Plenty of novelty pervades Radiant Historia, the latest role-playing game from the makers of the Shin Megami Tensei series. This uniqueness encompasses everything, from a creative combat system to a fresh take on the theme of time-travel, yet the game succeeds on more than originality. Strong characterization keeps the plot entertaining, while grid-based battles infuse plenty of strategy into the action. You also find a slew of side quests and unlockables that impact the game's end, making this distinct journey a rewarding foray into the past despite a few flaws.
Though the storyline appears mundane on the surface, a compelling tale of fate belies any mediocrity. In the war-torn world of Vainqueur, an encroaching desert is turning everything into sand, which causes the two great kingdoms--Granorg and Alistel--to squabble over land. You're cast as Stocke, a cunning member of Alistel's special intelligence unit who stumbles onto the White Chronicle, a mysterious text that enables the user to travel through time. Stocke aims to use the book to prevent the world from becoming one giant sandbox, but he's not alone in his time traveling: Some unseen force plots against him, manipulating history at every turn. Clever twists and political trickery on both sides of the war keep the story sharp, but the game's emphasis on friendship provides the real hook; Stocke interacts with a large cast of allies on a personal level, often working to save his friends from a date with destiny--all the while manipulating his own.
An inventive time-travel concept challenges you to use your head. As you work through missions, you encounter a break in history that causes the true timeline to split into two parallel universes. Your goal is to mend history by rewriting it, revealing the true path as you search for the cause of the split. As you progress in one timeline to complete various tasks--from rescuing damsels to assassinating thugs--you discover major flaws in the history. You fix these disruptions by traveling through your own timeline or by visiting an alternate timeline, which often unveils your real objective. This exciting discovery process encourages creativity, prompting you to find clever solutions to "impossible" problems. For example, at one point, a key ally falls in battle to an invincible enemy, prompting Stocke to search for a way to save his friend in an alternate timeline. Your ability to shape destiny is another thrilling feature. You often trigger events that force you to make crucial decisions, some of which destroy the world. These false game-over instances could get very confusing if it weren't for the book's two magical guardians, who offer advice whenever you hit a roadblock. The menu also keeps a handy chart that details every event in both timelines, which helps you figure out exactly where (and when) to go to resolve issues.
Opportunities for exploration are limited, but puzzles that impede your progress at least keep things interesting. You find invisible treasure chests, movable rocks, and explosives to help you clear a path to your destination, and the short brainteasers break up the monotony. The game's greatest disappointment lies in its limited areas to investigate; you're stuck on a small continent with only three cities and a handful of roadways to explore, so you're constantly retracing steps. This frequent backtracking might annoy you, but a convenient cloaking ability at least lets you pass through the game's few mazes while avoiding combat.
A unique grid-based system successfully blends action with strategy to keep combat enticing. The battlefield is segmented into a three-by-three matrix, with each enemy taking up one or more slots on the grid. Your goal is to forcibly push foes into each other so you can pummel multiple enemies at once, drastically speeding up battles. Intelligent bad guys provide a challenge and use more than simple status effects to bring you down. They often position themselves into specific formations that increase their damage or cast supportive spells onto the grid itself, strengthening any enemy standing upon an affected panel. Enemies, particularly bosses, also use a series of tricks that limit your ability to maneuver them on the board, forcing you to think on your toes. For example, some enemies are immovable while others attack from the safety of barricades, which increase their defense.
An interesting experience system awards points based on combos, so you have to plow through bad guys in style to level efficiently. You start a combo by having your team members attack the same enemy in succession, receiving the most combo points by using elaborate skills. For example, placing a bomb and then knocking a foe into it rewards more combo (and experience) points than regular attacks. Combos also cause more harm, which makes them especially useful once you've positioned foes into groups so they share combo damage. Half the fun of combat lies in figuring out how to chain skills for the best combos, although things get a little formulaic when enemies reuse the same formations.
Radiant Historia's presentation draws you in with its cozy nostalgic effect. Detailed character sprites interact in colorful environments, and the game's elaborate cutscenes--featuring emphatic gestures and cute attack animations--are fun to watch. Character portraits are equally detailed, though their limited facial expressions makes it difficult to appreciate emotional dialogue. There are more than enough flashy battle effects to satisfy your destructive urges, including extravagant special skills. A powerful orchestral soundtrack adds to the game's atmosphere. Haunting violin melodies sweep through desolate landscapes while an invigorating Celtic score intensifies battles. Good ambient sounds--from echoing caves to howling winds--apply the final touch.
Playing through Radiant Historia might take you around 35 hours, longer if you choose to undertake all of the interesting side quests that you can find. Most quests involve time conundrums that require crafty thinking to work around, such as when characters request items that don't exist anymore. In this situation, Stocke must either travel back through time to locate them or visit the alternate universe, where they might still exist. However, side quests offer more than a good puzzle, rewarding you with elite gear and hidden gems that unlock multiple endings. Despite limited exploration, Radiant Historia ultimately satisfies, producing an innovative adventure that is sure to stand the test of time.