Chrono Trigger's Spiritual Successor?

Radiant Historia Screenshot Radiant Historia Screenshot
Radiant Historia Screenshot Radiant Historia Screenshot

HIGH Figuring out how to change a timeline in order to save one of your allies from permanent death.

LOW Skipping through the same story scenes for the fifth time.

WTF The main character was originally supposed to be a sword…thank God they changed that.

Fans of Chrono Trigger, rejoice! At long last there's another deep and engaging Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) that makes use of time travel. Radiant Historia, brought to us by the fine folks at Atlus, may be the most perfect spiritual successor to Square's classic game—yes, even moreso than Chrono Cross. Only a few niggling flaws keep it from being classic—but the end result is still one very good role playing experience.

Players take control of Stocke, a refreshing twist on the standard JRPG hero. Stocke isn't some lowly villager tasked with saving the world after his village burns to the ground or some other hoary cliché—instead, he's a highly skilled spy working for an outfit known as Special Intelligence. Stocke's city is at war with a rival empire, which is bad enough, but there's also a strange plague sweeping the land, one that turns people into pillars of sand. When our hero discovers a book known as The White Chronicle, he gains the power to jump through time—and Radiant Historia opens up into a game where players traverse two distinctly different, yet totally related, narratives in order to reach the best possible ending.

It's inevitable that Radiant Historia will be compared to Square's masterpiece if only because both games make healthy use of the concept of time travel. However, Historia ups the ante with the time-hopping storyline in a major way over its inspiration. Rather than simply travel to other timelines as part of the narrative, Radiant Historia allows players to move along the various events at will—and the decisions made in each area often have consequences (both obvious and unforeseen) on the future. Where Chrono Trigger's time travel was cool but rather linearly implemented, Radiant Historia works hard to create the illusion that the Stocke (and by extension, the player) has genuine control over all of the unfolding events. It's a clever trick, because ultimately there's generally only one real path through any portion of the game, but since Historia loves to show players the outcomes of their decisions (even the negative ones), gamers quickly become convinced that they're controlling everything. The immersion factor is quite impressive.

Radiant Historia Screenshot Radiant Historia Screenshot
Radiant Historia Screenshot Radiant Historia Screenshot

Once the player gets through the lengthy (and somewhat uninteresting) opening, things take off. Stocke moves along timelines at will, advancing the narrative until he reaches an event that stymies forward progress. It's at these moments that he must use the White Chronicle to jump to the other timeline and change some event so that the first can move forward again. What sounds (and is…) simple in the early going becomes much more complicated as the game progresses through its 200+ events. It is apparently possible to see everything in Radiant Historia's narrative in a single playthrough, but expect to spend a huge chunk of time doing it all.

While the time travel component is the game's main focus, it's worth noting that Historia also features a great deal of combat. Atlus has crafted an innovative battle system to handle the game's encounters— albeit one that doesn't always satisfy. When Stocke and crew encounter an enemy (seen on the screen, a la Chrono Trigger), the screen switches. Battles are waged on a 3×3 grid wherein Stocke and his team are often greatly outnumbered. Rather than engage in traditional turn-based combat (which would have been my preference…), Stocke and his party members have skills that allow them to "push" enemies around the board. Maneuvering enemies into clusters becomes vitally important in large scale battles as it allows the team to dole out damage to the entire group instead of just individuals. Adding one more layer of strategy is the ability to skip turns or swap positions in the turn timeline with enemies or allies. This is crucial to setting up chains where one or two players move the enemies into a group and the third unleashes an epic attack. The problem is, early on, it never feels like players have enough of the various push attacks at their disposal. Because of this some of the battles take a lot longer than they should. The other problem is that if the player targets an enemy with all three of his characters, but the first one kills it, the two other characters don't switch to the next target. Players can see the enemy health bars when targeting them, and you could argue that it adds a strategic element to the combat, but I found it made most fights take longer than they needed to. 

Aesthetically, the game is gorgeous. The 2D character portraits are nicely done and the in-game graphics are largely pleasing. A few characters look a little odd, but all in all this is one of the nicer looking 2D Nintendo DS titles. The soundtrack, courtesy of Yoko Shimomura is excellent. Not every track is a hit (but neither was every track in Chrono Trigger) but many of the tunes are pleasing to the ear and players will be humming them for weeks after they've finished the game.

Radiant Historia is not Chrono Trigger 2, but it's not for a lack of trying. Atlus deserves kudos for crafting such an elaborately plotted tale (seriously, the time travel is well implemented and there aren't any major moments of "why would this still happen if they changed the timeline here?" that turn up in so many films and books with time travel as a plot device) and only a few minor missteps in the combat and gameplay keep it from being a new classic. While JRPGs continue to flounder on the home consoles, games like this one prove that the genre is alive and well on handhelds. Grab a copy of Radiant Historia now before it vanishes from store shelves and becomes a highly sought-after collector's item. You won't regret it. Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 15 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 0 times) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains fantasy violence, language, and use of alcohol. Content-wise, there aren't many reasons to keep your kids from playing Radiant Historia. Yes, there are taverns and an occasional swear word turns up, but other than that, it's fairly innocent. The real reason to keep this away from kids under the age of 10 is because it's a very text-heavy game that requires a fair amount of reading. Trying to solve issues on two timelines can be challenging even for older gamers and young kids will almost assuredly become frustrated and give up early.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Radiant Historia's tale is told entirely through text. Therefore, hearing impaired gamers can fully partake in the title's experience content in the knowledge that they're not missing any of the game's narrative nuances. They will, however, be missing out on the game's excellent musical score. 

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

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17 Comments on "Radiant Historia Review"

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Peter Ackermann
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I’m still playing Radiant Historia imagine! great game though to be fair.

Mike Bracken
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I should have done that too — it never even occurred to me while playing. Part of the downside of pre-release review ROMs is that you never get an instruction manual so it’s a “learn as you go” process.

Mike Bracken
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Not nearly as hard. Once you learn to maneuver enemies around the grid, it’s very manageable.

aHei
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First of all, thumbs down to ANONYMOUS’s attitude.

Now, I have recently acquired a DS and Devil Survivor but I’m struggling with the difficulty. I did managed to get to the 6 or 7th day after hours of boring grinding but for now I’m having a hard time gathering the will to continue the game.

Is this game as hard?

Zolbrod
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[quote]I’ve never liked using Auto battle, so I didn’t — interesting that it does that, though. I like to control my characters, it’s my control freak tendencies I guess. It seems odd that the game would do it during auto but not during player controlled fights.[/quote] Oh, I’m a control freak as well, but in those cases when I don’t want to waste a turn on an enemy I end up killing with the previous character, I quickly toggle Auto battle on. It can be freely toggled on and off at any time, so it doesn’t take the reigns away… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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The story in Historia is pretty solid. I wasn’t blown away by it, but now that I’ve seen it all, it’s certainly better than a lot of the stuff we’ve endured over the past few years. It’s a well written game and for some odd reason it reminds me of Vagrant Story (which was a great example of a game where I liked the story but thought the gameplay was terrible.) At least with this game, the gameplay is worthy of the story. I think saving the world will always be a part of game narrative — you have to… Read more »
Dan Johansen
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I couldn’t say you’re a bad reviewer until I’ve checked all your reviews but I’m not that psychotic haha. And if this is one of few situations where you’ve done this, I’ll take your word for it. But after reading several reviews from many sites, most say that the story is very strong compared to most released JRPG’s this generation. And the way you automatically put it in the ”Save the World with your Band of Heroes” category is no surprise to me. But as I reflect on all released games from both East and West, almost all the games… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Wasn’t that odd — it was just supposed to say you can see the bars when you’re issuing orders, but the not jumping to the next available enemy made fights feel longer than they needed to. I had fixed it earlier, but for some reason the update didn’t stick. It’s fixed now though. I’ve never liked using Auto battle, so I didn’t — interesting that it does that, though. I like to control my characters, it’s my control freak tendencies I guess. It seems odd that the game would do it during auto but not during player controlled fights. It… Read more »
Zolbrod
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Trollish profanity aside, it is a rather odd mistake to make. Don’t you think you should fix it if you are aware of it? Because this way the review is giving incorrect information, which can surely not be the meaning. Also, if you turn on Auto Battle the AI will never let your characters attack an enemy after you’ve done enough damage to kill it (unless it’s the very last one), so I’ve been using that to avoid the problem. Also also, you mentioned having to skip cutscenes as a Low, but it really doesn’t happen all that often, and… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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I made a mistake when writing the review — but thanks for being so sensible about it when you pointed out. Stay classy, anonymous!

Anonymous
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[quote]The other problem is that if the player targets an enemy with all three of his characters, but the first one kills it, the two other characters don’t switch to the next target. That’s fine, but you don’t see the enemy health bar when giving out orders. Because of that, occasionally fighting feels like more of a chore than it should.[/quote]

WTF is this bullshit? Really? You can’t see it? Are you fucking blind?

Mike Bracken
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I know exactly where you’re coming from, Dan — and under normal circumstances, I finish every game I review. I got behind on this one, though. I think part of the thing here is the expectation of what the review score is taking into consideration. For me, personally, the characters and story in an RPG are less important than they used to be. I guess, after all these years of playing these games, I feel like many of the characters and stories are mostly archetypal and not particularly interesting. That’s not to say that I don’t factor story and characters… Read more »
Dan Johansen
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Well, personally I feel that all games should be 100% completed for a review to have a real punch. I know through my gaming experiences with RPG’s in particular that playing half of them means that the climaxes are yet to be experienced. Like if you play half of Mass Effect 2, you’ve barely recruited your team and you’ve got some big climactic experiences left to explore that could change the perspective in certain areas of the judging process. I felt that it dragged on a bit during the recruitment process so the story and progress feel got a bit… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Hi Dan, I’ve been reviewing RPGs for over 11 years now, and playing them for longer than that. I’ve got a pretty good feel for how they work both gameplay-wise and in terms of narrative. In 15 hours, I progressed through more than half of the game and felt comfortable with recommending it. I’ve since played even more of it (I needed to get the review out for the game’s release) and my opinion of the game hasn’t changed at all. Honestly, though, playing any game for 15 hours is more than enough time to formulate an honest opinion of… Read more »
Dan Johansen
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You review this game AND give a score to a game you’ve barely played half of or slightly over half of? This to me is a little disturbing, because this is what I worry about when it comes to reviewers. Many big sites never write their playing hours in their reviews, so we can only guess on those. But this is a solid proof of what I am afraid of. In JRPG’s the story tends to rise and rise with the hours, and most of the time a 15 hour mark is far from enough to judge a story or… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Definitely a good game — although as I’ve gotten further into it, I get less enthralled with the battles. Minor complaint, though — it’s a really solid game.

abfackeln
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I am playing Radiant Historia right now and loving it. My first must have game of 2011.

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