Atlus put its DS title Radiant Historia up against ridiculously high expectations the moment they billed it as a time-traveling RPG, pitting the game up against Chrono Trigger in many gamers’ minds. As such, it may not surprise anyone to hear that Radiant Historia hardly manages to escape Chrono Trigger‘s massive shadow. The battle system can prove interesting at times, and the story certainly sounds deep on paper, but both have their flaws. While the battle system looks original, it slowly degrades into the over-used turn-based system seen in every JRPG. The story feels as if it were written by three separate groups, with one group cutting corners on the story, and another group seeming to have no grasp of the original team’s intentions. Both of these flaws shape Historia up to be an average, mediocre JRPG> But, the poor usage of time travel proves to be the largest disappointment, dragging the rest of the game down with it, constantly missing opportunities to shine, and entirely falling out of the game near the last portion of the story.
Historia’s board-game like battle system is fun enough against bosses and more difficult enemies, but it makes even the weakest encounters a chore when not utilized correctly. Even monsters that are far below the party’s level will have a large amount of HP and a large number of turns in a row, which draws battles out as the party scrambles to line up enough turns to finish the battle without much wasted MP. Only in very rare cases can a battle be cleared using strictly normal attacks, and the items necessary to restore the large amounts of MP spent on special attacks are very expensive. Although, in short bursts this system still retains some of its novelty until the last quarter of the game, where enemies are either alone or immovable, which essentially reduces the grid system down to a simple turn based battle. Atlus would have been better off making Historia a strategy RPG; Stocke amasses a rather large party, and a large amount of the game’s battles are military operations, which feel a little strange with the small-scale turn-based encounter system.
As in most JRPGs, Historia‘s combat heavily relies on a plethora of special attacks, which quickly become anything but “special.” Many of the party members’ attacks have overlapping effects, such as nearly every character learning an attack which pushes enemies back on the grid, or half the party learning the exact same healing spell. It is almost as if the developers were trying to make a sliding puzzle out of the battle system, because the only purpose of the bulk of the abilities is to move enemies around while hardly doing any physical damage. After the party is done pretending the enemy party is some kind of Rubik’s Cube, each party member is left with only one viable attacking skill, even at the highest levels. Stocke uses his Power Slash ability he learns early on, Marco is entirely useless if he has no party member to heal, and Raynie switches from being a strong magic user to an unnecessary fifth wheel from battle to battle. Through the course of the game, two party members who focus on area of effect abilities join up with Stocke, but they also fall prey to having only one useful ability in battles, essentially becoming the same exact party members Stocke already has, but with new sprites.
The magic elemental attacks are just as bland. There is hardly any variation in the world of Historia‘s magic; there are three elements, poison effects, and status affecting spells. The elements a caster uses in battle (fire, thunder, and ice) hardly ever matter, for against any enemy that does not visibly have a connection to an element each spell does just as much damage as the other. The poisoning effects can be useful against some bosses, provided it is one of the few bosses who is not entirely resistant to the status effect, but the ailment serves no purpose against the general monsters with much smaller health pools. The buffing and debuffing spells feel as if they have no effect; with an enhanced attack status, Stocke will only hit a few points higher on an enemy under a reduced defense effect. The only thing these types of spells can manage to reduce are the number of effective turns a player has, should they choose to waste such a valuable opportunity on a silly defense up spell.
Every character leans heavily towards either magic or physical attacks, as with most RPGs, but in nearly every case magic or non-magic are essentially the same. A Great Fire spell will be just as effective as a Power Slash ability, and a Great Heal from Stocke will be just like a Great Heal from Marco, and because all characters receive EXP equally, there is never really any reason to pick one party member over another. This lack of uniqueness in characters furthers the puzzle-like battle idea mentioned earlier; after the player figures out each character’s key skill, each battle becomes a simple matter of sliding the enemies around followed by unleashing each party member’s single amazing ability, over and over again.
Historia‘s storyline also finds itself mixed up in a lot of battles. As the game opens, the two major nations, Alistel and Granorg, are at war over some silly unexplained matter. Stocke finds himself traveling through two alternate versions of history, fighting on many different parts of the war front, sometimes even against his home nation of Alistel. The world of Historia appears rather large on the map, and is full of cliche RPG cities, but because of the constant time traveling, players will traverse some of the same locales many times, with only slight differences each time. Unlike Chrono Trigger’s massive thousand-year timespan, time travel in Radiant Historia is more like selecting a different stage in an action game to replay for treasure, since, for the most part, players are given no reason in the story to travel back in time. The sidequests require some clever use of the time traveling mechanic, but in the last half of the game the function vanishes entirely, and is never required to pass a roadblock.
The two different timelines both attempt to have very serious and dark story lines, which try to make some kind of allegorical message, and like every other facet of this game, the result comes up a little short. In the Standard History, where Stocke is pitted against Granorg, the story attempts to show how corrupt governments and rulers can become, and how the people should rule themselves, but the story sends Stocke off on so many side-missions and pointless tasks that the player loses sight of the tyrannical rule in Granorg. In the Alternate History of Stocke fighting Alistel, the story boils down to the theocratic government turning to machinery instead of gods, creating false idols and the like in order to control the populace with religion in an attempt to begin a holy crusade. Both of these deeper messages are not even apparent until some of the game’s last scenes, and while an attempt at a deep story can be appreciated, the final results lack any kind of impact, and are anything but deep or meaningful.
As a mediocre JRPG, Radiant Historia might be near the top of the category, and will even offer a bit of enjoyment provided players keep the “mediocre” part in mind. With one’s mind and sense of nostalgia constantly drifting off to Chrono Trigger, however, it is very hard to appreciate this game. Given the rushed feeling of the final hours of the game, where time travel is forgotten about, and the two timelines merge into a messy conclusion, it seems like Atlus was forced to cram and cut corners for deadlines or memory constraints. Maybe one day a higher budget sequel or spiritual successor will appear from some alternate timeline, but until then, this average JRPG’s attempt at time travel works about as well as speeding a DeLorean up to 80 mph.