I don’t really like Tri-Ace. After trying to play quite a few of their “good” games I found they haven’t lived up to any hype there might’ve been. It’s ironic then that Radiata Stories, their most unconventional entry into the RPG genre, is the one that I latched onto. To be honest, the game isn’t perfect…but it’s also completely awesome. There are some very serious ideas at work in RS that have gone virtually unrecognized, probably because there are also aspects of the game that should be ignored. Here’s a good example of that dynamic: There are 176 playable/recruit-able characters… (that’s nearly every single NPC in the game) each with their own story, persistent life path in the game world and set of abilities and armor/weapons. BUT, the overall story of the game is mostly rubbish and when everything is said and done there’s little or no tie-up of our main character’s (Jack Russell) story. The last thing I want to do is define this game negatively by what were clearly design and theme choices but the dichotomy is hard to ignore.
Since my review concept is rarely about numerical break-downs of gameplay functionality or critiquing specific aspects… the negatives are outweighed (read: eclipsed, completely overshadowed, surpassed) by the positives. You know what? Yeah I would’ve liked a longer ending or even an ending, period! for some of the other main characters. I would’ve really liked a story that was as original as the world they invented. Sometimes though, you have to just realize that what you’ve been given is already enough of a gift. Do I really need to demand a Shakespearean tale from Radiata Stories? For Christ’s sake man there are 176 FUCKING CHARACTERS, each carrying around their own little personal stories. That’s why the game is called Radiata Stories, the main point of the game is supposed to be in finding, enjoying…laughing at the little stories in the enormous cornucopia of what is as close to a living breathing world as we might ever get in an RPG. The fact that Jack Russell has his own tale of growth and change, which is shockingly elaborate and unique in the “getting there” aspect is extra credit as far as I’m concerned. How easy would it have been to throw a generic or mute RPG main hero into a world filled with so many characters? Kudos to the creators for not being lazy and doing what every single other game does.
Actually, I can think of no better way to describe Radiata Stories than that. It seems to literally tear itself away from established conventions to provide a wholly new type of experience. For the people who understand the reference, it’s almost a mash-up between Chrono Cross and Shenmue with sprinkles on top. Let’s get into some detail here.
Much like Final Fantasy VII, your starting area for RS is the enclosed environment of Radiata Castle (a la Midgar) that takes you through as much tutorial and explanation as you would ever need to survive once you actually get outside and see what the fucking Christ is going on everywhere else. I’d call this section roughly the first ¼ of the game. It’s fun, comprehensive and pretty large, really. Not until you exit this stage of your journey though, do you realize how small an area you’ve actually been running around in. It serves its purpose of just giving you a taste of what the shit is going on in this crazy game.
First things first. Jack Russell doesn’t examine things in this game, he kicks them. Yeah, there’s a kick button. Instead of searching (see examining) desks, buckets, lockers, chests…he kicks them. And you can kick almost any physical object you can see. If it holds an item your pesky kicking will shake loose any booty therein. Imagine my wonder when I discover that I can wander into EVERY SINGLE ROOM IN THIS CASTLE AND KICK EVERYTHING IN IT LIKE SOME KIND OF FUCKING JACKASS AND STEAL EVERYONE’S SHIT. This concept is applied to literally every room of every house in every square inch of this game. It’s not some silly little novelty thing that wears off about half way through because the designers are too lazy to keep rendering item bearing objects in rooms. If you take the time to kick everything you come across you will be rewarded. And you WILL continue to kick things because it’s a funny but functional mechanic that actually WORKS! There are literally dozens of different types of objects sitting around as well…maybe hundreds. It’s not like there’s a bucket in every room or a desk in every room. Maybe in the barn you find farming tools to kick. In the castle some rooms have weapon racks and shields lying around. In what will become a common theme in this review, there is an extreme level of detail in this game. There are toilets to kick, sinks, shelves, doors, fences, animals, desks, paintings, trees and bushes, rocks, garbage cans, beds, lamps…you name it it’s probably there. AND THERE’S DIFFERENT TYPES OF ROCKS TREES BUSHES ANIMALSGARBAGECANSBEDSANDSOONANDSOFORTH. Each kicked item has its own physical animation when kicked as well. Locker doors swing open…desks wiggle and their drawers open, buckets and chairs shake, weapon racks clank around. It seems obscene to take this much time explaining such a simple mechanic but you just don’t EVER see anything near this level of detail in video games. I mean, I’m talking about one tiny little minute aspect of an enormous game that fleshes out every mechanic with the same insane depth of design. Just the concept that they took the time to design that many kick-able objects for players to interact with, then make them context specific to the region -> city -> house AND THEN place them strategically throughout the entire game and fill them with goodies is almost mind-blowing. Hey also, you can kick PEOPLE. YOU CAN KICK EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THIS GAME. If you kick them twice you have to fight them one on one because they get angry. One kick gets them to say something threatening to you (different than what they say if you just talk to them) and the second triggers a duel. So there are in the very least 176 more funny little extra dialogue options for you in this game. They didn’t have to do that AT ALL. No gamer expects that much content in a game. Many instances of kicking people will simply serve to flesh out that character a little bit. Maybe the quiet guy leaning up against the shop wall explodes in fury if you kick him but just ignores you when you try to talk to him. Well now we know that Gean has an anger management problem, don’t we? That’s what I mean when I say remind you again that this game is called Radiata <emphasis on> Stories. Every single of the 176 has revealing little moments like this. You just have to make your own conclusions sometimes about what it means when they react a certain way…but we all have imaginations don’t we? The designers certainly assume we do.
I think that’s enough about the damn kicking because there’s a whole huge conceptual world to talk about. Once you get out of the castle you realize that you are geographically centered in the playable universe. There are roads out of the walled city in every direction that lead to towns and dungeons that are explorable from the moment you are free from the castle. You won’t have the levels necessary to explore everything obviously, but it is very important to understand that you could. There are no physical or story related barriers in the way of exploration here. If you can survive in an area…you can go there. It’s completely open from minute one of freedom and never gets taken away after that. This idea goes hand in hand with main concept of the game itself, and that’s the persistent world and characters. You get a small whiff of this roaming around the castle from earlier on but you don’t get smacked with the full extent of it until you can really see the whole world and how it all works together. In the castle you may run into characters walking back and forth, other times sitting in their rooms or going to the bathroom. The same character you saw yesterday talking with his buddies yesterday might be listening to music in his room today. Every single character in Radiata Stories has a scripted path that they follow every day and it’s 100% genuine. A character will never ever disappear from the game world from the moment you turn your Ps2 on. Much like Shenmue you can target a character and simply follow them around for an entire day and watch exactly what they do. Multiply that by 176 and you can start to grasp the gravity of what this game does. The completely thorough execution of this concept is the true reason why this game shines so brightly. Every character has a wide variety of dialogue based mostly on what time of day it is and what you’re catching them doing as well. Logically there would need to be a real-time day and night system to marry all of these concepts together, and there is. I can imagine (and I’ve witnessed) how a system like this can crumble down onto itself, but the designers were so dedicated to the idea that it works perfectly. They jumped through every hoop necessary to pull this off and then added the sprinkles. Every character has their own room/house/apartment that they actually live in. There’s a clock that depicts the actual time of day in almost every room. Every shop or business location has operating hours (and they WILL be closed during off hours, so get used to it). Even the most 1337 crazy awesome characters are walking around the world and are as approachable as anyone else (for the most part…disappearing guy on the bridge, hah). In fact, the execution of this concept is so thorough that you will literally not witness the same exact thing the second and third and fourth time through. I’ve played this game multiple times and am still seeing events and characters that I didn’t come across in my previous play-throughs. Radiata Stories is truly a one of a kind game in concept and execution, and honestly…just talking about it will never do it justice.
But I will continue to talk about it because there so is just so goddamn much to say.
Did I mention that there were 176 characters in this game? Did I mention that they were ALL recruitable? I did, huh. Just gotta make sure the 14 year olds understand the idea, because games these days just simply don’t have the quality or quantity of content that Radiata Stories does. Maybe I haven’t mentioned yet that every single one of the 176 has their own (different) equipment and skill set. Maybe I haven’t mentioned yet that every single item in this game has a written paragraph and its own original art when you press the square button on it in the menu. Maybe I haven’t mentioned that every single CHARACTER has his/her own entry once you recruit them in your friend booklet, each with their own original art and character description. Did you just recruit a guy with a helmet on and you want to see his face… AND READ ABOUT WHERE HE COMES FROM!? Well you can. AM I GETTING THROUGH TO ANYONE YET? THIS GAME IS FUCKING INSANE. Everyone you can see is recruitable, know it. The act of following someone who looks cool and trying to figure out what the hell you need to do to get this guy in your army is one of the most fun and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. You literally get to build your team from everyone available in the world. It’s a ridiculously refreshing change from the now so tired formula of 6-7 main characters forced on you in every RPG ever made (many of them being carbon copies of every cliché available). In fact…I can guarantee that you will try out characters like Goo, the little goblin who has a sack over his body with a face drawn on it and wields a slingshot in battle just because you can.
I mentioned earlier that the story in Radiata isn’t great and it’s not. The boring story about dragons and world cycles and whatnot isn’t worth talking about but the personal growth of Jack Russell is. His progression from start to finish is conceptually almost as strong as the other amazing aspects of this game. As a character Jack is totally funny…completely silly and you just simply don’t have the option not to like him. In fact I’d say that he’s one of the most likeable main characters I’ve ever played as. His personality is just so strong. He’s not your brooding emo “I don’t wanna be a hero” main that’s become the popular protagonist of choice for every game since FFVII. He’s borderline over-the-top silly yet somehow still maintains his powerful presence as the heroic protagonist. It’s not a shtick either. Right up until the end credits Jack maintains his actually funny responses and mannerisms. It’s an enlightening experience seeing Jack throughout his adventure because he just doesn’t ever get uninteresting. His main storyline cohorts are Ganz (Ganz 3:16 says “I’ve got frosted tips”) and Ridley. Jack and Ganz’s fathers were friends and leaders of their own army brigades back in the day, so their sons growing friendship is expected but also heartwarming. The unique format of the game sends Jack from being a fledgling knight to a sellsword and then finally as a leader of whichever side he chooses to fight for. These three large sections roughly divide the game into drastically different ‘chapters’ that see Jack grow immensely as a character in his journey to discover just what the fuck he wants to do with his life. It begins as an adventure to live up to his dead father’s reputation as one of the best Radiata Knights to ever wear armor and ends as Jack discovers that he can make his own destiny. The journey is rewarding in and of itself and interesting. A good example of how unique the personal story of Jack is would be that at the end of the first ‘chapter’ he is literally fired from the Radiata Knights, banished from the castle and has to essentially start completely over. You’re thrown out into the surrounding town with little but a can-do attitude and the clothes on your back. I’ve played few if any games that present you with that drastic a turn of events. This concept is repeated again to a much greater extent when you finish the second portion of the game through what you could only call…
At the end of the second ‘chapter’ you are presented with a staggering decision to make. There are two options and you have to pick one or the other on the spot. Option one is to answer a summons back to Radiata Castle to presumably join the human forces against the non-human alliance. Option two is to follow your friend Ridley out of the city to help her overcome her personal confusion about her identity and destiny…which is clearly not in Radiata. This decision is immediately jarring and almost, I would say, unfair. Here’s the breakdown as I see it:
Option 1, Human Path:
Answering the summons to the castle seems a very logical choice at first. Yea, they barred you from the knights and somewhat defamed the Russell legacy… but Radiata is your home. You’ve spent the entire game up to this point living, shopping and recruiting party members here. Heeding the call of the knights will almost assuredly gain you the personal fame that you sought when you first left your home to become a squire. Also the non-humans are strange, seemingly hostile and you haven’t had that many opportunities to go recruit many of them. Unfortunately…picking this path eliminates Ridley and Ganz as potential party members (along with all non-humans) and sides you with some very questionable and corrupt humans.
Option 2, Non-human Path:
The non-human path is the ‘correct’ one. You are emotionally tied to Ridley as a character and your allegiance to her is a main story point. If you choose this path you’ll get the most out of the tale and the biggest payoff for your small troupe of friends. Ganz eventually shows up after you find his father out there (something you can’t do on the human side) and the non-humans have the better cause. It feels slightly more morally correct to side the non-humans. Of course…there are negatives here as well. From the decision to go non-human until the credits roll you have absolutely zero access to the whole of Radiata City, it’s denizens and all of the resources within. That means that almost every single thing you’ve done up until this point is almost literally thrown right out the window. Say goodbye to all of your human characters and forget the idea that there were plenty of them left yet to recruit. You have to start over with just you and Ridley. That’s it, period. The emotional insult on top of all of this is that if you do pick the non-human side the characters from Radiata that you’ve recruited and come to know will be wandering the random areas outside the city on patrol. They’ll attack you and consider you a traitor and enemy, forcing you at times to defeat your former best friends.
The choice and all of it ramifications are pretty heavy. The game seems to reward both sides somewhat equally but the implications of your decision are strange. It’s mind-boggling to me that the ‘good’ choice they clearly want you to feel more connected to is actually the one that disconnects you from everything you’ve known up until that point. Obviously then, the ‘bad’ choice is the one that allows you to continue on what you would kinda think is the natural progression of the game. It’s a very weird dynamic and forces you to really take a second at the decision screen. Do I really want to abandon all my bad-asses to go follow this girl? Do I say goodbye to Ridley just to follow a somewhat now empty dream of becoming a knight like my father? If you choose not to follow her, you really don’t have any interaction with her or Ganz until the very end. I know it’s a trend currently in gaming to give players moral decisions to make but no amount of ‘spare the criminal, shoot the criminal’ decisions in a game have anywhere near the ramifications of the one huge decision presented to you here. Sorry Mass Effect.
There is a concept to this write-up and it’s that the structure and feeling of it mirrors the structure and feeling of the game. I’ve been slightly more positive and flamboyant than normal about the positive aspects of this game in an effort to make you feel how you end up feeling when the retarded ending takes all of the wind out of your sails. So… here is one of the most disappointed things I’ve ever seen in a video game: The Ending of Radiata Stories. Sadly, this game has none. They don’t even really try. No matter which path you choose, how many characters your happen to recruit or who you use in the final battle, the ending is complete bullshit. It’s less than two minutes…has zero emotional impact and doesn’t tie in ANY of the previously important characters stories. This game starts out so strong! It surprises you with its level of detail, high quality jazz inspired soundtrack, unique art style and plethora of characters in a wonderfully executed persistent world. Jack as a character and his relationship to his father, sister and friends are touching themes that are revisited almost constantly throughout the entire plot. If you choose the non-human path and finish the game, your ending is that you walk back into Radiata for the first time since you left…then the credits roll. No dialogue…no reunions…no nothing. This should’ve been an enormous moment for our character! His triumphant return to Radiata after becoming a traitor (for the right reasons) and defeating the corruption within the knights AND saving the world!! AND ALL HE DOES IN WALK INTO TOWN AND THE SCREEN FADES TO BLACK?? FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU. Look I’m not going to sit here and say that every game needs to have some academy award winning ending, but when you introduce emotional concepts into a very personal storyline, you better fucking clear ’em all up. Ganz randomly stays behind after the final battle to die for…. WHATEVER REASON! WhO FuCkInG KnOwS!?!?!. He just refuses to leave the battleground and doesn’t say a word. WHATTTTTTTTTTTTTTT? It’s like the developers gave up, and that’s fucking lazy. There are so many little ending scenes I could write in my head right now that would satisfy the player on so many levels. Maybe they show Jack returning to Theater Vancoor for the first time and there goes Thanos sitting as his desk, and they have a funny little dialogue and Jack feels awkward for having left the city. Maybe he goes up to the the top floor to talk to Elwen and the sergeants because they had like 4 or 5 scenes where she kept telling him he might “save us all”. Maybe they show a scene of him and Ridley going to his little house under the bridge and that same girl that’s always sitting outside of it in the morning says something like “Welcome back!!” There is just so much goddamn potential to do some amazing things and they did NOTHING. LITERALLY NOTHING! No emotional payoff, no character payoff, no FUCKING PAYOFFFFF AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. It’s so retarded. How awesome would it have been if you could get control again after he goes back to Radiata and everyone in town has something different to say to him…congratulatory or otherwise? Maybe you talk to everyone in town and they all have something new to say and then after that’s done you go home and your sister is sitting there next the fireplace with the picture of their father on the mantle (just like the opening scene of the game) and Jack says something heartfelt about how proud his father would be or how he finally lived up to his legacy. I mean, this shit is elementary. They crafted this game so thoughtfully with all of these little experiences and characters that beg to be touched upon in memorable ways at the end. NOPE. It’s lazy and stupid and makes this game just average. I will go as far to say that this serious omission ruins the game. How can they take the time to do so much, put in way more effort than was ever expected of anyone crafting this amazing puzzle…only to blue balls your ass at the end by not giving you that last piece to make the picture complete? Ugh.
Let’s wrap this thing up, it’s a couple pages away from becoming a Stephen King novel. Radiata Stories is a high concept game that goes off the rails. Many artistic endeavors in the video game industry end strong because the original vision demands (and creates and environment for) a superb ending. ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid…all high concept games that deliver astounding endings to bring everything full circle. The last thing I wanna do is put Radiata Stories in the same category as those games, but the strength of the concept brings it damn close. If they hadn’t mailed in the last couple hours of this game I would placing it pretty high on the list. Endings are important, even more so in the gaming world considering how interactive they are and how much we sometimes can identify with the main character. As far as content goes, Radiata is tops. I definitely still would put some hours into it to recruit new characters, try both sides of the big decision or just wander around all of the towns seeing what random shit I can discover. Because of the ending, though, (or lack of) I can’t recommend everyone get too invested in it. Still play it though.