, cloning Pokemon via link cable, battling friends at recess, tapping B at the right time to catch Mewtwo in a Great Ball, accidentally using a Master Ball on a stupidass Voltorb… the memories go on and on.

Best Part:

That big decision at the beginning. Squirtle, Bulbasaur, or Charmander–who ya got?

4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

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You say there’s a better case than 1-4? OBJECTION!

Why it made the list:

There’s honestly not a funnier game out there that I’ve played. The cases may be completely ludicrous at times, but the all five of them offer compelling plotlines, nifty courtroom logic, and some of the best characters in all of gaming. Edgeworth’s character development is downright brilliant, Phoenix manages to be a noble truth-seeker without descending into goodie-goodie territory, and the villains and countless supporting characters (Dick Gumshoe, Larry Butz, Wendy Oldbag, the list goes on) complete one of the most lively casts in gaming.

Best Part:

Case four. Without question the best case in the series. After Phoenix and Edgeworth duel out cases 1-2 and 1-3 in the courtroom, the tables turn on Edgeworth. He finds himself facing the the very thing he spent his entire career dishing out: a guilty verdict. I won’t spoil anything. Just play it.

3. Fire Emblem

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Fire Emblem’s title screen. I’ve come to associate it with character deaths, botched strategies, and soft resets.

Why it made the list:

What makes Fire Emblem amazing is that it’s so easy and hard to play. I don’t think there’s another strategy-RPG out there that can be so welcoming and so vicious all at once. FE operates with a simple, accessible system where two squads take turns moving characters across a grid and attacking. Even the battle system is just rock-paper-scissors with swords, axes, and lances. So how can a game built on such simple gameplay be so challenging? Because death means death to the characters of Fire Emblem. For real. There are no Phoenix Downs or Life Bottles or resurrection spells. If a character’s HP hits zero, you hit the reset button if you want him back.

FE’s take on mortality takes strategy to its peak. Whereas a lot of strategy-RPGs offer mildly strategic battles, FE’s death system forces players to treat every battle like a grand-scale puzzle. It’s not simply about executing a plan; rather, FE demands you make dozens upon dozens of correct moves–with minimal room for error. If your paladin’s wounded and surrounded by enemies, can you really afford to send your weakass cleric into that frey to heal him? Do you dare to send your axe-wielding lord into battle against the lance-wielding boss when there are swordsmen all around him? Those are the decisions that make Fire Emblem so compelling.

Best Part:

Nothing beats learning the ins and outs in Lyn’s ten-chapter-long prologue, then seeing just how damn serious the game is in Eliwood’s main story. The game is a love note to the masochist in all of us.

2. Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX

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Nintendo: Enacting capital punishment on shoplifters since 1993.

Why it made the list:

It’s the best 2D Zelda in my book. Take Link to the Past, toss out the annoying light/dark world hopping, and behold the masterpiece that stomped every other handheld game of its time.

Link’s Awakening is bigger than the Game Boy deserved, and the deluxe edition added another dungeon on top of it. The game itself is dark, conveying a grim, lonely atmosphere that begins with Link trekking down to the southern tip of the island for his sword. From there, it’s a journey through eight phenomenal dungeons that bestow bangin’ weapons like Roc’s Feather, the Hookshot, the Pegasus Boots, and the Flame Rod.

What really made Link’s Awakening a standout title for me was the fact that it took me four years and two playthroughs to complete. The eighth dungeon, Turtle Rock, had one bombable wall that escaped me until I discovered GameFAQs.com as a teenager. I took one look at a map and smacked myself so hard across the forehead that I was concussed for days. Four years and it was staring me right in the face.

Best Part:

Stealing from the shop. Pick up the overpriced bow, walk around in a circle, carry it out the door, and it’s yours. The catch? You get branded as THIEF and you learn a pretty stiff morality lesson the next time you enter the shop.

Also, I love Dungeon #6: The Face Shrine. The dark atmosphere and music rock, and there’s something special about throwing around coffins with the Level-2 Power Bracelet.

1. Fire Emblem: Awakening

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Henry has the right attitude for a game this brutal.

Why it made the list:

Because sequels are never supposed to be this good.

I bought a 3DS to play Fire Emblem: Awakening, but I never expected it to be anything more than another great game in the series. What I got was chess on crack, a thinking man’s masterpiece, a masochist’s delight. Over the course of one playthrough spanning 140 hours, I watched the series take its brilliant strategy formula to the next echelon with support pairings, double-teams, and a truly addictive breeding system. Throw in some stellar battle design, crisp visuals, over two-dozen side missions, and an army of characters with vibrant personalities and hilariously memorable battle quotes, and you’ve got yourself the best thing on a three-inch screen.

Best Part:

Nearly every level in the game. It’s that good.

If you need a specific answer, I’ll say Chapter 17: Inexorable Death. It’s the level taking place at the castle with two entrances. You end up sending two teams through, and if they make it (big “if”), you have to worry about blocking a dozen staircases so enemies can’t respawn. It must’ve taken me twenty tries to get my strategy right–and even then, I got lucky when my whole crew survived the battle. If I remember correctly, it’s the first chapter that really throws Valkyries (mages on horseback) at you. They’re a nightmare since you can’t attack them without getting counterattacked. Plus, their only weakness is physical weapons, and it just so happens that most of your weapon-wielders are weak against magic. Yikes.

Also, I loved Chapter 14: Flames on the Blue. It’s the level with the three ships where your squad is stuck fending off enemies who try to cross planks onto your ship. Makes for some great lane-clogging battles and panicky moments once the Pegasus knights arrive by air.