"Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is the epic story of a rag tag band of mercenies fighting their way through a seemingly endless horde of RPG cliches. You've got Ike, the insecure, immature, but inherently heroic young lad with daddy issues who becomes the all powerful, ultimate source of good in the world. He is accompanied by his younger sister who wastes no time getting kidnapped, and who also has a mysterious (sigh...) medallion given to her by their dead mother. You'll also meet the Catholi..."
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is the epic story of a rag tag band of mercenies fighting their way through a seemingly endless horde of RPG cliches. You've got Ike, the insecure, immature, but inherently heroic young lad with daddy issues who becomes the all powerful, ultimate source of good in the world. He is accompanied by his younger sister who wastes no time getting kidnapped, and who also has a mysterious (sigh...) medallion given to her by their dead mother. You'll also meet the Catholic Church ripoff that's Not As Holy As They Seem, the Sparta ripoff that lives only for fighting, and the sole survivor of an ancient, magical race. And you'll face off against the mysterious, all powerful, totally evil bad guy dressed in black, known as (are you ready for this?) the Black Knight. And your first taste of this bad guy is in a scene straight out of Star Wars (I kept waiting for him to tell Ike he was his father, but alas, no luck). Cliches galore.
Okay, so it's really not that bad. I mean, at least your sister Mist had the good sense to get kidnapped while you're still in the tutorial phase rather than have it be instrumental to the plot. And only a few members of the Catholic Church are evil, most are surprisingly sincere. And when it comes down to it, the game actually tries to tell a serious, interesting story. There's a good half a dozen independent plotlines woven through the main story, with only one or two of them being a bit on the absurd side. You never lose track of these stories as they move along, but you also never lose sight of the overall war that is occuring on the continent. Whether it be the Apostle's subtle attempts to atone for her country's misdeeds, Gallia's cautious support for their beleaguered ally, or Ashnard's goal to unleash the Fire Emblem on the world, you care enough to see how it all ends up. Despite some of the rougher edges or the fact that there's virtually no worthwhile character developments outside of a select few (understandable, given the massive cast, but annoying nonetheless), it's one of the better stories you'll find in a videogame.
I figured I'd start with that little plot analysis because it's a nice microcosm of the game as a whole. Fire Emblem borders itself on the absurd; creating an experience that's seems not worth playing, but still satisfying in the end. Simplicity gives way to depth, inanity gives way to seriousness, and boredom gives way to interest. In the end, we're left with something that's fundamentally good game, even if it's not quite what one should expect.
So what is this game? Well, it's basically a tactical RPG without any tactics (see what I mean about nearly absurd?). You get to choose 5-15 members or so to fight each battle, and you're generally up against 2:1 or 3:1 odds. Depth consists of three types of units (mounted, flying, or foot soldiers) who can use three types of melee weapons (swords, lances, and axes) or bows and magic for ranged attacks. Each has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. Flying units can cross all sorts of terrain but are weak to bows, for example, while swords, lances, and axes have a rock-paper-scissors thing going. It's a turn-based game, where you move all your units around a giant chessboard-style playing field attacking the enemy before they get a chance to strike back. Objectives range from wiping everyone off the map to defending units/spaces to arriving at a particular point. In between battles, you can buy new weapons, talk to your troops, and dole out experience, among other options.
So where are the tactics? Problem is, you don't need much brainpower to go through the game. Simply keep weak (magic users and healers) units outside of enemy range and keep your units close together and you're good to go. Terrain is almost completely irrelevent. Practically the only time it matters is when you're defending a tile and there's 3 blatant choke points that need units placed there (yawn). Fighting a boss is usually a joke, since most of them won't move, allowing you to dash in, attack, and dash out (or, even better, just fighting with ranged attacks) without worrying about getting hurt. Despite the slight negatives of mounted and flying units, their advantages are generally overwhelming, making your infantry nearly an impediment as they try to keep up.
Allow me to compare the game (negatively) to Final Fantasy Tactics for a moment to highlight this problem. In that game during battles, you had to constantly keep two aspects on your mind when moving your units about: terrain height and formation. Keeping to the high ground was essential to keeping your advantage over the enemy, and knowing which squares to hold and how to advance was key. Likewise, because magic hits multiple squares and you can't fire arrows through your allies, you can't bunch up too much, allowing for a delicate balance of protecting your weaker allies while not setting yourself up for the slaughter. In other words, your position and movement matter. Tactics are present. Without these two elements in FE, you're essentially just moving forward, with your only concern being that the paladins and flyers will get too far ahead of the foot soldiers. As long as you check out the range of the enemy units before moving, you're safe.
And yet, despite the weakness in the tactical side, the game has some strengths when it comes to strategery. The staple of the Fire Emblem series is that there's no such thing as Pheonix Downs; once a character dies, he or she is permanently dead. And while 9 times out of 10 you are in no danger of losing anyone, any one of your units can end up biting the big one if you're not careful. Sometimes its just impossible to keep everyone out of the range of deadly units, and even a tank can get wiped out if ganged up on by enemies equipped with certain weapons. And if they die, your only recourse is to reset.
But, well, that's kind of cheating, isn't it? Ask yourself if replaying the half-hour battle is worth saving a character or not. Oh, and see that treasure chest over there? A thief will open it first if you don't hurry. Is the item worth being a bit reckless? Your wyvern rider can just fly over that river to take out the enemy squad now and save some time, but will she survive the task? The vast majority of the time, you can play it extraordinarily safe, but that takes a lot of time and is, dare I say it, boring. But if you want to play at any speed, you have to take some risks. And that means potentially sacrificing some of your allies. Everyone wants to have a perfect save rate, but this is a war. Sometimes, people die. And you have more than enough troops to replace the ones you lose. So I ask again, is it worth it?
But then, your replacement troops won't be as good or won't be as experienced. So who do you use? Does Titania wipe out everyone, or do you risk your weaker characters? Are Mist and Rolf and Astrid worth leveling up when they start so pathetically? Should you drop Mia after all you've been through with her? How many paladins do you need? Archers? Healers? Mages? Swordmasters? Who gets chosen for battle and who sits around camp? If many members in your core group are not useful for a specific battle, do you just play with fewer allies or take along weaker members?
What this means is that it's army management where the game shows its strength. Oh, there's a lot of aspects you don't really have to worry about, such as the biorhythm thing that I ignored completely. But deciding what equipment to bring along, who to bring along, and keeping your members on pace to max out their levels is the key to doing well in this game. No, it's not horribly difficult to do. No, it's not the most exciting thing in the world. But it's still something this game does well.
And really, it's enough to make the rest of the game interesting. Between the reasonably engaging story, the admittedly simplistic but still worthwhile battle mechanics, and the overarching management issues, I was still engrossed enough to keep coming back chapter after chapter. With the objectives mixed up on each chapter and yourself constantly outnumbered, battles were worth fighting. With the myriad of characters available, I was able to forge my own way and choose my own method of play. Everything managed to come together just enough, making this game more than simply a sum of its parts. Is it the best tectical game one can imagine? No. But it's still a joy to play, and still a good game despite its limitations.
Featured community review by mariner (September 07, 2008)
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