[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/fireemblempor/cover.jpg[/floatleft]The [i]Fire Emblem[/i] series has emerged as one of the most popular strategy role-playing games on market, with eight iterations released in Japan. [i]Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance[/i] represents the latest of the series to arrive in the U.S. and features a host of improvements and innovations that clearly separate it from its Game Boy Advance brethren. At the same time, this is still a [i]Fire Emblem[/i] game, so if you were not a fan of the ones available on the GBA, there’s little incentive for you to purchase this particular game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the [i]Fire Emblem[/i] series, what you have been missing out on is a vastly entertaining SRPG that focuses on a simple, rock-scissors-paper combat triangle for melee and indirect combat. This basic system is cast against the background of the looming threat of permanent character death-any units that fall in battle will be unavailable to you for the rest of the game. The series features an in-battle recruitment process that can be challenging, as well as a ‘support’ function, where you can have compatible characters speak to each other and build their relationships, and thus receive combat bonuses when fighting alongside each other.
In order to appreciate how [i]Path of Radiance[/i] stacks up to its predecessors, it is important to remember why [i]Fire Emblem[/i] drove people (including yours truly) to slam their GBAs in frustration time after time.
[floatright]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/fireemblempor/ss04_thumb.jpg[/floatright]Firstly, [i]Path of Radiance[/i] maintains the concept of perma-death, which means that you can play an entire battle out to near conclusion, only to lose a vital character to a stroke of bad luck and be faced with the prospect of soldiering on without said character, or restart the map. In the earlier games, this problem was compounded by the fact that the AI was hard-coded to kill off your weakest party members, often sacrificing weakened units to do so. Few things were more annoying than an enemy with a single hit point running around your defenses to pick off a weakened character, even though he himself would die in the process. [i]Path of Radiance[/i] fixes this problem, as the AI is as much concerned with its own survival than finishing you off-your enemies will prefer soft targets, but will often jump out of battle to heal rather than sacrifice themselves to down your mage. You have no idea how much of an improvement this represents.
Secondly, the first GBA [i]Fire Emblem[/i] featured no way to manage your army outside of battle-you had to shop while fighting, handle support and promotion while fighting, and manage any other mundane tasks while the enemy is breathing down your neck. The second [i]Fire Emblem[/i] offering on GBA took the other end of the extreme, giving you an overland map with random encounters to give your squad more opportunity to level up and such. [i]Path of Radiance[/i] finds a happy medium, giving you a full management option between battles, where you will handle equipment and item management (including buying and forging custom weapons), have support conversations, and, perhaps most importantly, distribute experience and skills.
Which leads us to a third and perhaps most impressive feature that [i]Path of Radiance[/i] boasts: the ability to obtain pooled experience points that can be distributed to any character between battles. Suddenly, you do not need to run around with your priest classes, healing anything that stubs its toe, since you can simply award experience to the class afterwards. This allows you to maintain your battle plan to feature your heavier hitters, while giving you an opportunity to invest in characters that would normally collect dust. The skill system adds a new wrinkle to the game as well-each character has an equal amount of skill points that can be used to support collectable skills, such as counterattacks, critical-strike mitigation, and so on. The skills can be transferred across characters, giving you a level of customization that has not been previously featured in the GBA offerings.
[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/fireemblempor/ss08_thumb.jpg[/floatleft]These innovations would be irrelevant, however, if [i]Path of Radiance[/i] did not boast an exceptional storyline. [i]Fire Emblem[/i], to its credit, has featured deep and involving storylines (sometimes marred by awkward dialogue), and [i]Path of Radiance[/i] is no exception. This latest [i]Fire Emblem[/i] game does not place you in the traditional role of a prince or princess trying to save the world, but rather Ike, the son of a mercenary captain, who will eventually take command of the corps and lead them on a grand adventure. [i]Path of Radiance[/i] boasts a complex plot that is buttressed by solid story-dialogue and difficult issues, such as race relations between the humans (beorc) and beastmen (laguz) in the early party of the game, along with the traditional ‘Save the World from a Darker Evil than the Current Warring Kingdoms Represent’ plot that seems to be required for a game to be called [i]Fire Emblem[/i]. Overall, though, it is very difficult to poke holes in the plot-character development and interaction is fantastic, and I found it more enjoyable than either of the GBA games.
Of course, no review is complete with criticism, and I’ve still got a few bones to pick with [i]Fire Emblem[/i]. For the one part, recruitment remains a hit or miss implementation. Sometimes, you are given ample hints of how to recruit certain characters, by having the right squad mate speak to them. Other times, recruitable characters are shoved down your throat. Other times, you have no idea that there is even a recruitable character out amongst your enemies unless you inspect every single unit out there (see Ilyana in Chapter 8, if you’re curious). I’m not saying that I want recruitment to be simply a matter of walking Ike up to a unit and talking to them, but I do not want to have to resort to an FAQ any time I see a recruitable character.
The support system remains banal and uninteresting. For one, you have only five attempts to talk to a character to build support. [i]Path of Radiance[/i] at least allows you to see who you can talk to and makes this process as easy as possible between battles, but the fact of the matter is that you’ll see a few characters that you currently have and a large number of ???? indicating characters that you can speak to, but do not currently have on your team. Which means that on your first run through you have to guess whether you want to waste these few attempts on existing characters or save up for characters you may never wind up getting. And the actual support discussions are about as exciting as a wet blanket-especially when the remake of [i]Shining Force[/i] went to extended lengths to build out a backstory for characters that could be accessed between battles. This is disappointing, but by no means is a showstopper.
[floatright]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/fireemblempor/ss12_thumb.jpg[/floatright]From a graphics and sound perspective, the game is a complete mixed bag. The characters are drawn beautifully for conversational screens, but are blocky, chunky avatars on the actual battle screen. This inconsistency flows straight through to the combat animations, which are also disappointing, and are only a slight improvement over the GBA animations-you’ll soon find yourself turning them off (luckily you can keep them on by character if you like) to save time. The music is also flat compared to the rich offering from the GBA games.
All in all, I found [i]Fire Emblem[/i] to be a largely enjoyable game that stands head and shoulders above its forefathers. That said, this is still your father’s [i]Fire Emblem[/i]-the core of the game that makes it so appealing, difficult, enjoyable, and frustrating at the same time remains completely intact. So if you loved the GBA games, you will love this even more-the additions of new units like the laguz and new innovations like distributable experience points, coupled with an epic storyline, will keep you hooked for hours upon hours. If, however, you were not a fan of the earlier games, this one is not going to scratch your itch. Personally, I love the [i]Fire Emblem[/i] series, despite its eccentricities, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who happens to be a fan of SRPGs. Just make sure you rent before you buy if your last copy of [i]Fire Emblem[/i] wound up thrown out your window, along with your old GBA.