I first encountered computer gaming through text adventures. The state of the art has dramatically improved since then, and my tastes have evolved as well, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the story-driven adventure game, and probably always will.
For many years I've meant to check out Radical Dreamers, which holds the seemingly impossible dual role as an entry in the Chrono series of RPG games, as well as a late entry in the text adventure genre. My ambition would prove difficult to accomplish. Not only was Radical Dreamers never released outside of Japan; even within Japan, it was only distributed via a custom satellite modem add-on to the SNES, and so had no "ROM" in the traditional sense.
I finally managed to assemble the necessary pieces to try it, and am glad I did so. It provided everything I was looking for, along with some pleasant surprises along the way.
I would have gladly played this game just for the music. Square is famous for their amazing composers, and Radical Dreamers doesn't disappoint at all in this regard. I continue to be stunned at the incredible sound that they could pull off with 8-bit and 16-bit chips. It all comes down to melodies, and they've crafted more amazing ones here. Much of the music in the game is subtle or ambient, but the themes they do have is incredible.
I was also shocked at how good the writing was, all the more impressive since the game never saw an English release. A group of fans managed to create a language patch that replaces all the Japanese text with English text, but this isn't some slap-dash Babelfish affair. The writing is quite moving, appropriately colorful without seeming baroque, with a wonderful cadence and style to it. All of the characters' voices are well realized as well, down to habits of speech and idioms that they favor.
Navigation through the game is pretty much the same as in any of the great old text adventures, except that instead of North, South, East, West, it's forward, backwards, right, left. That requires you to keep your orientation in mind in addition to your position; on the bright side, it increases your sense of immersion in the world and helps you really visualize the area. It might have been overwhelming on a larger map, but altogether the main game has... probably something less than two dozen rooms, several of which you will probably only visit once. It took very little time for me to become familiar with the geography, so I never did need to draw that map I was planning.
Combat is also oddly fun. For the few text RPGs that I've played, I've been used to very static types of combat: you have a few stock options, like "Attack," "Magic," and "Run,", that show up for each stage of each encounter. Here, the battles are done in storybook mode, "Choose your own adventure" style. For example, one section might prompt you with, "You leap back just in time, and the goblin's morning star smashes into the ground! He moves away from you, snarling. What do you do?" The choices might be, "Grab it!", "Throw my knife at him!" and "Chase him!" Some of the outcomes are random (for example, if you throw the knife, it may only hit him 50% of the time), but others are consistent. Therefore, the standard pain of Square-style random battles is alleviated, because once you figure out how to handle a particular encounter, you can win every time with minimal damage. And, yes, you can take damage. There's no visible health meter, but it's communicated through the text as your bandages grow and your breathing becomes ever more labored.
Before heading into plot spoiler territories: this game also has a really fun variation on Chrono Trigger's "New Game +" mode. You can replay the game after you beat it, but your future playthroughs actually unlock additional stories; since there's no XP, levels, or currency in the game, you can't really bring over any stats from previous runs through the game. I'll get into more detail on these additional stories down below, but I'll mention here that it's well done. All begin in the same manner, but based on some early choices you make, the setting and tone of the game shifts radically. This proves to be a great way to experiment and draw out the possibilities of the creators. Some are flat-out hilarious, while others are macabre and deeply disturbing. Setting each as a separate tale allows this game to cover a wide range of emotions without a jarring internal shift in tone. Think of a Final Fantasy game: typically you'll get some pathos, some drama, some excitement, and some comic relief, staged throughout the game. Radical Dreamers lets them break those elements apart, so you can play one game that's all darkness, and another game that's practically non-stop laughter.
Okay, let's move into spoilerville!
The relationship of Radical Dreamers to the Chrono universe isn't immediately clear. As best as I can tell, it's vaguely a sequel to Chrono Trigger - you eventually learn through backstory how two of the characters are related to major CT characters. However, it isn't really a prequel to Chrono Cross. This game was created prior to CC, and I guess you can see it as sort of a dry run at some of the ideas from that game. Two of the three major characters in RD, Serge and Kid, are the two main characters in CC. Kid's personality is largely the same in both games. Serge is the narrator of RD, and so has a bit more personality than the silent protagonist in CC, but they seem to be the same character.
In terms of setting, all of RD (at least the main story) takes place in Viper Manor, which the three heroes/thieves are infiltrating in order to steal the Flame. This setting was later loosely adapted into an episode within CC.
Thematically, both RD and CC deal with multiple, parallel universes, in much the same way CT dealt with timelines. This theme is pretty subtle in the main story of RD, only coming out during the endgame sequence. However, it can be seen as part of the whole point of the game, especially when it comes to the alternate stories told after the game finishes. Each of those is a story in another universe, with some similarities to the main one but still fundamentally different. Each has three people named Serge, Kid, and Magil entering the manor; in one, though, Magil is a lovestruck aristocrat who pines for the lost love of his youth; in another, Magil is an intergalactic bounty hunter who has been tracking a nefarious Martian villain.
I do like how the game puts the choice of universe into your own hands. It isn't that you're randomly or sequentially thrust into one and need to respond appropriately. Instead, your own actions determine your reality, including your past. This is a cool, up-to-date variation on the idea that our thoughts create our destiny, which is a nifty mental framework to have.
Back to the main story: it's a pleasant mixture of adventure game and RPG, and thoroughly story-driven. Even the main story itself probably deserves multiple play-throughs, since your choices help reveal more about the characters and their situations. Other than advancing through the plot, which largely centers around tracking down the Flame, the most important factor is your emotional connection with Kid. Serge has a crush on Kid, and the way you treat her (and other decisions you make) help determine whether she will reciprocate that affection. This isn't a dating sim; rather, Kid will be more impressed with you if you act more forthrightly, if you respect her opinions, and so on. Most of these come from one-time choices during the story's span, but you can also further your relationship during some of the random battles you fight.
Boy, those Square guys sure can write, can't they? A lot of their plots can sound melodramatic on paper, but as presented within the context of a game, they become extremely moving. Given the short span of RD, its climax is surprisingly heartfelt. Kid sacrifices Lucca's gift in order to save Serge's (your) life; this essentially breaks the bond with CT in order to create a bond with CC.
Lynx's multiple personalities were intriguing, especially in the context of his eventual (re)appearance in CC. In the main story he is cold, calculating, arrogant, and violent. In "Magil: Caught between Love and Adventure" he starts weeping as he sees his daughter elope with "Gilbert". Probably the darkest portrayal comes from the darkest story, wherein he already died years earlier, and has created a cataclysm of suffering in his spirit's wake. I even enjoyed the pathetic, begging Lynx who appeared in Shea's story.
Oh, and since this is spoilerville: I loved Magil's reveal (in the main story) as Magus. Magus may be my favorite character from CT, and prepending that character's incredible story to Magil's mysterious actions here results in a highly compelling composite. From what I read online, the team originally had intended for Magil to also continue over to CC, and it's a shame that didn't happen.
I realize that text adventure's aren't everyone's thing, or even most people's thing, but this one is well worth checking out. It's a slight hassle to gather the necessary components, but once you do, you'll be rewarded with a relatively brief (especially in contrast with a typical Square RPG) game that's packed with story, great 16-bit synthesized music, and pathos. Stick around for the alternate stories once the main game is done.
Even if you haven't played in the Chrono universe before, you may enjoy this one. Most of this game has no explicit connection at all to the events or characters of those games, so you won't be missing out on any important plot. If you like what you encounter here, you should definitely consider picking up Chrono Trigger and/or Chrono Cross. CT was originally an SNES game, but has been modernized and redone as a Nintendo DS game; Chrono Cross is a PlayStation 1 game that is somewhat dated graphically, but still aces when it comes to story. Have fun!