Review: Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (Nintendo Gamecube)

Review: Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Distributor: Nintendo
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 10/17/05

Some of you may remember that I reviewed Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones for the GBA back in early June. Some of you may also remember that I thoroughly enjoyed it, raved about it, and then gave it an 8.0. That’s no small feat around here to say the least.

And now the Fire Emblem series is back, this time with its first entry into the world of 3D on the GameCube. To say that I was eagerly awaiting Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance would be an understatement. I’ve had the game on pre-order for the better part of four months, and have gobbled up every little bit of pre-release information that I could get my hands on. And now it is finally here! Mine, all mine! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!

Ahem…

Sorry, it’s the whole pre-Halloween thing kicking in.

Anyway, now that the game is sitting on store shelves, is it worth buying? Does it manage to live up to its GBA predecessors, or does it fall flat in the transition from 2D to 3D? And just want is an Laguz anyway? Read on to find out!


1. STORY

As with the previous Fire Emblem games, the story is completely stand alone. Playing early versions of the game will give you a bit of a head start when it comes to the gameplay, but it is certainly not necessary to the story.

The game starts with Ike, the son of the head of a local group of Greil Mercenaries. After a rigorous training session he’s given his first change to actual become a member of the group. From there on out the story follows Ike and his friends as they wander around the country of Crimea defending the land against bandits and such.

All seems to be going well, but one day the mercenaries get news of an invasion of the Crimean capital by the country of Daein, and they set out to defend their homeland. Along the way they are joined by a number of other soldiers, a runaway princess, and members of the Laguz race, beast-men who are able to transform into ferocious and deadly creatures.

Sound a little vague? Well, I’m doing that on purpose. One thing I want to convey though is that the main storyline is fairly cookie cutter. Fans of the series will recognize many of the same plot threads and formulas, and any RPG fan will probably even be able to see similarities between this and Shining Force or Final Fantasy or any number of other series.

However, one of the best parts about the Fire Emblem series is the attention to character and plot development. Every character that you encounter (and there are a ton) has a fully developed back story and personality. It’s this attention to detail that really helps the game to stand out among its contemporaries. And all the while the main storyline moves along with plenty of twists and turns to help keep you interested.

Story Score: 7/10


2. GRAPHICS

I’m honestly a bit torn on the graphics here. On the one hand, they are light-years better than anything you’ll see on the GBA. But that’s to be expected. On the other hand, there are plenty of other games that look better on the Gamecube. That’s not to say that the graphics are Nintendo 64 quality… just that they are no where near what the Gamecube is capable of putting out.

The majority of your time is spent viewing battlefields from an overhead perspective. For the most part, the terrain is nicely detailed with plenty of hills, mountains, trees, rocks, rivers, and other features depending on what map you are playing. But because you are viewing them from so far out, they aren’t quite as detailed as they could have been. Character models suffer in this way as well. They are certainly detailed enough to allow you to distinguish them form one another, but there could have been so much more done here.

Once you’ve engaged an enemy, the scene shifts to an animated view of the fight where you are able to view your characters and your opponents exchange blows. These contain much more detail than the overhead maps, and each character looks fantastic. Unfortunately the animations for the attack sequences tend to get stale after a while, as the same attacks occur over and over again, but you always have the option of turning this off if you like.

Lastly, cut scenes come in two varieties: your standard dialogue sequences with lightly animated character portraits, and fully animated sequences complete with voiceovers. Unfortunately the latter occur few and far between. But when they do, it’s a real treat to watch. The animations are crisp and smooth and it feels like you are watching a cartoon or anime. The character portraits in the more traditional dialogue scenes are well drawn and detailed, but suffer from a lack of animation. Most of the time only the mouths move.

Overall the graphics are nice and work well within the context of the game, but certainly not the best that they could have done.

Graphics Score: 7/10


3. SOUND

The sound in Fire Emblem is easily one of the best aspects of the game.

To start with, the music is absolutely fantastic. The simple themes that tried so hard to sound epic on the GBA are fully realized here with an excellent score that is sure to stick in your head for days at a time. And what’s even more amazing is that it’s not orchestral… it’s MIDI. But it is done so well and the quality is so high that you almost can’t tell the difference.

The voice work is almost equally as good, with all the actors doing an excellent job with their characters. Unfortunately the voiceovers are mainly only used during the fully animated cut scenes, which are fairly infrequent, but what is here is good.

Sound effects during battles are also very well done, with every little action making a completely unique and recognizable sound. From the clashing of swords and axes to the clomping of a horses hooves to the sound of an intense bolt of lightning striking down from the sky, everything fits the game perfectly. The only real downside is the repetitiveness of some of the battle scenes which makes for repetitive sound effects.

You couldn’t ask for much better with the sound, except for maybe a little bit more of the voice work and a little less repetition with the sound effects. But the music is top notch, and more than helps make up for those few shortcomings.

Sound Score: 9/10


4. CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY

If you’ve played any of the previous incarnations of Fire Emblem, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. For that matter, I’d suggest turning off the tutorial system and just jumping right in head first.

However, for those of you playing the game for the first time, Fire Emblem has an incredibly simple set of controls used to engage in some pretty weighty gameplay. Practically everything in the game is menu based, so all you need to do is select the option you want and hit A to execute. B allows you to cancel an action, and the other buttons pull up various status screens, help messages, or maps. The C stick also allows you to change the angle of the camera on the battlefield, and the L button can be used to zoom.

The gameplay is both generic and unique at the same time. At its most basic level, all you have to do is move your characters around, attack the enemy, and repeat until you have either won or lost. But as any fan of the series will tell you, things are rarely ever that simple. For starters, the game employs a rock/paper/scissors-like system for combat. Swords are strong against axes, which in turn are strong against lances, which in turn are strong against swords. The same can be said for the various schools of magic. It’s not the most complex system in the world, but it works well and helps to add depth to the overall gameplay.

All of the traditional Fire Emblem elements are here, including being able to change into a new character class upon reaching level 10. Unfortunately you no longer get to choose what class you change into, and instead are automatically promoted. Also back is the rather unforgiving system whereby when characters die, they are gone permanently. That’s right, no resurrections or Phoenix Downs or any other means of bringing a character back to life. So depending on how well you learn the game, and how attached you become to the characters, you may find yourself resetting various battles numerous times.

The Support system is also back with this iteration of the game. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it basically allows characters to have conversations while on the battlefield that don’t advance the storyline, but does give you more information about those characters. Every time your characters talk, their support level raises, and as it raises, they gain bonuses to their stats whenever the two characters are next to each other. Unlike previous Fire Emblem games however, the Support level also changes based on how many chapters various characters are on the battlefield for. The more chapters the fight together, the higher the bonuses become. These bonuses range from enhanced defense to a higher critical hit rate to extra damage with magic attacks. Almost every character

New to the game is the race known as the Laguz. As mentioned, these are half-man, half-beast individuals who add a whole new dimension to the gameplay. They start off as normal people with a relatively high number of hit points. With each fight, a special meter fills up, and once it reaches full, you can transform them into insanely powerful wrecking machines. However, the change isn’t permanent, and the meter will go down slightly with each action until you revert back to human form. Planning your battle around this cycle can often mean the difference between victory and defeat, as in their animal forms, the Laguz are truly a force to be reckoned with.

Also new to the game is the ability to save up and distribute experience points. Now this is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your own point of view. For the most part, the only units that gain experience are those that participate in a battle. If a unit doesn’t fight, then they won’t get any experience. Typically this means that certain characters will level up much faster than others since they will be your primary fighters. However, after every mission you will earn bonus experience based on how well you completed the mission goals, and this experience can be used to either help level less used units, or new members to your team that may not be as high as everyone else. Like I said, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. On the bright side, it allows you to keep your team on fairly level ground, so if a primary member does die, you won’t be attempting to quickly level up a character that is five levels behind. On the other hand, this allows you to really rack up the experience with only a handful of units and still keep your other supporting units strong. Personally, I like it… but I think the bonus is a little bit high at times, and can easily see the system being used to “cheese” with certain characters.

Other new additions include the weapon forging system, whereby you can choose a weapon to start with, and then adjust its various stats. However, this action comes with a price, as the more you increase a weapons power, the more money you have to spend. You can also change your weapons color and give it a name if you wish. Lord of the Rings geeks should have fun with this.

The combat menus have also received a few new options, including the ability to shove a teammate over one space or assign a member (or several members) a general strategy so you don’t need to micromanage them as closely in certain circumstances. These don’t necessarily add to much to the overall gameplay, but they are useful additions, especially the shove command. What’s that, Lassie? Little Timmy is one space away from being able to attack a Pegasus Knight? Well, why don’t we just give him a push in the right direction? Whoops, looks like he fell down a well.

There’s quite a bit more here, but it would take me several more pages to cover everything. Suffice it to say that old pros will find everything they’ve loved and then some. And for those of you who might be new to the game, the easiest difficulty setting includes a very thorough tutorial that runs for the first eight or nine battles and is chock full of useful information covering everything from basic unit movement to item use and weapon customization. Needless to say, you’re not at a loss for help.

The bottom line is that the Fire Emblem series continues its streak of simple controls with excellent gameplay that will surely be enjoyed by any tactical RPG fan, taking all the basic elements that has made the series so great, and adding enough new material to keep things fresh.

Control and Gameplay Score: 9/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

For all intents and purposes, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance can be played an unlimited number of times based almost solely on the numerous difficulty levels, multiple characters, and various options for approaching each battle. Additionally, the story changes ever so slightly depending on who lives and who dies with each battle, even though the main storyline revolves around Ike. So in theory, to see every possible side storyline and piece of information, you’d have to play the game many times over, allowing various characters to live or die depending on the battle.

Completing the game for the first time also opens up a number of extra options. For starters you can now play on the Trial Maps. These are accessed by choosing the Epilogue file and then picking a map to play. You’ll be able to battle through it using the same levels and equipment that your characters had in the final battle. In total there are six different maps to unlock, the first of which you will receive after completing the game for the first time. Other maps are found by clearing higher difficulty levels, or by connecting your GBA with a Fire Emblem or Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones cartridge in it to your Gamecube.

Beating the game multiple times will also unlock extra characters to play. These begin to show up as early as three completions, and continue on through fifteen completions. Unfortunately these characters can only be used on the Trial Maps. I’m not sure who would actually want to play the game 15 times just to unlock a few characters that can only be played on the Trial Maps, but for you completionists out there, it will certainly keep you bust.

Speaking of extra characters, there are also a ton of unlockable characters that can be found through the course of playing, and their joining your party is dependant on certain conditions being met. Sometimes this is as simple as talking to a character, while other times you have to let certain enemies live, or move certain party members to a specific place on the map. Finding them all on your first play through is nearly impossible without a guide, so working your way through the game multiple times is almost a necessity.

Potentially, you could play this twenty or thirty times and not see every piece of conversation or figure out every support bonus or unlock every character. However, I don’t think most people will play it more than two or three times unless they absolutely fall in love with the game. However, the potential to replay the game numerous times is certainly there.

Replayability Score: 9/10


6. BALANCE

Depending on what difficulty setting you decide to play the game on, this game is either going to be a breeze, or it’s going to kick your ass and make you its bitch. On the easiest difficulty level, things are pretty simple. You get the nice little tutorial and suggestions on how to play, and enemies aren’t all that smart. However, on the highest difficulty, enemies are incredibly aggressive, tough to beat, and employ strategies that make it nearly impossible to come out of a battle without losing a character.

In the previous games, losing a character was actually one of the elements that helped to keep the game so well balanced, because then you would have to work to get a new character up to an appropriate level to replace them, while still working your way through the game. However, with the bonus experience point system, some of this difficulty is lost, as you can now have a new team member leveled and ready to go at a moments notice.

Still, the game does a fairly nice job of keeping things balanced as you progress, with enemies steadily becoming more difficult, battles taking longer, and your goals and objectives becoming more complicated. Long time tactical RPG fans probably won’t have much trouble, except on the higher difficulty levels, but newcomers will find a fairly challenging game right from the beginning.

Balance Score: 7/10


7. ORIGINALITY

The Fire Emblem series has been around for a long time, and the basic gameplay has pretty much remained the same. And it’s hard not to draw connections between this game and other tactical RPGs such as Shining Force. However, with each iteration of the series the developers have found new ways to add to the game to help it retain some of its originality.

This time out we have an entirely 3D world, the new Laguz race, the bonus experience system, a new weapon enhancement system, tweaks to the Support system, the Shove command, general orders, and an entirely new storyline with tons of character development and a deep plot.

So yes, it’s a sequel, and it’s similar to various other games. But with all the enhancements to the gameplay and a standalone storyline, it’s hard not to find plenty of new things to like.

Originality Score: 6/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

From the opening cut scene to the end of the game, this is a hard one to put down, especially for fans of the genre. The story and the characters are so well fleshed out and there is so much depth in the gameplay. It’s hard to start playing and not get into the mode where you want to finish “just one more battle”. But as you’ll soon find out, “just one more battle” could mean another thirty minutes to an hour depending on how far through the game you are.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the game may be a bit intimidating to new players. Sure, the tutorial system is very well done and the controls are incredibly easy to pick up on, but there is so much to learn and do that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. Especially once you start talking about weapon enhancement and the Support system. None of it is overly complicated, but there is a lot here to remember.

Overall, if you take the time to learn the game, and to really take advantage of everything it has to offer, you’ll find yourself sitting down and playing it for hours at a time.

Addictiveness Score: 7/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

The Fire Emblem games on the GBA have been very successful, so there is all ready a built in fan base for the Gamecube release. If you’re like me, then you’ve had this game preordered almost since it was announced. On top of that, Nintendo has had a pretty decent ad campaign going, with screenshots and advertisements showing up in numerous gaming magazines, and full trailers and gameplay demos in game stores around the country. It’s hard to find a gamer that hasn’t at least heard about the game before it’s release.

However, unlike its predecessors, this game is not rated “E” for Everyone. Instead it was slapped with a Teen rating. Most of you could probably care less, and I am inclined to agree with you, but there are probably a few conscientious parents out there who may have bought the GBA game for their kids and are now having second thoughts about this one. Well, in my opinion it’s not much more violent than the GBA versions, except this time the characters are more lifelike.

At any rate, there is certainly something here for everyone, with a solid storyline, great gameplay, and plenty of replayability. If you’ve never played a tactical RPG before, this is a great place to start. And if you have, you won’t be disappointed by this one.

Appeal Factor Score: 7/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS

System exclusives for the Gamecube that don’t include Mario or Samus seem to be few and far between, so it’s nice to see them finally get a game that is worth dusting off the system for. Sure, it doesn’t take advantage of all the power the system has to offer in terms of graphics, but from a sheer gameplay and enjoyment perspective this game has them in spades.

Adding to the unlockable characters and maps are various unlockable galleries that can be opened up by either beating the game once, or linking one of the GBA titles to the Gamecube. Completing the game also allows you to view a Theater with cut scenes from the game, and a Sound Room that will allow you to listen to the sounds from the game or the wonderful score. A little more bonus content would have been nice, like some developer interviews or a “Making Of” short or whatever, but I can’t fault them much for that.

Overall, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is one of the best tactical RPGs to come out in recent memory, and certainly the best one to land on the Gamecube. If you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game before, then I highly suggest giving this one a rental and seeing if you like it. And if you are a fan of the series on the GBA, then I can certainly recommend giving this one a purchase. It’s $50 well spent.

Miscellaneous Score: 8/10


THE SCORES

Story: 7
Graphics: 7
Sound: 9
Gameplay/Control: 9
Replayability: 9
Balance: 7
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 7
Appeal Factor: 7
Miscellaneous: 8
Overall: 76
Final Score: 7.5 (Good)