I found Radiata Stories incredibly frustrating. Not frustrating in that "Wow, what an extraordinarily crap game" way, either. It was frustrating in the sense that I can easily see the potential of the title, and it does a great many things right, but then ends up falling flat on its face anyway. Call it frustrating, disappointing, or simply a waste of potential.
That's a shame, because Radiata Stories is easily one of the more interesting RPGs I've played in recent memory. Jack Russell, your main character (and also the only character you can actively control), is interesting. Unlike the super-capable heroes you'll find in most RPGs, Jack is a failure. A lovable failure, but a failure nonetheless. He's the son of a great knight, and assumes that he'll be even greater than his father was in his day. He's going to enter the knight qualification contest, win it all, and become the greatest knight ever. This idea is put to bed five minutes later when he absolutely fails in the first round of the tournament. For good measure, he loses to a girl, Ridley, that he decided to take it easy on. He ends up making it as a knight because someone realized who he was and decided to let him in anyway.
In words of one syllable, Jack is not a smart guy.
Many of the most enjoyable parts of the game are due to Jack's personality. He's a failure, but he's also oblivious to this fact. He's constantly upbeat and raring to get into action, no matter the danger. He's severely lacking in tact and speaks whatever happens to run through his mind at the time. When the other members of the group are worried about running into high-powered enemies, Jack is practically begging to meet one and fight it. He's almost pure id in the sense that he doesn't seem to think one single thing through before doing it.
He gets roped into a rivalry with Ridley due to her winning over him in the tournament. He's the uneducated, mannerless bumpkin, while she's playing the role of aloof, ice-cold, royalty. She's been raised from birth to become a knight, and so missed out on most basic childhood experiences. There are a few moments when her icy exterior breaks down and she seems to be sad about the fact that she had no real childhood, but they're few and far between. The rivalry introduces an interesting element to the game and serves to lighten up a few otherwise dreary parts.
When the game is focused on dialogue or story pieces, it's quite good. It has a multitude of engaging characters to join your party (170 plus, in fact), a slick set of missions to play through to get those characters, an interesting implementation of of time passing, fun enemies, quality voice-acting, and smart dialogue. The graphics aren't exactly pushing the limits of the PS2, but Radiata Stories uses an attractive style that I wouldn't mind seeing again. It's a very attractive package. The story is interesting, though it does take a good while to get around to the meat of it. There are some pacing problems, which is mostly due to how the gameplay progresses.
The gameplay is where it all falls apart. The exploration and travel portions are extraordinarly boring. They tend to consist of simply running (you have three levels of walking speed, which is nice, but running is the only useful one) from one area to another, fighting two to three enemies per screen, lathering, rinsing, and repeating. It was completely monotonous by the second mission. The portions that take place in the towns are fine, though the lack of a zoomable world map hurts.
The monotony isn't helped by the battle system, either. It's a simple real-time system that was intriguing at first, but quickly became frustrating. You select enemies by looking in their general direction and lock-on using the R1 button. From there, you can press X to block or parry, double tap X to jump back, hit L1 to bring up a menu and press Circle to attack. Circle makes your character run towards either the locked-on enemy or the currently selected enemy and attack once. From there, you can keep pressing Circle until you've done the maximum amount of attacks that weapon can do as a combo.
It's fairly simple, but it falls prey to attempting to hold your hand just a little bit too much. Having your character run towards the enemy and then swing is frustrating, as you have to struggle to cancel the auto-run in case of an emergency. Auto-run makes combo timing tough, as well, as your character may not swing when you expect it and throw you off. The ability to give commands to your party is very nice, but you never actually control anyone but Jack. It seems like kind of an odd decision to make, but I can understand why it was made.
The most ridiculous aspect of the battle system is the fact that once you knock an enemy down, they're functionally invincible until they stand back up. You simply can't attack someone if they're flat on their back, though you can swing your weapon at thin air. I'm not sure if this was some way to implement "fair play" or something, but it comes off as pretty haphazard and only solidifies the battle system's poor status.
Another odd feature is the way that save points work. They show up on the world map, but that's it. The world map never zooms in to become a map of a city, so you have a map with a big red flag sitting on top of a city representing your save point. Er, worthless much? It would've been nice if you could've had a town map or some other kind of indication. It's almost as if they wanted you to know that a save point was around, but not where it was. It's a half-step.
There you have it. Radiata Stories is a mixture of a quality style, fun story, great characterization, and gameplay that's crippled by absolutely baffling design. It's an "almost" title-- one that almost makes it, but ends up falling short at the last minute. I honestly wanted to play the game, just to see the story, but it was trudging work. When games start feeling like work, they tend to stop being fun.