Radiant Historia: Giving Up

This is a JRPG on the DS from earlier this year. It got some pretty good reviews and some attention based on it being a JRPG with a time-travel element which obviously brings up associations with Chrono Trigger. But, as it turns out, it’s not very good. I quit roughly a third of the way through, after playing for 10 hours or so.

The combat system initially seemed interesting. With the focus on moving enemies around a grid, it reminded me superficially of Enchanted Arms. Giving characters different types of physical attacks that have different effects and hit different squares is a good way to differentiate martial characters who, otherwise tend to feel too similar in a lot of JRPGs. I liked that the system encourages using magic and special abilities, since that’s the only way to stack enemies on top of each other and trigger combos. I also appreciate that poison is actually useful against enemies, even bosses, which is really quite rare. It all seemed fun and snappy.

But as things went on, it dragged. I appreciate being able to avoid random encounters, but every fight started to feel the same. Use special abilities for a couple of rounds to stack the enemies as much as possible and wail on them, then just finish things off with normal attacks. It’s monotonous. And this is the sort of game that is trying to wear down your resources with most combats, not kill you. In fact, other than rigged, story-encounters, I never lost, and only had one character once lose all their hit points. There’s no sense of danger in the fights. Just the monotony. I also question the wisdom of two of our hero’s companions who are always with him regardless of when or where in either parallel history he is. The game has a three-member limit in combat. So why would I use anyone other than my hero and the two companions who follow him, since they’re always there, fully leveled and equipped, while anyone else is only in the party at most half of the time. Not that there were a lot of other options. In my 10 hours in the game, I only came across two other companions, one in each timeline.

There are also serious presentational issues with the combat. Navigating the long, flat list of special attacks is cumbersome. And when there are two screens on which to put information and I still can’t see which enemy I’m targeting when I’m trying to use abilities that manipulate the turn order (an essential combat mechanic in the game) something has gone wrong. For some reason, the game will only show either my team or the enemies at any one time, and when using these abilities it chooses to show mine.

There’s also big, big problems with the presentation outside of combat, too. I expected the art to be on the bland side, and I wasn’t disappointed. But the biggest problem is that out in the field the characters are quite large relative to the amount of area shown on-screen. Add in a fast movement rate, and I felt clumsy and near-sighted when moving around.

Even worse, areas are very large, and there’s no map. It’s so easy to get lost or miss an important detail. It leads to a lot of wasted time running around trying to find what’s needed. What broke me was, first, running through an awful, repetitive sewer level, and then immediately afterwards having to search through a large area, one I’d already been through twice, trying to find invisible items that are only revealed when my characters got near them. It was really bad.

As for the story, it’s no Chrono Trigger. Despite an interesting premise, it ends up being awfully bland. The characters, heroes and villains alike, all feel very one-note. None of them are particularly endearing. I particularly question the choice of making Locke, our hero, so taciturn and dutiful. He’s not any fun, and neither are any of the cast around him. In fact, there’s not really any sense of fun at all about the game. Time travel and parallel worlds should inherently lead to awkward, strange, wacky situations, but there’s very little sign of personality or humour here. It’s possible to be grim and serious, but the writing isn’t up to snuff. It takes me out of the moment when, for example, I’m presented with an oppressive regime that publicly tortures and executes dissenters, and yet plenty of complete strangers spontaneously tell Locke, in public, how much they dislike their queen. And it’s hard for a story to be suspenseful when it telegraphs its twists from a mile away.

This sort of time-travel/alternate history premise should also be used to give insight onto hidden facets of characters. But at least in what I played, there’s no sign of that. Mostly, the time travel seems to be used so that our hero can be in two places at once. Adding to this feeling is the fact that the two parallel histories are still, apparently, causally connected. Locke saves a merchants in one timeline, and he gets saved in the second one too even though Locke wasn’t there to save him there. An informant doesn’t arrive in one timeline unless he meets Locke in the other. There’s apparently some sort of explanation involving someone evil also manipulating the timelines. But it’s weird and off-putting and makes the premise less interesting, rather than more, since it gives Locke an easy way to affect events when he’s not present.

I also don’t like that the timeline seems to only fork the one time at the start of the game. There seem to only be two timelines, and the game seems to be about progressing linearly down both of them. This doesn’t leave room for, say, revisiting past events and making radically different choices. There are a couple of characters who are obviously going to betray Locke at some point, and the set-up doesn’t seem to leave open the possibility of, say, going back in time to the beginning of the game and turning on them first.

So, all in all, Radiant Historia was quite the disappointment. I haven’t played a JRPG in a while (since Final Fantasy 13?) and was looking forward to one. Just not this one. This bland, clunky, repetitive one.

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