Saturday, July 13, 2019

#JRPGJuly - JRPG Canon Bonus Analysis: Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology

I don't really write reviews. If I did, I would be like that one person on every metacritic user section that says "This is the best game ever, I don't know what the negative reviews are for." I am a strong believer in the action button dot net manifesto:
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all games are created awesome.
And as such, I'm very forgiving for things that are probably dealbreakers for everyone else. So I'm too positive to have anything interesting to say on a "is this game good" scale.

For instance, one time in college I decided I had too many "favorite movies" and decided that was unacceptable, so I made a tournament bracket of all of my "favorite movies" to see which ones reigned supreme over the others.

Except I sat down for the first viewing party, Accepted versus The Hangover, and it was a draw. I liked them both a WHOLE LOT, for vastly different reasons. But couldn't pick which one was better. (My friends all said that the Hangover was the clear winner, but I still go back and forth.)

I then looked at the rest of my bracket, and decided the whole thing was a draw, but I'd pick Scott Pilgrim or Chasing Amy or Spider-Man 2, depending on how Nerdy, Lesbian, or Normie the person asking was.

This JRPG July, however, as I sat aside all my normal games I was playing (all were JRPGs anyways, but I like to do something special for JRPG July) to play Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, I found myself wanting to tell everyone why this game is so damn good. So here I am writing a bonus entry for the JRPG Canon on a game from last year. This will have a much different format than normal, but bear with me. I just wanna rave about this game for a few thousand words.

This game is fuckin weird.

But not like, Undertale weird. Or Okage weird, or even like, Moe Girls with Guns weird. It's more weird in the sense that it's wholly unique. There isn't much like it. It's a time travel story, but not like Chrono Trigger or Ocarina. It's an alternate dimension story, but not like Chrono Cross or Link to the Past. It's a turn based battler, kinda like Final Fantasy X, but also kinda like Wild Arms V.

It simultaneously wears its influences on its sleeve, while turning those influences on their heads, and making it feel just south of familiar the entire time.

My 3DS doesn't have a capture function, and I'm not gonna start over on Citra just for screencaps,
so I'll be using screens of the DS version from DarkHamsterlord's LP, found here.
The main difference is redrawn character art, and font choices.
And the 3DS has the action on the top screen, The DS on the bottom.

After an intro with two mysterious characters describing the "desertification" of the world, The game starts with your avatar through this tale, Stocke reporting for duty to his Superior, Weiss. Weiss has evil as fuck hair and nose going on, but at this point, I still don't know if that's gonna pan out or not. 

Weiss wants you to go and do a political thing, and to take this book with you, the White Chronicle. You ask why, he says he can't tell you. You take it anyways.

So you make your way to the political thing, and, uh, get your ass fuckin' handed to you, and you, your party, and your escortee all just fuckin' die.

This cutscene takes place in the battle engine, which is a quick way to my heart.

I'll admit that the political stuff was kinda really boring, so I was glassy eyed through all of it, but this kinda snapped me to attention early on.

You wake up in some sort of purgatory afterlife combo, called Historia, and the Lutece twins from the intro are there to tell you that the white chronicle is a time machine that lets you loop back onto your own timeline, but only at events that are important to history.

The bits in Historia span both screens, and everything is subtly animated, and it's gorgeous.

At this point, I thought that it was gonna be a moderately linear game, with a bunch of Prince-Of-Persia-esque rewinds to save your ass when you do it wrong.

But it's not! It's way cooler than that.

Katawa Shoujo

is the only visual novel I've played the "correct" way. Where you start over and explore other routes, and get a feel for the story as a whole, instead of just your first experience. I love the concept, I just don't consume media that's hours and hours long more than once, usually.

Katawa Shoujo, and probably every other visual novel, has a flowchart to help you realize when the game can split, and hint at what you can do to find more routes, to see the whole game. It's a really cool storytelling technique, and lets you do the "what would I have done differently" mental conversation in real life (hey mom I just referred to playing a video game as "real life", are you proud of me), and be boyfriend with all the pretty girls without them getting mad at you.

Radiant Historia is set up like a visual novel. But the subtext of going back to do things differently is now the text, and you need to do that to progress in the game at all.

When I got to my first roadblock, a point where a merchant didn't show up in this timeline, so I had to make sure he arrived safely in the other, I thought it was dumb. It doesn't make sense to me basically at all, but whatever, they needed some gameplay reason to not just follow one path to the end at once.

This flowchart is your true world map, and you explore your world with
story, instead of just geography

When I went and looked at the flowchart, however, there were almost a dozen nodes and branches that happened while I wasn't even looking. Most of these lead to comical butterfly effect worst case scenarios that aren't game overs, but are "try harders" that let you pick another insertion point into time.

This storytelling method is really cool, because like Stocke, you are trying to fix the correct history, and piece together the story by following two other unimportant stories to their conclusions. This takes the metagame of a visual novel of "Read all the available words" and turns it into the main point of the game. This game is really tickling my 100%er funny bone, and I welcome it.

Before I get to my favorite bit about this weird ass system, though, I need to talk about the battle system.

Talking about the Battle System

I love me a good battle system. I love stacking all my dudes in Disgaea to have a giant people-sword I can hit the baddies with. I love mastering Additions in Legend of Dragoon. I love seeking out the Tech Point bonuses for each Heartless in Kingdom Hearts 1. So when I load up Radiant Historia, and the battle system is unlike anything else, I get giddy.

In battle, you are immobile, in traditional side-view battler fashion. Your enemies, however, are not. They can freely move around a 3x3 grid, and their position determines their damage they deal to you, and your damage dealt to them.

This beautiful mess is a cross between a Row in final fantasy, and a Hex in Wild Arms V.

This would be cool enough, but of course, there's more.

You have moves that can manipulate their position, and even stack enemies on top of each other, so your dinky little attack becomes a multi-target attack.

These moves are pretty basic, push, grapple, left/right assault, etc. But Stocke gets the full set, and your two starting party members, Raynie and Marco get half each. And you get these moves basically right away. So you quickly are moving enemies all over the place, instead of having to rely on a single manipulation move and hope your enemy pattern behaves.

But of course, there's more.

What stacking turns looks like on the 3DS version. Getting a Brilliant combo (or higher!) can net
you almost double the gold and experience you would have gotten with a regular kill.

On any turn, for free, you can swap turns with another character. But not just party members, but enemies too. When you swap, you'll be extra-vulnerable for a few turns, but you can move your healer to the front of the line, and your some-assembly-required mage combo at the end.

This creates for some really dynamic battles that are all puzzles you have to unravel.

Puzzles that, unfortunately, take a long ass time to complete.

Puzzles that, unfortunately, only reward a handful of gold and experience.

Puzzles that, unfortunately, auto-battle doesn't engage with at all, instead just spamming attack each available turn, causing you to take much much more damage from enemies if you auto battle. 

Shops, meanwhile, have the +1 weapon costing 1500-2000g in the shops, with mobs dropping 50 if you're lucky. a 30mp restorative costs 350g, and just the fact of interacting with the battle system has you spending oodles of MP each turn.

This was where I started to not like the game. (and would probably still give it a B-) I had finished two different prologues and started two different chapter ones, and was still getting my ass kicked because I didn't have enough money for a good weapon, and grinding was long, arduous, and not that rewarding.

I was stupid.

I'm a God Damned Time Traveler

You see, being a master of time and space, I am not required to take the slower path with you mere mortals. I can pop in and out of history as I see fit, and do what I want.

And what I want to do, is give the enemies all of my turns, so that I can move 10 times in a row, racking up an overkill bonus to net me more experience.

And what I want to do, is do this to the Chapter 1 boss over and over, because my Tardisbook left me one of those silly butterfly effect bad endings right before it happened, so my timeline splits (and is therefore repeatable) at the savepoint before the boss.

This was my screen for a good half-hour when I realized I could time travel.

So what I want to do, is rack up some 300-400XP and 1000g per fight, and spend about 10 minutes finishing everyone's loadout, so that I can whup ass on the bosses that were throttling me before.

See, this rules hard, because it made me explore my world map, but not just my space map, but my time map as well. My grinding spot wasn't just Lazvil Hills, it was Lazvil Hills at the end of Chapter 1 in the standard timeline.

It was like there was another roadblock, but not one of story, one of gameplay. The boss was hard, and the mobs were tough, but the answer wasn't to go to another timeline and save a merchant, the answer was to go BACK in time, and take Bram's lunch money over and over and over and over and over like a goddamed time lord ought to.

Now, much like in Dragon Quest 3, where you would mentally remember where the Yggdrasil leaf was so you could come back later, I now remember what mobs, and WHEN, give me lots of experience or gold or item drops, so that I can use them as a tool to further explore this timeline in the game.

That's cool.

Like, really fuckin' cool.

It's basically been since Dragon Quest that I've had such a revelation about what a game wanted me to do, and the design choices made to ensure that.

This game is non-linear, in that, it isn't a straight line to the end, even if progress happens sequentially. The game is about mastering your control of time, so you manipulate your initiative in battle as well as your position in the timeline to do really well.

If you don't use change and the Historia properly, you'll end up in a world of
hurt more often than not. Tanking damage and building combos is an
essential skill.

I saw a few posts on gamefaqs when I was looking up if there was a way to tweak the auto-battle ai (there isn't. It will just suck forever) that said that the battles sucked, and the game was too hard for no good reason, and players were expected to just die and retry to make any progress, and all the other commenters were like "Just play the game the way you're supposed to." And, you know, I see both sides.

I, as you may have heard on our podcast coverage of Persona 3, typically suck at paying attention to a JRPG's finer systematic quirks. Even if they get right in my face with a tutorial, I just think "I'll deal with that later" and then, uh, spam my strongest attacks and hope to die after the boss does, and grind if you don't succeed.

And if you're that sort of RPG player? Yeah, this game fuckin' sucks. Attacking does shit damage, there are too many enemies on screen, and winning a battle does nothing for you. You will have to sit through hours and hours of grinding to make any progress, and these "Try the other timeline, bruh" difficulty spikes would just seem insurmountable.

But if you use Change, and manipulate enemies, and rack up your combos, and explore time and space, you get to deal thousands of damage instead of tens of damage, and get to strut your stuff in the best gear with an arsenal of healing items, and also can gtfo and get to an inn then come right back. 

The Story Stuff

I glossed over it at the beginning, but I'm actually really engrossed in the story now. The Merchant roadblock I mentioned early, while still moderately bullshit, was not because of "reasons", but because there is another Time Lord out there, actively trying to fuck my shit up. I have no idea who it is at time of writing, and I suspect EVERYONE.

The timeline where I work with the shady hawknosed Weiss is called the Standard timeline, and the one where I'm hanging out with my best bro and helping my country not be opressed is called the Alternate Timeline. What the fuck does that signify? I really wanna find out.

My beautiful sweet soft boy.

Marco is adorable. He's 17, and fat. But not like, Quina fat, or Dwarven fat, but just like, a soft healer boy who sucks at swords. So, y'know, representation.

She looks really severe here on the DS. I much prefer the 3DS art style.

Your other right hand is Raynie, a Speargirl but also a mage, who has higher stats in every aspect than my Stocke does now. She should be the hero. These two worked with you under Weiss, and jump ship with you in the Alternate Timeline.

That's Rosche there, the huge square motherfucker.

Your best bud is Rosche, a 4-tile huge ass man with a robot arm. He's a hot shit general, and you're a hot shit secret agent, so everyone is all about you two everywhere you go. 

Right before your party fucking dies in the opening ten minutes, you have a vision of your friends dead on the ground. Then you get to fix it. But when you do, you then get a vision of Stocke killing Rosche personally.

And that hasn't come back up yet! Just sewing in the threads of mystery so that you can piece together the meta-narrative, which for this game is the main narrative.

It kinda reminds me of Her Story in a way. Where you get all this info at random times, and it's up to you to piece it all together bit by bit. Radiant Historia, unlike Her Story, has a correct answer tho, so you can tell when you're on the right track.

So far, I've barely moved on the world map, and yet I feel like I've done so much. The story is really character driven, and is dense, rather than epic. Which is really nice. Ever since Trails in the Sky (definitely gonna be a JRPG Canon entry on that game), I've fallen in love with games that take 10 hours to get out of the first town because having dinner with your dad is an important plot element. So I'm actually relieved I'm not travelling to 65,000,000BC and 1999AD and 10,000BC and all these different epic times, because just travelling to last week is compelling.

Other random shit

Apparently, the gold payouts in the DS version are fair, and not neutered like in Perfect Chronology. Also apparently, there's micro transactions available to increase your gold and XP payouts. This is kinda really shady, but if you don't wanna have to grind old bosses for coin, maybe pick up the DS version.

The cleanliness of the new menus adds a LOT to the presentation.
And the redrawn art is gorgeous too.

I, however, think the art style is less good on the DS version. Everything is darkly shaded, and makes all the characters look muddy. And the slight difference in art style makes the characters in Chronology look that much more inviting and interesting.

Both games are gorgeous, though, and the DS version has a better font.

Even though gold sucks, I did just unlock a bonus dungeon that gives really good weapon payouts, so I got everyone hooked up easily once I got there, which is nice. Getting to this part was a pain, though.

There's also the small thing that this game has Game Overs. The plot of the game is you saving yourself from death with time travel. But when you die, you get a game over, and the title screen, and reload your save, instead of just going back to the Historia, like you do when you doom a timeline, or when, you know, died in the opening.

It's got some ludonarrative dissonance on that part in a game that feels like a time traveller's dragon quest--all about exploring and pushing the boundary of what your safe zone is. I think all game overs suck, and should be banned from gaming, but that's probably enough of a topic to fill its own soapbox like this.

All in all, I think that everyone should play this game, at least a JRPG Canon-esque loop through it, and give it a whirl. It doesn't feel like any one other game, and in a genre defined by its similarity to two specific NES games, that's hard to do.

I'm definitely gonna finish this game. I was gonna wait until I finished it to do a full review, but since I do kinda have the blog series talking about how you can tell if a game is fun or not after playing the first few hours, I figured I would write this blog post shortly after accessing Chapter 2. That's about 10 hours on my play time, and about 50/280 story flowchart unlocks.

This game was made by Mitsuru Hirata and Satoshi Takayashiki, and has music by Yoko Shimomura, and these people really did make a unique JRPG in a time when that's basically impossible these days.

Are you guys playing anything for #JRPGJuly? Have you played Radiant Historia? Do you want to tell me why the game you like is better than this one? Sound off in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.

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