With all the latest RPGs trying their hardest to out-best the competition, including using cinematics, flamboyant displays of magic, and attacks during in-game combat, it can make one wistful of the RPGs from the Super Nintendo days. Atlus' Radiant Historia is a nice throwback to that time, giving it a refreshing new spin while reminding us why RPGs have become the powerhouse they are today.
The journey begins with your learning that the continent of Vainqueur, as well as the people who reside there, are turning into sand, with the West having all but disappeared. The remaining people from the West want to take the East for their fertile land, and in turn conflict has ensued.
You are Stocke, a seemingly cold, brooding soldier with few words who will always strive to do the right thing. From the beginning you become the keeper of the White Chronicle, a book that enables you to travel to key points in your timeline, where you can change your decisions and thus find the "true history" of the world in order to save it from ultimate doom. Naturally you later learn there also exists a Black Chronicle which is being used by an unknown to ruin your efforts and change history for the worse.
You must travel between two timelines, and relive key points in turn, in order to find the right path for history. Your actions in one timeline will affect the outcome in the other, so throughout the game you will jump back and forth between what are basically two different sides of the main story.
The story itself is quite in-depth, complete with treachery afoot, leaving you in the dark and guessing even 10 hours into the game. The serious threat of pending doom leaves your decisions all the more heart-pounding, as you are left truly wanting to make the right choice. Should you choose poorly, rather than waste time having you play through the outcome, the game simply gives you a brief outline of your downfall, then you reappear in Historia with the chance to make the right choice. If you have to replay a particular part, the option to fast-forward is always available to make it less tedious to go through the dialogue prior to your important decision.
Everything you do is recorded in the Chronicle, including your mistakes and any side-quests you choose to take on. It's a good way to keep track of both timelines and see how the tale unfolds, as well as to check what you need to do next in your mission. At the bottom-right of the screen you can see how much of the Chronicle you've written, as well as how much you have left to discover, giving you an idea of where you are in the game at all times.
Depending on where your journey leads you, certain points on the world-map are available to you in a similar fashion to Tactics Ogre. Even so, while sometimes you can skip over several enemy-infested areas to get to a town with an inn, other times it's just not possible and you are 'stuck' in whichever section of the map you happen to be.
Naturally along the way you recruit different people to travel with and fight alongside you. As you traverse different areas enemies will appear on-screen, virtually eliminating random encounters. If they spot you a '!' will appear above their head; you can choose to run away, or you can engage the enemy, with the option of slashing your sword beforehand to gain a pre-emptive attack.
To fight well, it is necessary to strategise how you approach each battle. Consisting of up to three of your crew against several enemies on a 3x3 grid, it's turn-based where you can 'switch' turns with both friend and foe, and you can complete combos by pushing opponents around the grid as your party attacks back-to-back. Every tool you're given is necessary, and every battle can be difficult if you don't plan how to approach it. Play your turns right and you can defeat several foes at once, pushing them into a corner and whaloping them one after the other with few moves from your party.
Combinations are not necessary, but are something to strive for as you earn bonus XP and bonus coins as well. Leveling-up becomes faster and easier, though the extra points are awarded only to the teammates who participated in battle; the rest of your unassigned teammates will only get the base amount of XP earned. Luckily all your efforts are carried with you whenever you switch from one timeline to the other, so your characters will keep their level and stats. It's the same for weaponry; the only time you lose any equipment is when someone leaves your party, usually only temporarily, as they take their gear with them.
You can choose to play with the DS stylus, or the 'traditional' approach of pressing buttons. Both work effectively, leaving it as more a matter of personal preference.
The only downsides I could find is that, while engaging, the storyline is very text-heavy and involved, having one take quite a while to get into it and understand what's going on. Having to relive previous events can help with that, but it can also be repetitive even with the fast-forward option (which is available at all times and can result with your accidentally fast-forwarding through an event that hasn't happened yet). When battling enemies on the field it's hard not to notice that they're the same, 'recycled' fiends for each subsequent battle. Unfortunately the repetitive gene lives on through the bosses as well; you will encounter several throughout the game who will have to be defeated more than once, seemingly defying death despite any sense whatsoever.
Even with that said, I feel this could very well be the closest game for a while yet that we will find adequately comparable to Chrono Trigger. Not only do you time-travel, you also have epic music by Yoko Shimomura (who has also produced music for games such as Kingdom Hearts and Legend of Mana), beautifully detailed sprite-based visuals, and an in-depth story to boot. This stellar combination is a must play that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you strive to unfold the true history of Vainqueur.
Radiant Historia is available in stores now, and it comes with a piano compilation CD of the in-game music.