What’s the difference between a Western RPG and a Japanese one? For many, they’re actually completely different genres that happen to share a common lineage. Both can trace their roots back to the pen-and-paper RPGs popularised by Dungeons & Dragons but, in their formative years, they chose to follow paths that would take them in very different directions. So while the Western RPG focused on the storytelling potential of the genre, culminating in the choose-your-own-adventure style of BioWare and Bethesda’s output, the Japanese concentrated on the mathematical role-playing of party customisation and battle mechanics. Which is better? They’re both perfectly viable interpretations of the genre, of course, but it’s the Western approach that’s been most popular in recent years, the freedom of its open worlds and branching dialogue trees proving a more accessible entry point into the genre than Japan’s complex battles.
Whether by design or coincidence, Atlus’s Radiant Historia appears to be an attempt to merge these two styles into a best-of-both-worlds hybrid. At its core, this is still a 16-bit console-style experience, complete with Final Fantasy-esque line-dancing and a slowly unfolding combat system. But it’s also one of the boldest attempts to take the JRPG into the realm of interactive storytelling currently making its Western counterparts so compelling. As is often the case when Japan tries to incorporate Western conventions, however, the design team hasn’t quite grasped the purpose of such mechanics.
Radiant Historia tells the tale of Stocke, a soldier who finds himself in possession of a mysterious tome called The White Chronicle, a book that enables him to travel back in time to significant crossroads in his life to make different decisions and alter the path of history. More than just a personal quest through time, Stocke’s tale sees him caught between several factions in an epic fantasy war, his actions determining not just his own path but also the fate of the world around him.
With this, the most common criticism of the JRPG is obliterated in one single design change. It used to be that all choice in the genre was artificial. If an NPC asked you a question and you gave the preferred answer then the story would simply continue; give the answer the scriptwriters didn’t expect and the NPC would just keep asking the same question until you relented. That’s hardly ‘role-playing’ as we understand it, and Radiant Historia acknowledges this, allowing you to make real decisions with consequences that take the story in wildly different directions. It’s a genuine step forward for a genre that, ironically enough, hasn’t experimented with storytelling in this way since Chrono Trigger, the nation’s last great time travel RPG. But it’s also a slightly flawed implementation of branching narrative. Some decisions, for example, lead not to alternate timelines but to dead ends in the plot, effectively making some decisions the wrong decisions. Choose a poor option and you’ll be presented with a few text screens explaining the unfortunate outcome of your choices, dumped back to a Game Over screen and asked to go back to the previous juncture and act differently.
Worse still, Radiant Historia’s use of alternate timelines damages any illusion of player agency. Reach an impasse in the narrative and you’ll occasionally find that the only solution is to change something at the same place and time in the game’s alternate timeline, the consequences inexplicably affecting both realities. This effectively means that the game can’t be completed unless you constantly hop between the two main branches of the timeline, playing both stories in parallel and effectively making all of your decisions irrelevant in the process. There is an upside to this, of course. Most RPGs deny you the ability to see what might have been without you playing through for a second time, but Radiant Historia offers the opportunity for you to walk both paths at the same time and explore, in detail, the broad consequences of your actions. And the genre’s typically lengthy, detailed dialogue functions in service of this for once, each sentence painting a rich picture of the fates you’ve brought into existence. It might not be a narrative that you’re truly in control of, but it is yet another interesting exploration of the impact videogames can have on storytelling.
If Radiant Historia’s time-hopping narrative puzzles don’t quite live up to expectation, however, then its reliably accomplished battle system is the game’s saving grace. Mixing traditional Final Fantasy mechanics with elements of the strategy genre, it places your party in a simple row of three against a squad of enemies on a three-by-three grid. You can push an enemy to the back of the grid to lower its defence and attack while also damaging it, but you can also string moves together between your party member. Push one enemy into the same square as another then attack that square with your second fighter and you’ll damage both units at once. If you plot your turn sequence properly then you can orchestrate devastating combos that leave the enemies unable to recover. And as the game progresses, your party will gain further abilities to manipulate the battle – a move to pull units forward or sideways, or the power to lay traps, for example – while the enemies also up their game, some immovable, others more powerful when arranged in a certain formation. Keeping on top of the ever-evolving demands of Radiant Historia’s combat makes for one of the most engaging and rewarding battle systems since Final Fantasy XIII and renders any flaws in the narrative design an unfortunate but ultimately innocuous sideshow.