With the release on Xenoblade Chronicles earlier this summer European gamers found themselves in an unfamiliar situation. Many Japanese games over the years have been denied a PAL release whilst simultaneously being localised for America (NTSC region). But now, with the release of Xenoblade, the next-best-Japanese-RPG has not only been localised for our European Wii’s but has simultaneously been denied to the American gaming public. Thus we find ourselves either dutifully feeling America’s pain, or, more likely, guiltily enjoying this rather peculiar turn of events. However, while we can for the moment bask in this small victory (it we may call it that) there are still many games which tragically slip through our fingers. Not least is a title which appeared earlier this year in America, a unique and rather brilliant RPG called Radiant Historia. Released for the Nintendo DS and developed by an in-house team at ATLUS, Radiant Historia is one example of the many excellent Japanese games which still miss our oft-ignored continent.
Released in late 2010 in Japan and in February this year in America, Radiant Historia (RH) is not exactly the ‘event’ which many have seen Xenoblade as. It is an RPG on the DS for a start. While Xenoblade finally gave the Wii what it most desperately needed, that is, a hardcore game for Nintendo’s decidedly casual console, RH only adds to the still increasing library of RPGs on Nintendo’s more prolific portable hardware. But while it shares its home with many other great games, RH is unique enough to deserve more than just a look and it is certainly worthy of a place in any RPG fan’s collection. Like Xenoblade, RH’s gameplay is innovative and attempts to bring new life to the tired systems of the JRPG genre. These innovations are perhaps not quite as drastic as those found in Xenoblade, whose embracing of newer approaches to combat and general accessibility are comparable to other home-console games such as the visually stunning Final Fantasy XIII (or the slightly less accessible Resonance of Fate), but RH’s gameplay is certainly original and demands closer attention.
To begin with the game’s story takes place in the land of Vainqueur where the player is given the role of Stocke, an intelligence officer for the City of Alistel’s army. This army is in the throes of a war with another civilisation, the unfortunately named Granorg, and it is your task to infiltrate and thwart Granorg’s attempts to conquer your city. Along with this threat the land is also becoming ruined by desertification (everything becoming dry and deserty). It is Stocke’s job to deal with these two colossal forces which threaten to overwhelm his beloved city. So thank god he is soon given the power of the Historia, a book which allows Stocke to travel back and forth in time to specific events which are important in the narrative’s timeline. If this time-travelling narrative is starting to ring bells then don’t be too alarmed. Yes, this does sound rather like another PAL deprived RPG, Chrono Trigger (unavailable in our frustrating region until a DS port was released in 2009), but RH adds to this time travelling narrative structure with further, paradox-inducing alternative histories.
As the game’s story develops several diverging histories branch off as certain significant choices are made –resembling a kind of non-romantic-fantasy-turn-based-Sliding Doors. You can then move between these histories to change reality and find the world’s ‘true history’ –one in which both your civilisation and the world are saved. To do this you must work with each alternative history to learn things about the other realities. There is also an inexplicable link between realities which means that an action in one will affect the other. While this link looks to tear the fabric of comprehension (i.e. it makes no sense), the player is given a genuine feeling of knowing more than the other characters, travelling between realities searching for the right skill or event. By revealing the ‘alternative’ event the game allows you access to both sides of its intriguing story (forgive the cliché). The game therefore feels more intimate than the epoch-spanning epic Chrono Trigger, which flung its characters to the far ends of time to save the world. Instead with RH we deal with a smaller time scale and themes of conspiracy, political intrigue and Machiavellian characters. This feeling of a more measured adventure is complimented by the game’s combat system which in turn is reliant on tactics and the relationship between characters.
Combat here is not quite the new fangled fare of FFXIII or Xenoblade. Instead RH’s combat resembles a cross between the familiar Dragon Quest-like turn-based battles and grid-based strategy games such as the cult favourite Disgaea. Your party remains in the usual formation while the enemies confront you on a 3X3 grid, their position on which relates to the amount of damage they can inflict. This grid also allows you to move the enemy units about using certain ‘pushing’ skills which allow you to pile up enemies and deal out combos – sometimes allowing you to do away with a whole unit in one fell swoop. This tactic of using you party together to deal the most amount of damage to the most amounts of enemies brings a new dynamic to the player’s party of characters. Whereas before you may have needed a Healer, a Mage and a strong man to maintain your party, RH now requires ‘pushers’ which can be used to manipulate enemy troops, allowing for devastating combos to be dealt out groups of enemies. The system isn’t quite as brave as FFXII or XIII’s combat but by slightly adjusting the more traditional turn-based combat of Dragon Quest or Chrono Trigger with elements of grid-based strategy RPG’s, RH manages to bring something new to the tried-and-tested staple of the turn-based genre.
Radiant Historia is without doubt a game worth playing. It takes influence from some of the best in the RPG genre and its unique approach to both narrative gameplay and combat set it apart as a truly distinct and memorable experience. It is a shame it has not been, and perhaps never will be, localised to the PAL region. But while the Americans are shouting about Nintendo not inviting them to the Xenoblade party, we have generally remained tight-lipped about our own catalogue of lost invitations. Where are the cries to localise RH? There certainly are a few, but they are found in small internet forums and their voices can only resonate so far. To be fair the sheer amount of games which aren’t localised to the PAL region means that to complain about each one would be a full time job. But perhaps there is something to be learnt from the Americans’ vigour – in any event Xenoblade is more likely to be localised than RH, whose sales figure in America are hardly encouraging. Thankfully Radiant Historia is on the easiest system to import for. If you have an original DS or DSLite then you can simply buy a copy and the lack of region lock on the console will allow you to play it straight up. To buy either of these consoles is now ridiculously cheap too (the cheapest pre-owned is now under £50) and if you’re an RPG fan then this is well worth the effort.