Where the idea of history as written by the victor is concerned, few things get more literal than Radiant Historia. The game is, essentially, about dueling history books, magical tomes called the Black Chronicle and the White Chronicle that allow their owners to travel through time and influence the course of history by rewriting their own. The game’s new 3DS version, Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology, is also a revision, one that leaves the core story and game mechanics intact while bringing to the table new scenarios, new character art, and a new dungeon—which means that this is a new chance for Atlus to find a wide audience for Radiant Historia. But like the various dead ends in the story that result from making the wrong decisions, Perfect Chronology hasn’t tweaked enough to truly change things for the better.
Depending on which of two available timelines he inhabits, the game’s protagonist, Stocke, serves as either an intelligence agent or military officer for the nation of Alistel, which is at war with neighboring Granorg for whatever fertile land remains unspoiled by an encroaching desert. He can jump backward and forward in time to shift events in his favor, or he can hop timelines entirely to bypass a roadblock in the other. Though Stocke first participates in the war effort, he eventually searches for ways to end the unnatural desertification process and, as one does in a JRPG, use his powers to save both the world and the friends he makes along the way.
Radiant Historia is, fittingly, a skewed time capsule of sorts, rooted in JRPG tradition yet informed by more modern touches, as if the developers had traveled to the past to implement their ideas. The resulting tension between the old and the new is intriguing, with worn convention twisted into a unique and dark story. Small and squat pixelated sprites still do turn-based battle, but those battles play out through a unique grid-based combat system that emphasizes positioning, even fighting game-esque combos. Each battle drops your enemies on a 3x3 grid and provides a variety of techniques to pinball them around so that they may be thrown into traps or clustered together to be hit all at once with high-damage attacks or poison spells. Higher combos increase damage, experience, and the special attack meter, and in a risk-reward dynamic they can be extended by trading turns with the enemy.
While the battle system turns even ordinary enemy encounters into tactical challenges, players will have to struggle for a long time to learn the simplest of abilities, like hitting enemies to the left. The gradual drip-feeding of new techniques to the player is a genre staple, but here that takes on frustrating proportions, as your strategic options are limited to a handful of available combos for a significant portion of the game. As a result, much of the combat feels repetitive until the skill list finally opens up well into the game. This tedium is worsened by Radiant Historia’s apparent determination to make you feel every minute of time travel’s redundancy. Though you may skip dialogue you’ve heard before, the story still has you backtrack through previously seen areas and fight previously beaten enemies in an often tedious search for the proper time period to complete certain tasks (particularly sidequests).
The time-travel conceit does free the story to portray catastrophic failure and its despairing effects. Radiant Historia tells a surprisingly complex tale, with no shortage of political maneuvering and betrayal between factions. Though prone to cackling villain caricatures, it indicts power structures that prioritize the status quo instead of their duty to the people, as well as those that exploit religion for propaganda (Alistel is founded on the teachings of the Prophet Noah, who now preaches through General Hugo, a suspicious intermediary). The game couches all its ambition within a more typical high-fantasy RPG framework, taking familiar character archetypes and plot points to unexpected places. But other times, that reliance on tradition feels underwritten. Stocke’s motley multispecies crew of friends are also thinly sketched, so much so that the emotional moments they share often fall flat.
The game presents a lovely sentiment about self-sacrifice for the good of others and hope for the future, but it fails to scrutinize its narrative about a chosen one sent out to save the world. Its critique of complacent leadership and its resulting corruption is undercut by the troubling notion that leaders are corrupt and complacent when they lack the divine right to rule; Hugo abuses the public’s perception of an otherwise apparently benevolent Noah, while Queen Protea is called undeserving of her throne because of her ancestry as a commoner, lacking the royal blood of her stepdaughter that’s necessary to save the world. The game preaches a form of self-sacrifice which only upholds the social hierarchies that allowed corruption to fester, while suggesting that such hierarchies are as much genetic as social.
Perfect Chronology’s additional timeline never really questions such naïveté. The game actually recommends that first-timers play the additional content in a New Game Plus mode only after going through the original storyline, which should give some idea of how integral most of the new material is. The new difficulty options, bonus dungeon, voice acting, and new character portraits feel peripheral to a game that remains largely intact. Prior to this game’s announcement, there was some expectation of a sequel that might go beyond the groundwork laid here, that could expand the battle system’s scope and grasp its social commentary more firmly. Perhaps next time.