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I like Ike. In fact I like him more than I thought. This is the second Fire Emblem game I’ve reviewed and it’s the second time Path of Radiance has been mentioned on my blog. In the Top 100 Games 2011 post it was listed as my 41st favourite game with a score of 9.3 out of 10. I did mention in that post that the positions of each game and their respective score was changeable and that’s exactly what’s happened here. This is only the second time I’ve played Path of Radiance and I very often  feel that a single playthrough of a game is not always enough to gauge how good it is. The real indicator here was that I played this game immediately after The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Ages, which has a score of 9.4. I’m happy with that score but of the two games I know which one I enjoyed playing more.

In 2005 Fire Emblem – Path of Radiance became the first home-console game in the long-running series to be released in the UK. Set on the continent of Tellius it tells the story of the Greil Mercenaries and Ike, the blue-haired son of the group’s commander, Greil, one of the most capable fighting men in the world. As the protagonist Ike starts out wet behind the ears, inexperienced in combat but determined to one day match his father’s prowess. In the early stages of the game he learns how to be a mercenery by joining in with a handful of jobs. Ike learns the ropes at the same pace we do. Aside from dealing with the odd brigand Crimea, the country where the mercenaries are based seems peaceful enough for a while until the straight-talking, tactically-minded mage Soren returns from studying in the country’s capital to deliver news that neighbouring Daein has invaded. While deciding what to do they encounter some Daien forces and unwittingly rescue Princess Elincia, the only surviving member of the Crimean royal family whose very existence was previously kept secret. Deciding to aid the princess they escort her to Gallia, home of the beast tribes where even more perils await. After a few twists I won’t spoil Ike finds himself travelling with Elincia on a long road to liberate Crimea.

It’s a superb story. Most fantasy games don’t get the kind of mature, well written narrative we’re treated to in Path of Radiance. Not bogged down by an overemphasis on magic, grotesque monsters or depressing darkness Path of Radiance presents a twisting, thought-provoking tale that deals with politics, class, racism and equality and balances the heavier aspects of its plot with a bright, colourful visual style and a healthy smattering of humour. The story is handled almost entirely by dialogue scenes with static charcter art and text boxes but the writing is so subtle and intelligent that even this slightly simplistic approach manages to be deeply immersive. Said character art is hand-drawn and absolutely lovely lending every character real personality and style to compliment their dialogue. The whole setup is backed up by a lovely, varied musical score that weaves a breezy sense of adventure one minute and a palapable atmosphere of peril and tension the next. There are a few CG cut scenes complete with reasonable voice acting but although they’re beautfiully animated they’re few and far between. That said, it’s utterly absorbing and you will really care about the large cast of characters.

 

The character speaking appears brighter on screen.

Which makes the gameplay all the more intense. As I mentioned in my Shadow Dragon review the Fire Emblem series is famous for its inclusion of permanent character death. If one of your allies falls in battle they are gone forever and there is no way to revive them short of reloading you last save. This forces the player to play cautiously and think very strategically as they navigate their units round the 3D top-down maps engaging with foes. One reason why there are so many charcters to enlist throughout the game is to accommodate for the prospect of losing a significant number of characters. Since you can only use a limited number in each quest, usually no more than twelve, you will build up a surplus of charcters unless you have a habit of losing them. Of course one quirk of permanent charcter death is that there’s no way for the script to know who is still alive at any time which means most of the characters will be largely absent from the main story’s important scenes. It’s no good if Rolf has something critically important to contribute to the plot of chapter twenty-one if he died in chapter thirteen you see. For this reason some characters are better developed than others but although the less important figures don’t show up in the story much they do get little skits of their own to let you get to know them either through support conversations, which actually benefit you in the field or in optional conversations accessible in the game’s base menu.

And what a great cast of characters they are. The Greil Mercenaries, including Boyd, Oscar, Rolf, Soren, Shinon, Gatrie, Rhys, Mist, Greil and Ike are an immensely likeable bunch and they gain a huge number of equally charismatic allies from Mia the feisty female Myrmidon to Makalov the lovable gambling waster. They do, of course, all belong to their own class of fighter with their own strangths and weaknesses and designated weapons, for instance, Boyd the Fighter uses axes while Gatrie the Knight favours lances and Rhys the priest heals allies with staves. By ganining experience they can all level up and eventually change classes and sometimes gain the ability to fight with different weapons. This is nothing new to the series but one thing that is new is the laguz units. The people of Tellius are divided into human beorc and the shape-shifting laguz who appear human normally but can shift into animal forms including cats, tigers, hawks and crows and are very powerful indeed. They can’t maintain these dangerous forms indefinitely however, unless they use certain stat-reducing equipment and a gague counts down until they automatically shift back into their vulnerable humanoid forms. The laguz units add a whole new layer to the already very deep strategy and provide the story with one of its most interesting aspects. Laguz and beorc don’t traditionally get on, the latter routinely referring to the former as ‘sub-human’, fearing anf hating them and sometimes even enslaving them. Needless to say the laguz don’t take kindly to such treatment and certain characters, namely female cat Lethe are never shy to express their intense dislike for the beorc and regard them as weak. There’s tension between characters even within your own army and several people definitely go on an ethical journey through the game’s sub-plots.

 

Blue squares show Ike's movement range, yellow, his attack range.

But that’s only half the story. The tight strategy gameplay is just about the most addictive and satisfying of any game I’ve ever played a feat Intelligent Systems achieved by giving you a strong sense of constant progress. The game is completely linear divided into twenty-nine chapters with no variation. To begin with the progress is divided into story sections and the mission itself with the base menu becoming available after a few chapters. From here you can get stuck into the nitty-gritty of micromanagement by outfitting your army with weapons and items, up to four of each, assigning new skills or awarding bonus experience as well as engaging in support conversations. Once you’re happy with your preparations you can proceed through some more story until you get to the map and the game proper. This was the first Fire Emblem game to feature 3D maps and charcter models and on the whole they’re well-presented and colourful although the character models look very angular and ugly if the camera ever zooms in. The various in game themes inject a sense of atmosphere and urgency. In each chapter you will have a specific objective, usually to rout the enemy or defeat the boss but sometimes you’ll be required to defend a space for a set number of turns or have all your units escape from the map. The turns are organised in up to four phases, first the player phase where you move and attack, second comes the partner phase when any yellow-computer-controlled partner units that are present make themselevs known fighting for your cause. Next comes the enemy phase and finally the other phase if applicable, both computer-controlled, obviously. Most of the time it will just be player and enemy phases making up the turns as the other two only crop up occasionally as the chapter demands. In the player phase you command your units one by one moving them around the grid and engaging and defeating foes or healing allies. It’s packed with depth and once you’ve got to grips with everything you’ll be considering which are the best units to fight which enemies and choosing the right weapon, attacking enemies from a distance with ranged weapons, exploiting weapon advantages, making use of charcter abilities, considering terrain advantages, visiting houses to gain items, opening treasure chest and stealing items from enemies with theives, recruiting new allies and rescuing units in peril.

Path of Radiance introduces a number of new features to the series such as the prospect of gaining bonus experience. The scenarios of some quests encourage you to avoid attacking certain enemy units, for example in one map as well as the Daein Army you’ll face off against some local vigilantes. Leave them alone and you’ll gain bonus experience that can be redeemed in the base menu with any unit you choose. It’s completely optional but adds another layer of depth. Then there are support conversations, not a new feature but done a bit differently here. Each unit has a number of other predetermined units it can have support conversations with. Have a given unit fight alongside compatible units enough and you can watch said conversations in the base menu thus increasing their support relationship. Units with support relationship can give each other a stat boost when standing within a few spaces of each other in battle. It’s a welcome feature but not one you necessarily notice an advantage from, the same goes for a unit’s biorhythm which is supposed to influence their performance but is a bit of a mystery.

 

Boyd faces off against a fellow axe-wileding Fighter.

When units fight it’s not always to the death, instead they will trade one blow each with damage done according to the strength stat of the attacker and their equipped weapon and the defending unit’s defence stat. If one unit’s stat for speed is high enough compared to the other they will get a second attack in the bout which can make a world of difference. Further to that both contesting units will have a percentage value for their chances to land a hit based on their various opposing stats and also a percentage chance to land a three-times-as-powerful critical hit. Before attacking you can view a window listing the damge each unit will do and whether either can attack twice as well as both percentages effectively giving you a good idea of how the battle will go. Fights play out on a seperate screen with much more detailed character models as they exchange blows. It’s not as pretty as the hand-drawn sprites of the past and many players will choose to switch off the battle animations in favour of the more basic equivalent shown on the map screen to save time but they add a sense of reality to the game.

If a unit fights in a battle but doesn’t land a hit they gain a single experience point, hit the enemy and they got a fair few, around fifteen or more, achieve a kill and they earn upwards of forty points, sometime a hundred for defeating a boss. Units level up each time they gain a hundred experience points, increasing their stats randomly and change class after levelling up at level twenty. In addition to this each unit has a letter grade for thier skill with their appropriate weapons from the lowest E to the highest S which dictates what kind of specific weapons they can use, each individual type within each weapon class has a designated class, for example Iron Swords are E class while Silver Swords are A class and only units of that class or better can equip them. Units can improve their weapon class by using that weapon lots of times.

 

Ike and Mist's deceased mother in a CG cut scene.

Levelling-up your units is a constant and steady process and therefore immensely satisfying. Building up a strong army and mopping up waves of enemies and benfiting from the experience as an addictive process and there is an immense level of enjoyment to be had with meticulously organising your team. It’s a cerebral affair that demands careful strategy and thought with every move.

Such is the way of the Fire Emblem series but what makes Path of Radiance stand out so much? Well apart from the riveting story there’s Ike. He is by far the best hero in the series, charismatic and likeable but still an underdog who goes on a emotional journey through the plot remaining strong throughout. Putting it simply he’s just very, very cool and one of the best units in the game. The supporting cast stand head and shoulders against their equivalents in other games in the series too. It’s also incredibly long, this recent playthrough took me more than forty hours to complete. More than anything though it’s just an immensely rewarding game to immerse yourself in. Every aspect of the game’s design combines to give you a mesmerising experience that will make you want to spend all your free time doing nothing else. It’s not perfect, there are some rough edges, if you lose a valuable unit through a lapse in organisation you’ll be forced to resent and retread maybe an hour of progress which is a big pain and perhaps most pertinently it’s not the kind of title you can get the most out of unless you’re a hardcore gamer but those quibbles aside Fire Emblem – Path of Radiance is a rich and massively entertaining experience. Oh, but the Wii sequel Radiant Dawn is better.

Presentation – 8

Superlative writing and a crisp appearence make for a highly satisfactory package but more could be done to smooth out the details.

Gameplay – 9

The most compulsory kind of addictive gameplay that is constantly rewarding but despite comprehensive tutorials could prove dauntingly complex.

Graphics – 7

Very pretty on the whole but textures and character models can appear bland. The use of colour is nice though.

Sound – 8

A rousing and varied soundtrack is complemented by a creditable array of sound effects.

Difficulty – 9

Punishing unless you’re careful. Finite experience limits grinding.

Longevity – 10

Absolutely massive. One playthrough takes forty hours with plenty of replay value.

Verdict

A quite magnificent strategy RPG experience that blends incredibly addictive gameplay with an involving story to brilliant effect. It won’t be for everyone and there are pitfalls but fans of the genre and particularly the series owe it to themselves to dive in and experience the rich, rewarding ride.

9.5

out of 10

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