Metroidhistoria

So! Let’s talk Radiant Historia.

Radiant Historia is exactly the game I’ve been wanting to play for a while. In many respects its a very standard 16/32-bit era JRPG, with its sprite-based graphics, fantasy world, and anime-styled characters. But in other respects its a more mature take on the genre that’s been missing for a while. While it’s still about saving the world from destruction, the road you take to get there is a bit more… ordinary, I guess?… than most games. The first half of Radiant Historia is about politics and war, not lost technology and bishies with god complexes. This is nicely represented by the game’s protagonist, Stocke, who is neither the rah-rah shonen hero type nor the sullen emo teen who serve as the vast majority of JRPG protagonists. Stocke is quiet, but it’s not because he’s got a secret, angsty past — it’s because he’s an intelligence officer, and playing things close to the vest is second nature to him. He never leaps without first looking, and he always keeps his eye on his immediate goals. He has a very good grasp on his own limitations. He doesn’t rush to grab the glory, but rather seems content to be the man behind the curtain for more charismatic people. He is, in short, an adult, and his maturity is rare and precious in JRPGs.

More interesting, to me, is the means by which the game tackles one of the JRPGs’ encroaching problems: Linearity. It’s well-known that the more in-depth the narrative in a game is, the less able the player is to deviate from it, resulting in the infamous straight-line RPGs.

Radiant Historia is still fairly linear, but it masks its linearity using its time travel gimmick. Early in the game, Stocke is forced to decide whether he wants to remain in intelligence doing shady black-ops-style work, or if he’d rather join his buddy Rosch’s brigade and become a soldier openly instead. This choice creates two parallel timelines, and Stocke has to switch between them every so often to gather information, items, and special abilities that can help him proceed through the timelines and change history. For example, in the soldier timeline, Stocke is posted at a fortress which is, unbeknownst to him, betrayed to the enemy. When the enemy attacks, explosives go off, and the fortress is lost. However, by proceeding through the spy timeline, Stocke can learn how to spot invisible objects, then return to before the attack and find and disarm the bombs, allowing the fortress to be held and changing the course of history.

The implication of this gimmick is that, rather than exploring in space as is the standard in most games, you explore in time. Often you’ll find that you need to talk to someone who Stocke isn’t on speaking terms with in one timeline, so you need to either go back in time before their falling-out, or to the other timeline where they’re on the same side. When you become roadblocked, the solution is often to check your time chart and see if there are any branches you haven’t explored yet, then head back there and poke around to see if you can uncover anything new — rather like a Metroidvania.

This also allows the game to sidestep that questionable trope where you have all the time in the world to explore and hunt for items even though the story says you’re on a time limit and should be rushing to do something. If Stocke has to do something for the storyline (for example, rushing to the aid of an ally), he has to do it — he won’t let you go anywhere else. You can, however, go back in time and explore there, when events aren’t quite so pressing. This allows you the freedom to take things at your leisure while still retaining the strong linear narrative.

This does have a few flaws, though. For one, the alternate timeline gimmick, along with the small scale of the game, means that locations get reused — a lot. You have to go through most areas in both timelines, often on multiple occasions, which means they get old in a hurry. I’m sick to death of that damn Sand Fortress already.

In addition, the timeline gimmick seems underutilized, as there are only two main timelines and a bunch of “But the future refused to change…” dead ends, usually involving Stocke winning some manner of short-term victory but either losing the war or failing to stop the imminent destruction of the world. The game doesn’t let you go very far along these failed timelines (most of them are just dialogue), so fewer of your choices are of real significance than it seems initially. This kind of makes sense within the story (Stocke’s goal is explicitly to create a “true history”, not go gallivanting around seeing what kinds of temporal hurricanes he can stir up), but it feels kind of limiting.

As for the systems and gameplay, I’m going to have to proceed further before I set my mind in stone about them. I’m of mixed feelings about both, but they could get better later in the game or as I become more experienced with them, so we’ll see. Maybe in a later post.

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