Reviewed: September 22, 2005
Released: September 9, 2005
As a development house, it is surprising that Tri-Ace isn't more recognized. Looking back over games they've done in the past, it becomes clear that the company belongs to an elite group of companies that also includes such luminaries as Bungie and Intelligent Designs - like them, Tri-Ace has, for all intents and purposes, a batting record of 1.000. From early cult favorites like Tales of Phantasia, to the PSX classic Valkyrie Profile, and of course, all three Star Ocean games, this is a group of developers who, while certainly possessing of an easily recognized style, have never been content to rest on their laurels. And they certainly aren't slowing down now.
Radiata Stories is the latest Tri-Ace creation, published by RPG fan-favorite Square Enix. Featuring a unique world in which humans and "fairy creatures" coexist uneasily in neighboring realms, a gigantic cast of playable characters and a game world that changes dynamically depending on the time of day, this game is certainly a step forward for Japanese-style RPG’s in creating an interactive world for the player.
Add in enjoyable main characters, a solid story, a real-time combat system with strategic depth and some thoroughly enjoyable graphics, and it isn't hard to see why Radiata Stories is sure to become a permanent addition to the game libraries of many RPG fans.
The world of Radiata Stories is, as its name implies, more storybook than reality. The kingdom of Radiata lies at the center of the world, and is the center of human power. Outlying nations in all directions are home to various humanoids collectively known as "fairy folk," whose numbers include dwarves, elves, goblins and so on.
Each kingdom is fairly separate from the others, though; the dwarves, for example, do not have active relations with the light elves. At the outset of the story, Radiata has been dispatching emissaries and establishing trade routes with the outlying fairy kingdoms in hopes of bettering relations for both countries, as well as strengthening their mutual economies.
Into this world is born Jack Russell (he really doesn't look much like a dog, so don't worry), the son of a legendary Royal Radiata Knight who died before Jack can remember. Jack is raised by his sister, both eagerly anticipating the day that he will leave home to take the entrance exam to become a Radiata Knight-in-training himself, and follow in his brave father's footsteps. Jack starts out a sheltered country boy, fed tales of his father's greatness and the subsequent inherent greatness in his own blood, small-minded (though good-natured) and naive.
Watching Jack mature is one of the most enjoyable parts of seeing this game's story unfold, because it's so subtle, and because Jack has such a strong personality to counterweight that. From his initial humiliation at the hands of Ridley, the game's other truly main character, to the point at which Jack faces a painful decision that will cost him dearly no matter what he does; a remarkably believable maturation takes place. Other important characters are similarly human, neither completely bad nor good, changing their minds and thinking for themselves. Radiata Stories is certainly told with a masterful skill.
But don't worry - that doesn't mean this game isn't funny. Radiata Stories is often brimming with laugh-out-loud humor of all kinds. Since the game is an RPG that relies heavily on common RPG clichés to form the backbone of its story, it's refreshing to see it not take itself as seriously as it might have. "E...E...Egg?" has become a classic line in my apartment thanks to Radiata Stories, and once you've played it, you'll see why. The game blends a too-familiar core with great storytelling, believable characters and a healthy dose of humor, and comes out infinitely more enjoyable than it would have been either as an overly serious drama or a complete spoof.
Of course, it helps that battles are so much fun, too. They're fought in real time (a hallmark of Tri-Ace games), with the player controlling Jack while up to three other party members maneuver around the field according to a basic A.I. that can be somewhat altered in the menu screen. Later in the game, as you gain more control over your loyal comrades-in-arms, a simple but surprisingly effective command system gives you greater power to turn the tides of a fight in your favor. By pressing L1 to pause the action, you can choose a character and give him or her a specific command, such as "attack this target" or "assistance needed over here".
Getting even further into the game's battle system, the Combo Link subsystem allows you to connect your allies together and precisely coordinate much more powerful techniques than any of them could accomplish by themselves. Linked allies (and in some cases, enemies) are easily identified by the lines on the battlefield connecting them together and the colored field inside the defined area.
Link Combos are a bit on the complex side, but are vital to playing through the game successfully. Between setting them up, giving commands in the heat of battle, and maneuvering Jack skillfully in real-time for the greatest advantage, Radiata Stories' combat system is hectic, exciting and strategically deep, all at once. It's probably the most enjoyable real-time RPG combat I've ever experienced.
Another cool thing about Radiata Stories is its time of day system, whereby time passes dynamically regardless of where Jack is, triggering events and advancing the lives of the townsfolk as they go about their collective business. Because you might see the same character praying in a temple at 7 AM and drinking in the bar at 10 PM, it really feels like these townsfolk are real people, with lives to lead and things to do.
This is even more fun because of the fact that, if you keep checking back on them and listen to their problems (or sometimes if you just beat them up), you can often eventually convince them to join as playable characters in your party. All told, there are over 175 possible characters to recruit, and unlike some other games in which it feels like a good third of the characters are there just because, Radiata Stories' innovative system lets you get to know each and every one of them personally.
But wait! I hear you saying. What's that about beating up townsfolk? That's right. In Radiata Stories, you can beat the living crap out of anyone and everyone - providing, of course, that you're strong enough. By pressing X, Jack will kick whatever's in front of him - hard. Kicking objects will often reveal items. Kicking people will often provoke a humorous response. Kicking them twice will almost always result in a fight. And yes, although most fights will accomplish little, occasionally they can serve a greater purpose by "convincing" someone to join you on your quest.
A living, breathing world - out of all the many Japanese-style RPG’s I've played, none have done a better job of creating this than Radiata Stories. The basic plot is a cliché, and once in a while the story missteps its tempo. But overall, this game tells a warm, satisfying and often very funny story very well, with deep combat options and a pleasantly fast gameplay pace to bolster it, and citizens who do different things at different times of the day? It's about time we saw a real implementation of this in a videogame! I had a grand old time getting to know the world of Radiata Stories, and even more fun playing around in it.
When considering the graphics of Radiata Stories, the words "nice, "warm" and "whimsical" come to mind more often than "stunning" or "realistic". It utilizes a unique graphical style that makes the entire game world look as though it were painted. It's not quite true cel shading, but it's not traditional polygonal-looking stuff, either. Instead, it occupies a comfortable middle ground. For the PS2, these graphics are superb in their smoothness and clarity, and really show off what the system can do if given the right motif.
I liked the character models for Jack, Ridley, Ganz and the rest, but I have to admit they're hardly the most inspired designs. Similarly, the enemies, while nicely varied and well done overall, were hardly the most inventive-looking I've seen on a console. Once you've fallen for character designs like those seen in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, it's hard to settle for the average. More impressive, actually, were the sky and background graphics, which, with their brushstroke texturing, really looked like fanciful paintings from a storybook.
The music in Radiata Stories isn't bad, but it isn't very memorable, either. It tends to be a bit on the overly built-up side, with a lot of preamble leading up to a weak hook. There weren't any annoying songs, though, and there were a couple of tunes that I did end up enjoying quite a lot. Sound effects were all right, but obviously not meant to take center stage. They had enough detail to lend the world some additional life.
One of the best things about Radiata Stories, though, is its voice acting. I could only find a single character in the entire game that had poor voice work. By and large, it's all so convincing, it's hard to remember that these aren't actually living, breathing people. My particular favorite voice was that of Ganz's, piping and squeaky and proper to a fault - in fact, he sounds quite a bit like Anthony Daniels’ Star Wars character, C-3PO. Considering Ganz's singular girth and general similarity to a teddy bear in appearance, the end effect was quite amusing and more than a little bit charming.
On the one hand, Radiata Stories is unfortunately short. This, from the company that brought us the 100+ hour playtime of Star Ocean: The Second Story, is certainly something of a disappointment. The entire game can be comfortably beaten in about 30-35 hours, at the outside, and there isn't a wealth of extra stuff to work on as in many other RPG’s, for when the main game's all but through, but you just can't let the world go.
On the other hand, the game has, at my unofficial count, somewhere close to 12 separate endings, all of which are significantly different from one another. Given the number of important battles that can be won or lost, and the important choices that can be made one way or the other throughout the course of the game, it's easy to see how playing through Radiata Stories a second, third or even fourth time could prove quite satisfying. And let's not forget that there are over 175 characters to recruit to Jack's side. Figuring out how to acquire all of them would take even the most dedicated player quite a while.
Overall, Radiata Stories has a replay value well beyond the average for an RPG, but not quite infinite. As enjoyable as the game's story, world and characters all are, I could certainly see a lot of it becoming old hat after a while. On the other hand, this means the game will probably end up being one of those titles that players occasionally pick back up and play through again for years to come, slowly revealing all of its myriad options and endings for a very long time to come.
The end question is, how enjoyable will each player find the game on its own merits? For many people, the answer will be "extremely," and for others, it won't be quite as impressive. And so the ultimate lasting value of Radiata Stories is in the eye of the beholder. Either way, though, it's a solidly entertaining role-playing experience that's very much worth the $49.99 price tag for any RPG fan.
I never thought an RPG, or any game, for that matter, could be this warm and fuzzy without being sappy. Radiata Stories does it through a combination of sharp wit, sympathetic storytelling and fun battles. I enjoyed the basic gameplay, and I had loads of fun with the game's time-of-day system, occasionally just following a villager around on her daily travels and observing what made her unique from all the others. This type of immersive experience is definitely not to be missed.
With a decent soundtrack, excellent voice acting and a graphic style that was printed from a picture book, Radiata Stories pulls its great character development and cheery sense of humor together to become a wonderfully enjoyable role-playing experience. I heartily recommend it to all fans of the genre, and I certainly recommend that the rest of you at least check it out. The real-time battles and clever humor that set this title apart might just be the breath of fresh air you've waited for.