Platform: Nintendo GameCube
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Campaign Completed ~45 Hours
Intelligent Systems has a long history of making quality strategy games. They made the Advance Wars games, Fire Emblem, and Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones for GameBoy Advance. Path of Radiance marks this franchise’s first foray into the third dimension.
The transition from 2D to 3D can be challenging to developer and gameplay mechanics. Intelligent Systems weathered the technical storm, creating a 3D engine capable of taking them beyond the GameCube’s lifetime. As for the gameplay, it also weathered the transition well. It’s very much the classic Fire Emblem. Perhaps it’s too much of the original without giving sufficient attention to the third dimension.
The signature elements of Fire Emblem, as demonstrated by Path of Radiance, will be judged on their merit regardless of franchise history. To the developer’s credit, few will be dinged because of poor quality. The look and set up are very classic SRPG. Relatively flat but 3D terrain is looked down upon from above by a fairly adjustable camera and battles between units take you to a separate fight screen.
- The weapons triangle is back: Swords have the advantage over axes. Axes over lances. Lances over swords. It’s a tried and true system. This simple triangle adds plenty of gameplay value as it factors greatly into your tactical decisions. And it’s fun.
- The game is good lookin’: The environments are a joy to behold from above. Negotiable terrain is (for the most part) clear, yet does not hinder the organic look.
- Expendable Weapons: This is a classic Fire Emblem premier mechanic. It highlights weapon choice (Do I need to use my best weapon?), and commerce to replace ones that break after their uses are expended. That adds strategy, giving you good reason to manage your remaining uses and cash.
- Painterly Style Retained: The Fire Emblem franchise has always used a unique character style different from anime. The 2D art retains that look, and for a pleasant surprise, the 3D CG cut scenes manage to capture it as well.
- Thanks for the ceremony: Characters cannot change to an entirely different type of unit, but they do get one upgrade to a new class within their specialty. They might get a new weapons proficiency. The game makes a big deal about the promotion. Overall it’s satisfying.
- Is that really your name? “Anna the tutorial girl” is back. She knows her job. The tutorial is thorough and well paced throughout the early part of the game. Additionally, Anna’s kooky dialogue makes it more enjoyable.
- Catapults are the new ballista: Although neutered in this game, the ballista are back. But they affect only one square and do little against heavily armored targets. However the new catapults damage the target square and the four around it. (Even they could stand to hit harder.)
- Pace yourself: The ratio of story to battle is carefully balanced. You get plenty of setup before each battle making them all feel important. Story delivery has been a Fire Emblem strength continuing from the two previous entries.
The Good & Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Rescue me: Mounted characters can pick up others of less weight, carrying them to safety. This is useful in a game where death is for keeps (see “Death & Etc.” below). However we found ourselves rarely using it. Still, we think it’s better to have it.
- Be part of the story: Well, not in Path of Radiance. In the first GBA Fire Emblem you play role of a mysterious non-fighting adviser. You name him and it adds to the immersion. This game drops that conceit and you control all the characters without pretense. We would not ding Path of Radiance on this point had the franchise not done it better in the past.
- Betting on the ponies: Mounted characters can move after they attack, unlike their pedestrian cousins. This is handy and often used. However outside of mounted healing units like troubadours, it can also be abused (see “Death & Etc.” below).
- Pass the coffee: This game pushes the boundaries of acceptable battle length. Up to 13 characters can be in your party, and the enemy can field larger numbers and bring in additional reinforcements. Strategic? Yes. However with a lot of ground to cover, battles can get rather long.
- Lusty songs of old: We prefer the adventurous tunes of previous Fire Emblem entries. While there’s nothing wrong per se with the quality tunes of this game, they may not grab you and are unlikely to be remembered or shared outside of the game.
- The beast within: Laguz are a beast people with characteristics of big cats, dragons or birds. They fight without weapons only when they transform into a temporary animal form. The idea of such characters is worthwhile, but perhaps better pursued in a game in need of such a mechanic.
- Story “bonks:” (Anyone remember that term for running out of gas?) The narrative for the first two thirds of the game is interesting, with well-written dialogue. And plenty of it. However the last third of the game falls short of that standard.
- The montage scene: Like the A-Team being locked in a barn and building a cabbage lunching tractor tank, Fire Emblem has story montage scenes usually over a map in between chapters. However unlike those from previous franchise entries these were repetitive and dull. Good idea, bad execution.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Death & Etc.
What does that mean? Usually we put the possibility of real character death in the “good” category. However this Fire Emblem puts too many variables onto the battlefield. The result leads to more restarts and dilution of character caring immersion. (And we don’t like to restart. We like to play it for real.)
Hit points are not high in this franchise. The loser of an engagement often dies in one encounter. Add to this the possibility of critical hits which can do double damage. Seen the other way, imagine one of your characters constantly getting critical hits against enemy attackers. As one falls there is now room to approach your character again for another attack. A chain of enemies can attack your character this way.
Or consider mounted enemies. They move up to a particular character and attack, and then retreat. In this way an entire chain of mounted enemies can attack a single character in one turn. And this doesn’t include mounted archers who can attack from range. The hit points and combat mechanics are just not robust enough for these kinds of chained attacks. It becomes frustrating.
Fire Emblem death is irrevocable. There are no temples or clerical spells for resurrecting. There are no objects like Phoenix Downs to place upon fallen units within three rounds (our favorite method). In such a mechanics environment the developers should be looking for ways to minimize unpredictable damage. Additionally it seemed the AI sometimes encouraged it. Ugh.
- Shove it: We’re talking about the new mechanic, “shove”. We never used it, nor found a need to. These development hours could have been better spent.
- “Drop your weapons!” This is such a cliché. Maybe your heroes won’t fall for it just because the bad guy has a hostage… No, they fall for it. Not so fun. Doofuses.
- Lost in the weeds: Some of the foliage is confusing. Is it passable? Occasionally, to your chagrin, you might find out the hard way when an enemy penetrates your line through an unsubstantial tree.
- Too flat: This game brings the Fire Emblem franchise into the third dimension. However aside from terrain objects (trees and houses, etc.), the terrain itself is for all practical purposes flat. No hills, no high ground. Potential wasted.
- One false move: Some of the opening set ups require very specific responses for success. Unfortunately it is sometimes learned through trial and error. In a game of irrevocable death that means a restart. Design fail.
- “I don’t need your stinkin’ characters.” Final Fantasy Tactics offers overpowered Orlandu. Fire Emblem provides a number of high level characters, none that overpowered thankfully, but we felt little desire to use them. Some are uninteresting, and others fools or blowhards. A waste.
- Super slow motion: With the large number of characters, and even more enemies in a single engagement, it’s best to keep battles from getting bogged down. One scenario features sand which actually slows many of your units. Less fun, and more tedium. Plus it was a huge map. Why? Ugh.
- “I shot an arrow into the air…” Or at least we tried to. We like archers. However the regular archer class is under-served, giving us only a little boy to choose. Not the ideal warrior. This class has been more fun in both previous Fire Emblem outings.
- We are not enticed: Treasure chests and other goodies normally pursued are now more easily ignored. Why? It’s the possibility of this game’s quick and irrevocable death. It cut down on exploration, sadly.
- “Your the big baddie?” The story fails to evoke an emotional response regarding the big bad guy. He’s just a blowhard seen in a few cut scenes. His henchmen will be of greater interest.
- (Not so) special animations: Critical hits use special animations in the previous sprite-based Fire Emblem entries. They are quite enjoyable. Here that same exaggerated fun is not captured. They aren’t even non-exaggerated fun. The developers need to reexamine what made the earlier ones work so well.
- A noble band of Superman: Despite the unforgiving nature of the mechanics, the ramping is too easy. If you level up the lead character and only a few of your favorites they will be nearly untouchable.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Are you the new guy?
Some encountered characters can join your party, however the process can be onerous. Which specific character needs to talk to them? And during a battle? Unless you like restarting, such risky moves are too dangerous. The possible recruit might still be attacking your units until the right person talks with him.
Random characters associated with the battle might pop up with some lines. Apparently there’s supposed to be additional interaction with our potential recruit. But what to do is unclear. Resorting to a FAQ to get these characters is a design fail.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: The “real” bad guy & comeuppance.
So the big bad guy’s henchman with the uninspired name “The Black Knight” is likely the villain you really want to beat. The game gives you a good reason, and plenty of lead-up encounters with him including a fight in which you lose.
Before the final battle you get a chance to face him again. Your lieutenant tells you to leave the fight if you don’t think you can win. She says something like this more than once, clearly giving the indication that if you aren’t strong enough yet to beat The Black Knight, withdraw to fight him another day. And that’s the big problem, because another day never comes.
Apparently you need some luck in order to win this encounter, and you need another character to be leveled up sufficiently to help you. It’s a lot of chance that has to go your way. If you don’t beat him the nebulous result is rather unsatisfying in the comeuppance department. In fact we were still expecting The Black Knight to appear again in the final battle.
This element was the most poorly handled in the game.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: End already.
The pace for the game slows in the last third. The writing becomes fat, and when you win the final battle the game doesn’t know when to leave. It forces upon you a long textual epilogue. Why did they disable the usual button press that accelerates the text printing?
You are forced to watch text crawl out word by word as if translated from Morse code. It literally takes many boring minutes. And sadly the epilogue was… well, stupid. That’s right we said it. Stupid.
It goes on into some self-important blabber about “you having planted the seeds of future war, blah blah blah.” Just the thing you want to hear after all that fighting you did to bring peace to the continent. It goes on with some ruminations about whether the big baddie was right after all. Huh? Are you trying to make this the worst ending possible?
On the bright side they did give you stats for all your characters. If you cared about them as we did about some, the stats at least, are welcome.
We included a lot in the “bad” category because we care about this quality franchise, and we hold it to a higher standard. Certainly it’s hard to make a large game like this and not stumble at some point. Yes, they blindsided us with a beast character who is able to attack with magic even when not transformed.
Yes, we got saddled with a sad sack knight. We tried to make him into a warrior, but he just wasn’t good at. He finally fell in battle for the last time and we didn’t have the will to bring him back with a restart. Sorry Brom. Next time stick to baking.
While we don’t care for reliance on FAQ’s, if you’re going to play this game, consult one to find out how best to beat The Black Knight. That’s a tip from us for which you will be grateful.
Don’t let the length of the bad category deter you from playing this quality title. It’s worth trying out, especially if you think the GameBoy Advance versions are fun. Of course it’s very difficult to match the quality and story of the first Fire Emblem. Few SRPG’s can.
The Fire Emblem Series:
If you like Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, try: