Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Millennium 5's Finale

Millennium 5 is the final part of a series, created by one Indinera Falls, which details the journey of Marine, a girl out to improve the lives of her fellow peasants, who languish unhelped and rights-less while the ruling capital, Mystrock, flourishes from their efforts. She’ll do this by allying herself with the oppressed people across the Mystland nation, and fighting in a ritual tournament spectated by thousands of the wealthy, carefree citizens of the capital city.

It is, perhaps, just possible that Indinera Falls is a fan of The Hunger Games.

The Millennium series is barely known at all, which seems to be how things usually go for games developed with RPG Maker, but it and its creator do have a small but devoted fanbase, from what I can gather, which are pretty positive on the Millennium games overall. Myself, I’m lukewarm about them, but I suppose they’re decent enough. There is, however, 1 aspect of Millennium 5 that seems to get a mixed reaction even from this small fanbase, as well as players in general: the finale to the saga. A lot of people don’t seem to like it, and those that do, nonetheless don’t seem to have especially positive feelings about it. There are a lot of criticisms levied against the tournament and ending which close out the series, and while I think that some are legitimate, I also think that some are too harsh, or, at least, made without due consideration.

So basically, that’s why you’re here today, reading about a game you’ve never played and don’t care about. Sorry, folks, unimportant and extremely obscure commentary is just my thing. Oh, and I’m talking about the final events of a 5-game series, so, y’know, spoiler alert.

Alright, let’s start by talking about what the finale of Millennium 5 does, indeed, do wrong. First of all, a minor annoyance is that none of your characters can equip accessories during the tournament. It’s bad enough that the series decided in Millennium 4 to stop letting the majority of your characters use weapons, because they needed to train in the unarmed combat thing since it’s a martial arts tournament, but that, at least, is an understandable plot thing. Annoying, especially since you still keep finding weapons as you go along with Millennium 4 and 5 that you now can’t even use (what is up with that?), but understandable. But during this period of weaponless combat, you at least get to continue using the majority of helmets and accessories in the game, because, as the games’ dialogue specifically notes many times, the rules permit them. So why are they suddenly not allowed, when you finally enter the tournament? If you’re anything like me, you set your characters up around what accessories they wear, so this totally throws things off. It’s the second most annoying gameplay decision the Millennium series makes.*

Second, and similar to the first, is the fact that the characters in the tournament lose most of their skills going in. These skills are replaced with ones specifically designed to help them in the tournament, which is good and all, but some of the lost skills would have been way, way better, and in no way violate the story of the tournament. Why’d Salome have to give up her skill that hits enemies 4 times in a row? There’s nothing about that which contradicts the tournament’s rules, since she’s just hitting them with her fists. Lame.

Next, I have to say that it just seems a little odd that Marine’s party is so close to evenly matched with the Mystrock warriors by the end of Millennium 5. I mean, I get that Mystrock has the best resources and training and whatnot, and that most of them have been warriors for their whole lives compared to most of Marine’s team not, but come on. 2 days before the tournament, Marine and company were slapping dinosaurs around with their bare hands. I don’t care if Merryll has hit the gym every damn day of his life, there’s no way he or any others of Lord Dragon’s crew should be able to compete with Marine’s bunch. It’d be like saying Little Mac would pose a serious combat challenge to Samus Aran--Mac’s one of my favorite Nintendo characters, but if it ain’t Super Smash Brothers, it ain’t happening.

Finally, and a lot more importantly, there’s the damn ending. Or, honestly, lack of such. You’ve gone through 5 entire games, sat through Marine’s entire continent-spanning adventure, and all that you get in the way of an ending is a few short sentences that give a far too general summary of what happened, and a bit of information letting you know that Marine and Dragon got married, for some reason. Better him than Jack, I guess, but sheesh, talk about coming out of nowhere. But you don’t get to hear any specifics on what happens to any of the 12 warriors who stood with Marine to make this all possible, nor any of the other friends she made along the way. You don’t get to hear or see much about how life goes for her and what the process of the social upheaval that’s been the whole damn focus of the series is like. You don’t get to even know whether or not her father survives and pulls out of his coma--the guy whose actions at the beginning of Millennium 1 kicked this whole thing off. I guess I can’t expect a classic Fallout-styled ending narration for every game I play, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope for SOME form of actual closure for the characters and story that I’ve been engaged with for 5 games! If it weren’t for the fact that I played Neverwinter Nights 2 the same year I completed Millennium 5, this game would probably have wound up on my list of worst RPG endings.

So those are the problems--let’s talk about the good stuff, next. Up until that inadequate conclusion, I have to say, the finale is pretty good. First of all, it is, technically-speaking, extremely impressive. The tournament is over 150 battles as each member of the 2 teams of 13 fights against every member of the opposite team once, and almost every battle opens with the 2 fighters interacting with each other. Most of these aren’t just generic lines that would fit any match-up, either. It’s not like the beginning face-off in some 16-bit fighting game--these fighters’ dialogue frequently highlights their personalities; it’s very character-specific for the majority of matches.

To take the time to do that for over 100 fights is a pretty significant amount of effort, but what really dials it up a notch in terms of being technically impressive is that the game’s also keeping track of a lot of factors regarding the victories and losses up until that point. Frequently, the things each side’s fighter says changes to reflect which side is currently in the lead at that moment (and sometimes even changes depending on how much of a gap there is in the win-loss ratio), which is also true of the stuff that Marine, Borgon, Dragon, and some of the others on each side say before and after the matches. The post-match dialogue also, of course, reflects the winner of each round. And on top of all that, sometimes the dialogue in the fight adjusts to reflect the personal wins and losses of the character(s) fighting! I can tell you from personally witnessing it that if you just keep denying that jackass Merryll a single victory the whole tournament, he will, in fact, several times show his growing fury at the fact that these supposedly inferior people are repeatedly proving what a useless sack of shit he is. Likewise, there’s plenty of lines before and after the matches that comment on how that fighter, specifically, has been doing during the tournament. Watching Borgon’s growing frustration with Merryll’s losing streak is a joy.

So yeah, when you really stop and think about it, keeping track of that many variables over the course of potentially more than 150 matches, and staying relatively consistent with the dialogue that’s keeping track of it all...I know very little about programming, but I’m pretty sure that’s a huge feat, and would be a tall order even from a AAA publisher, let alone a tiny indie game developer that I’m pretty sure was mostly a 1-person show.

And it’s all done well enough that it’s pretty enjoyable from start to finish! Even though the tournament is essentially just 169 or so battles in a row, and even though it comes after a whole 5 games of standardly incessant RPG battles, I actually was engaged from start to finish! I mean, okay, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat or something, but the interactions between sides, as well as the dialogue between allies as they encourage or berate their teammates, is done well. It doesn’t really feel at any point like the writer got tired of the characters and seeing how they’d react to each new opponent, in spite of the daunting quantity of such meetings. Other bits of extra effort help keep the tournament interesting, too, like the rewarding feeling you get as Borgon hollers in frustration over his team’s losing streak, the halftime break where each side rallies themselves for the tournament’s conclusion, and the fact that a lot of the enemy’s team have their own battle songs (Gisele’s is pretty rad, in fact). Nothing in the Millennium series is amazing, but Indinera Falls clearly put a lot of extra effort into making the tournament a stronger moment in the saga, as it should be.

I’d also like to say that the emotion of the finale is spot-on. It definitely feels like the epic culmination of Marine’s quest, from start to finish. The night before the tournament as Marine and Jeanne talk is quiet and touching, the words of thanks and encouragement Marine gives her team are warm, the final battle between Marine and the Dragon feels as climatic and desperate as it should, and Jeanne...actually, I take what I said before back, there is an amazing moment in Millennium, and it’s the last-minute sacrifice of Jeanne in the very final battle. It’s sudden, it hits you hard, and it’s all the sadder because she doesn’t have enough time to say goodbye, to prepare herself. Somehow, it feels very real, and much more moving, for the facts that it’s immediate, it’s unexpected, and it’s something that Marine will never know the truth of. That, to me, is the most tragic part...that Marine will forever have to wonder what became of the little fairy that made her dream of an equal society possible, wonder why she never spoke to Marine again...maybe even wonder, eventually, whether Jeanne was ever real to begin with.

Anyway, yeah, the finale does a lot of stuff well, and I think most people will agree with what I’ve pointed out as its highlights, and its flaws. Here, however, is the thing that a lot of people take issue with, which I think is worth defending: how, precisely, you get the true ending. There are 3 endings, you see, of which only 1 is the good, actual ending. The first bad ending is as you would expect--you get it if you lose the tournament. The second bad ending, however, is the major stumbling block for people, because you actually get this ending if you win the tournament.

Yeah, I’m not kidding. If you win the tournament, which is the goal that you’d think you’re supposed to be shooting for, it triggers a bad ending! Being sore losers and all-around jerks, Borgon and several of Dragon’s team start an insurrection, and the people of Mystrock by and large go with it, losing their shit over the fact that some dirty old peasants beat their finest warriors. You lose the game because you won.

What you have to do to get the real ending, is lose the tournament, but by a score deficit no greater than 10. When that happens, you find out that there’s some archaic old rule of being able to challenge the result if it it was a close score, and have the leaders of each side face off 1 last time to determine who really wins the tournament.

How magnificently convenient.

So for there to be any hope at all of success, Marine has to have a rematch with Lord Dragon, even though it’s damn clear that she can’t possibly win it. But at the eleventh hour, Jeanne comes through, finding a fairy spell powerful enough to overcome the anti-magic seals on the arena, as Marine buys her time by enduring Dragon’s blows as best she can, even though she’s exhausted and barely able to withstand them. This is the scene which I mentioned as a major point in the finale’s favor, for the spell’s power comes at the cost of the caster’s life, and, I reiterate, it’s a pretty powerful scene. With Jeanne’s sacrifice, the spell hits Dragon, and knocks him out of the ring, resulting in a win for Marine. She collapses a moment later, caught and respectfully carried out of the arena by Lord Dragon. Unable to determine any other possibility, since there’s simply no way any human magic could ever overcome the arena’s seals, Mystrock by and large decides that the miraculous spell that granted Marine victory had to have been an act of their god, to show beyond any doubt that Marine is meant to take the nation in a new direction.

Well, that’s all well and good, a fine way to close out the tournament and win the game, yes, but, you wonder, why does it have to be that way? What was wrong with just having the game be won when it’s, well, won? Surely complicating matters with this hairsbreadth victory was not necessary, when the result is still that Marine wins the tournament?

I suppose that’s fair enough. Here’s the thing, though, and the reason that I actually defend this seemingly unnecessary and picky decision on Indinera Falls’s part: when you think about it, Marine’s quest isn’t supposed to be about proving her people’s superiority over the people of Mystrock. She doesn’t embark on her journey with the specific desire to rule over Mystrock (and by extension Mystland). She isn’t motivated by some belief that she’s the better qualified political leader, nor is she specifically trying to prove something to herself or to Mystrock. Marine just wants the peasants of Mystland to be treated as equals of the citizens of the capital city. She just wants her people to have the same rights and privileges of everyone else, to help end the poverty and suffering she sees all around her. She enters the tournament to become Mystrock’s new governing figure solely because being the leader is the only way she can make this dream a reality; if there had been another option presented to her, she would just as likely have pursued that, instead. Though she may become personally incensed by some of Mystrock’s cruelties along the way, ultimately Marine’s quest is about a desire for equality.

And because of this, I think that it does, in fact, make thematic sense for the ending to the Millennium series to require this eventuality of neither defeat nor victory. Just writing it so that Marine succeeds by outright winning the tournament seems at first glance to make more sense, in terms of gameplaying conventions, but nothing about that scenario really resonates with what the quest has been all about. A rout of the opposing team proves the peasants’ superiority more than their equality to the people of Mystrock, and the point is to win the rights of the commoners to be treated as equals, not betters. By contrast, the true ending has a tournament whose results are so near to even that equality is inescapably implied, decided by a match that appears to be close enough that it requires a divine third party to settle. Additionally, the events of the final match give Lord Dragon cause and opportunity to show his respect for and support of Marine’s victory, in a way both powerfully meaningful and indisputable to the citizens of Mystrock who watch. This is the sort of hard-won, miraculous victory that you can actually believe would, indeed, lay the groundwork for a revolution of social equality to come. By comparison, the idea of a happy, successful ending coming from a situation in which a population with long-held prejudices is forced to obey the woman whose victory hurt their pride, solely because the rules say they have to...maybe it makes sense from the perspective of gameplay conventions, but Indinera Falls is right: it doesn’t hold up logically.

The path of the true finale to Millennium 5 has its issues, to be sure. It’s not quite clear enough what has to happen to achieve it, and having to keep an eye on your ranks throughout the tournament to budget your victories is somewhat annoying--particularly when there are plenty of matches whose outcome you either can’t predict with certainty, or can’t influence (you cannot force the Bear lose a match, for example, making it dangerous to hover near the edge of overall victory). Nonetheless, even though you wouldn’t think it at first, going against gaming convention to make a true ending out of a near loss instead of a victory is the right call in this game, because it’s truer to the heart of Marine’s quest, and it provides a more believable scenario of success in accordance with the game’s lore and characters. Millennium 5’s finale has its flaws, but I don’t believe the unusual requirements of the true ending is 1 of them.

* The first, of course, is that Salome gives up on being a mermaid, which I’ve noted before was pretty awesome, not to mention pleasantly overpowered! Why, Millennium 3, why? It’s not even sensible from a plot perspective; transforming into a mermaid is clearly shown not to inhibit her ability to traverse or stay on land at all, so there’s nothing she would have to give up by remaining ‘cursed’.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Bravely Default's Language

Before we begin today, I'd like to just put a Kickstarter RPG I've found on your radar, in case you, like myself, find the idea amusing enough to back: I Have Low Stats, But My Class is Leader, so I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord. Looks promising as a comical RPG, and it's got a lower-than-average pledge level at which you get the game for free when it's finished. Check it out; it might be neat!

And now, on with the rant.

There’s a lot to really like about Bravely Default. Appealing main characters with depth,* an interesting plot, an awesome conclusion, a really good supporting cast, a great villain, the fact that this game manages to pretty much be the most perfect and excellent example of a classic Final Fantasy, a good balance of levity and seriousness...it’s just a great RPG, no 2 ways about it, a pleasant experience that really reminds you of everything you love about the JRPG style. And I do, indeed, really like all of those aspects to this game. And so do many others: as much as a JRPG reasonably can be, Bravely Default was a big hit, and many have extolled its virtues quite eloquently before me. But there is 1 additional characteristic of this title that I’m pleased with, which I have not seen lauded by its fans: the language of BD’s dialogue. And that’s a shame, because I think it’s worth crediting the writers and translators of the game for their use of vocabulary with it.

As a general rule, I’ve found that the RPG genre is a decent one for varied and interesting word use. This is, I suppose, quite natural for an entertainment medium whose greatest focus is on its storytelling elements. It’s also quite natural for an entertainment medium whose titles seem by and large to be nonsensical jumbles of any and all fanciful and archaic buzzwords the writers could think of.** Some games are better than others in this regard, of course--you’re much more likely to learn some fancy new words and phrases from Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera than you are from, say, Lagoon, or Zenonia 1--but you’d probably be surprised how often even the seemingly less intellectual works of the genre can teach the player a new word or 2. A decent chunk of my own vocabulary comes from my long history of playing RPGs, and my learning of my language through the genre is still ongoing. I wouldn’t have known of the existence of the word ‘dunamis,’ let alone its meaning, without having played Infinite Dunamis a mere 2 years ago. And that’s a Kemco game, for Hyperion’s sake!

Still, Bravely Default really goes several steps beyond what you might expect of its genre. The game quite frequently makes use of all kinds of older, less common words in the English language, and really cool ones, at that, such as ‘fain’ and ‘malefic,’ among many others. It’s not like with most other RPGs, where you might, every now and then, discover a cool word or 2 you haven’t come across before in the course of the whole game--in BD, it’s common enough to come across several older, eloquent terms you’re unfamiliar with within the same conversation! And not only that, but you also get frequent occurrences of common, familiar words being used in older, less typical ways, such as the use of ‘ransom’ as a verb synonymous with ‘liberate.’

As a prospective English teacher, this is something I already approve of, but what really makes the use of all this olde language great is how easily it’s used. See, it’s easy as a reader to see new words and phrases and stumble over them due to your lack of knowledge of their meaning. Hell, it’s easy as a writer to use less common vocabulary in a way that’s halting or stiff--even when you know its definition, if you’re trying too hard to use a particular word for its flair, you can wind up making your sentence too focused upon that single term, which makes it all the more jarring to a reader who doesn’t have an instant knowledge of its meaning.

Bravely Default doesn’t have this problem. To me, at least, it uses all of its vocabulary fluidly, organically, and obviously. Each word, even if unfamiliar, is used easily by the writers, as a natural part of the sentiments being expressed, and in such a way that the meanings are easy to intuit from the context and the tone. To be able to regularly use archaic and very specific vocabulary in a fluent and flowing enough way that it never becomes a stumbling block to the audience is very impressive!

Bravely Default’s writers deserve a great deal of praise for just how good and enjoyable an RPG they crafted, and most of that praise comes from greater strengths of the game than just its use of language. Nonetheless, even if it’s a comparatively minor virtue, I also think it’s worthwhile to applaud the writers and translators for their consistent use of interesting, older, uncommon vocabulary to help create the atmosphere of their world, and also to applaud them for just how skillfully easy and natural that vocabulary’s use is for the player to read and hear. Well done, Silicon Studio!

* Well, 3 out of 4 of them, at least. Tiz never quite gains a more nuanced personality than one might find in any given lump of mud. Still, that is, sadly, the standard of RPGs.

** I would be highly surprised if the guy who titled Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings actually had a firm grasp on the definition of the word ‘revenant.’ I would be even more surprised if, in the unlikely scenario where he did, he could provide a compelling explanation for the title as a whole.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

General RPG Lists: Greatest Time Travel RPGs

Ahh, time travel. What an interesting concept; it seems to me that there is an almost limitless potential for thoughtful and exciting stories involving its use, if you’re creative enough to utilize it well. You can use it conventionally and come up with cool stories, like the Days of Future Past arc of X-Men comics/cartoons, and you can use it unconventionally and come up with amusing movies, like Groundhog Day. You can build a whole awesome show around it, like Doctor Who, or just employ it tactically to create awesome individual episodes of your show, like Yesterday’s Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can found your story upon it as your opening move, like Futurama (Fry’s 1000 year jump is essentially the same thing), or as your closing move, like Shadow Hearts 2. It’s a very versatile narrative tool, if you know how to handle it.

RPGs seem to me to have a special fondness for time travel. It pops up quite often within the genre, more often, I think, than it does in most other artistic mediums. Not always to great success, mind you--sometimes it’s silly and makes no sense (Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek, some occasions in Energy Breaker), sometimes it really didn’t even have any need to be there in the first place (Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean 1, Sailor Moon: Another Story), and sometimes it even just outright contradicts the style and direction of the game (Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy 9, Dark Cloud 2). Nonetheless, it’s a frequently employed staple of the genre, utilized in ways both grandiose (the whole story of AeternoBlade revolves around it) and tiny (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure uses time travel only for its Protagonist to briefly witness a day of her past as an adult).

Hell, the very first RPG I played from start to finish was all about time travel--hopping from present to past and future through hidden portals, utilizing the forces of causality and forming alliances with colorful characters of times long ago and long from now, who conquer their foes by using combination techniques, all to save the world from a dark, alien monster that threatened it. Good times.

Then a few years after I played The Magic of Scheherazade, I played Chrono Trigger. I liked that one, too.

So, with time travel being such a familiar face to RPGs, not to mention a staple of both my very first RPG, and also my very favorite RPG, I figure, why not take a look at the genre and rank the ones that use the concept the very best? So today, for your future purchase decisions, I present to you the time travel RPGs just too good to look past.

5. The Magic of Scheherazade

Ahh, The Magic of Scheherazade. Possibly the first RPG to use time travel, it also remains 1 of the best, taking you through a grand quest to save the world and rescue your beloved that requires you to journey through the past, present, and future to accumulate the allies and artifacts you’ll need. Yes, it may be a very straightforward use of time travel, but it’s done well, it uses temporal manipulation tropes competently (as expected, several times the key to overcoming an obstacle is to take an action in the past that will have ramifications later in the present, and such), and it does have a few moments that are rather interesting/inventive with it. There is, for example, a moment in the game in which you have to go so far back in time that the world is still brand new, because the demon you have to defeat is so incredibly powerful that you only stand a chance of killing him when he’s just been born (and even then, it’s a tough fight). Years before Scott Evil wondered why his father didn’t use the ability to time travel to take out Austin Powers while the guy was taking a dump, Magic of Scheherazade was using the advantages of cherry-picking moments in a timeline from which to launch an attack. So yeah, TMoS is a solid, fun time travel RPG.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

What a cool premise this game has: Link has to stop the end of the world in 3 days, but there’s no possible way he can do so organically. He has neither the tools nor the allies necessary for it, and 3 days is simply not enough time to acquire it all. So, he must continue to play a song that sends him back to the beginning of the 3 days, over and over, gathering all he needs over the course of countless resets. It’s a darned good premise for a Zelda game, and it’s actually kind of crazy that Nintendo also used the whole mask premise in this game, as well, as I daresay you could get more than enough material out of the time travel alone (or the masks alone, for that matter) for a workable game theme.

What I really like about how TLoZMM handles time travel is how complex and well-navigated the repeating 3 days of Termina are, in terms of the residents of the land. Every NPC in this game has a path they follow over the course of the 3 days, which you can observe, and most of them have dilemmas which you can assist them with. It means that for every hour of the game’s 72, there are dozens of plots at work, dozens of stories waiting to be engaged in, all coinciding independently within the same land, each needing a hero’s assistance to resolve...and by using time travel, Link can be there for each and every 1 of them, a hero in a dozen different instances at once. Combine that with the overall premise of the game, and you have a really nifty and creative time travel RPG.

3. AeternoBlade

AeternoBlade has probably the most creative use of time travel that I’ve seen in an RPG, both in terms of its use in the story, and in terms of its use as a function of gameplay. I’ll admit, I’ve never played Prince of Persia or Braid, which are both famous for time puzzles, so maybe AeternoBlade’s gameplay features are old hat, but even if the game’s puzzles aren’t as new to the world as they were to me when I played it, it’s still cool the way the game uses localized, personal time travel to make the protagonist, Freyja, 1 of the most powerful RPG characters of all time.

More importantly, though, AeternoBlade has a well-crafted and interesting plot that warns against immersing oneself in vengeance, through a rather creative use of a time loop--although perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a time spiral--and a villain forged through self-manipulated causality. There’s a lot of creative little uses of time manipulation sprinkled throughout the game beyond the major plot flow, too, like the idea that a villain is conventionally unbeatable because he can manipulate his own timeline to erase the moment at which he was harmed (admittedly, Radiant Historia did this first, but it's still something you don't see very often, and AeternoBlade puts more focus on it). Singularly creative, you don’t get many better time travel games than AeternoBlade.

2. Chrono Trigger

Well, what is there to say, really? Chrono Trigger is fun, engaging, smooth, natural, and inventive with its use of time travel, and I think it’s fair to say that, much as the game is a cornerstone of the entire genre, CT is a foundation against which other time travel RPGs are measured.

Chrono Trigger knew how to keep time travel a fresh and interesting aspect of its story from start to finish, somehow knew how to make it an integral element of all the game’s events without overplaying it as a plot device, and knew how to use it to create a diverse and interesting cast without going too far into the oddity factor.* Time travel in Chrono Trigger wasn’t just a simple way of overcoming plot obstacles--each trip to a location in the past or future that you weren’t familiar with was a whole new adventure, a unique period of CT’s history that had its own atmosphere and story. It wasn’t like in some other games like Star Ocean 1 or Tales of Phantasia, where time travel basically means just going from one medieval fantasy setting to another very slightly more medieval fantasy setting--the eras of Chrono Trigger all had their own personalities, presenting unique new situations and challenges. By the end of this game, you feel like you know the world of Chrono Trigger as intimately as you do any of the game’s main characters, for that world has been richly developed through the history you witness.

As I mentioned in my general rant on Chrono Trigger, I also quite like that there’s a perpetual air of intrigue and mystery about the time travel in this game. In every other RPG, the source of the game’s time travel is clearly defined, be it by magic or technology, whereas Chrono Trigger retains an air of ambiguous mystique to it, while never coming off as careless. I like how I put it in that rant, so I’ll just copy-paste it here: “the game’s handling of time travel is somewhat unique as it’s hard to determine where it’s grounded--science, magic, or the spiritual? Machines like the Gate Key and the Epoch are used to open the holes in time, making it science fiction, and yet, the time gates seem to be a result of incredibly powerful magics having reactions so powerful that time’s fabric is torn, as shown by the first gate appearing from a reaction to the magic pendant, or Lavos’s powerful presence causing the one at Magus’s summoning ceremony. And yet! There is a deliberate sprinkling of the spiritual in there, as well--the CT party theorizes one evening that the true origin of these time portals comes from a regretful deity-like Entity, looking back in sorrow at the world’s history, and through its regret causing the time gates that allow for history to be changed for the better. Sounds like hogwash, I suppose, but then the theory is born out to a certain extent by the inexplicable, single-use gate that takes Lucca back to the moment of her life she regrets the most, giving her an opportunity to put it right--time travel by sheer will of the spirit, it seems, or perhaps the mercy of this Entity, which is still spiritual. And the time freeze performed to save Crono, arguably the most important act of time-warping in the entire game, seems as rooted in spirit (requiring the intense desire of his friends to return him to life) as it is in magic (requiring a magically-created clone) or science (the Chrono Trigger device itself). Chrono Trigger has a level of ambiguity to its time travel’s basis, which is fairly unique, and quite interesting.”

I can go on and on (obviously), but I think I’ve said and re-said enough at this point. Chrono Trigger is a game where time travel is inventive, intriguing, and thoughtful, while being straightforward and natural. We’ve seen precious few RPGs since that approach time travel in the sense of having a general, sprawling adventure of it, and I think that may be because everyone knows, deep down, that this game accomplished that kind of time travel epic perfectly, and that trying to match or exceed it is a futile effort.

1. Radiant Historia

Chrono Trigger may be the best at what it does, that being the general, sprawling epic of traveling to different eras as part of a grand, straightforward save-the-world deal...but that’s not the only kind of time travel story out there. There’s also the plot of time travel on a small scale, a personal one, a narrative not of affecting entire ages of history but rather of moving back and forth along a small timeline, making great changes through tiny differences in action. This is the Edge of Tomorrow sort of time travel story, one of a threat so overwhelming, a chance at victory so narrow, that the only option is to be able to relive each crisis over and over, experimenting with actions and small changes that accumulate into great effects, until the hidden, razor-thin path to success is found. Or, in Radiant Historia’s case, paths, plural.

See, part of what makes Radiant Historia such a really cool time travel story is that it sets itself apart from its own sub-genre in how it deals with the idea of having to keep going back in time over and over to do the exact right thing to succeed. In most stories like that (such as Edge of Tomorrow), the major focus is on just following a single path of events and learning the exact right place to be in, words to say, and actions to take, to do what you need to. Which is just fine, it makes for some solid stories. But Radiant Historia is really neat in that the game is basically split into 2 timelines from a choice its protagonist, Stocke, makes early on, so you get to actually play through 2 separate stories as Stocke makes his way through both timelines’ adventures, attacking the problem of saving the world from 2 separate chains of cause and effect. And what’s really creative about that is that the paths to success for Stocke through each timeline are dependent on what he has learned and gained in the other timeline. There are abilities that Stocke learns along the path of his first choice that he needs to survive and overcome obstacles in the second timeline, and vice-versa. This is a story where knowing the details of what’s about to happen only takes Stocke so far, instead of being the key to success--his precognition is not by itself enough to overcome his roadblocks, he needs more. The fact that success in either timeline depends on knowledge and skills, as well as friendships and actions' echoes, that Stocke could only possibly have acquired from having walked an entirely separate path in this conflict is singular to Radiant Historia, so far as I’m aware, and it plays with the concept of time travel in a whole new way that calls all the more attention to it as the dominant force of the story.

RH handles it well, too; it never feels like you’re having to pop back and forth over and over again just for the sake of selling the gameplay aspect. Each time you return to 1 plotline because you’ve gone as far as you can in another, you go along for a good length of time, reconnecting with the events and characters of this path, becoming immersed enough that when the next time comes that Stocke cannot continue on without a better understanding of his world or without the abilities gained from the other timeline, you’ve almost forgotten that this switch was inevitable. The story, both stories, draw you into their narrative, even as they coalesce to slowly reveal the higher truths of the game’s plot. Time travel is expertly used to uniquely creative means in Radiant Historia, better than any other RPG I’ve played.

Honorable Mention: Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is a solid time travel game, even though it doesn’t really have time travel in the sense that we usually think of it. There’s no magical musical instrument, or timespace-altering sword, or fantastic machine that allows one to go to the past and future in Fallout 4...but at the same time, it basically is a story about a time-displaced person whose existence as an anachronism, as well as the means through which that displacement occurred, defines a substantial part of the plot, in addition to underscoring 1 of the major themes of the series (that theme being that humanity doesn’t change). So it’s doing everything a story might do using a more familiar vehicle for time travel, and hey, functional cryogenic technology is about as much a fantasy at this point as an actual time machine, so we’re still talking about a sci-fi machine making the protagonist’s 1-way trip to the future a reality. Thus, I reckon it counts. And while there are other games that design themselves by a time-travel-game style without technically relying on time travel (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, for example), I think that Fallout 4 does it best, telling a great story of a woman/man from the past journeying through a world so brutally foreign to what she/he knew, and yet, at the same time, uncomfortably familiar in its heart and soul, while also using its kinda-sorta time travel to play with parent-child dynamics and craft a really thought-provoking villain from it. It’s solid stuff, as a time travel game, even if it arguably isn’t one.

* A restraint its sequel sure as hell didn’t possess.