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