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.
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.