Radiata Stories - Reader Review  

Jack Russell's Ridin' Spinnaz, Also Coattails
by John Boske

25-45 hours


Rating definitions 

   Heart can take a game very, very far. Few things make me happier than when a game was obviously made with love every step of the way; when it is clear that the developers enjoyed making it. So it is with Radiata Stories, a somewhat disjointed but ultimately charming and unique RPG which tells the tale of a child of a hero trying to make it big in this crazy world. Jack Russell, son of the dragon-slayer Cairn, is a spirited lad with a big mouth, an appetite for adventure and the heart of a do-gooder, and he hopes to someday step out from under his father's shadow - a dream he acts upon by trying out for the Radiata Knights. A lucky break and a bit of pity later, and Jack's on his way to making his own legend in Radiata, one way or another.

   The game follows Jack's adventures across the kingdom and surrounding territories, and after a few few hours of play it switches over to more free-form, mission-based gameplay. Between story events, Jack is free to roam the city and countryside, fighting monsters, recruiting allies and accepting optional missions. As advertised, there are a whopping 177 characters available for play, counting Jack himself, and by the end it's possible to have recruited basically every named character in the game. Although there is a great deal of overlap with most of the characters, the amount of detail put into this system is impressive. The game employs day/night cycles and an in-game clock, and everybody in the world follows some sort of schedule. People get up in the morning, eat meals, train, go to work, attend mass, stop at the local pub, go home at night; the list goes on, and it goes a long way in making the kingdom seem like a living, breathing community.

   Visually, the game is a treat. The graphics are colorful, the characters are all well-animated and expressive, and there are a lot of little touches - different facial expressions, Jack's outfit changing depending on what he wears - that add that special something to the presentation. The game's cast expresses themselves as much physically as verbally; a simple raised eyebrow or irritated frown does a lot to sell a scene. Sound is less praiseworthy, though there is a lot to like. The voice acting is typically good - way better than the industry standard - and the soundtrack sports some catchy, jazzy tunes that capture the lighthearted spirit of the game, but there are problems. Later, when the game becomes a bit more serious, the whole tone of the game becomes problematic. Furthermore, during some scenes, characters are too soft-spoken, and can barely be heard over the music.

   The interface has a few problems of its own. You can kick basically anything in a given room; kicking often unearths hidden items, and you can even kick people, which can sometimes start fights. However, the 'talk' and 'cancel' buttons are one and the same, as are the 'kick' and 'accept' buttons, so there's the off chance you'll kick someone you don't mean to, or cancel from something you didn't want to. Also, out in the wild you rarely get to wander off the main road, which means you can't talk to or fight anything that's not on the road with you. There are no random encounters; monsters appear in the game world and battle begins when you bump into them (or kick them, as some are passive), yet due to the road limitations some are difficult or even impossible to evade.
Giant turtles: nature's quitters. Giant turtles: nature's quitters.

   The battle system seems complicated, and in some ways it is, but it's fairly intuitive and the in-game training sessions helpfully explain each aspect of battle. Fights occur in real-time, with the player's party automatically engaging the enemy while they control Jack. Initially, Jack can swing, block, dodge, use items and perform special attacks (called Volty Blows, so named because they use Volty points, which accumulate as the party lands hits). As you win fights, you unlock more skills for the type of weapon you're using (swords, axes or spears), and can perform more hits successively. Later on, Jack becomes leader of his own squad, and can issue commands to his teammates, as well as use special formations (called links) to gain a tactical edge over the enemy. Targeting is somewhat awkward, and in big crowds it can be difficult to specify which enemy to attack, but otherwise the battle system has a good array of options without feeling too overwhelming. The player can even go to the menu screen and switch equipment or skills in the middle of a fight, which is an immense help during boss fights.

   In terms of content, the game has quite a bit to see and do, and obsessive-compulsive types will have a field day trying to get all the characters. It's impossible to get all 177 in a single playthrough, as later in the game the plot branches and some are inaccessible on each side, but the game's Start From Strong feature (a form of New Game+, which carries over money, potions and stat-boosting items) allows the player to restart with those characters unlocked and listed in their friends page. A completionist playthrough can take upwards of 40-50 hours, and the bonus dungeon at the end of the game can take a few more, but the story itself can go by in as few as 25. The game's two endings are a strong incentive for at least one replay, and if so the game offers quite a bit more mileage.

   As mentioned earlier, the game's strength lies in its charm. The writing is often tongue-in-cheek, occasionally outright clever, and very well done across the board. Some characters speak or act in cliched ways, but most of them have counterparts who simply shake their heads or roll their eyes. Ridley, one of Jack's early companions, is a prime example, often poking fun at Jack's bottomless thirst for adventure. The script gets a little ham-fisted later on, though this owes more to a change in style than to shoddy writing. Fortunately, the narrative tightens up towards the end as Jack gets more involved in the story going on around him, and late-game happenings do much to tug at the heartstrings.

You say that like it's a bad thing. You say that like it's a bad thing.

   Perhaps the biggest, or at least most noticeable, problem with Radiata Stories is that sudden change. The game shifts between light-hearted and serious often at the drop of a hat, and later on the tone of the game becomes rather dark as tensions mount between the various races. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but it's handled somewhat clumsily. Later events in the game are occasionally meant to be funny, but seem out of place or even jarring when surrounded by more serious happenings. The dramatic punch is taken out of a few key moments because of this, although the script does manage a few suitably creepy bits of foreshadowing early on, and it all comes back together towards the end of the game. Still, there's no denying that the game's attempt to merge a cheerful adventure and a serious story is uneven at best.

   Another problem worth mentioning is the mechanics of plot progression. The game progresses when the player triggers the next story event, and the trigger is usually either going to sleep or entering Jack's room. As his room is usually the only place in the game where you can save, the player can sometimes cause the game to progress without meaning to. There is an exception in that the story won't progress if the player enters his room or goes to sleep after midnight, but the inability to speed up the progression of time (which is its own annoyance) means that convenient access to a save point, much like safety with a certain time traveler, is not guaranteed.

   When all is said and done, Radiata Stories is only a few simple tweaks away from being a must-have for RPG fans. The time system and thematic inconsistencies are bound to turn off some players, and the myriad little annoyances along the way don't help matters. On the other hand, the game is still a legitimately charming, unique and fun-filled adventure that boasts an impressive presentation and plenty of nifty features; pausing during cutscenes and battles ought to be a staple of the genre. For those willing to tolerate some schizophrenic storytelling, along with a few not-so-subtle references to other Tri-Ace games, Radiata Stories offers quite a bit of bang for your gaming buck, and a unique bit of bang at that.

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