Handheld games must walk a difficult tightrope. On the one hand, they need to be something that provides short bursts of gameplay—ten minute chunks to allow for the fact that a handheld system is not a console and thus needs to be something that you can pick up, play for the five or ten minutes that you’re waiting for the bus or using the toilet or whatever, and then put down again without having to worry that you didn’t save or get to a good stopping point. On the other side of the coin, sometimes you want an epic adventure that can promise lengthy gameplay because sometimes you have hours to kill with your handheld instead of minutes. Radiant Historia, a JRPG published by the good folks at Atlus, gets the lengthy gameplay right but falls down on the short bursts section. Let’s get that out of the way right now: this is a game that assumes that you sit down with your DS for quality time instead of, say, playing it while waiting for your friend to show up for lunch (unless your friend is running really late).
With that point out of the way, let’s get into the details of the game. You are Stocke, trusted Special Intelligence officer, and just before a mission your commanding officer gives you a book called the White Chronicle as a good luck charm. This turns out to be great, as your mission goes terribly awry—your contact is killed, your squadmates are killed, and you are forced to leap off of a bridge like your name is Naked Snake. Fortunately, the White Chronicle also happens to let you travel through time in order to change history, which is precisely what you’re supposed to be doing, according to the two immortal children who give you the rundown after you wake up in the realm of Historia, a magical realm that can only be accessed by the holder of the White Chronicle. You, Stocke, are the Chosen Wielder of the White Chronicle who has to save the day and write the “true” history. There’s even an empire ruled by a cruel dictatorial queen with a daughter who feels the exact opposite way that her mother does and may be secretly leading a resistance against her mother’s cruel rule! The Evil Empire nation and the Not As Evil Empire nation are fighting for control over the last of the arable land on the continent, as there is a desert that seems to be aggressively expanding, perhaps by supernatural means. Just a guess. If you haven’t guessed, I don’t think that the story’s much to write home about. The characters are all types that we’ve seen done better somewhere else, and the plot is serviceable but not especially exciting. Where the game shines is in its combat system and to a lesser extent in its time travel concept.
The combat is turn-based, but with a few wrinkles to its system which give it a unique feeling. First is the ability to swap turns with someone—ally or enemy—in order to get the system to give your crew multiple turns in a row. This allows for combos, which will yield more experience points for Stocke and his allies, as well as more gold and items. Swapping positions comes with a cost, however. When you swap, the character who initiated the swap enters what the game calls the Baroque state, which makes them more vulnerable to damage until they perform an action (in other words, until they do something other than swapping places). This means that if you switch places with an enemy unit, there’s the risk of taking lots of damage, which adds an element of danger to the proceedings which is quite satisfying.
Additionally, the position of the enemy on the screen also matters. Enemies are presented on a 3x3 grid—the closer that they are to your party, the more damage they take but also the more damage they deal. Your party has the ability to knock them back or pull them forward (and even the ability to move them up or down), which can help to mitigate damage in the more difficult fights. As an added bonus, if you knock an enemy into one of his companions, then both take damage for as long as your party is attacking. As soon as your party has finished attacking, the enemy will reposition itself on the grid—making the ability to switch places in the turn order even more important. The game also features enemies that are immovable, and so combat becomes about prioritizing targets and moving the moveable enemies into the immovable enemies in order to be as effective in the combat department as possible. When it all comes together, it is a thing of beauty to watch as you launch a six or seven hit combo on two enemies, reducing them to dust all in one go.
The time traveling mechanic is a little less polished and in fact contributes heavily to my earlier assertion that this is not a pick up and play sort of game. As the story progresses, the player will reach key decision points. By choosing one option over another, Stocke moves down the timeline until he runs into either an unfavorable outcome (helpfully narrated by the game) or an obstacle caused by wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey bits from another timeline. A messenger may not appear as scheduled in one timeline because he was killed in another, for example. The only way to solve this problem is to travel back to the decision point, make the opposite decision, and go down that timeline until either Stocke gains the resources to fix his problem in the first timeline or until that timeline runs into its own problem (which you then bounce back to the other timeline to solve, and so on and so forth).
Time travel is a tricky thing to get right, and the game’s own explanation of the finer mechanics of its time travel are lucid enough that it doesn’t seem ridiculous. Indeed, the bits of the story that deal with the repercussions of bouncing between timelines are easily the more satisfying parts. Stocke ages at a different rate from his allies because only Stocke is time traveling, experiencing multiple histories along his own personal timeline. It’s well thought out and only served to make me wish that there was a better crisis for him to avert than magic world ending desert. The execution of the mechanic is hit or miss. Traveling back to a decision point does not, for reasons which I cannot fathom, actually take you to the decision point. Instead, it takes you three or four steps behind where the actual decision was made, and unlike the malleable elements of the aftermath of your decisions, these parts are all the exact same. No dialogue changes, no variation in events, and not even the slightest hint from Stocke that he’s aware of having done this before. You can thankfully hold down the X button to skip the conversations that you’ve already had before, but conversations in Radiant Historia are so incredibly long that even skipping them takes some time.
This leads back to the problem that I touched on before, which is to say that it doesn’t work well as a portable game. It almost seems like it would have been better served as a console release because at least then the fact that there is no quicksave or even suspend option (a la Castlevania or any of a number of other games like Fire Emblem) that would allow you to actually turn off the system when the time came to go do something else. True story: I had to race around my room looking for my DS charger because the battery was dying and I couldn’t get to a save point. I would have lost about a half hour’s worth of playtime, and a portable game should not, by the way, put 30 minutes in between save points. Oddly, at other times, save points seem to be so prolific as to verge on the ridiculous.
In the end, the battle system is the best part, but it just isn’t enough for me to really recommend the purchase of the game. I have historically been a fan of the stuff that Atlus brings over, and the time travel element was enough to get my attention at first, but in the end, the promise of alternate histories just isn’t enough to distinguish the game from the million other JRPGs about averting the end of the world out there.