Friday, October 3, 2014

Radiant Historia

This game took me a long time to finish. There's two reasons. First, it's on my least favorite console: Nintendo DS - it's the least favorite because its buttons are small and it's not all that comfortable to hold compared to, say, the Sony PSP. Second, this game takes a while to truly get off. Admittedly this is a rather common problem with JRPGs in general, but these two factors combined resulted in me playing this game very rarely, and ultimately it took me almost a full year to get through 30 something in-game hours. The odd bit is that the game's actually really good. Like a bunch of other good JRPG titles on DS, this one was never available in Europe. Fortunately the platform is region independent. Regardless, while the game was received well, I think it wasn't all that popular.

1. Time travel 

Time travel is a fascinating concept to explore in fiction as it allows all kinds of perplexing plots. Doctor Who is probably the most prominent popular culture go-to these days - and for a reason. The fundamental rules of time travel are incredibly relaxed in the universe of Doctor Who. This lends itself to rather crazy plots. Yet there is a sufficient amount of consistency within those relaxed rules, so that they do seem natural rather than specifically constructed. When it comes to games - at least those of the JRPG variety - the one game above all is Chrono Trigger. I would honestly have to replay the game to remember exactly how it deals with time travel and how much time travel influences its story. What I do recall is you can kill the final boss in multiple stages of the game. More recent examples would include Final Fantasy XIII-2 and of course Radiant Historia. Each of these games follow different rules for time travel, and use it in different ways. Radiant Historia focuses on a scenario with exactly two alternate timelines.

Time travel is a tricky prospect for game designers. So far, time travel stories have been tied to linear narrative - at least to my knowledge. Indeed, as if open-ended narrative games wouldn't be hard enough as they are, introducing the possibility of time travel complicates things even further - again depending on the rules of course. In the simplest scenario time travel can simply be used as a form of postcognition, allowing players to look into the past without messing up the timeline itself. However, if players are allowed to change things around, the web of causality can easily expand beyond what modern AI can handle. Relying on scripted and/or heavily limited scenarios is therefore the sane man's way to success - for now. Another interesting topic from a game design perspective is time travel's role; whether it is merely a narrative concept, or has also been built into gameplay somehow.

Time manipulation on the other hand is employed as a game mechanic every now and then, with the indie platformer Braid being a strong example. Another closely linked concept is that of alternate realities, lately seen in e.g. Bioshock Infinite. Admittedly not much gameplay was built around alternate realities, and the narrative was straight as an arrow. In a way it can be said that Radiant Historia features both time travel and alternate realities (two of them to be exact). As a curious twist, only the protagonist, Stocke, is able to time travel and the available companions are therefore always limited by the point in time you go to. It's also noteworthy that Stocke traverses his own two alternate timelines, always experiencing past events from a first person perspective. In other words he doesn't get to be an outside observer in his own past. Oh and in case you are wondering, he is not allowed to inform his companions about his ability to time travel - which is kind of convenient in keeping the narrative sane.

The rules of time travel in the game are a bit incoherent. The timelines are not exactly independent, but they aren't exactly connected either. This means that certain changes in one timeline can resonate into the other. However, most of the time roadblocks in the narrative are cleared by the player obtaining an item or ability in the other timeline. Which is not all that different from obtaining these things from some faraway dungeon instead - except the developers can recycle the same environments in both timelines. I have to admit this felt a bit cheap and dipping into one timeline to obtain MacGuffin #1745 got a bit tedious at times. It's not necessarily due to the concept itself, but rather its technical implementation. Since there are only limited nodes to travel to, certain dialogue and other sequences need to be played over and over again because often the MacGuffin itself is a bit beyond the travel node.

Time travel in itself is not the core subject matter in RH really. It's mostly used as a way to tell the game's story - the player pieces it together from two different perspectives. It's also the solution to all kinds of troubles encountered by the protagonist. Although the story's premise is for Stocke to discover the true history by repairing the original timeline, most of the game's subject matter deals with political events, Stocke's identity and his nemesis. Which, honestly, is absolutely fine. Politics often results in more interesting plots than the usual world-saving scenarios (something I hope George R. R. Martin also remembers before ruining his series with too much epic bullshit *ahem*). While there is a world-threatening catastrophe looming over everything in RH, it is first and foremost about the people. You could actually remove the time travel and still have a fairly decent - if not as unique - plot.

In comparison, both Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy XIII-2 have time travel as a more significant plot subject. In particular, the timeline itself is being threatened - and especially FFXIII-2 is mostly about fixing it somehow. Furthermore, the reason why the timeline is altered in the first place is an important piece of the full plot of the entire FFXIII trilogy. In RH the origin of Stocke's time travel ability doesn't really matter all that much. It's nice to learn, but bears less significance because it's not a central plot theme in the game. I guess this is as far as I want to delve into time travel and related things for now. Let's talk about something else story-related.

2. The take-off time

I sited slow take-off time as one of the two reasons I took so effing long to complete this game. It's a bit of a pattern really for handheld games and me: start slow, playing an hour here or there until the game really starts going, and then just be glued to the screen for the last half or such. Kind of a similar thing happens with TV series and me. It's really quite obvious, but something that I really thought about only quite recently. In the end I feel like it comes down to how relatable the characters are, or how long it takes for me to start relating to them. This is obviously highly affected by character writing and overall storytelling. For example, the main characters of Gilmore Girls are super-relatable, pretty much from the get-go. Most game characters, well, they are not - the level of writing just ain't there yet. It's also hard to really bring out much about personalities and such if most in-game dialogue is strictly plot-related. Persona 4 gets quite close though.

I basically approach immersion through the game's characters, which is why I only get really engrossed once I feel like I know them - and this may take even up to 20 hours of game time. It's really less about development of the plot for me - unless the plot itself is *really* good (Xenogears, off the top of my head). This also explains why sequels with the same main cast seem to get off much more quickly - even instantly - and also why the first hours of a game feel better when playing it for a second time. Games with a player-created protagonist mix things up a bit, because the immersion goes through one character who is essentially my own avatar. Other people might have different way of immersing themselves into fiction. Still, I think this short piece is relevant if you read my blog - it will help you understand why I have certain opinions about certain games. For instance, does my dislike of Xenoblade's first half really originate from it's slow pace, or the fact that I didn't find the characters all too relatable until much later into the game?

Back to Radiant Historia: this game's cast of characters is not very deep. The main character and one or two companions get interesting later on, but this takes quite a while. Most of the in-game talk is also quite strictly to the point. For some this might be a blessing more than anything, for me it kinda leaves the characters a bit shallow - or actually a lot shallow. There is also a game mechanical dimension to this, particularly in RPGs: early on, characters have very limited number of abilities, which makes them thin from a mechanical perspective on top of being thin from a personality perspective. Generally both improve over time, at least if you're like me and don't really mind cliched characters. I guess you'd have to be to enjoy this genre.

3. Combat of push-arounds

If time travel / alternate realities as plot elements don't sound convincing enough for you, then how about a rather unique turn-based combat system? On the surface the system doesn't look all that revolutionary. It's a very basic turn-based system where enemies are placed on a 3x3 grid. However, the grid is rather important because almost all enemies in the game can be pushed and pulled around using different abilities. They can also be stacked temporarily, which is the primary way of increasing the party's damage output. For instance, you can push an enemy into another (doing damage), and then hit the two stacked enemies, this time damaging both, and then push them into yet another enemy. If you'd then attack the stack once more, the collateral damage has effectively doubled the damage done to one target.

At first the system is a bit simplistic. Just stack enemies, hit the stack, rinse and repeat. You can also create chains longer than three hits by swapping turns around. Characters can always swap their turn with any other combatant, including enemies. By allowing enemies to take their turns first, you can easily have at least two turns for each of your characters without interruptions. However, there is a downside to this (besides allowing enemies to hit you first!): characters who have swapped their turns take bonus damage until they actually take a turn. This is relevant, because some enemies really dish out the hurt. The system gets more complex later on, as abilities that hit multiple tiles become available. One character can also cast traps, which are more powerful than normal spells, but can only be cast on empty tiles.

As usual, it's important that enemies pose enough of a threat. Some of them cause serious grief, but even weaker ones can be a bane. This is caused by the limited availability of recovery items (they are expensive - especially mana recovery items) and the fact that anything beyond basic attacks costs mana - and basic attacks are weak. Running out of resources is a threat when undertaking longer ventures. I thought I had enough supplies for the final dungeon... boy was I wrong. It got rather tense towards the end. Navigational mistakes can also become rather costly as enemies respawn whenever you leave a map. Once again the success of RH's combat system cannot be awarded to just one system, but rather a combination of factors. The combination of manipulating space (enemy positions) and time (turn order) becomes interesting because the player is required to make full use of it.

If I had to complain about something, it would be this: character development in the game is entirely linear, in one dimension. That's a fancy way of saying you gain preset abilities by leveling up. The only way to customize the characters themselves is to change their equipment - which also consists entirely of numeric bonuses. However the game does force the player to frequently change their party configuration. When traveling in time, the point in time dictates who are actually accompanying Stocke at the moment (remember, the party members can't travel in time). Mysteriously enough all companions retain levels and equipment they gained in some future point in time. I think this is a rather necessary amendment and not all that atypical to JRPGs; game mechanics are not involved with the plot in any way (like summoning a space dragon to blast enemies from the orbit doesn't destroy the surrounding city, even though it should).


Despite its slow start, Radiant Historia is a very solid JRPG. Time travel is always a fascinating, even though it really isn't in the main focus this time. Instead, the game's plot is mostly about politics and personal relationships - both of which I generally find more interesting than cosmic plots involving world-eating gods. Most importantly it features a combat system that has enough space for strategical thinking and enemies that require it. Character development is bland though and there could have been a more interesting way of keeping all characters unique.

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