What do the two best handheld games ever made have in common? Continue reading
I’ve just had my third house move in less than eighteen months and while this one was not without its hiccups the transition this time was considerably less stressful than either of the other two despite taking place at the business end of the London Olympics. The need to focus on preparations for the move has meant posts have been somewhat few and far between in the last couple of weeks although things will soon be back to business as usual with the release of Pixar’s Brave, my most anticipated film of the year, imminent. In the meantime to keep things ticking along here’s a nice little Top Ten for you. One of the most enjoyable parts of the Fire Emblem series is meeting and recruiting armies of gorgeous young ladies so now that I’ve reviewed all five games in the series to be released in the UK (Fire Emblem, The Sacred Stones, Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn and Shadow Dragon) it’s time to celebrate the most beauteous among them. There are only two rules for candidates; they must be playable characters and they must have featured in at least one of the aforementioned games. I’m not going to waffle on about each choice, not all characters in the series are developed beyond a few basic traits so there wouldn’t always be much to say and this list is about looks rather than character anyway so I’ll just let you enjoy the pretty pictures instead. Continue reading
When it comes to certain video games, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing. This is generally the case with Fire Emblem, a series that sticks fairly faithfully to its well-balanced and addictive formula. But while the strong core gameplay has remained sensibly unchanged for years the structure is open to embellishments and new concepts that give each new release a different flavour, an extra layer of complexity to make it stand out from its brothers, something to add a little variety to the familiar. Perhaps the boldest and most controversial example can be found in The Sacred Stones, the third entry in the series for the Game Boy Advance (second to see release in Europe). With the title available to 3DS Ambassadors how does it stack up next to The Sword of Flame? Continue reading
It seems the Fire Emblem series really is the strongest indicator I can think of to confirm my long held belief that a single playthrough of a game is not always enough to base a fair and accurate judgement on. So it has proven once again with this 2004 Game Boy Advance title, the first released in the English language. The game’s Japanese subtitle roughly translates as The Sword of Flame but the western world’s first introduction to the franchise drops it for the simple title of Fire Emblem. If you saw my Top 100 Games 2012 post you might recall the game was listed with a score of 9.2 but after replaying it for the first time my opinion has altered. Continue reading
As a writer of fantasy fiction I draw inspiration for my writing from all kinds of sources but chief among these, strangely enough, isn’t novels but video games, something the literary snobs would no doubt snort at which makes me all the more happy about it. I’ve been given ideas for my long-running fantasy saga by all sorts of game publications down the years but three titles stand out over everything else as my biggest influences, Nintendo’s beautiful action adventure series The Legend of Zelda, Skies of Arcadia – Legends, a Dreamcast RPG ported to the Gamecube and the Intelligent Systems developed strategy RPG series Fire Emblem.
This is the third Fire Emblem game I’ve reviewed and the 2008 sequel to the Gamecube’s Path of Radiance. It was also my first ever foray into the series. I explained in my Shadow Dragon review how I ignored the series for years and regretted it after playing this game but my experience with the game during my first playthrough wasn’t one that saw me instantly hooked. Strategy RPGs were a relatively new thing for me at that time, the first two games in the Disciples series for the PC being my only prior entries into it. I had been keen on turn based JRPGs for years and before really examining the structure of the Fire Emblem series had imagined that it would work similarly to one of them. Like many western gamers my first taste of the series was with the appearence of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee and then later Ike, this game’s star, in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and it was this that first piqued my curiosity. I already liked the colourful art style and in 2008 I finally decided to take the plunge and bought a copy of Radiant Dawn with birthday money. I knew a little about the map-based structure prior to purchase but not much about the game’s linearity or subtle complexity.
And it took a very long time to get into it. Radiant Dawn isn’t the best place to start with Fire Emblem as it doesn’t offer the same kind of gentle tutorials in its early moments as other games in the series and the fact that it’s a direct sequel to an already complex story doesn’t really help in narrative terms although the writers have done a good job of recapping the events of the previous game for newbies. Early on in the game I had real trouble working out how to play in a way that was satisfying. For the most part I was just about suceeding and making steady progress but it didn’t feel like I was doing it properly. I kept feeling like I was missing something, some major quirk of gameplay that, once mastered, will make it all make sense. The truth was it was lots of little things I hadn’t quite grapsed, like attacking with mages from two spaces away from an enemy to avoid counterattacks instead of from adjacent spaces. That’s what Fire Emblem is all about, a whole world of miniature strategic decisions many of which seem innocuous but make all the difference. Whenever I review a game I always have a rough score in mind based on how much I’m enjoying it. During the first few hours of Fire Emblem I thought it deserved no more than about 7.8 out of 10.
Which is funny because that’s pretty much exactly this game’s average percentage ratio on Gamerankings.com. I thought I’d picked up a game that punched below its weight and offered a diverting but frustrating experience. The relatively last gen presentation and middle-of-the-road production values assisted this view. To begin with I thought Radiant Dawn might be my first and last Fire Emblem game. For a while I stopped playing so I could concentrate on another big game I had that birthday, the Wii version of Okami, a much more obviously brilliant experience.
Thank goodness I went back to Radiant Dawn though. Upon reloading the game and trying again from the beginning I found myself correcting mistakes I’d already made. Where previously I had lost characters to the series’ trademark permanent death quirk I was managing to keep them all alive. One by one the the myriad little nuggets of gameplay clicked, battles started flowing more smoothly, I started to really quite enjoy it and that predicted score steadily rose. As I progressed through the lengthy quest and began to accept its linearity and storytelling methods which I had previously been underwhelemed by I found myself really getting into the story. As it rolled on I found real satisfaction in building up a strong team and kitting them out with exciting weapons. Eventually it reached the point where I was putting in all-nighters, I was that addicted. After no fewer than four of these in a row I completed the game and settled on a score of 9.1.
But the story of my experience with this game doesn’t end there. A few months later, not wanting to miss out on any more of the series I bought the DS title Shadow Dragon which inspired me to play Radiant Dawn again. It was the first time in quite a while that I’d found myself replaying a game that wasn’t Mario or Zelda within one year of purchase and I certainly hadn’t expected to replay this game before I did Okami but its lure was too strong to resist. Totally enthralled this time I promoted the game to the monster score of 9.4 putting it on a par with games like Lylat Wars, F-Zero GX and Metroid Fusion and soon endeavoured to track down the games I’d missed. Foremost among these was Radiant Dawn’s prequel, Path of Radiance for the Gamecube. With a foreknowledge of the series mechanics I was much better able to appreciate the earlier game’s brilliance but nonetheless didn’t enjoy it as much as Radiant Dawn and so awarded it a still-fantastic score of 9.3. My recent replay of that title opened my eyes more to how much I love the series and I was inspired to lift it to the lofty heights of 9.5. Radiant Dawn was automatically promoted to the same score as I still preferred the later title. Now that I’ve played through it a third time I feel so much better able to truly appreciate the greatness of this game and the whole incredibly immersive and relentlessly addictive experience it has to offer.
The story of Radiant Dawn picks up three years after the events of Path of Radiance by which time Crimea has passed control over the conquered Daein to the Begnion Empire whose Occupation Army, commanded by General Jarod under the supervision of Senator Numida, abuse their power and oppress the Daein citizens. But the Dawn Brigade, a small group of freedom fighters lead by Micaiah, a young woman with miraculous powers fights against the army’s brutality. It is with the Dawn Brigade that the story starts. This is the first place in which Radiant Dawn shakes things up a bit for the series. Whereas Path of Radiance was a fairly simple linear succession of maps with Ike as the commander in each, Radiant Dawn is split into four distinct parts. Part one deals with the Dawn Brigade’s campaign to overcome the Imperial Occupation Army, part two moves the narrative to Crimea where Queen Elincia and her Imperial Knights face a rebellion among the ruling classes. Ike and the Greil Mercenaries don’t turn up until part three where they are hired by the laguz alliance to assist their invasion of Begnion whose senate murdered their messenger upon delivery of an offer of diplomacy. It is in this part that the three story strands collide and build up to a heart-poundingly tense endgame. The arch-villains this time around are the senators of the Begnion Empire whose ambition and corruption sees them controlling Daein like puppeteers essentially forcing them to needlessly engage the advancing laguz alliance in seriously evil ways I won’t spoil. It’s a dramatic and layered way of presenting the much more complex story but it has interesting implications for the gameplay. Instead of just one army you spend the game building up several, which gives a far larger range of characters opportunity to train. Every playable character from the original game bar one returns at some point with a handful of likeable newbies thrown in with the Dawn Brigade. As the story progresses in part three there are even a few maps where the story throws the Greil Mercenaries and the Dawn Brigade against each other with you in command of one or the other. Fortunately any character units you defeat don’t suffer the permanent death problem but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve essentially spent hours building up an army to oppose you. This is where Radiant Dawn’s story really excels. The line betweeen good and evil is blurred and not as black and white as the first game with people on both sides fighting for what they believe is right, a theme that continues right into the climactic fourth part. The writing is, again, absolutely superb, exploring the themes of prejudice and human nature first presented by Path of Radiance.
It’s a shame then that certain aspects of the game’s presentation underwhelm. This is a Wii game but it looks almost identical to the Gamecube title and in some cases, such as charcter stat screens actually look a bit worse. There are a few subtle improvements in places, characters no longer move around the map in rigid right angles and battle animations are slightly better and everything is still very clear, colourful and crisp but it doesn’t feel like we’ve advanced much. The graphics likewise have improved only marginally and most of the sound effects have returned unaltered and sound a bit outdated now. The music however is absolutely superb as ever with stirring, bouncy tunes envigorating battle situations and a range of atmospheric melodies driving the drama in story sequences. None of it is orchestrated but the arrangements are of such quality that it doesn’t matter. There still isn’t full voice acting but with a script this massive that’s no surprise although the brilliantly animated FMV scenes feature some half decent voice work.
I described in a fair amount of detail how you play Fire Emblem games in my reviews of Shadow Dragon and Pasth of Radiance so I won’t do the same here except to say you order a handful of units with varying stats, weapons and abilities around a grid-based map to engage in turn based battles with opponents utilising tight strategy regarding positioning your units and selecting weapons. Micromanagement of units takes place in the base menu which you see between maps. It’s absurdly addictive, a process smothered in satisfaction. Lose a unit and they’re gone forever unless you reload your last save, which brings me to the biggest and most important improvement Radiant Dawn brings to the series. In easy and normal difficulties you are able to use the battle save feature at any time so eliminating the need to restart entire maps when you lose an important unit which will happen. The difficulty level is huge if you’re aiming to complete the game without losing anyone. This last playthrough was the first time I had attempted the game on normal and I had to reset and use the battle save feature on nearly every map. It really, really helps.
Other things done differently here includes the class system which now has three tiers instead of two. In the case of swordsmen for example they go from myrmidon to swordmaster to trueblade giving plenty of scope for training and advancement. You are no longer restricted by how many weapons you can give a character against items. Each unit has seven slots in their inventory and you can give them seven weapons if you want. The support feature too has been tweaked. Instead of choosing a number of support relationships for each charcter you have to focus on pairs. Support converstaions now take place on the battlefield instead of the base menu but they’re sadly nowhere near as well written, interesting or long as they were in Path of Radiance. Converse enough and you can manually increase the level of support and the effect of support bonuses. The best part is that you are given a visual indication of when support bonuses are in effect this time round.
Of course one of the most important aspects of the design of a Fire Emblem game is its maps and Radiant Dawn represents the best the series has to offer. Early chapters have you moving the Dawn Brigade through the narrow streets of Nevassa, Daein’s capital taking on Occupation Army aggressors in 3D environments that are much more detailed and believable than the first few maps of Path of Radiance. Other standout scenarios include an escape through lava filled caves where frequent eruptions damage your party, a chapter featuring only flying units that engage in a kind of arial dogfight thousands of feet up in the sky and a number of brilliantly heart-pounding defense missions including part two’s excellent endgame. It’s a varied and consistently engaging selection of maps and there’s scarcely a dull chapter among the three dozen or so in the game.
Story and gameplay combine in Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn to spectacular effect. If your reaction to the game is anything like mine you will be totally absorbed all the way through to the big finish which makes Path of Radiance’s endgame look like an anticlimax. That will take a long time too. This playthrough lasted over seventy hours and took a whole month although my other two playthroughs on easy both lasted forty-seven. If you turn off battle animations it will save time and the figure does include all the story and preparations but even so it’s one of the most uncommonly vast games I’ve ever played and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it.
So why that Gamerankings average of 78%? I think most of the reviews underrated it because of an overemphasis on fancy graphics and presentation in their considerations. This game does what it does better than any other I’ve played remotely like it. As a seasoned gamer there’s no way I can be this enthralled by an undeserving game and I’m heartened by the fact that among the disappointing reviews there is the odd source that reveres it. If you have any interest or previous experience in the Fire Emblem series I urge you to play this game but this very high recommendation comes with a word of caution, play Path of Radiance first if you can. It took me two and a half years and three playthroughs to fully appreciate how much I love this game which has risen in my esteem higher even than Okami, the game that so overshadowed it on that birthday in 2008. Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn now takes its place as one of the finest video game experiences I have had in this, or any, console generation.
Presentation – 7
Disappointing from a visual point of view but the storytelling and creation of mood is absolutely superlative.
Gameplay – 10
Quite simply the most addictive game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. If you can get into it this game will completely absorb you.
Graphics – 7
Barely an improvement over the Path of Radiance from a technical standpoint but the use of colour and animations are once again very nice.
Sound – 8
A quite wonderful soundtrack full of memorable tunes. The sound effects aren’t bad but haven’t improved.
Difficulty – 10
A vast challenge on the harder difficulty levels. Strategy masochists will be in Nirvana.
Longevity – 10
One of the longest games I’ve ever played and absolutely loaded with replay value.
The complete Fire Emblem experience with a deeply involving, multifaceted story and the best balance of gameplay and content in the series to date. This is the kind of game that could make you neglect your social life and family. Despite a couple of fairly minor quibbles it’s an utterly magical slice of interactive entertainment.
out of 10
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
out of 10
Fire Emblem, Kirby, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Kart 3DS, Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D, Okamiden, Paper Mario, Paper Mario 3DS, Starfox, Starfox 64 3D, Street Fighter, Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time 3D, The Legend of Zelda - Skyward Sword, Zelda
I love a good top ten, they’re geeky but fun. My first top ten concerns the ten games I’m most looking forward to in the coming year and will be a regular feature year by year. The following ten games hold huge appeal with me one way or another. I’ve had to cut out quite a few to keep it down to ten including Kid Icarus Uprising, Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle and Pilotwings Resort but that just means the list itself is made up of nothing but gold.
10. Kirby’s Epic Yarn (Wii)
Though this title has been out in other territories for a while we’re having to wait until Spring for it in Europe. Kirby has always been a bit of an odd-one-out for Nintendo. His cute looks belie deep gameplay and often a great deal of challenge in his games but he’s never really starred in anything that has set the gaming world alight. That said there’s been quite a buzz about this latest offering which was unveiled at last year’s E3. The big draw here is the visuals which follow Paper Mario’s lead and describe a world made entirely out of fabric with all the characters including Kirby existing as nothing more than string outlines. This 2D side-scroller, while apparently very easy looks very charming and inventive and just makes the top ten.
9. Super Street Fighter IV – 3D Edition (3DS)
The exciting prospect on the hardware front for 2011 is, of course, the 3DS, which launches on March the 25th. I’ve got mine preordered along with a copy of this port of the latest title in the world’s foremost fighting series. This 3D release will feature all the characters and modes present in its console forbears and the unique visual style has been brilliantly recreated for the smaller screen and the steroescopic 3D. With a host of new content including support for the console’s street pass feature it’s apparent that this is no cheap cash-in and Capcom have really given the project attention. It’s quite likely that this will be the first new game I play this year so you can expect my review probably in April.
8. Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D (3DS)
The first of no fewer than four remakes to make the list Konami’s big name entry for the 3DS in 2011 is this retread of the third in their massively succesful Metal Gear series, one I’ve wanted to be able to play for years but been unable to due to not having the right hardware. With the rpomise of plenty of new content to flesh out the original experience including gameplay ideas implemented in Metal Gear Solid 4 this promises to be one of the highlights of the 3DS’s inaugural year. If not for the fact that the game is still a bit of an unknown quantity for me it might have been higher on the list.
7. Mario Kart 3DS (3DS)
The announcement of this game was no surprise to anyone. Nintendo’s evergreen kart racing series has made an appearence on every one of their consoles since the SNES (and the GBA where handhelds are concerned) and this latest version is likely to become one of the best-selling games for the compaany this year. Obviously improvements in graphical power and the inclusion of 3D will be the attraction for this latest offering but I’m hopeful that Nintendo will put more effort into it than that and give the game decent one-player depth, perhaps something to emulate the adventure mode of my favourite kart racer the N64’s Diddy Kong Racing. Whatever happens though it’s bound to be immense fun and feature some of the best multiplayer around.
6. Paper Mario 3DS (3DS)
There’s nothing Nintendo’s mascot can’t turn his hand to. The plumber’s many RPGs have been popular since they began with the Square-developed Super Mario RPG on the SNES. Since then he’s moved onto two further RPG series, Paper Mario on home consoles and Mario and Luigi on handhelds. That balance is being upset now as Paper Mario crosses over to the 3DS with an all-new title that promises to return to the robust role-playing roots of the series after the platform-oriantated Wii installment Super Paper Mario. The 3D visuals will no doubt prove particularly effective here with the paper-thin characters and with some new gameplay ideas being implemented this looks set to be another addictive and amusing entry in a stellar series.
5. Fire Emblem (DS)
The 3DS may be dominating this list somewhat but there’s life in its predecessor yet. This latest entry in the uber-addictive Fire Emblem series has been out in Japan for months and there is some doubt as to whether or not it will be localised for Europe but if it is I’ll be jumping right on it. The follow-up to the Fire Emblem – Shadow Dragon, the subject of my first ever game review, this game is another remake of another early title and features similar graphics and presentation as well as an all-new feature that allows you to create your own character for your army. I’m very hopeful this will make it over here some time this year, it will probably have to be this year because the arrival of the 3DS is likely to spend the end of the DS. Here’s hoping the game makes it.
4. Starfox 64 3D (3DS)
Although it’s a little disappointing that we’re not getting an all new Starfox game, a remake of this classic is the best consolation prize you could ask for. Starfox 64, known as Lylat Wars in the UK was one of the best games for the N64 featuring action-packed, well-balanced gameplay and the most quotable script in viseo game history. Obviously we’re getting a graphical enhancement here but it’s accompanied by a completely re-recorded voice soundtrack which we can only hope lives up to the huge entertainment value of the wonderfully cheesy original. What new content there is has yet to be detailed but even if Nintendo just repackage the same old title it will be worth a play.
3. Okamiden (DS)
This could well be the DS’s swansong. Okamiden is the sequal to the critically-acclaimed, woefully overlooked PS2 and Wii classic Okami, an action adventure title featuring gorgeously stylised cel-shaded visuals and Zelda-esque gameplay and structure. Of all the Zelda clones down the years it was by far the best and this follow-up will push the DS hardware to its limits to recreate the vibrant world first seen in the original. With the DS touchscreen perfectly suited to the Celestial Brush and the best 3D graphics I’ve seen on the system I’m hopeful that this may prove to be the DS’s best game when it’s released.
2. The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time 3D (3DS)
When I first learned of the existence of this game I started hyperventilating. The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of time remains my absolute favourite game, thirteen years after it was released for the N64. Never before had a game managed to make me really feel like I was going on a real adventure and never since has any title brought me as much joy. I’ve given up hope of ever playing another game that could better it so I’m delirious that the game is finding its way onto the 3DS. Again we’re getting updated visuals but in addition to that the game will feature a more streamlined menu interface. Hopefully there will be substancial new content to get stuck into as well such as the two dungeons planned for the original that were scrapped. Hope springs eternal but as with Starfox I’ll be more than happy with nothing more than a staright port.
1. The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword (Wii)
The Ocarina remake may be a massively big deal but there’s nothing that excites me more than the prospect of an all new Zelda home console title. Yes Skyward Sword’s unveiling at last year’s E3 was marred by technical problems but as far as I’m concerned only idiots cite that as reason why the final game will disappoint. It’s not like it was designed to be played on a big stage in front of scores of media people packing interfering hardware and Nintendo has always done right by the franchise. That’s not to say there aren’t concerns, as much as I love the Renoir-inspired impressionistic art style the graphical quality needs a tune-up and some of the enemy design could be better but the fact is we’ve seen next to nothing of the game. Nintendo will get the Motion Plus swordplay right, I know they will and with Eiji Aounuma promising that this game will see the biggest shake-up of the structure there’s a lot to look forward to here. This is without any doubt the most likely contender to land the title of 2011 Game of the Year.
There’s been a lot of sickness in the prince’s castle this December and the prince has had to chip in with Christmas preparations where the servants haven’t been able to so this review is a little late in coming despite the fact that I finished the game, my first replay since getting it in 2009, some days before the 25th. I will, of course, be reviewing all three of the games I got for Christmas (Donkey Kong Country Returns, Sonic Colours and Muramasa – The Demon Blade, a very Wii-oriented side-scrolly Christmas) in due course. For my first game review, however, it’s Fire Emblem – Shadow Dragon.
I came to the Fire Emblem party late. Developed by the sainted Intelligent Systems the series began on the Famicon in 1990 and created an all new genre by combining the Strategy game with the RPG to make the world’s first Strategy RPG. The first half-dozen titles were Japan exclusive and the series didn’t make its way westwards until two of its characters, Marth and Roy had made an appearence as playable combatants in the Gamecube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Finally in 2004 (in Europe at least) Fire Emblem – The Sword of Flame for the Game Boy Advance, simply titled Fire Emblem here, became the first game in the series to see release and I ignored it.
Well I didn’t ignore it exactly, I liked the art style a lot and the Smash Bros. connection engaged my interest but I didn’t buy it. In those days I didn’t have enough money to justify buying many games unless I knew I’d enjoy them and Fire Emblem was an unknown quantity to me. I didn’t get The Sacred Stones either and even when the series made an appearence on the Gamecube in Path of Radiance when precious few quality titles were being released for the platform I still wasn’t moved to make a purchase. Finally in 2008 Path of Radiance received a direct sequel in Radiant Dawn for the Wii and I finally made my long overdue Fire Emblem bow.
I’ll go into detail about my experience with Radiant Dawn when I come to review it as I plan to do some time in 2011 but for now suffice it to say that it took me a very long time to get into it. Fire Embelm is a very complex, multi-faceted game and takes dedication to master. Eventually everything clicked with me and by the time the credits rolled I was a confirmed fan of this cult series. In fact I would now go as far to say that there are only three video game series I look forward to new instalments of more now, Mario, Zelda and Metroid. So naturally when this game, a remake of the title that started it all was released for the DS in 2009 I didn’t beat around the bush about getting it.
As I said Shadow Dragon is a remake of the first game in the series and as such follows the story of Marth, the original Fire Emblem hero. Marth is the prince of the Kingdom of Altea who is forced into exile by the invading army of a previously allied nation. Marth raises an army and fights to bring peace back to the continent by defeating Medeus the Shadow Dragon, a task that requires the divine sword Falchion. The story is unfolded between missions by some extremely well-written dialogue between static pieces of very nicely drawn character art. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way but the story plays second fiddle to the massively addictive gameplay.
Here’s how it all works. You take control of a party of characters, each belonging to its own class, (myrmidons, cavaliers, archers, thieves, mages, fighters, knights etc.) leading them through a linear succession of quests in which you play a hyper-evolved game of chess against an opposing army with a view to completing a set objective (in this game the objective never strays from seizing a certain square on the grid which is always guarded by a boss). You and the enemy AI take turns in moving your units around the grid and engaging in battles with opponents. When you move within attacking range of an enemy you can choose to engage it whereupon you will be shown a screen that essentially predicts the outcome of the battle. You will be shown all of the relevant stats of both you and your enemy including HP (that’s RPG jargon for hit points), how much damage the two of you will do to each other, your chances of landing a hit in per cent and your chances of landing a three-times-as-powersul critical hit in per cent. The two units will only strike each other once unless one unit has a high enough speed statistic compared to the other in which case that unit can attack twice but even then battles don’t always end with one unit’s defeat.
Sound simple enough? Okay once you’ve grasped that much you need to factor in the following. Some weapon types have advantages over others (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords) and gain a slight damage boost when pitted against them. Some weapons can attack from a range of two squares meaning you can damage an enemy with an attack range of one square without reprisal. Some weapons have a massively boosted effect on certain units (bows against flying units, hammers against armoured units etc.) and can easily wipe out even powerful units in a single blow. All weapons have a limited number of uses which deplete every time you score a hit meaning you will want to be conservative with your stronger weapons which have fewer uses than weaker ones. Each unit will have an A-E grade for adaptness at the weapon(s) it is able to wield restricting the grade of weapon it can use and can only increase their grade by using the weapon type a lot. You can recruit new units by talking to them with the appropriate character instead of attacking although that will still be an option. Certain units can use staves to heal allies, warp them to another part of the map or boost their defence. Units gain experience in battle, more for achieving a kill. Units can improve their stats with certain items or upgrade to a stronger class by using a Master Seal.
Got all that? That’s just the start. Between quests you can make preparations for the next map by choosing which units to take, where to position them on the map and what weapons and items you want each one to have in their inventory. The micromanagement you can go into is extremely detailed. Every little nuance affects the way you prepare for and make your way through each quest. It’s deep and richly rewarding. Building up your army is extremely satisfying and every facet of the structure makes for the most addictive video game experience I have ever played.
But there’s one more thing that really sets Fire Emblem apart from other similar games. If one of your units falls in battle you can never use them again. This is unusual for RPGs, most of which only have a few playable characters which almost always revive after battle and sometimes in the same battle if you resurrect them manually. Permanent character death seems to be unique to the Fire Emblem series and will dominate the way you play. You have to be cautious, keep weaker units away from enemy attack ranges, heal your party regularly and prepare for every eventuality. It can be hugely frustrating to have one of your favourite characters suddenly killed. You can switch off and reload your last save to get them back but this of course necessitates regaining lost progress. The problem is slightly alleviated by allowing you to save in mid-quest once or twice but you’ll have to be strategic about when to do even that.
So how does Shadow Dragon measure up against the rest of the series? Well, for one thing during this second playthrough I could tell it was a remake more easily than when I first played it. Since getting this I’ve tracked down the Fire Emblem games I had previously missed and having played them I can see how the series has progressed from the early days on which Shadow Dragon is based. There’s less chatting among the characters, fewer enemy units and a number of series conventions, such as support conversations and certain unit classes have fallen away. This, therefore, feels like a slightly simplified experience at times. The one new idea Shadow Dragon brings to the table is the concept of reclassing units. If you find you have too many of one class (which you will because the game throws a lot of cavaliers at you early on) or too few of another you can take an existing unit and change their class to something else entirely giving you greater powers of customisation. It’s nice to have the freedom but it’s hardly needed, plus the unit’s weapon grades are reset to minimum when you reclass. Ultimately there’s no real advantage in doing it.
Shadow Dragon is not the most layered game in the series, nor is it the longest with only 25 missions, not including gaiden chapters though this playthrough still took me 25 hours to complete. We do get a good, likeable set of characters and it’s great to finally play as Marth. Needless to say if you like Fire Emblem this should be a no-brainer. It’s a pretty ideal place to start if you want to get into the series too
Not that the retailers will help much. I bought my copy on the internet and but for several weeks after release I made a point of checking to see if I could find the game on shop shelves anywhere I went that sells games. Not once did I find a copy, even in game shops. It annoys me that mediocre minigame compilations and self-improvement titles get shelf space at the expence a quality publication like Fire Emblem – Shadow Dragon. Sure, it’s a cult series only for hardcore gamers who like RPGs and are strategically-minded but it deserves praise and much more attention.
Presentation – 8
Clean, crisp and polished with probably the best writing in the series. If you’re familiar with the series you might be able to tell it’s a remake due to a slimmer range of content but when everything looks this professional it’s nothing to take issue with.
Gameplay – 9
Devillishly addictive and highly compulsive. Get into a Fire Emblem game and you could very well find you want to do nothing else. Shadow Dragon is a typically nuanced, deep experience that rewards organisation and patience with immense satisfaction.
Graphics – 8
A clear improvement from the GBA games and a darker, more realistic approach. The 3D character sprites don’t have the same charm of past entries but the maps are much more detailed.
Sound – 7
The rousing, addictive themes the series is known for are present and correct and feels appropriate for a game about war. Sound effects are satisfying.
Difficulty – 9
A combination of good enemy AI, fine stat balance and a finite amount of experience available make even the easiest difficulty setting a real challenge. Veterans will relish the high demand on their cunning.
Longevity – 8
Not the longest in the series but still offers a massively lengthy story, with unlockable gaiden chapters, harder difficulties and real replay value.
With deep gameplay, tremendous challenge and a high degree of polish Fire Emblem fans, particularly those lucky enough to have been with the series from the start will find Shadow Dragon a real treat. If you’ve not yet dipped a toe into the pool this is an ideal place to start. All-in-all this is one of the finest, most rewarding DS experiences.
out of 10