Behold. Everything’s at the bottom of the sea. Gone is the magical kingdom of Zeal, and all the dreams and ambitions of its people. I once lived there… But I was another person then.
-Magus, Chrono Trigger
“The following is a contributor post by the Regional Exclusive Mage.”
Let’s go back in time to the days of the good old Super Nintendo. Remember some of those quality games released on Nintendo’s 16-bit wonder-machine: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger! Everyone loves Chrono Trigger, right? Well… over here in PAL territories we didn’t see an official release of Chrono Trigger until the Nintendo DS version 14 years after its initial SNES release! Worse still, its official successor Chrono Cross still hasn’t been officially released over here, even on the PlayStation’s various digital stores. This, I’m sure you’d agree, is a huge tragedy on Squaresoft / Square Enix’s part, but nothing compared to the fact that only Japan got to see the missing link between the two: Radical Dreamers: Nusumenai Hōseki (“The Unstealable Jewel”).
Radical Dreamers is basically a sequel/side-story/distant cousin to Chrono Trigger, wrapping up one of the more prominent loose-ends that fans were said to be questioning after following up the already-packed SNES game. As a result, Radical Dreamers was designed specifically for the die-hard fans of Chrono Trigger. Particularly these days, it’s something you wouldn’t easily come across unless you’re really doing your homework on the series itself. The original release was on the Satellaview, an ill-fated Japanese-only hardware add-on for the Super Famicom system, an early attempt at digital delivery of content. The premise itself is solid in practice (after all, look how a lot of games are digital-only today) but in the mid-nineties the internet wasn’t quite the same as it is today, and it looks to have taken an awful lot of effort to set up and to receive data through this method.
Radical Dreamers was delivered through this online service in February of 1996 and presented Japanese fans of Chrono Trigger with a sort of epilogue telling the tale of three brand-new characters: Serge, Kid and Magil. Together they infiltrate Viper Manor to steal an artefact called the Frozen Flame from the evil Lynx. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s pretty much the introductory chapter of Chrono Cross. As it turns out, Radical Dreamers was considered “unfinished” by its creators and was effectively remade and expanded upon more fully as Chrono Cross. Even its writer/director Masato Kato has publicly disowned Radical Dreamers, going so far as to halt its inclusion on the PlayStation releases of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross as an unlockable extra, due to being unhappy with the way it originally turned out.
This, of course, has not stopped legions of talented fans from tracking down the game data and releasing an English translation patch via the modern-day internet as we know it. As such, it is quite difficult to separate the game itself as a stand-alone from the joyous fanaticism with playing a “hidden” entry in such a well-regarded series. I’ll try to take that into account and provide as fair an overview and critique as I possibly can, with minimal spoilers so as not to upset those who haven’t yet tried it out for themselves but would be interested in doing so.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Radical Dreamers is a visual-novel so most of the action takes place through text and dialogue. In addition, much of the gameplay is spent looking at pleasantly detailed static-screens with white text over the top. These screens can range from a view of a full room like a library to a close-up on one corner of a table. Each one is very dark and adds to the tense atmosphere, but it still feels very sparse in places. There are animations, but these are extremely rare, so they do tend to catch you off-guard the first time they occur. It’s a neat little touch to keep you on your toes as you play.
There’s not really an awful lot else to say about how this game looks, other than to mention that there are characters your party encounters throughout Viper Manor: some friendly, some not-so kind. The designs of these characters and creatures are mostly standard fare for the genre: skeletons, slimes and the like, and they don’t exactly win points for innovation but fit well within the world they inhabit and are drawn well enough to each be memorable.
The same cannot be said, however, for the three lead characters. Aside from one still-image just before the final encounter, you don’t see what Serge, Kid and Magil look like. Sure, Chrono Cross fans will already be well aware of Serge and Kid’s appearance from that game, but to say you spend an awful lot of time getting to know these characters only to have a picture presented in the latter stages of the game that is, for my own interpretation at least, wildly different from the image I had created in my mind… that was quite jarring to say the least. Overall, though, I would say that the graphics used are functional enough and certainly help add to the oppressive atmosphere the Manor is intended to create.
The first thing that struck me about the audio in Radical Dreamers was that it was used so sparingly. Just like the visuals, sound is used only in certain areas. This again fits neatly with the tone of the adventure: you’re a gang of thieves sneaking into a mansion, so you’re not exactly going to be dragging an orchestra along for the ride with you. You’re on tip-toes, creeping around and trying not to alert the guards or monsters. This is all a little eerie until you find yourself participating in a fight when the game’s battle theme kicks in, and oh my goodness it’s a corker!
For those who have played Chrono Cross on the PlayStation, it is the main battle theme from that game. Obviously it’s a slightly different arrangement thanks to the difference in hardware, but it’s easily recognisable to those familiar with the series. For those not familiar… well it’s one of the finest battle themes in video game history for my money: starting with a brief statement of intent before launching into sinister tones that hype up the intensity of the battle ahead, making each encounter seem important in its own way. It’s after hearing this that I realised: most of the other tracks in the game were eventually “ported” to Chrono Cross too. “Star-Stealing Girl” or “The Girl who Stole the Star” is here during key moments relating to the character of Kid, and it sounds as beautiful as ever here. Absolute credit to the composer Yasunori Mitsuda; even in hindsight, compared with the re-arrangements on the PlayStation game, these versions of those tracks sound wonderful.
The story of Radical Dreamers begins with the party approaching Viper Manor ready to sneak inside and steal the Frozen Flame, yet the main thrust of that narrative only reveals itself towards the final act during the confrontation with Lynx. For most of the game itself, conversations take place between Serge, Kid, and Magil as they learn about each other, their connections with Lynx and their personal motivations for why they are there. This helps to create a more personal connection with the characters despite only seeing them together on this one mission. Whilst it is revealed early on that both Kid and Magil have history with Lynx and have worked together in the past, by the story’s conclusion they both feel like old friends you have known for years.
On the downside of this: Serge is pretty much a blank-slate. Despite being the protagonist through whose eyes we witness the action, his character never really develops much more than having respect for Magil and being head-over-heels in love with Kid. I personally would have loved to see more focus on Serge and Magil’s characters, but this is Kid’s story for the most part, so everything is written to revolve mostly around her character. This struck me as odd to begin with and made me initially wonder why we weren’t playing as Kid if she is the most important character. Even down to the ending: the way in which the conclusion plays out makes it clear that she is a crucial character in the overall lore of the series.
Despite this, the story itself is very well-written and reveals itself to the player at a very steady pace. I never felt overloaded with exposition, and that is down to the way in which the characters interact. Magil stays relatively obscure aside from dropping more than a few hints as to his identity (spoilers: highlight to reveal)–he’s actually Magus, of course–and Kid’s back-story is fleshed out in plenty of detail to give a genuinely well-rounded view of her overall character long before the confrontation with Lynx where all the links to Chrono Trigger are ultimately revealed. Kid’s role in the whole ordeal becomes clear by the ending, and Serge and Magil serve as suitable bodyguards throughout what is essentially her journey. As a result, the story told in Radical Dreamers is worth experiencing, whether you are a huge fan of the Chrono games or not; it just makes a heck of a lot more sense if you are aware of Chrono Trigger characters like Lucca and Schala, and are at least aware of what this game eventually became with Chrono Cross.
NOTE: Since I am personally unable to read the original Japanese text of this game, everything I say in this section is testament to the group of fans who put the time and effort in to create this translation. They certainly have gone above and beyond what anyone could have expected and put together something quite special for their fellow fans.
I mentioned earlier that Serge, the player-character, is relatively vacuous in terms of his presentation. His sole reason for being at Viper Manor on that night seems to be because Kid told him to be there. I’d say the reason that Serge isn’t really explored as a character is for that reason: this story is about Kid. Serge’s function in the story is really to prop up and admire Kid, and the way he is written shows that his role is to document Kid’s adventure in the same way Doctor Watson recalls the adventures of his slightly more exciting friend Sherlock Holmes.
The way in which this is done, however, comes across as more than a little cringe-worthy. I can’t count the times I rolled my eyes at how Serge described “gazing into the deep blue pools of her eyes.” Perhaps it is for the best that his Chrono Cross counterpart became a silent protagonist! Joking aside, this is an essential point to the overall framing of the plot. The game monitors your choices and keeps a record of Serge’s relationship with Kid through a hidden counter. Whilst you are never privy to how positive or negative your overall relationship-status with Kid is, it is reflected in some of the interactions between Serge and Kid during your playthrough. More importantly, it affects the ending and whether certain characters will survive the final battle against Lynx.
Despite the corny narrative perspective from Serge, the rest of the cast are written spectacularly. Kid’s dialogue is easily recognisable through her colloquialisms and jokey attitude: one scene springs to mind where Kid is hiding from a group of orcs and mimicking the sounds of animals they say have been spotted in the manor. This genuinely made me laugh, whereas Magil’s proud and stoic lines of dialogue give a suitable counter to her easy-going nature, lending weight to the story in certain scenes and really making me appreciate his presence. In spite of the OTT nature of some of Serge’s interactions with Kid, the story itself is written wonderfully and certain scenes, particularly one room with a falling-ceiling trap, were perfectly written and kept me on the edge of my seat.
The more you put into this game, the more you get out of it. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but in the case of Radical Dreamers it couldn’t be more accurate. I started out expecting a typical visual-novel… laid back, relaxed and ready to enjoy the story at my leisure. From the get-go, I was punished for this attitude by a time-based reaction. I didn’t know it was time-based until I missed my cue to choose an option. Straight away I realised that this is a game that demanded my full attention. Then I entered the manor itself and found that, even with a decent sense of direction, I found myself getting a little lost. The manor itself isn’t huge, but I still found it prudent to grab a notepad and pencil to draw out a map. This game wasn’t going to hold my hand, nor did I want it to: suddenly I found myself completely engrossed.
This level of immersion followed me through my whole exploration of the manor, and my notes on where to find certain keys and events needed to progress certainly helped with my repeated playthroughs, which is something I feel this game requires from the player. Viper Manor isn’t the largest game-world you will ever explore, but there are certain events triggered in certain rooms that you could miss if you aren’t searching thoroughly enough. In a sense, Radical Dreamers reminded me more of the classic text-adventures in the sense of moving around from point to point but presented in a much more verbose manner. It doesn’t rely upon compass directions to navigate: instead it will use ‘left’ and ‘right’ from the character’s perspective or talk about walking “towards the terrace” for instance. If you aren’t fully engrossed, you might find yourself mistakenly going in completely the wrong direction and losing your bearings.
This continues into the game’s battle system. Even though there are several scripted battles in some of the rooms to progress the plot, there are also various random encounters discovered just by wandering the hallways between the rooms. Usually they are prefixed by a line from Kid or Magil suggesting they sense movement up ahead, or a shift in the atmosphere. As the battle-theme begins, this typically would be where the usual JRPG menu would offer simple choices such as Attack, Magic, Item or Escape. Radical Dreamers pushes this idea to the side in a continuation of its text-adventure sensibilities, giving more context specific options. You could, depending on the options available: size-up the enemy, launch a surprise attack, or wait for Kid or Magil to act first. In certain cases, inaction can once again lead to missing an opportunity or a loss of hit-points so it is essential to make snap-decisions.
It’s quite difficult to ascertain just how challenging this game is because as a visual-novel it doesn’t require a lot of skill in terms of reactions or fiddly controls. If this game requires anything on the player’s part, it is patience. Typically, visual novels tend to send me to sleep, but by requiring a little extra input on my part such as doodling a map or making quick decisions in random-battles, it kept my attention from start to finish. The challenge in this game comes from how closely you, the player, pay attention to the details you are given in the text. There are hints running through what is told to you and if you miss one then you might be in for a tougher time.
Additionally, there are a couple of ways in which challenge is otherwise maintained. Firstly, it is possible to see a Game Over screen in Radical Dreamers. As well as a hidden “Relationship with Kid” meter, there is also a hidden HP counter which will tick down each time Serge is hit by enemy attacks. Again, there is no way of displaying Serge’s HP on-screen, but contextual clues in the dialogue will inform you whether you are fit and ready for action or struggling to stay upright. Thankfully there are a selection of areas throughout the manor where you can perform certain actions to top-up your HP in case of further random battles.
Admittedly the battle menus can be easily navigated if you know the correct order to choose the options, but there are a couple of encounters throughout the quest where the outcome of each choice is random. One such example is when the party encounters a group of orc guards inside the treasure room: no amount of note-taking can prepare you for this fight and you really have to luck your way through it and find a place to heal afterwards.
Radical Dreamers isn’t the longest game in existence, in fact if you speed-run through then it should only take you an hour or so. Considering all the preparation work and cartography that went into my final “clean” run through the game, it took me just over a week’s worth of evenings to reach the credit-scroll. However, following on from this, you get a kind of New Game Plus scenario: it’s the same again but with some seemingly minor changes. These might seem irrelevant at first but can lead to whole new story strands opening for the player to navigate. One stand-out scenario involves Kid getting distracted by an evil sunflower on the way to the manor, with disastrous consequences.
This adds to the replayability of the game because seeking out and finding these fresh narratives based on the party can add hours of extra playtime if you’re not sure where to look. Even with a clear idea of where to go to start these extra stories, it can still add plenty of extra story-time on to your playthrough. Some of these stories are genuinely creepy, some of them are downright silly, but they work together quite well to make Radical Dreamers into a complete package telling extra little stories about the main party as well as the Frozen Flame story.
Personal grade: 7/10
All in all, Radical Dreamers is best approached as one of the great curiosities of gaming. As a semi-officially endorsed “sequel” to Chrono Trigger it has an awful lot to live up to, and I am glad that the main story beats got a second chance to shine in the form of the woefully under-rated Chrono Cross. It’s got plenty going for it that makes it worth experiencing for the hardcore Chrono Trigger enthusiasts, but to the uninitiated I’d advise checking out the characters and story lovingly regenerated into Chrono Cross.. providing it’s ever brought over to PAL territories, of course!
I played Radical Dreamers on a cartridge I purchased on eBay. The translation was completed by Demiforce, found here. Excellent work on the translation!
Aggregated Score: 6.9
The Regional Exclusive Mage is an avid video-game collector and literature enthusiast. When he isn’t educating the younger generation, he can be found sharing a wealth of obscure gaming knowledge as TeacherBloke85 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review