The 3DS may be getting on these days, but it’s certainly got plenty to show for its half-dozen years on the scene, including an astoundingly impressive collection of RPGs. ATLUS has been a prolific contributor to this corner of its library, and alongside original titles such as Shin Megami Tensei IV, Persona Q, and Stella Glow, it's also brought several DS games forward through remakes such as Etrian Odyssey Untold and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked. Radiant History: Perfect Chronology — an updated version of a 2011 DS release — is the latest title in this trend, and it’s a fantastic treat for JRPG fans. Though it looks largely the same as the original outing, Radiant Historia is absolutely worth playing in 2018, with an exciting, time-travelling tale, uniquely engaging combat, and excellent new additions for veteran players.
Radiant Historia kicks off in situ, in the middle of a war between rival states. Desertification has attacked the continent of Vainqueur, and with arable land shrinking by the day, the kingdoms of Alistel and Granorg are locked in conflict over the remaining patches of green dotted in among the endless sand. You play as Stocke, a member of Alistel’s Special Intelligence force, and start out by leading him on a rendezvous mission alongside two eager new recruits, Raynie and Marco. Things go south rather quickly, however, and before long Stocke is watching helplessly as his comrades fall in an ambush, before finally being captured himself.
Luckily for Stocke, that tragic outcome doesn’t have to be the end; a magical tome called the White Chronicle grants him the ability to travel through time, jumping between two parallel timelines to right wrongs and bring about the ‘true history’ that will set the continent back on track and save humanity. By travelling to the Velvet Room-esque realm of Historia at a save point, you can hop back to any previous ‘Node’ in the story — junctures where significant decisions will impact the timelines - and, if something goes wrong or isn’t working out in the present, try to fix it by turning to the past.
This choose-your-own-adventure format helps keep Radiant Historia’s narrative compelling throughout, and while it’s still a largely linear experience - there are usually right and wrong choices at each Node, with wrong decisions quickly leading to a bad end before sending you back to try again - the time-travel makes you feel like an active part of shaping the story. It’s an excellent trick, and in fact, it’s perhaps more appropriate to think of the time-travel as a gameplay mechanic first and a story mechanic second; like switching colours in Ikaruga or worlds in A Link To The Past, timeline-hopping in Radiant Historia is a novel way to uncover new areas, events, and abilities.
Strong writing and a likable cast also go a long way towards making Radiant Historia’s ride so enjoyable. Stocke in particular is a refreshingly self-sufficient protagonist; rather than guiding a naïve adolescent through their awakening on their way to save the world, you’re steering an already-competent character through the twists and turns of time, and that makes a big difference. Stocke’s companions are just as personable, and as the cast grows along the journey through Vanqueur’s several kingdoms, each new recruit is a welcome addition to the group.
Building off of its time-travelling narrative, the rest of Radiant Historia’s gameplay puts several twists on the classic turn-based RPG template. The first of these is the overworld map: instead of traversing a single, connected world, you’ll move your party between different discrete areas by selecting your destination with a cursor. It’s more like a single-screen Super Mario World than the traditional Dragon Quest-style map, and it gives the game a fast, focused feel, with more emphasis on individual areas than the marching between them.
Once you enter a particular spot - whether that’s a town, dungeon, or field - you’ll find memorable locales comprised of several scrolling screens, linked up and schematised on the bottom screen. There’s more to do in these areas than in typical JRPGs, with a number of different types of environmental puzzles to work through, and clever uses for the many new abilities you’ll unlock as you progress.
Foes walk around on-field, and you can slash them with a tap of the ‘Y’ button to stun them, either for a chance at a preemptive strike or to avoid them entirely. When you do decide to engage an enemy, you’ll discover the second way in which Radiant Historia breaks from genre conventions: its enthralling, position-based combat. While much of the system looks familiar - it’s turn-based, and your party of three can attack, defend, use skills or items - enemies are laid out on a 3x3 grid, which is used to wonderfully creative effect. Your foes will deal more damage from the front lines, and less in the back, so it’s in your interest to manipulate their positioning with your team’s geometry-based skills.
In addition to standard RPG specials like ‘Power Strike’ or ‘Fireball’, your characters also learn moves with effects such as ‘Push Back’, ‘Push Left’, and ‘Pull Forward’, and you can use these techniques to literally and figuratively put foes in their place. Hurling an enemy in a certain direction will cause them to share the same square with any other adversary they might bump into along the way, so that if you ‘Push Back’ twice on a row of three foes, they’ll end up in one sorry lump at the back of the grid. This stacking then enables you to perform regular attacks to hit every enemy in the same square simultaneously, and the damage output this provides is considerable. After you’ve tried it once, you’ll be hooked; like the Press Turn system in Shin Megami Tensei titles or Sessions in Tokyo Mirage Sessions, the positioning in Radiant Historia is a gleefully fun combat mechanic that makes it feel like you’re breaking the game, even as it’s balanced with it in mind.
Similarly, you can also manipulate turn order almost at will. The upcoming sequence is displayed on the touchscreen, and on a character’s turn, you can choose to swap places with anyone yet to act - enemy or ally alike. Again, this sounds game-breaking, but it’s all part of the system; swapping turns will leave you vulnerable by reducing your defence. Still, if you’re strategic, it’s well-worth it for the combo potential - by carefully considering who in your party can push, pull, or slide enemies to the side, you can dial in deadly dances and plenty of piled-on attacks before your foes have a chance to retaliate. These ‘combos’ aren’t just for show, either; they’re counted up and ranked, and higher level strings will grant more money and experience after the battle.
All of these systems come together to make combat in Radiant Historia truly, endlessly fun. Not since Bravely Default have we been so engaged by a JRPG’s bead-and-butter encounters; they’re snappy, puzzle-like, and kinetic, with room for experimentation and creative play. Combined with the avoidable, on-screen enemies — which essentially let you choose your own encounter rate — it makes for a perfectly-paced portable adventure, as fun to dip into for a few minutes at a time as it is to spend an afternoon with.
Of course, all of this was true of the original DS release as well. So where does this 3DS update stand? For starters, there’s a decent chunk of additional story content, thanks to new character Nemesia and her airship Dunamis, which can travel to new ‘Possible Histories’. Effectively acting as a third, parallel timeline, this lets you explore Sliding Doors-style ‘what-if’ side-quests, and see various story beats play out differently than in the original game. These alternate histories are excellent fan-service for repeat players, and they’re also thoughtfully integrated with the original story - when you begin the game, you can choose to either play through with them peppered throughout (‘Perfect’ mode), or only available after completing the main story (‘Append’ mode).
Veterans of the original will also find a new Hard difficulty, which lives up to its name - you’ll have to master the battle system and exploit buffs and debuffs heavily to survive. We wouldn’t recommend it for first-timers, if only because the Normal mode is so well balanced, but it’s a good option for combat-minded players looking to relive the adventure. (On the flip side, a welcome ‘Friendly’ difficulty setting does away with most combat entirely.) Another noteworthy battle-related addition is Support Skills, where characters outside of the active three-person party will occasionally jump into the fray to attack, heal, or cast spells with no MP cost - a nice touch that feels perfectly in line with the rest of the combat.
While these gameplay additions stand out, in terms of visuals, Perfect Chronology is more notable for not looking too different to its DS original. The main tweaks here are a new anime opening, event art at key story moments, and new character portraits - and whether or not the last of these is an upgrade is up for debate. The anime art style looks good on its own, and the new portraits allow for different facial expressions, but they also lack the unique personality of the original art. The DS portraits blended fantasy style with the look and feel of an import-only Saturn JRPG cover, and while there’s still an appreciable touch of that spirit in the design, the cast now looks significantly less distinctive; several characters could fit in comfortably in most contemporary anime without raising any eyebrows.
Other than those changes, however, Perfect Chronology largely looks like a DS game. The sprites are crisper but otherwise the same as the originals, though they remain appealing and well animated. The bigger disappointment is the total lack of stereoscopic 3D, especially because the environments - chunky though they may be - have an isometric, diorama-like look that would really pop in 3D. Perfect Chronology is far from an ugly game - there are some lovely dual-screen scenes, and the painterly art-style is soft and appealing - but after ATLUS’ impressive overhauls of the DS Etrian Odyssey games in the 3DS Untold remakes, we expected more of a visual revamp here.
The music, on the other hand, needed no upgrades at all; Radiant Historia’s original score is a orchestral tour de force from Yoko Shimomura (of Street Fighter II and Super Mario RPG fame), and it sounds as wonderful here as it did on the DS. There are a few new tracks, and they blend in well - the score drifts deftly from military marches to elegiac melodies, with rousing battle themes and character tunes between, and it’s a beautiful background to the game’s narrative twists and turns.
The other audio update in Perfect Chronology is the addition of voice acting, and this does feel like a significant leap. The quality is as high as you’d expect from ATLUS’ excellent track record, and it’s a thorough dub, with most lines in significant scenes fully voiced. A few NPCs can sound a bit hammy, but the main cast is very well done, and the voicing does well to add further personality to the party
Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is a top-shelf JRPG, with an engaging time-travel hook, brilliantly fun, puzzle-like combat, and a genuinely likeable cast of characters. While it’s far from the first adventure to draw on parallel timelines, it smartly integrates its world-hopping into both gameplay and narrative, and the result is a unique, beautifully-paced experience that’s a joy to play. This 3DS release doesn’t feel drastically different from the DS original, but the new additions - especially a third ‘what-if’ timeline - make excellent replay incentive. Whether it’s your first trip through time or you’re reliving a prior playthrough, Radiant Historia is well worth a wind of the watch, and another stellar addition to the 3DS’ RPG collection.