Lacking in All the Right Places
Clear your entire schedule for the week, you’ve just purchased Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance—an addictive turn-based/strategy RPG with sprinklings of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and D&D-like board games. Add the ultra-idealistic script, some grandiose music, and enough text to make you all blurry-eyed and you have one incredibly engrossing game that thoroughly satisfies while being in almost every respect… entirely utilitarian.
The opening cutscene is impressive (enjoy it, as you won’t see many more) and gives you a taste of the happy-smiley nature of the game before moving you immediately into a turn-based battle scenario. So far, so good. Each character may move a set number of squares and then perform an action—attack an opponent, shove another character into an adjacent square, or use an item. Characters with melee weapons such as swords may attack enemies in adjacent squares, characters with ranged offence such as arrows and magic can attack enemies from distance, and healers do the obvious. Axes have an advantage over lances, lances over swords, swords over axes. Rock, paper, scissors. You get it.
Three battles and a few hundred text windows later, I realized that Fire Emblem is battle scenarios only with a whole load of dialogue in between. No overworld to explore. No airship to travel from town to town. Just basic battle scenes that could have been more complex and developed than those in standard RPGs—it’s only half an RPG, after all. But nope, the in-game graphics are unimpressive, the camera view of the battlefield just can’t revolve enough, and there are no in-game voiceovers whatsoever.
At times, you might think you could be playing an N64 and not think anything was amiss. But somehow, the game it just pulls you in. You won’t mind the simple and sometimes stiff animations or the rather repetitive gameplay because the prospect of developing your characters further and acquiring new team members after each battle is just too appealing. Your characters are growing constantly; your group is always gaining new members who bring unique abilities to each battle; and the story is divided into so many chapters that you never mind saying, “Alright, just one more.” Think Tetris, think Snood, think CounterStrike. And to top it off, this game has a story that’s actually worth following.
So, about that: Commander Greil is leader of a group of mercenaries who work in the kingdom of Crimea on the continent of Tellius. Ike is his son and central character to the story. When the Daien kingdom declares war against Crimea, the mercenaries are unsure whether they should become involved in the conflict. But after being attacked by a group of Daien soldiers, they join the fight on the Crimean side. Shortly afterwards, the mercenaries rescue Princess Elincia, heir to the Crimean throne, and agree to protect her.
Adding to the conflict is the hatred that exists between beorc (humans) and laguz (demi-humans who have both a human and animal form). Regardless of this tension, the mercenaries encounter and join forces with both humans and laguz in the fight against the Daien forces. Ike is the central character, so of course his father Greil has to die, and does so on the sword of the Black Knight (who just may remind you of Darth Vader). Ike then assumes leadership of the mercenaries, matures from a space cadet into a strong leader, and is eventually made a general of the allied forces. Around then things really get interesting.
You’ll want to skip through a lot of the text that explains all of this. But do try getting the gist of every conversation because you’ll glean information that may prove useful during the battles. While at first you’ll be controlling only four or five characters, hours later you’ll be in command of 19 and will want to know why all these new group members are appearing. Watching them develop as they gain combat experience is possibly the most enjoyable aspect of the game, and after a few chapters you’ll have the chance to visit a base in order to purchase weapons and provisions, and to allocate bonus experience points and newly acquired skills. Not surprisingly, this part of the game is also functional at best.
Be a good commander. Whereas you are responsible for one healer and one magician in the first battle, in later battles you’ll be protecting several, as well as archers and thieves. These new additions to your team will be, for the most part, less developed than your favorites and will therefore need continual protection. And whatever you do, fight as a team, and avoid the urge to send your strongest characters to fight alone. If you send out one strong character, then that character will take all the experience points (if he/she survives), leaving other characters undeveloped. If you leave weaker characters alone, they might not even have a chance to flee before being killed. And in this game, your characters can’t fight once they are struck down on the battlefield (another startling realization). They are technically still alive for the purposes of the storyline, but you can’t command them in battle any longer. As much as you may want to reset the game to recover your fallen comrade, learn to deal with loss. Almost bizarrely, it will initially hurt to lose these pixilated personalities, whose names will become embedded in your psyche—but persevere. You’ll find yourself coping in future battles without those fallen characters.
This game really does get frustrating. Playing through a 60-minute battle only to lose Ike near the very end, thus being forced to retry everything again really does raise the blood pressure like nothing else. At times, there really isn’t much ‘strategy’ involved in this SRPG, and watching similar battles over and over can get a little mind-numbing. But for all of its frustrations, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance still thoroughly satisfies. Perhaps the most frustrating part, though, is knowing that our Japanese counterparts have been enjoying the Fire Emblem series since the days of the Famicom. The Famicom! Game Boy Advance owners got their first taste in 2004, but we GameCubers, who haven’t had much to smile about lately, have been sitting around just waiting for some great titles to be thrown our way. Why the wait? Over here in London, some major entertainment shops don’t even sell GameCube titles anymore. And in the last year, all we’ve had are a bunch of Mario-based sports games. None of which had lasting power. Fire Emblem comes, therefore, as a very welcome addition to the GameCube arsenal. Its arrival is long overdue—October 2005 in the US and November 2005 in the UK—and its mediocre presentation really doesn’t do full justice to the GameCube (maybe I’ve just been spoiled by Resident Evil 4). But Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is one very addictive and very enjoyable experience from the start.