Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology review

What day is it? What year?

I didn’t own a Nintendo DS in 2011 and thus missed Radiant Historia, the Atlus developed JRPG that time apparently forgot. So Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, the 3DS remake with buffed up art, UI, and story, was the perfect way for me to discover the often overlooked game.

Having trekked through its time twisting narrative, I can see why the game perhaps isn’t brought up in the same breath as other of handheld games of that era. The DS was nothing if not a quirky system. Experimental and memorable titles like Elite Beat Agents and Phoenix Wright more-or-less define its personality in my eyes. Radiant Historia, by contrast, is equally novel but comparatively dry.

The playable band of spies, soldiers, and princesses (centered around an overly familiar JRPG protagonist literally named Stocke) are likeable enough. They just don’t have much of a spark that separates them from the other spies, soldiers, and princesses seen all throughout the genre. Some eye-drooping voice acting doesn’t help, either.

Fundamentally, though, I’d say Radiant Historia deserves to hang with the Ghost Tricks and 999s of the world. The extremely talkative adventure is one part visual novel, one part puzzle game, and only seems to slip the JPRG aspect in as an afterthought (for better and for worse). The pieces don’t gel together as well as they should, but individually each element feels just as fresh today as it must have seven years ago.

A whole lot of exposition serves as the string to hold these ideas together. The fantastical continent of Vainqueur, which takes more than a little inspiration from the world of Final Fantasy VI, is slowly dissolving into sand. Land and people alike fall prey to this “desertification” while two empires vie for control of the crumbs that are left. That is until Stocke gains the ability to travel through time and set history right before it leads to ruin.

In practice, this timeline hopping works a lot like the aforementioned 999 and its sequels: the player makes story choices that can be remade and followed on a branching map of possibilities.

Does Stocke join his best friend into battle with the standard military, or continuing pursuing his career in espionage? Do you go to reinforce an allied general’s front line, or stay behind to guard a fortress? Oftentimes you’ll need to do both, but the two paths constantly intersect in interesting (and sometimes nonsensical) ways.

There’s a kind of puzzle logic to this that sometimes makes more sense than others. At one point I needed to impress a group of guards to keep up my disguise as a traveling performer. Attacking the troopers head-on led to one of Radiant Historia’s many minor “bad endings.” Okay. Clearly it was time to hop over to the other main timeline to learn sword dancing from my bestie’s subordinate. Taking that knowledge back into the other timeline allowed me to pass without a hitch.

Another time, though, I had to rescue a merchant in one timeline so that he’d survive in another. The cast acknowledges the wonky logic, so I rolled with it too, but the solution still felt like a bit of a cheat.

It doesn’t help that Radiant Historia’s timeline, as drawn, isn’t terribly easy to “read.” Side quests and alternate decisions are vaguely labeled and thrown to the sides of each major timeline. It’s tough say when you must return info or an item to an NPC, and basically impossible to tell where they are without just memorizing it. An extremely under-detailed map didn’t help me from getting lost, either.

But in spite of all those flaws, swerving through timelines is undeniably cool. There’s a mathematical satisfaction to making the disparate pieces fall into place--like solving complex equations with spells and sword slinging. Magical and political intrigue shake out and fall together, bit by bit, with just a tinge of sleuth-like footwork and time travel.

Likewise, Radiant Historia’s moment-to-moment combat (if you can call it that, given there’s likely more dialogue than grinding) evokes satisfaction through finding the “right” solution to each encounter. The turn-based battles will look familiar to anyone that’s played Final Fantasy X or Atlus’ own Shin Megami Tensei titles at first, but quickly takes on an almost match-three puzzle quality the deeper you go.

Stocke and company stay firmly situated on the right-hand side of the screen. Such is JPRG law. Opposing monsters, however, exist on a three-by-three grid. Trading blows and mana will allow your team to shift foes from point to point--including ones already occupied by other enemies. So it’s really a game of “stacking” creatures on top of each other, landing hits on everyone occupying a single point with a single action, as much as it is about using potions and casting fire spells.

You’ll need to utilize the peculiar combat to its fullest, too. Radiant Historia isn’t unforgiving. There’s even an option to skip all non-mandatory battles if you play on the easiest difficulty. But on normal difficulty and higher, it is a might more savage than I’m used to from the genre.

Your average early battle pays out something like 40-50 gold, while some of the first armor and weapon upgrades cost thousands. Your basic hi-potion equivalent is a few hundred. Meanwhile inns to rest and restore your party members are few and far between--often requiring a dozen screens or more of back-tracking to reach. You can use certain items to heal at save points (or cash in three of them to get a do-over if you die), but they’re prohibitively expensive for quite some time.

Things get easier as the game teases out its more complex mechanics. You can eventually “steal” turns from enemies and stack them in more intricate ways, but the first few hours might turn some players away before they button through enough dialogue to see it.

Other workarounds include time traveling to early, easy boss fights and farming them for gold, or resting for free at preset story points. These are useful hacks, but inconvenient to say the least. As much of the combat, story, and time travel mechanics stand out in their own rights, it takes some time before they feel smoothly integrated into one fun-to-play whole.

I’m a firm believer that finding a satisfying rhythm justifies early footwork, though. That’s doubly true for classic JPRGs--where so much of the gratification comes from slow, continuous payoff. Radiant Historia fits that bill with a formula I have yet to see replicated elsewhere, even in 2018. It ought to be a smoother ride, especially in a remake coming so long after the fact, but I’m willing to overlook some conveniences for the sake of true novelty.

Verdict: Yes