I came to Radiant Historia with high expectations. After all, it arrived from Amazon on a Friday with my first case of Surge since the late 1990s. But seriously, having waited to play it for a few years, I’d built it up in my head, and for the most part, it met my expectations. The characters were well-defined and featured substantial development while the time-traveling story touched upon many mature themes. In general, the game featured a high level maturity – something I rarely, and unfortunately, don’t associate with many JRPGs.
What I wasn’t expecting was that my attention would be diverted while I played through it, turning the middle third into more of a slough. Coincidentally, this was also the same section where I began to notice poor qualities surrounding the battle system. I grew to strongly dislike the combat, and for a while, avoided enemy battles altogether. My opinion never rebounded, even though my overall opinion of the game did when I once again devoted my full attention to it.
The game is set on the war-torn continent of Vainqueur, home to a handful of key countries and races. The setting is mostly fantasy, but there is a strong steampunk influence. Although I haven’t played much of it, this game reminded me strongly of Final Fantasy VI. Among the countries calling Vainqueur home, Alistel and Granorg are dominant. They’re the two archetypal western civilizations, populated with modern folk living in the capital cities. Less prominent nations included those occupying sandy desert oases and forest villages, home to beastkind. In other words, this game is in the mold of classic JRPGs.
On a more personal level, the game also featured typical characters that ran the gamut from amnesiac protagonist, closely related and destined royal heiress, to the strong silent beastman. Despite the seeming caricatures in play, the characters themselves were actually much more complex than I’d lead you to believe. As the plot unfolded, allegiances changed and personal feelings were put on the backburner for affairs more important than simply seeing one country dominate another; affairs such as the revelation of truth to the masses and the salvation of the world.
Ultimately, the game featured two types of characters: leaders and followers. When untruths became ever more evident, some characters rallied behind their misplaced beliefs and held firm to the orders of their leaders. Others saw through to the eventual outcome and changed course as needed. Regardless, the actions of all involved were compelling because the characters were well-defined and acted in ways resonant to their continual evolution. The final third was particularly engrossing as the story was reaching its climax and the true antagonist was revealed. That character’s actions were understandable, and the pivot made to the “dark side” was something palpable. That character was human and not just a soulless antagonist, à la Final Fantasy IV’s Exdeath.
And still, there was one more piece binding the narrative together: time travel. Thanks to an item bestowed upon the protagonist early on, two timelines were accessible and freely available to jump between at all times. The standard and alternate timelines illustrated how things would be different through decision making, although both culminated in a shared conclusion. Often, I would stick to one timeline until I reached an impassable portion. Jumping to the other timeline would eventually yield a resolution to my problem in the other. Both had to be seen through to their conclusion to reach the end, but there were many sidequests to perform all the while, reminding me a little bit of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and the Mass Effect series.
What dragged down my otherwise high opinion on the game was the battle system. Encountering on-field enemies led to battle scenes featuring said enemies on a 9×9 grid. Using the three members of my party, I did my best to group as many enemies together on the same grid. When done correctly, I could damage these enemies with each attack or apply the same status ailment. Beyond learning new moves to assist in this goal, that was the extent of combat development. In itself, that’s not a negative, but around the second third of the game, just dealing with the basic enemies was a tough task.
This turned into such an annoying aspect for me that I turned to avoiding enemy encounters. I never allowed my party to get under leveled, but it really felt like I was missing something. I turned to GameFAQs for recommendations, but sure enough, my party level was in keeping with suggested levels. However, I never deviated from using the same two optional allies. Due to timeline jumping, my party consistency was always changing, with the exception of these two characters, generally. Using other party members would’ve required much grinding to get them on the same page, so why bother? This probably contributed to my dislike for the combat and battle system, but it wasn’t that great anyways.
Ultimately, Radiant Historia left me pondering the topic of personal purpose and contributions to the greater good of the world. On a more granular level, many other themes were touched upon, and it was a wholly engrossing game with great character development. What’s more, the time traveling mechanic was more than a fun novelty, although it was that too. It offered a diverse creative opportunity for the story to develop while providing many ingenuitive sidequests. The battle system was a letdown however, leading me to try and entirely forego any unnecessary experiences with it. Finally, I learned that I can’t hope to enjoy an involving video game, if I’m also trying to watch The X-Files.