Lunatic Clam

[i]Final Fantasy IV Advance[/i], the latest in a series of remakes of the brick-and-mortar games in the classic series of JRPGs, provides an experience that scratches both the nostalgic and contemporary gaming itch. Originally released in the U.S. as [i]Final Fantasy II[/i] for the SNES, [i]FF IV[/i] has received some fantastic polish while maintainingA

[floatleft][/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][/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][/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][/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.

[floatleft][/floatleft]The [i]Final Fantasy[/i] series has become larger than life over the past 15 years, and few things depict how far the series has come than the facelift given to the original two games in [i]Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls[/i] for the Game Boy Advance. It was with great pride and joy that I popped this cart into my GBA: SP, eager to enjoy the remade games without the annoying load times that the PSX remakes suffered from. A portable [i]Final Fantasy[/i], with new graphics, sound, tweaked storyline, and additional content was too much for this reviewer to take at first glance.

Before diving into the game, I have to preface my review with a confession: [i]Final Fantasy[/i] on the NES was one of my first gaming experiences; thus, this review walks the fine line of a nostalgic bias. Luckily for you, both games contain a few glaring flaws that allowed me to put aside this warm, cozy feeling to speak the truth about this game. I’ll cut to the chase early, and explain myself later-this game is meant for diehard fans of the series and will appeal mostly to those who have played the original, functionally flawed games.

[i]Final Fantasy I[/i] has been given a complete graphical and audio overhaul-the game more closely resembles a polished version of [i]Final Fantasy V[/i], right down to character avatar as you move around the games many locales. From the minute the game opens, you can see that several large problems have been addressed: townspeople provide more intriguing dialogue, quests are explained in more detail, and evidence of efforts to fill in gaping plot holes have been made. This is pure gravy, folks. You’ll immediately feel the difference if you’ve played the original game.

[floatright][/floatright]The battle system has been given a massive facelift as well, with broad implications for how the game is played. Magic, for example, is now powered on the standard mana system; in the original game, you only had a few spells per spell level that you could cast without resting. Since you couldn’t rest in dungeons in the original, spellcasters were of little use, as they would spend most of their time conserving magic and weakly attacking non-boss characters as you waded through dungeons in search of the said boss. Now, you can easily replenish mana, however, with cheaply purchased ethers, making the concept of a four black mage party a potential reality instead of a whimsical pipe dream.

Hand-to-hand combat has also received attention. In the original game, you could “miss” an attack if the creature you had targeted was dead by the time it was your turn. This lead to all sorts of annoying issues in the past, but it’s been addressed, and in combination with the new magic system, battle in [i]FFI[/i] has been completely changed for the better. And thank the maker it has, because you’re going to be dealing with more random battles than you can shake a stick at. In one dungeon, there’s an empty room that has the same encounter on every tile. It serves no purpose outside of annoying you to the point of powering down, which is now much easier to do since you can save anywhere.

On the subject of annoyances, [i]FFI[/i] still has many facets that can drive you completely bonkers. For one, there’s next to no guidance in terms of quests, and the overworld map is both huge in size and sparse in useful locations. Massive forests with nothing in them, huge spans between the four to five towns in the game, dungeons more difficult to find than to complete-this game is sure to test the patience of even the most devoted gamer. You’ll wind up finding your next challenge more by accident than design, armed with cryptic clues from townspeople and extensive time spent scanning the world for new locations. Ironically, the map system has been completely streamlined and updated to give you a fantastic view of where you’ve been and places you could go, but none of these locations are marked or flagged in any way as to give you a hint of where you’re supposed to be. Some might call my objection to this petty, but these people obviously enjoying trekking over a landscape, fighting weak monsters every next step in the vain hope that you’re on the right track. These people have my respect, but I still think they’re crazy.

[floatleft][/floatleft]The plot is as threadbare as the original, though as previously mentioned, it’s been given a shot in the arm by extra dialogue. But above all, the challenge in this game is to figure out where you’re going to next, more so than completing said task when you get there. Since you have no idea where you’re going, you’ll fight a lot more random battles, level up to inappropriate heights, and steamroll through each objective with ease. Money, which was an issue throughout the original game, is now in complete abundance; so while items are still expensive to buy, you’ll have no problems with cash after you complete the Elven section of the game.

Perhaps to address the now dumbed-down difficulty level, Square decided to implement four additional dungeons: one opened after each crystal is restored. I cannot stress how much these need to be avoided-the levels are stuffed with low-level random encounters, repetitive dungeon layouts (the first dungeon requires that you enter, defeat one of four bosses, and repeat this process until all four are dead, after which…nothing happens!), and measly rewards. Never before have I been so disappointed in a gaming experience. It almost made me stop playing the game altogether, but I trudged through the remainder (avoiding the last two optional dungeons) to bring the truth to light.

[i]FFII[/i], at least, provides you with a fresh skill progression system and a bona fide stab at a storyline. Instead of restoring the crystals and defeating Chaos, you’re embroiled in a political battle with an empire and resistance (sound familiar?) and a search for a lost companion. The leveling system in [i]FFII[/i] warrants specific mention, since there isn’t one. Instead, character skills and abilities progress as you use them-swing your sword, gain some strength while you intelligence festers. Cast magic and your intelligence and spirit will rise along with your spell level while your strength remains at the basest of levels. This system is incredibly innovative given the time the game was originally released, and is something that I wish its ancestors would have adopted. Nonetheless, [i]FFII[/i] is no barnburner of a title either, but fans of the original will enjoy it (including the optional hours of play available after the endgame) as long as they approach it with the same grain of salt needed for [i]FFI[/i]. The game suffers from the same lack of guidance issues as the first, except that this time you know the names of places you’re supposed to go, but finding them is just as obtuse a process. From the initial town, you’ll wander in a forest looking for a city. One moment you’ll be fighting creatures you can easily handle, the next you’ve wandered too far (in the same forest, mind you) and are completely wiped out by monsters 10 times your level. Game over. Sure, you wandered too far from the beaten path, but when there is no beaten path in the first place, you can begin to see where this becomes a problem.

[floatright][/floatright]But, I digress-there’s still more optional material to discuss. The cart also comes with a bestiary that you populate as you meet and defeat monsters. It’s a neat little tool that allows you to analyze your opponents, but given that the scope of each game is so small, it never really comes into play. It’s filler, but when compared to some of the other additional content, it’s a welcome addition (until you realize that in order to fill said bestiary, you’ll need to schlep through the optional dungeons!).

To a vintage console RPG fan, [i]Dawn of Souls[/i] is a tribute to the humble beginnings of a game series that has evolved into some of the most popular and controversial titles on the market. You can clearly see some of the innovative threads from which the [i]Final Fantasy[/i] series has been spun in these humble beginnings. The time and effort that was given to restoring these games is akin to that used to rebuild and preserve old colonial houses. Unfortunately for the end user, however, the results are much like taking a tour through such a restored house-you can appreciate the time devoted to rebuilding the archaic foundation, repainting the faded walls, and polishing the former owner’s ugly collection of medieval sculptures, but you’ll tire of its lack of air conditioning, high-speed Internet access, and major appliances quicker than you’ll appreciate the overall nostalgia and aesthetic. Only serious history buffs need apply here.