Radiant Historia: Final Thoughts

My opinion of Radiant Historia can be summed up in three words: “Good first try.” That’s not quite long enough to count as a day’s post, though, so I guess I’ll have to go into more detail.

You know what game Radiant Historia reminds me the most of? Suikoden. The first one, I mean. Suikoden was an interesting game because it had some very fresh and unique ideas for how RPGs should work — but it was hampered by cheap labor-saving measures and awkward user interface issues. You could tell right off that the fundamental ideas behind the game were solid, but the execution felt somewhat amateurish. It was a necessary stepping stone, however, because after they found their feet, the Suikoden team made Suikoden II, which is a genuinely great game containing none of the flaws of its predecessor, allowing those great ideas to shine forth at their fullest potential.

So it is with Radiant Historia. It has a great concept and great ideas, but it sorely needed a bigger budget and six more months of fine-tuning.

This game has “shoe-string budget” written all over it, to the point where I’d argue it becomes detrimental to the overall experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bestiary, which takes palette-swapping to heretofore-unplumbed depths. There are maybe two dozen distinct monster sprites in this game, which doesn’t even sound like a lot. (By contrast, a hundred monsters isn’t really that many either, but at least it sounds like a substantial number.) This even extends to bosses, the vast majority of which are just normal enemy types with a new coat of paint and buffed-up stats. One recurring enemy doesn’t even get a proper boss fight despite being sold as an unbeatable swordsman for most of the game — you confront him, fight a team of mooks, then he dies in a cutscene. This is horribly distracting. Padding your bestiary with copious repaints is a glorious RPG tradition with a long and storied history, but it can be taken too far. Radiant Historia takes it too far.

Even the player characters’ animations feel low-budget. Each of them has only two or three “moves” that they use incessantly for all their techniques. The sprites have a lot of personality, with little details like Eruca absently twirling her guns and Aht dancing when her Mana Burst meter fills up, but they’re few and far between. Stocke doesn’t even have an animation for running diagonally, which just looks silly.

This goes for a lot of the rest of the game as well… Backtracking was probably an inevitability given the game’s premise, but forcing the player to navigate each dungeon a half-dozen times or more was probably not. What music there is is excellent, but like the monsters, the same tunes are repeated over and over. It really feels like the developers only had the budget to make half the game they wanted, so they studiously recycled assets to build the rest. This has the unfortunate effect of making the first half of the game feel really intriguing and addictive, but the second half, once repetitiveness sinks in, becomes a chore.

I feel bad even bringing this up, because I’m sure the developers wouldn’t have done it this way if they’d had a choice, and I’m hardly the type of gamer who demands that every game be a triple-A blockbuster experience, but it really bothered me. There are better choices for adventures in technological minimalism and budget-stretching than a thirty-hour RPG, I’m sorry. Part of the appeal of RPGs for me is traveling to a wide range of places and seeing all the weird, usual stuff, and Radiant Historia doesn’t even make an effort in that direction.

The gameplay systems are similar… fundamentally sound, and very interesting in the way they’re structured, but with issues that probably could have been eliminated with more testing. I still feel the majority of enemies are too hard — particularly, they seem to get way too many turns relative to the characters. You might as well flee whenever the enemies get the jump on you, because coming back to win such a battle is going to be more trouble than it’s worth. Nothing is more depressing than looking at the “pending actions” bar and seeing enemy actions as far as the eye can see, and it’s a common sight late in the game. In addition, many of the player’s combat abilities are either effectively useless or not costed correctly. Changing turns is interesting but feels not worth the risk in a lot of situations — the drawback (a character who switches turns with someone else takes double damage until such time they perform a combat action) feels like too much of a penalty. (My feeling is that allowing the enemy to act right away is drawback enough — eliminating the double-damage thing would make turn-switching more common and practical.)

In the field… my kingdom for a mini-map! The areas in this game are labyrinthine and it’s hard to tell at a glance where you are at any given time. It’s easy to come out of a battle and feel disoriented because you have no idea where you are in relation to the rest of the area. The camera feels zoomed-in too close just in general, actually — frequently enemies are on top of you before you’re even able to react to them.

Now, that sounds like a hefty heap of criticisms, and it is… but this is all fringy stuff, stuff that could be fixed with a little extra time and elbow grease. There is a lot to like about this game. The story is superb, and in possibly a JRPG first every single one of the party members is genuinely likable, even the little kid, stoic strongman, and love interest. If Stocke isn’t the best JRPG lead ever, he’s on the list. It probably says a lot about the atrophy of the genre that a character with two brain cells and the wherewithal to rub them together occasionally feels like such a revelation, but it’s incredibly refreshing to have a lead who sees connections and makes the logical leaps as I do and not five hours down the road, when it’s narratively convenient. And although the story does degenerate into fantasy nonsense late in the game (after focusing largely on politics, diplomacy, and war, another Suikoden similarity), it never becomes incomprehensible, something most other JRPGs don’t even bother with.

The game is not great in and of itself, but the seed of greatness is there. I hope the developers get a chance to make their Suikoden II, where the seed would be allowed to grow.

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