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Fire Emblem is something of a new entity in the West. Most people are much more informed as to its Sega contemporary, Shining Force. But when it comes to seniority, Fire Emblem is one of the eldest SRPGs in the world. Most gamers in the West probably got their first taste of Fire Emblem on the GBA, but the series dates back to the NES era. It even has a couple of anime episodes to its name based on the third game, which was my personal favorite. Now Intelligent Systems brings the series to the GameCube with Path of Radiance, giving birth to an all new saga in the Fire Emblem legacy.
Path of Radiance is Fire Emblem's first foray into 3D, and unfortunately Intelligent System's inexperience in the field may leave a poor first impression on some gamers. The game features a fairly high polygon count and the environments are rendered very well, but to a generation now used to the quality of Final Fantasy X and its kind, the title looks merely above average.
Perhaps what hurts the most aesthetically is the color palette. With brighter hues and less earthtones, much of the world would feel in keeping with the rest of the series. In particular, the contrast becomes marked when the beautiful hand-drawn portraits pop up on screen during story sequences. The backgrounds simply don't stand up to the wonderful illustrations, and it's a shame because Intelligent Systems has done some great things with the art direction in the past.
It's not all bad news however. The models animate well and there's a wide variety amongst characters. Dungeons and other such environments are rendered quite well and feel very natural to the setting. Additionally, the CG movies are something to watch over and over again. The cel-shading lacks the hard black outline common to the style and creates an excellent transition between the anime style of the art and the 3D plane.
There's also some splendor to be had as far as upgrades go. It's immensely pleasing to see your warriors change class, as it doesn't just modify their armor, but replaces it completely. Each character also comes with a unique set of animations for every sort of weapon they can carry, providing nice visual variety during battles.
Visuals are not complete without the backing of a good score however, and Fire Emblem delivers. The tracks are enjoyable and rarely become monotonous. In a genre known for musical monotony, Path of Radiance's music is balanced so that it never overrides the action, but provides a suitable complement. It isn't a Nobuo Uematsu aural epic, but it's definitely enjoyable.
Perhaps what I miss most is the lack of voice. There's spoken dialogue as far as the cinematics go, but much of the game is without any recorded voice. Having been spoiled in recent years by games featuring quality full-on dubbing, I must say it's an odd thing to read and not hear in a modern console game. However, this may be for the best, as the sheer amount of text in the game would have proven unserviceable with more vocal work.
The cinematic dialogue tends to be fairly good. Stephen Weyte's work as Greil and the narrator is spot-on, though I'm not nearly as fond of Elincia's actor. Thankfully, the only voice that grates is Mist's, and she talks preciously little beyond the first few movies. The cinematics in general are gorgeous, so if you're not a fan of dubbing, shut off the sound for a bit and just watch.
The game is text-heavy; not in the sense that it reads like a doctorate thesis, but there are many, many conversations to have. Fire Emblem has always been known for its support conversations where the player can have various characters talk to each other, revealing plot points and more about their personalities. This holds true in Path of Radiance, with each character allowed a certain number of conversations based on how often they appear on the field together.
Players can also view other scenes that can reveal important plot points or even bring new characters into the roster. Available after a few battles when you finally obtain a 'base,' most such events come with a one-star rating and are extraneous. However, anything three stars or above can be very important to the plot. While not mandatory, investing a little bit of extra time in these scenes can be very rewarding.
Of course, some dialogue takes place on the field, and this never feels quite as refined for some reason. Where support dialogue reads naturally to me, a lot of the field dialogue came off as hokey, especially in the case of characters like Marcia (a Pegasus knight who joins early on.) Some expressions like "oh crackers!" just threw me as being ridiculously out of place. Perhaps a lot of the field dialogue was written as an afterthought or something, but it never quite feels as right as the support and regular story text.
We've gone over the look, the sound, and the dialogue. What about the story? Marth, Roy, Eliwood- these are heroes of the past. Ike is the newest addition to the Fire Emblem family of swordsmen (and women,) and unlike most of his predecessors, is not of noble birth. He's the son of Greil, leader of the Greil Mercenaries, and a noble sell-sword. He quickly learns of how humans or "beorcs" view their beastmen cousins, whom they call "sub-humans" but are properly termed "laguz." Tensions have never ceased between the beorc and the laguz, and Ike becomes swiftly involved in the conflict.
Ike is a fairly generic hero, righteous and full of virtue, although hesitant to take up leadership of his force, knowing full-well he's still young and inexperienced. He's not a far cry from Marth, Roy, or Eliwood, and he's certainly not boring and provides a fairly universal avatar for the gamer. However, the rest of the cast is where things grow far more interesting. Everyone from the somber, antisocial Soren (your strategist no less) to the pacifistic, noble-hearted Devdan has their own story to tell, usually expressed through the ever-popular support conversations.
The story begins with the Daein empire launching an attack on Ike's homeland of Crimea. Through the course of events, Crimea becomes weaker and weaker, and the princess Elinicia is forced to flee, hiring Ike and the Greil mercenaries as her bodguards. Their path takes them far from Crimea and into the land of the laguz, where few greet the convoy as friends. Many laguz remember a time when beorcs treated them as slaves, calling them 'sub-humans,' a name that has stuck for many living in Crimea and other beorc lands. Ike even learns that the word 'human' is an insult amongst the laguz, and any laguz who uses it is no friend to the beorc.
In the end, it is up to Ike to take up his sword and follow his destiny, bringing together the beorc and laguz and perishing the hatred of the past as he forges ahead against the Daein empire. From the lands of the beastmen to the dragons, the birdmen, and the holy city of Begnion, Ike's adventures will take him far, provided the player prepares well for the battles ahead.
Most of Path of Radiance has its exposition in strategic combat. Turns are split between 'Player,' 'Enemy,' and sometimes 'Other.' Within the Player turn, you can direct your troops to move, attack, heal, and all the standard fare of an SRPG. There are also special actions such as opening chests (something thieves specialize in) and capturing certain tiles to complete objectives. There isn't much variety as far as the battles are concerned, but true to the series, Path of Radiance doesn't slack on the difficulty. Even the 'Easy' setting should still pose a challenge to most, and it only goes up from there.
I mentioned before that classes change throughout the game. Some like Ike's are story driven and only occur after certain missions. For most units however, the chance comes either at level 20, or if you use a Master Seal on them at level 10. Once the upgrade is complete, the unit resets to level 1, but with all the strength already built up and the additional bonuses brought on by the upgrade.
After a short time playing, players will obtain a headquarters where they can engage in such activities as the aforementioned support conversations. But they can also buy items, weapons, and armor, as well as craft their own armaments based on existing designs. Some are worth it, others not so much. Headquarters also serves one other major function which I found endlessly useful: Awarding bonus EXP to characters. After each battle, the party acquires some bonus EXP which can be distributed at headquarters. This is especially useful when you need to bring up less involved classes like healers and thieves.
A Final Word
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is not the best Fire Emblem I've played, but it's certainly a good game and worth picking up if you're searching for an SRPG worth your time and money. Don't be put off too much by the initial graphics, because there's a real gem beneath it all. And hey, it's Fire Emblem in 3D, on a console again! Definitely something to add to your GameCube library.