After two exciting games for the Game Boy Advance, Fire Emblem brings the tactics action to the Nintendo Gamecube with Path of Radiance.
The story begins in a mercenary camp in a region called Crimea. Ike, our young hero, is the headstrong son of Commander Greil, the leader of the Greil Mercenaries. After sending Ike on a few missions for the band of sellswords, one of their scouts returns with dire news. The Crimean capital has been overrun by the neighboring land of the Daeans. As the Greil Mercenaries attempt to gather a better understanding of what is happening, they end up becoming completely entangled in the conflict. They befriend a young woman Elincia who is the sole heir to the Crimean monarchy and thus become Daean?s prime target. From this crisis unfolds an adventure across the continent as the Greil Mercenaries seek to defeat the Daeans and reinstate Princess Elincia to the throne of their homeland.
The gameplay of Path of Radiance is very similar to previous Fire Emblem iterations. For those who are not familiar with the series, Fire Emblem is a tactics game. Each stage is divided up into a grid like a chessboard. You control a certain number of units, each with individual skills, with the goal of accomplishing a particular objective for that stage. Of course, there are enemy units who stand in your way. Combat between units is based on sets of rules. The player cannot directly control the units during fights. The primary rule of the Fire Emblem universe is the weapon triangle: swords best axes, axes surpass lances, and lances beat swords. Some units can use elemental magic, which has its own triangle: wind overruns thunder, thunder crushes fire, and fire blazes wind. There is also a type of light magic and bow weapons, both of which are unaffected by the triangles but still sustain other strengths and weaknesses such as flying units can usually be killed with a single, well-placed arrow. Taking into account the weapon triangles is an absolute must for victory.
Besides the weapons they wield, each units have particular characteristics. Each unit is assigned a class. Ike is a ranger, but the mercenary crew consists of fighters, mages, archers, and a host of other classes with specialized abilities. Each class has various stats that affect their performance like strength, speed, defense, and magic resistance. The characters start at a particular level between 1 and 20. They gain experience points for attacking and defeating enemies. With every 100 experience points, the character gains a level. After achieving level 10, the character has the ability to upgrade to a new class under certain conditions. When the unit upgrades, its power increases dramatically and its level is reset to 1 with the ability to rise to 20 once more. However, to grow characters to absolute maximum strength, some players will upgrade their characters to level 20 instead of immediately changing class at level 10, then change the character?s class, resetting back to level 1. But some characters are already upgraded when you get them, and thus they can only reach 20 once.
Each stage has a particular objective which must be met in order to clear it. There is also a condition for failing the stage. The various winning requirements include defeating all of the enemies, defeating a particular enemy, and occupying a certain tile on the grid. There are a few new ones as well. The ?Arrive? condition means that you must reach a certain tile on the grid, sometimes within a certain number of turns. ?Escape? is similar to ?Arrive,? but in the former, only Ike can clear the map as in the latter any character can. Also, ?Defend? has been altered slightly. Instead of defending a particular character, you defend a tile on the grid for a certain number of turns. The typical situation that results in failure for the stage is if Ike dies. However, there are certain stages that require a winning condition to happen in a timeframe, like ?Arrive? or ?Defend.? If the timeframe is not met, then the player fails the stage.
There are many other nuances to the game like mounted units, ranged attacking, rescuing units, etc. The first few levels act as an introduction to the various game mechanics. The game, however, does not directly walk the player through the various rules that govern it. Instead, when a new gameplay topic arises, the game will notify the player of a new entry in the game guide. Accessing the in game menu, the player can choose the game guide, which presents short, clear tutorials on the game mechanics.
For the experienced Fire Emblem adventurers, Path of Radiance introduces several new gameplay ideas into the series. To begin with, there is a whole division of new character classes: the laguz. Laguz are shapeshifters that can transform between a human form and an animal one. There are three types of laguz: beasts (cats and tigers), birds (ravens, hawks, and cranes), and dragons. In human form, they cannot attack, because they cannot equip weapons. In animal form however, their power is impressive. They each have a meter that fills with each turn. When it is maxed out, they automatically transform. With each subsequent turn, the meter drains. When it empties, they revert back to human form. This new character class generates a new balance of gameplay within the Fire Emblem gameplay.
There are several new additions revolving around the classes. One such change comes in the method of upgrading units. While the player can still collect items that will do the transformation at any level over 10, the player can choose to level the character up to 21. Instead of reaching level 21, though, the unit will automatically upgrade. This is nice because in previous games, you had to find certain items for certain classes. It could get a little annoying. Also, after each stage, the player is awarded bonus experience that can be allocated as you see fit. However, unlike in Fire Emblem The Sacred Stones, there is no choice in the matter of what your upgrade class is. Sometimes an upgraded class can learn to wield a new weapon, but that is the extent of the choice. Furthermore, you can assign special skills to different units. Each unit has the ability to hold a certain number of special skills. In certain situations, the unit?s skill will activate granting abilities such as multiple attacks in one turn, the ability to attack first even if being attacked, and increased critical strike chance. Some units come equipped with skills already, while others can be found scattered throughout the game.
As in previous Fire Emblems, the story is the main driving force of the game. The story is presented in a way similar to previous games. The characters stand motionless onscreen from the waist up with only their mouths moving and facial expressions changing slightly. However, the few animated FMV movies help pull the story into a deeper direction. There are typical RPG story elements: Ike must assume more responsibility as he fights to save the kingdom, Princess Elincia and Ike subtly want each other, and Ike?s little sister carries around this weird but important medallion thingy. The characters are colorful, and as you progress through the story, you care about them. You don?t want to let them die, because as in previous games, they are gone forever. This makes planning ahead and strategy extremely important in all Fire Emblem games.
The graphics in the game are very nice especially the gorgeous Full Motion Videos. FMVs are a rare occurrence on the GC and it is great to see the developers take the extra step to include these artist movies. The two dimensional representations of the characters translate well into 3D. The character models on the stage grids have much more detail than previous games. As they move around the tiles, capes flow in the wind (seeing as I think everyone has a cape of some sort) and footprints dot the landscape. The battle scenes are done with 3D models as well, though not quite up to the level of rendering in the cut scenes. The attack animation is fluid though, just like in the GBA versions. When a melee character attacks twice in succession, it is usually done in a two-hit combo animation instead of just two regular attacks as in the GBA versions. My only complaint involves the critical strikes. They have a cool flourish when a critical strike occurs. They move is usually very fast though. It would be cool if they would do a slow motion strike every now and then, so the player can more clearly see what is actually happening. But on the other hand, the player might turn off the attack animations completely after spending a few hours with the game. They can grow to be repetitive because it is essentially the same attack animations over and over again.
The sound is a part of the game that doesn?t really add a lot, nor does it take much away. The backing music is orchestral and fits the mood for each particular occasion: battle, triumph, sorrow, etc. The battle sounds are pretty typical: metal on metal, wings flapping, fireballs and lightening strikes. During the cut scenes, there is some voice acting. It is not stellar, but not atrocious. The voices do sound a touch disconnected from the characters moving their mouths, probably because the game was translated from Japan. Again, the sound did not detract from the game.
One of the key points about any game for this reviewer is replay value, and Path of Radiance does a fair job in that department. With the sheer number of characters you get, it is impossible to level them all up to 20 (twice in many cases). The only character you have to play with any frequency is Ike. Therefore, the number of different companies you can run with is impressive. There are three difficulty levels, easy, normal and hard, which would give you a chance to try out other characters. Also, there are some unlockables available after playing through the game multiple times.
Players of the GBA games can link them up to their Cube Fire Emblem game via GC-to-GBA link cable. New features will automatically be unlocked if players utilize this function.
The primary frustration in the game lies in being a perfectionist. I can?t let any of my characters die. Therefore, players who share this sentiment will find themselves running through several stages multiple times to avoid losing any characters. The continued lack of the ability to save at a point in time, continue playing, then if something goes wrong to return to that point in time is agitating. The ?Suspend? option still exists, but it only functions when you need to leave the game and come back to that exact point. It doesn?t work if you continue playing. Playing ?perfectly? can either be seen as a blessing or a curse.
Overall, Path of Radiance is a wonderful addition to fans of the Fire Emblem series. The cut scenes are very cool, the upgrades in animation breathe more life into the characters, and the new character types and stage goals bring some new gameplay elements to the series. Grab your s-words and prepare for a wonderful, and rare tactics game for the ole Gamecube.