This game is a playthrough that was about half-finished in 2011, and then wrapped up in the first two weeks of 2012 (that last part should be obvious). Readers, meet Radiant Historia.
Radiant Historia is an Atlus RPG that isn't innovative visually or even in basic gameplay - it wouldn't be out of place if it was made a few years ago instead of 2011. However its great core concept, decent RPG story, and interesting twists on traditional turn-based battles make it worth any DS-owning RPG fan's time. That aforementioned core concept is that of time travel, specifically a complex web of alternate realities and situations represented by an in-game flowchart.
I know, time travel in video games has been done to hell and back with varying levels of success, but this is one of the better times. The game's story map, basically a flowchart with two main branches and several small offshoots, allows you to keep tabs on what's going on. Radiant Historia's plot deals with multiple warring nations, and the game's protagonist, Stocke, is a Special Intelligence agent for one of the power players. Early in the game's story, Stocke gains an opportunity to serve as the second-in-command of a brand new unit led by his best friend Rosch. The game's two major story branches split at this juncture, with half of the game in the "Standard History" of Stocke teaming up with Rosch and the other half taking place in the "Alternate History" of Stocke continuing with Special Intelligence.
Stocke and his companions (two mercenaries that serve as his constant companions, plus Rosch and three other characters that are VIPs in their respective countries) encounter the same characters over both histories, but that's where the similarities end. Each of the two major paths has different complications, different battles, and even different victors in the grand war. The only constant is the influence of specific characters (including Stocke and Rosch) and the game's other major conflict: a recent trend of global desertification.
Early in Radiant Historia, Stocke is granted a magic tome called the White Chronicle by a pair of mysterious time guardians. This book allows Stocke to go back in time and re-do any action he's taken or major choice he is forced to make. Stocke can even use items or information from opposing timelines to influence history, which is total shenanigans that is best not to think too deeply about. Special artifact is destroyed or missing in the standard history? Find the item in the alternate history and bring it over to the other side! Don't overthink it. That hampers enjoyment.
So through all the switching between timelines and getting involved in international politics, there's a lot of combat in this game. Thankfully, it's pretty good. Your characters line up on the right side like a Final Fantasy game, but the enemies occupy spots in a 3x3 grid (large enemies take up more than one square). You can use attacks to push and pull enemies on the grid, doing tricks like pushing enemies into each other and then hitting them with a powerful area attack, or setting grid traps and pushing enemies into them. Combat is turn-based, with a Final Fantasy X-esque visible turn order that you can manipulate (!?) with your White Chronicle. Switching turns on the list with enemies allow you to chain attacks together for huge combos and big damage, but doing so reduces your defenses for when the enemy's turn comes around.
The combat is a major highlight in Radiant Historia, and the fairly diverse cast of characters makes it great. Stocke is a jack of all trades who's particularly good at shoving enemies all over the grid, and Rosch is extremely similar to Stocke with lower speed and attack but RIDICULOUS defense and HP. Stocke's two sidekicks, Raynie and Marco, have the major advantage of being on Stocke's team for almost the entire game (unlike Rosch, who drops in and out of the group), but Raynie is a decent offensive mage at best and Marco is a healer who is the most useless fucker in the game.
The other two mages in the game are MONSTERS (avoiding spoilers) - one of them has the best speed in the game, the best healing magic in the game, and positively DEVASTATING magic traps. The other mage has the highest magic attack in the game and lots of great offensive area spells, but is in your party less than any other character. The final character is an offensive powerhouse with better attack but less speed than Stocke, and a TON of moves for pushing groups of enemies around the board and physical area attacks, but unusually low defenses to go with his unusually high HP.
So, true, I pretty much cruised through the game with Stocke, the trapper mage, and whoever else as a third (I liked using everyone other than Marco). The game's difficulty is actually really reasonable - difficulty only seriously spikes at certain boss battles, and leveling up is never a necessity. The different characters have strengths and weaknesses that makes keeping a fluid lineup a smart move. I know I spent WAY too fuckin' long talking about characters, but hey, my favorite parts of RPGs are character building and team designing.
Radiant Historia has nice hand-drawn character portraits, good-looking environments, and well-animated battle sprites. The music is on the forgettable side, but I'll give it a pass. This is an excellent RPG, and the fact that it's on a handheld is even more impressive. It falls just behind Trails in the Sky in the ranks of 2011 handheld RPGs, but it is totally solid for oldschool fans looking for a good timesink with good ideas, an okay story, and interesting turn-based combat.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
I am pretty close to the end of Mass Effect, so there should be a blog post for that sooner rather than later. After that's finished I'll either rush out and grab Mass Effect 2 (highly likely) or play one of my Christmas-holiday-bought Steam games.