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.

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Final Fantasy spinoff Bravely Default scores US release date

If you’re craving an RPG that looks like Final Fantasy IX and plays like Final Fantasy V, then grab your 2014 calendar and circle February 7th. Bravely Default, a spiritual sequel to 2010’s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, seeks to revive the days of crystal hunting and turn-based battling on the 3DS.

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Save up enough Brave Points and you can spray enemies with arrows.

Though I tend to be skeptical about gorgeous Square Enix games these days, Bravely Default won a lot of critical praise at the time of its Japanese release last year. The game’s battle system echoes that of classic RPGs: attack, magic, and building characters through a job system. However, it’s 2013–we need a twist, don’t we? Well, pay attention: Every action consumes a certain amount of “Brave Points,” which can be hoarded for the sake of combo barrages. How you manage your consumption of Brave Points determines the flow and success of battles, and you can even get excessive and final your point tally in the negatives. Check the second-half of the video below for some battle footage:

Bravely Default erupted over Japan’s sales charts last year, selling 140,000 copies in its first week. Our Asian friends are getting an updated version of the game on December 5th, which offers some gameplay tweaks and a significant cut-down on game length (a dip from fifty to thirty hours). In true class-RPG tradition, us English-speaking folk will receive this “easier” edition when the game hits the West in December (Europe/Australia) and February (US).

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.

Top 5 Tuesday: Square Enix RPGs (Post-Merger)

Last week Square Enix teased us with the first gameplay trailer for Kingdom Hearts III as well as some new footage from the third and supposedly final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, Lightning Returns. I’m not exactly counting the days till both releases, but at least neither is a HD remake or cell phone port. Bravo, Square.

Square’s sudden relevance left me pondering whether or not I could do a Top 5 Tuesday based solely on RPGs released AFTER Squaresoft and Enix’s merger in 2003. Let me put it this way: We barely dodged our first ever Top 4 Tuesday. I’m not crazy about today’s #5. I probably should play The World Ends With You so I can revise this list. Until then…

5. Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)

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KHII gave us what we wanted in the original: a Final Fantasy ally.

I shouldn’t have to go into detail on this one. It’s essentially a copy-paste job of the original with new levels and a couple new moves (most notably the Parry move that Square borrowed from Zelda: The Wind Waker). Though admittedly fun, nothing about KHII struck me as fresh or groundbreaking.

As for highlights: teaming up with Auron and Jack Sparrow. Lowlights: that dreadful Little Mermaid musical level.

4. Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

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It’s hard to focus on the storyline once the gang starts focusing on Cocoon.

I actually thought FF13 was a step in the right direction, and, no, this isn’t a lead-in to a “Hallway Fantasy” joke. Sure, the game is linear, but at least it steered the series away from the direction FF12 sent it in.

FF13 returned the series to traditional Active-Time Battles while throwing in the twists of paradigm shifts. Much like how FFX enabled swapping out party members mid-battle to exploit enemy weaknesses, FF13 let players switch the party’s character classes on the fly. Dealing with a tough boss? Start with a Sabatuer/Synergist/Medic group to weaken the enemy and bolster your guys. Then swap for Ravager/Commando/Ravager to rip into the beast. All at once, it played nothing like FF12 and tweaked the classic formula of hitting Attack Attack Attack and mixing in the occasional spell.

The battle system was good enough to keep me going, even when the storyline collapsed toward the end. I actually liked Lightning, Sazh, and Snow until maybe the midway point. The first half of the game was much more personal on a character-to-character level. Then everything veered off into protecting Cocoon, saving the world, and other trite developments.

3. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)

Underrated masterpiece alert! For whatever reason, nobody cares about Valkyrie Profile 2. Even fans of the original don’t give a shit. VP2 faded into obscurity almost from the moment it released. Total shame.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with the series, the Valkyrie Profile games put you in the role of a Valkyrie who traverses a conflict-ravaged earth in search of wayward souls to send to Valhalla. What’s cool is you can hang onto some of these souls and keep them as party members, or you can ship them off to the god Odin for bonuses.

What distinguishes VP from other J-RPGs is sidescrolling dungeons and towns (why the hell don’t other RPGs do this?) and a unique battle system that assigns each character to one of the four face buttons. In other words, tap X and your X-character will attack; immediately after, you can follow up with your Circle, Square, and Triangle-characters. It makes for some wild timing combos, and if you nail the right chemistry you can set up for some massive special attacks. As an upgrade from the original (at least in my opinion), VP2 put the battles on a full 3D plain where your 4-man party could dash around ganging up enemies one-by-one. Throw in a phenomenal fight theme, some challenging bosses, and a wild villain, and you’ve got yourself the most underrated Square game of the past decade.

2. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (PS2)

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Battles may look chaotic and mindless, but SO3’s combat requires timing and patience.

I have a bad habit of thinking of Star Ocean 3 as the poor man’s Tales of Symphonia. They’re both stellar RPGs that I happened to buy on the same day; they both have enthralling battle systems; and both have decent storylines and a couple awesome characters. The difference is that Tales has more charm and polish than SO3. Other than that, they’re neck-and-neck.

Star Ocean 3 is a mammoth. Reaching the credits screen ran me around 70 hours, and while the storyline wasn’t Xenogears, it had a few compelling sci-fi spurts. I even liked this one particular late-game plot twist that appalled most fans. Hey, one man’s plot-breaker is another man’s compulsion to keep playing.

The draw with SO3 is its battle system, which is action-oriented without being button-mashy. Thanks to a stamina bar known as the Fury gauge, you can only use your light and heavy attacks so many times before the gauge has to replenish. Run out of Fury and you’re left punchless and vulnerable. Manage it properly and you can destroy enemy shields with heavy smashes or link up combos based on distance from the enemy and strength of the attack. Like Tales of Symphonia, SO3 thrives off fun battles. If only the game had been edited a little better for length…

1. Nier (PS3)

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Masterpiece or mess? It boils down to personal taste.

Nier is the best mediocre game I’ve ever played. If that sounds like an odd compliment, understand that Nier is an odd game. It starts with bizarre winter scene between a father and daughter who are hunted down by otherworldly geometric creatures called Shades. Without spoiling, I’ll say that Nier has a touching and thought-provoking story that explores themes of humanity, mortality, sacrifice, family love, and the afterlife. If you appreciate a good mindblow, hang around for the game’s closing sequences. I can promise you your brain will pop like a pricked balloon by the time it’s over.

While Nier’s story is surreal, original, and enthralling, the rest of the game’s components are a mixed bag. The soundtrack and atmosphere are among best of any RPG, while gameplay and combat go lukewarm at times. The combat is fun but not challenging enough: Think Kingdom Hearts with the gimmick of a magical tome that can unleash a variety of spells and abilities. Unfortunately, though, the game’s straightforward enemies and bosses rarely warrant breaking out those spells.

But trust me on this one: don’t take Nier as a sum of its parts. Enjoy it for the experience, which happens to be the best one Square Enix has offered since its inception.

Mass Effect (PS3) Review: 6/10

This weekend I managed to distill all my mixed, twisted feelings on the original Mass Effect into one neat summation. If you’re not into lengthy reading, my closing thoughts on Mass Effect are below. Click Here to go to GameFAQs for the full-length review.

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As conflicted as I’ve felt about a game in ages.

Mass Effect is not a landmark game. Not in the history of gaming, nor in recent memory. While the writers have cooked up a compelling universe and a worthy storyline, the game as a whole is sloppy, uneven, and ultimately average. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a trainwreck, I can’t recommend it as anything more than a decent game set in a unique and enthralling sci-fi world. The watered-down combat, trippy frame rate, underdeveloped characters, and dreadful sidequests all hold this one back. If you must play the entire trilogy, then give Mass Effect a go; otherwise, skip straight to its sequels.

+ Intriguing storyline
+ Brilliantly designed sci-fi universe with alien races, political systems, etc.
+ Dialogue system that enables freedom to construct your own story
+ Solid voice acting

– Rickety frame rate
– Watered-down combat
– Shaky ally A.I.
– Supporting cast members have muddled identities
– Uninspiring side missions

Top 5 Tuesday: Game Music To Write To

Writing is a complex, lonely, and often drawn-out process. To my knowledge, the best way to cope with the lengthy demands and isolation is to listen to video game soundtracks. Whether it’s blitzy battle themes or atmospheric town chimes, game OSTs have a ton to offer us keyboard monkeys. And without the distraction of lyrics and singing.

Compiling a Top 5 list of my favorite writing songs was brutal. There’s at least thirty that could’ve made the list, and honorable mentions could warrant a post of their own. “Bombing Mission” from FFVII, “Dancing Mad” from FFVI, and “Premonition” from FFVIII are three snubs from the Final Fantasy series alone. Then there’s Nier, Castlevania, Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile… gah, let’s just get to the list before I unveil Top 30 Tuesday.

5. “Maiden Astraea” (Demon’s Souls)

Dark. Chilling. Immersive. I’m not a fan of Demon’s Souls (challenges are great; challenges involving clunky, technical controls aren’t), but this Maiden Astraea theme is enthralling. It has all the chills you’d expect from horror music, but what makes it so writing-conducive is the layered sound and it’s strong, even pacing.

4. “Fight!” (Grandia II)

I have yet to play Grandia II, but it has quite possibly the most electric RPG battle theme around. The guitar soloing is clean and uplifting, while the rhythm parts never stop punching. Great if you’ve hit writer’s block or need a boost.

3. “Someday the Dream Will End” (Final Fantasy X)

Roughly 4,537 Final Fantasy tracks could’ve made this list. Nobuo Uematsu is the kind of guy you slap the “genius” tag on, and “Someday the Dream Will End” is a masterpiece, especially when you need to grind out a lengthy article, essay, or story. The track has a light, compelling flow that pours into what becomes an epic track. Enjoy the two-hour version next time you camp out at the keyboard.

2. Trisection (Final Fantasy Tactics)

It makes sense that Tactics’ music goes perfectly with the writing process; after all, the game’s story battles can last upwards of 30 minutes. If you’re bunkering down for a blog post, what better to listen to than a musical piece that accompanies thought provoking combat? “Trisection” is my favorite of the FFT bunch, thanks to its silky sound, smooth pacing, and striking crescendo. Also check out “Back Fire” and “Unavoidable Battle.”

1. “Mechanical Rhythm” / “You Will Know Our Names” (Xenoblade Chronicles)

There’s a tie for #1, and they both happen to be from Xenoblade’s epic metal soundtrack. Xenoblade has some of the best battle music around, but the reason why these two tracks topped the list is because they’re my go-to cure for burnout. “Mechanical Rhythm” puts me in a keyboard-clicking rhythm from the second I push Play, and “You Will Know Our Names” has enough pop, sizzle, and energy to throw me out of any funk. If you can’t afford a ludicrously-priced copy of Xenoblade, at least check out the OST.

Now do me a favor. Post some of your favorite gaming tracks. I’m always open to letting great instrumentals carry me through my writing.

The (Over)abundance of Console First-Person Shooters

If you played a console FPS in the late 90s, without a doubt it was Goldeneye. You wrapped your left hand around the N64 controller’s gun-like underside and steered Jimmy Bond through grainy corridors, wonky escort missions, and unprecedented multiplayer madness. Once your friends left you and the credits fell on the main game, you went through the single-player mode again on 007 Agent difficulty.

You had to. Xbox Live wasn’t invented yet.

There’s been a massive production shift since the N64/PS1 era, back when platformers like Mario 64 and RPGs like Final Fantasy VII revolutionized 3D gameplay and story presentation, respectively. Both landmark games gave rise to platformers and RPGs that would dominate the industry. The boom lasted through the late-90s, but around the early 2000s platformers and RPGs took a bow and walked off, leaving FPSs in the spotlight ever since.

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In the 90s, this was the only console FPS you needed. Now you need truckloads of them.

Last week I interacted with GameFAQs users and batted around some ideas on how console FPSs came into prevalence in the past decade. I cited some developments that lead to the outpouring: online multiplayer, the American-made Xbox aimed at American tastes, and the notoriety of violent games. Different users argued or agreed with me; some educated me on the history of the genre; and others dumped their own ideas into the pot. We stirred the topic around for a few days, and here’s what I drew from it:

1) Xbox had almost everything to do with the console FPS boom. Halo 1 set the new standard for console FPSs, then Halo 2 set the standard for online play. Whereas most console FPSs at the time were ported from PC, Bungie focused on designing Halo 1 and 2 for consoles and gave the genre a new identity.

From there, companies took note of the genre’s potential and pumped out their own FPSs. With the help of a multiplayer mode similar to Counter-Strike: Source, Call of Duty swiped the crown from Halo in 2007. Other companies were compelled to follow with their own military-style FPSs.

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Clunky? Oversized? Unsexy? Sure. But the original Xbox’s controller change the FPS market forever.

The aforementioned are obvious landmarks, but what gets overlooked is the Xbox controller’s impact on the rise of the genre. Whereas Dreamcast only had one analog stick and early PS2-game developers underutilized the Dual Shock’s twin sticks, Xbox launched with a controller that could accommodate FPS controls and a killer-app in Halo that could spearhead the genre. Numerous FPSs that followed adopted Halo’s control scheme. With the groundwork laid, it was just a matter of Halo 2 taking advantage of Microsoft’s robust online services. FPSs catapulted into the mainstream.

2) As games became more cinematic, Hollywood action (which involves plenty of gunplay) seeped more and more into games. The FPS genre became preferred among Americans and Europeans, while remaining irrelevant in Japan.

As graphics became more realistic, American audiences continued to crave realism. While many RPGs (Tales of…, etc.), platformers (Mario, etc.), and other genres stuck to their animated/cel-shaded/cartoon-inspired art styles, FPS developers pushed realism that attracted American gamers.

3) While online play was not limited to FPSs, it benefited the FPS genre moreso than others (Fighting, Racing, etc.) in terms of sales and popularity. The competitive aspects of FPS multiplayer coupled with the accessibility of the controls enabled the genre to reach casual audience.

4) Many FPSs run off the same game engine and mechanics, making them easier and cheaper for developers to produce over and over. Add new maps, a new story, some tweaked weapons, updated graphics, and voila.

These are rough ideas outlining the rise of the FPS genre. For now I’m still trying to nail a thesis down for my eventual article based on this info. What I do know now is that the boom’s history isn’t as important as the reasoning behind it. The Xbox controller and Halo’s control scheme set a standard that transformed a PC genre into a console one. I begs the question–are we a controller away from console Real-Time Strategy games becoming mainstream? The Wii-U’s touch screen controller seems like a start, but the idea of managing RTS gameplay on two screens could become taxing, if not disorienting.

Despite the rise in FPS game production, a few users argued with me, saying that the term “overabundance” was unfair. Not the most unbiased word, I’ll admit, but considering that IGN coincidentally unveiled their Top 100 (!) FPSs this week, I more or less called a spade a spade. Remember, IGN listed a hundred quality shooters. They didn’t include the mediocre ones, the Call of Duty knock-offs, and the movie-licensed meltdowns. And nothing adds up like third-rate entries into a gaming genre.

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Fallout reminds us that FPSs need not depend on run-n-gun campaign modes and meaty multiplayer options.

What does the FPS outpouring mean for gamers? On an obvious level, it means we’ll be forcefed FPSs–innovative and generic, quality and crap–until our stomachs burst like the virtual craniums we’ve been blasting for years. Beyond the amount of FPSs for sale, the prevalence is good and bad. It means for cross-genre breeding, something that’s been happening for years with RPG-Shooter franchises like Fallout (Hell, even Banjo-Tooie had FPS segments back in 2001. Banjo-Tooie.). Unfortunately, genres that forego FPS elements and remain “pure” like sword-and-magic J-RPGs will vanish. Don’t believe me? Tell me how long it’s been since the last Suikoden, the last Grandia, the last Breath of Fire. As FPSs persist, secondary RPG/Platformer/etc. franchises will die off. We’ll always have our Final Fantasies and Marios, but would cash-strapped gamers take a chance on Suikoden VI after they just saw the new [Insert CoD clone here] commercial on ESPN?

Love ’em or hate ’em, FPSs reign atop the console gaming world. Understanding how the boom came about can help developers and gamers determine where the next explosion will occur–whether is be on the virtual warfront or in the sales column of a completely different genre.