The best way to describe Radiant Historia, the latest Atlus-published DS RPG, is to compare it to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. By the time you successfully complete a run-through of Radiant Historia, you will have navigated two alternate timelines, both of which are littered with potential dead ends – which result in the eventual termination of the world under a blanket of lifeless sand – and only one “good” ending. Navigating your way along the “razor-thin path of light” (as one character describes it) will require you to hop back and forth not only between the time lines, but between past and present as well.
Your time-traveling and/or dimensional shifting is courtesy of the White Chronicle, a powerful artifact which is cryptically given to you by your boss prior to a mission. The guardians of this tome forbid you from discussing it or its abilities to your companions, and are themselves forbidden from acting as anything more than your guides, so you will have to figure out how to accomplish the task you are destined to complete yourself. As you progress, you will encounter significant historical points, referred to as “nodes”; you can jump back to any node via a save point (or from the world map), but if you haven’t yet reached the next node (or new Chapter) you will have to replay much of what you have already accomplished, so it is usually best to wait until you are stuck for a solution. When such a situation arises, your guides will tell you as much and suggest that you explore the other time line and your current predicament will become a new node. The Chronicle keeps track of all events you encounter, as well as any side quests you might discover along the way, in a flow chart-like display that is easy to navigate; this also serves as a convenient recap as to what you have already done — and what you have changed — in case you get lost. The narrative can be a bit confusing at times, what with all of the shifting through and across time, so this is a welcome resource.
Radiant Historia also features a neat combat system that makes every encounter a strategic one. Your party of up to three members (selected from a roster of up to seven at any given point in history) line up on one side as normal, but the enemies are arranged on a 3×3 grid similar to that found in the Mega Man Battle Network games. Using various skills, you can shove your opponents around and knock them into each other; enemies that share a space are affected by your attacks as if they were one entity until you stop hitting them, at which point they spread out again. You can chain together impressive combos this way by manipulating the turn order, displayed on the top screen. Normally each participant acts in order according to their speed, but you can change positions with any other participant, friend or foe, on the list so your team can get a bunch of actions in a row. The trade-off is that until a swapped character actually takes an action, he is extra vulnerable to attacks. Some enemies also have special formations that give them additional strength and abilities, as well as the power to enchant grid squares for extra power, defense, or healing, so being able to move enemies around is important even if you don’t want to combo them into oblivion. Of course, certain enemies can’t be moved…
Besides the fun combat system, Radiant Historia also shines on a narrative level. The seven protagonists and their allies aren’t just cookie-cutter RPG clichés, and even the villains have surprising depth in their motivations. The story is equally deep, with a world-spanning war being fought over the few remaining areas of arable land, thanks to a mysterious desertification that is rendering areas all but uninhabitable. This is helped by mature characters who don’t shy away from the fact that this is a war and lives are at stake; when the eventual (and inevitable) world-saving aspect arises it is a smooth transition, unlike the similar shift in last year’s Sands of Destruction. As mentioned, some confusion can arise when it comes to the twin time lines and how changes in one can affect the other, but overall the story holds up as a cohesive whole, especially when you have to consider the machinations of the owner of the Black Chronicle, the White Chronicle’s destructive counterpart.
That said, Radiant Historia is far from flawless. The lack of a quick-save feature is especially noticeable, as save points and opportunities to rest are often infrequent. The game also doesn’t make as full use of the DS’s dual screens as others in the genre; a mini-map would have been helpful, for instance. Early on in the adventure you will gain the ability to move around heavy objects, which later includes explosive barrels; this pushing is awkward, being limited to only forward and backward depending on your current facing, so you will have to constantly reposition yourself in order to get the barrels to their destinations. And as might be expected in a game revolving around time shifting, there will be times when you have to replay the same segment several times in order to complete missions; fortunately the game allows you to fast-forward through dialogue with the X button and skip (most) cut scenes completely by pressing start, but there are still times when you will need to revisit an event at the wrong end of the space between nodes.
Still, these are relatively minor complaints, and none of them really affected my utter enjoyment in playing this title. 2010 was packed with high-quality RPG offerings on the DS, and 2011 looks to continue this trend if Radiant Historia is any indication. This one won’t be as easy to find as, say, Pokémon Black/White or Dragon Quest VI, but be sure not to miss it.
On a side note: the first editions of the game are packed with a 20-minute music CD containing five piano versions of the game’s tracks by Yoko Shimomura, who also composed the soundtracks for the Kingdom Hearts and Mario and Luigi series. As someone who has imported official soundtracks in the past (often at great cost due to them being out of print by the time we get the games here in the West), this is a welcome addition that I would very much like to see become more common in the future.