Of the many story-driven games that feature user-dictated time travel, Radiant Historia ranks high. This RPG treats altering events as essential to its story, forcing you to regularly jump back and forth between two streams of time. The impetus for this temporal weaving is so well ingrained into its narrative that it subverts any question of gimmickry. This engaging mechanic also complements Historia's traditional RPG gameplay of pursuing quests, surviving turn-based battles, and exploring a vast landscape. Originally released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS, Radiant Historia gets a welcomed re-release on the 3DS, and is an enhanced port in every sense of the term.
An Atlus RPG not associated with Shin Mega Tensei or Etrian Odyssey, Radiant Historia is based in its own original world with a built-in history. In fact, you start the game in what appears to be the twilight of the continent of Vainqueur--the game's setting--as its being slowly devastated by an unexplained "desertification". Sand isn't only consuming the land but also living beings as well. The kingdom of Alistel blames neighboring Granorg for this plague, inflaming a conflict between these warring lands.
You initially play as Stocke, an Alistelian agent assigned to escort a spy back to your capital. Though a series of events lead to the downfall of Stocke, two subordinates, and even the spy, our hero gets a supernatural reprieve. Finding himself in another realm, Stocke learns that the White Chronicle--a book given to him by his superior, Heiss--has the power to transport the user to key events in the past thereby giving you the ability to alter these moments. Using this tome to revive Stocke and his companions to further the interests of Alistel is only part of the story. Key characters like Heiss are aware of the White Chronicle and figuring out their motives is part of the narrative's draw.
Once empowered with time travel, you're presented with turning points and key branching paths on a regular basis. This system is at its most appealing when you're faced with a barrier--literal or otherwise--and trying to find the key event in the past that lets you bypass that hurdle. There are two distinct timelines and often the solution to advancing in one involves making progress in the other. Mentally arriving at some fixes can be a nuanced process, compelling you to retrace story events and figure out where an action or choice can create a new outcome.
As you overcome roadblocks and jump to the other timeline to surmount those obstacles, you'll come across optional opportunities to change the fate of others. Provided you have a keen eye to read your surroundings, using the White Chronicle can affect the environment and the nearby characters who might otherwise perish if you didn't get involved. Even after having the satisfaction of saving a life, there's an alluring sense of mystery in whether rescuing someone will ultimately lead to a positive or negative result further down the line.
The beauty of these diversions is that they don't feel like optional objectives in the traditional sense. The feeling of accomplishment in attending to the needs of others is often as gratifying as reaching a milestone in the main story. And since the White Chronicle timeline diagram is well-laid out with nodes denoting fail states, open story paths, and side routes, there's a strong compulsion to see every result as soon as you spot the clues leading to those endings. The satisfaction of filling in the White Chronicle isn't unlike finding all the dead ends in a dungeon before venturing forward on the presumptive main path. With 283 nodes to discover, Radiant Historia Perfect Chronicle is that rare breed of RPG where the drive to find minor and bad conclusions is as strong as reaching the main "good" ending.
Venturing out of the capital of Alistel to accomplish your missions will bring you face-to-face with all manner of hostile creatures and soldiers from Grenorg. These battles--triggered by making contact with enemies visible in the field--unfold in classic turn-based fashion. Facing off against foes who are laid out in a three-by-three grid presents its share of strategies. One of the most useful battle skills allows you to knock your target into another enemy-occupied space, either one space back or to the sides. With the right planning, a follow-up attack can deal shared damage to those crowded square in a single blow. There's further combat depth since you're also offered the option of swapping turns with other teammates. These opportunities deliver a puzzle-like sense of strategy, which make victories feel rewarding.
It's a battle system that feels both traditional and brain-teasingly fresh and it would've been superb if not for its quality-of-life shortcomings. For instance, if your threesome targets a single enemy and it's vanquished before all your team's turns are used up, remaining attacks will not defer to the other opponents. This results in wasted turns, which is all the more frustrating when party members in your reserves swoop in randomly to offer a one-off support action. This well-intentioned perk is appreciated when a teammate heals or buffs, but not when he's attacking a monster the active party is already cued up to attack. And if you hope to avoid excess grinding, think again; the advanced difficulty of the combat discourages trying out new characters as active teammates in battle, given their relatively low starting levels.
The improvements in Perfect Chronology over the original DS version range from minor to significant. The changes in 2D art character designs isn't an upgrade so much as it feels like Atlus trading the works of one talented artist for another. More clear cut production enhancements like new voiceovers, a retooled soundtrack, and a new anime-styled opening music video adds freshness to this game, but Perfect Chronology's more substantial upgrades are found in its new modes. A bonus dungeon called the Vault of Time provides opportunities to fight more monsters for a chance at exclusive items like support skills, which often prove useful in the main story. The difficulty of the vault increases with each subsequent floor and the stakes are heightened by the inability to use items.
The boldest new feature by far is the addition of a third stream of time. Given the tight woven relationship of the two other timelines, this third path--dubbed 'Sub-History'--unsurprisingly doesn't affect the original game's story or outcomes. Rather, it presents a host of what-if adventure scenarios where Stocke interacts with familiar friends and enemies, some whom behave out of character. It offers a look into the world and inhabitants of Vainqueur that manages to be insightful even if it's non-canonical.
With all the time juggling, the brain-teasing mechanic of the White Chronicle doesn't overshadow Radiant Historia Perfect Chronology's story. Its politically charged tale complements Stocke's personal journey as he follows his orders and makes sense of his powers. The White Chronicles' close connection to the plot only makes temporal manipulation all the more engrossing, regardless if you're working your way to the game's best conclusion or hitting every node in the timeline. This feature maintains its grip for much of the game's 60-hour journey in spite of its combat shortcomings. Had this been a straight port of the DS version, it would still warrant the attention of RPG enthusiasts who missed Radiant Historia the first time around. With its upgrades and considerable bonuses--particularly the Sub-History--even those who think they got their fill by beating the original game should check out this definitive edition.