When I was about 10 years old, my brother Mike introduced me to my favourite game, a JRPG for the PS2 called Radiata Stories. It was a fantasy love story about a young man, Jack Russell (yes, you read that right) whose dreams of becoming a knight are shattered after his teammate, Ridley, is nearly killed. Later, Jack finds himself caught in a war between fantasy creatures and humans, and he needs to pick a side. Oh, there's also a whole end-of-the-world plot going on underneath all of this. There's a lot going on in this game. As a kid, I loved this game, and, after revisiting it this week, I still do.
From left to right: Jack Russell (the protagonist), Clive, and Ridley Silverlake. This is a screenshot from a cutscene during their first mission.
Radiata Stories was the first game I played that had so many features and objects in it. You could kick rocks, barrels, or even children if you wanted to. Sometimes kicking things would result in battles, while other times it would reveal secret items or money. While at times the story can be dark, the dialogue overall is humorous and the 300 characters, each with their own schedules, are complex and charming. The game lets you recruit up to 175 NPCs to fight alongside you in battle.
As a kid, all this led me to develop a massive obsession with the game. In fact, I was so obsessed with this game that I wrote exactly 200 pages of hideous, cringeworthy fanfiction dedicated to exploring a potential sequel.
As I booted up my PlayStation 2 this week, the whimsical menu music immediately brought me back to my childhood. I gushed at the opening cutscene, where Jack's father fights an elemental dragon. It was like I was seeing an old friend after spending years apart. But, like when you meet an old friend again, my perception of the game had changed.
Jack is following in the footsteps of his late father, Cairn Russell, a knight who was beloved by the fantasy creatures of the kingdom.
I used to think of Jack as a headstrong, confident hero, someone that I could look up to. But as I watched his opening scenes, I saw his overconfident behaviour before the knight selection trials as painfully immature. I also saw how he is a bit sexist, instantly evaluating women as having less fighting skill than him, and rude, referring to his boss Jarvis at the warrior guild as an "old wino" and calling his 21-year-old mentor Leonard "pops". Jack is not as heroic to me now, but he's still mostly likeable despite his many flaws. The best part about Jack is that you get to see him become a hero. As he lives through more battles and helps more people, he develops a sense of maturity and nobility.
All of the comedy still packed a punch. During the knight selection trials, Jack realises that his opponent, Ridley, is a girl. Jack moans in disappointment, commenting that he was looking forward to a "real fight" and that he's no good at "holding back". It's funny because Ridley completely wipes the floor with him, and I realised that arrogant Jack didn't stand a chance at all. Jack isn't chosen for the knights because he does great; he's chosen simply because his late father was a great knight, so they think they see "potential in him". Ridley had to aggressively train her whole life for these trials, and Jack gets in just because of his family name. Much of the comedy in Radiata Stories relies on Jack's arrogance, or his insults directed towards other people.
On the left is the player character, Jack Russell, and on the right is Ridley Silverlake. At first, they don't like each other at all, but their relationship develops as the game progresses.
The controls aren't as great as I remember. The game doesn't give you a tutorial until after you join the knights. As my fight with Ridley started, I found myself jumping in and out of menus as I randomly pressed all the buttons, screaming in horror as my character didn't even swing his sword until he approached his enemies. You hit and lock onto enemies with the circle button, so getting away from an enemy or guarding after delivering a blow is difficult. The inability to quickly evade an enemy's hit or run away is extremely frustrating. While the battling controls were bad, I found that the controls for free roaming came back to me easily, and I proceeded to kick everything in sight.
With a cast of 300 characters and a huge world map — not to mention a secret dungeon — the world of Radiata overwhelmed me during my return. While exploring the castle, I found a massive, multi-storied tower with several flights of stairs leading down into the sewers. As I descended from the top floor, I questioned why the developers felt the need to include so many flights of stairs. Like, I get it; it's a big tower. The trip felt same-y, with identical doors and hallways. In the castle, there's no visible way to differentiate one character's bedroom door from another's unless you have an excellent memory. When I was a kid, I found the map huge and fascinating, but as an adult it just feels repetitive and boring.
Yep, that's me, at level 4. And that right there, hurdling towards me with its massive claws, is a giant sloth. I'm not intimidated at all.
Although I'm only four hours into my new playthrough, Radiata Stories lives up to my sense of childhood wonder, albeit some parts are not as great as I remembered. Unfortunately, while I think the game has a lot of good points, it mostly lives in obscurity. If I tell someone that my favourite game is Radiata Stories, most of the time they stare at me in confusion. Few people I've met have played it, which means that I don't get the opportunity to reminisce with them. But maybe that's OK. Maybe Radiata Stories is something that I can have all to myself.