An Underrated RPG Returns for a Second Attempt
Often seen as just a niche publisher, Atlus is secretly one of the most prolific voices in gaming. For over thirty years, their development teams in Japan, as well as their localization and publishing branch in the States, have a track record that is almost unmatched. With games released on almost every major system since the late 1980’s, including Jack Bros. on the Virtual Boy, they’ve seen their fair share of successes, failures, and cult hits.
Some releases, like Demon’s Souls and Persona 5, have become huge successes that create new trends in the West and sell millions of copies. Others, like Radiant Historia, have received immense critical praise, but have never achieved the sales they deserved. Never fault Atlus for trying though, because here we are again, seven years after its original release, with a new version of Radiant Historia hitting our shelves. With the declining market share of the 3DS, I’m not sure this second attempt will fare much better. But it should, because the game is great. It’s so great in fact, I’d argue it deserves to share the table with towering RPG giants like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Diablo II.
The story deals with Stocke, a spy employed by the Alistel nation, in their war against the kingdom of Granorg. One day, Stocke is entrusted with a magical tome called the White Chronicle, and with it he can traverse through time. Split across parallel timelines thanks to a fateful decision, Stocke must explore the consequences of his actions from multiple angles in order to stop the decades-long war, and prevent it from destroying the world.
Despite some growing pains in the beginning, the story is told well, and explores different ways to integrate time travel into inventive puzzles that in turn inform events in the timelines. For example, saving a merchant from an ambush in one timeline prevents his death in the other, meaning he can deliver the plot-related device needed to further the story. In this new Perfect Chronology remake, other possible what-if timelines have been added as part of a larger sidequest that unlocks new story content after the original game’s true ending. These can be amusing to visit, but unlocking them requires completing all of the other key sidequests in addition to the main story. A tricky request, as some require specific choices to be made by Stocke before a quest even appears.
Even with such lofty narrative ambitions, it really is rare to see a video game written so well, with such developed characters. Stocke comes off as a distant, quiet, Cloud-type at the beginning, but quickly turns out to be caring, an able actor, and extremely good at what he does. His personality, along with the rest of the main cast, are made even better through voice acting. Characters like Aht, who might come across as annoying through a read of the text, are giving a lot of dimension and emotional resonance that make them feel like real characters, instead of just archetypes. This helps further strengthen the writing, giving the whole game the feel of a great TV show whose ending you’ll be sad to see when the credits roll.
While controversial among some fans, I also think that the redone art style, eschewing the original darker design with character art that is heavily outlined and shadowed, for a lighter anime aesthetic works to the games’ advantage. It is hard to imagine the voice acting working as well with the old art style because they aim for fundamentally different things tonally (and downloading the old art as DLC only proves this to be true). Where the original seemed more focused on the grimness of its tale, the newer version is more hopeful that things can be changed. This is more fitting with a game where the theme is saving the future by correcting the mistakes of the past.
What does not fit as well is one of the small changes made to the combat system. Mostly, it’s still the same: strategizing your party’s actions is important, and keeping track of placement on the field and everyone’s turn order are as paramount as landing huge combo-based attacks. What’s added now are fighting game-style character assists from the inactive members of the party. Usually showing up before or after an attack on an enemy, these random attacks will help land one final blow just as much as they will outright kill an enemy before you’re ready. Considering you queue up your party’s attacks before they’re executed, there’s no way to account for these extra assists. An option to re-strategize would have been nice.
When laid out like this, it might sound as if the new content for Perfect Chronology ends up bringing Radiant Historia down. It really doesn’t though, because the new ideas that work really help improve the game, while what doesn’t work as well usually amounts to minor blips of annoyance along the way. The new story content helps describe the world, making it feel more lived-in and realized compared to other RPG worlds, and the random assists can come in handy when you least expect it. Plus, the new art style helps the entire game flow so much better.
Originally released in 2011 in the Sates, the DS release of Radiant Historia hit only a month before the launch of the 3DS. Having it on 3DS now feels like it’s come full circle, and also like it might also be doomed to fail again. I hope not – the game is just too good. It’s unlike anything else Atlus has done in the RPG space, and makes their repertoire that much stronger. It even has a great soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, for crying out loud!
It may still be one of the kids at the family get-together, but it totally deserves a spot at the table with the best of the best. Maybe it’s a seat at the folding table added on so that the other kids like Souls and Persona, don’t feel left out; but in time they will grow, and earn their right to join in on the discussion as full adults. Radiant Historia just needs the support from the RPG community to make sure it has the chance to speak its mind and isn’t ignored. It has too many good ideas for that.
A version of this review can be found here.