Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Review
Fire Emblem is an obsession for me, reaching down to my very core and bad-touching my soul. It’s crack delivered through sight and sound, a million irresistible things coalescing into something even more amazing, and of all the English-localized games, Path of Radiance is second only to its sequel, Radiant Dawn. This is a game that’s easy to learn, difficult to master, and undeniably addictive to play.
Path of Radiance is the ninth game in the Fire Emblem franchise, but don’t be intimidated by the number—they’re largely like Final Fantasy games in that they take place in different worlds with different characters, so it’s safe to jump into any particular game without prior knowledge of the series. That being said, it’s not uncommon for entries to come in pairs that both take place in the same world, despite each having a self-contained storyline: The fifth game is a side story that fills in the timeline of the fourth game, the seventh game is a prequel of the sixth, and Path of Radiance is the first game in the two-game series that ends with Radiant Dawn (Fire Emblem 10), one of my favorite games ever. Since the sixth game was never localized, Fire Emblem 9 and 10 are the only duology available to English-speakers, and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is quite possibly the best place to jump into the series for this very reason.
The game plays out like Fire Emblem games before it, which is to say that it’s a turn-based strategy/RPG/chess hybrid that’s strongly married to its storyline. You’re presented with several characters who you’re given the ability to control, all of whom have their own individual stories and personalities, and each chapter sees them placed on a grid. Imagine a chessboard, only the board has been cut up into rectangles and moved around to where it wasn’t a square. You have a turn to maneuver all of your characters—in contrast to many other turn-based games where individual characters and enemies alternate—and enemies have a turn to move all of their characters. Once you move a character, they become greyed out and unavailable to use for the rest of your turn, so properly planning your movement is vital. Much like chess, each character has their own role to play on the battlefield; archers can equip bows and hit both diagonally and from two squares away (and are subsequently vulnerable when attacked up close), whereas melee units have to be adjacent unless they have a special kind of throwing weapon equipped, in which case they get the best of both worlds. There are mages who also get the best of both worlds, but start out incredibly weak, as well as a number of other units who have various pluses and minuses that can work both to your advantage and disadvantage. Sometimes even a disadvantage can be planned around to your benefit, such as using archers to lure in melee-only units for your weaker units to attack for easy experience.
It’s easy to look at some of that and think that it’d become overwhelming, but it never does. The characters having personalities means that you’ll never forget who does what or which character is most useful in any given situation, meaning that maps usually come down to being well-equipped and mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies. This, like Fire Emblem games before and after it, is all about planning; at first your focus is on raising your weak characters’ stats, which have a certain chance of going up by one—and they only go up by one unless you’re raising stats with rare items—every time you level up (all of your stats could go up, none of them could go up, or anything between the two). Different characters have different growth rates, so they tend to develop in different ways and serve different functions. You could very well end up with a situation where you have two units that are the same level and class, but end up using them in completely different ways. A high defense stat might make that unit great for blocking weaker units from your enemies’ blows, while a high attack stat could mean that using them as a blocker backfires as they finish off weaker enemies and create space for an archer to move adjacent and shoot one square past you to the weaker unit you’re protecting. Later on, your focus will be less on leveling up weaker units, and more on positioning your characters during your turn in order to finish off as many enemies as possible during their turn. Enemies counterattack when you strike them, up to two times depending on your speed, and the opposite is true when opponents are the aggressor. This can be turned to your advantage in several ways, such as moving in close to coax enemies into attacking quick units so that you can finish them off with minimal damage and not have to waste anyone’s turn fighting them.
It’s all about crafting plans based on the strengths and weaknesses of your favorite units (you can get away with choosing a couple favorites and using them exclusively), and there’s a lot of leeway to accommodate your personal style of play. That’s to say that different people will come up with entirely different strategies for certain sections; whereas you might have a unit with strong defense and move them around with an archer to deal damage to enemies who can’t return it, keeping them away from the enemy units who can, my strategies usually revolve around using fast characters and never being hit in the first place. This is made easier by supports, which are unlocked by using certain compatible characters on enough maps together (though only some characters can have supports with each other, it tells you who’s compatible so that you’re never guessing) and then initiating conversations at your base between chapters once the option becomes available. This opens up stat boosts when those characters are near one another, and I typically go for the “avoidance” boosts that give me a 15% or so chance of avoiding a hit. For a fast character who the enemy only had a 60% chance of hitting in the first place, this is a deadly combination that allows for a disproportionate amount of damage dealt versus taken. There are a million different ways that this could be used, however. That’s simply my personal strategy, and that’s really the beauty of Fire Emblem games: There’s no “right” way to play, only effective and ineffective strategies.
The characters in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, though maintaining individual personalities and stats, can actually be customized quite a bit to suit your purposes. You can craft weapons that are ludicrously strong (for a price, and you only have so much money) or weak, as well as provide your character with “skills” to boost their efficiency in combat. Skills have a number of different effects: Paragon will double the experience gained, Aether, though not triggered for every attack, will do extra damage when it activates while healing your character of damage, and so on. There are a number of effects that you can add that allow your characters to play very specific roles on the battlefield, though this element of the game is much less satisfying than it is in Radiant Dawn. The reason for this is twofold. First, removing skills means that they’re gone forever, whereas Radiant Dawn allows you to remove a skill from one character and put it on another character. Second, characters can use fewer skills than they can in Radiant Dawn, so though they can be customized in this way, it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as the sequel. Still, this element of the game isn’t present at all in previous versions, so it’s an appreciated feature.
Crazy strategy details aside, there’s actually a really good story to this game. It doesn’t always shine thanks to some cheesy voice acting in certain cutscenes, but there’s not much voice acting at all in this game, most of the dialogue being text. There happens to be quite a bit of it before and after each chapter that fills in the story and world, though never enough to become overbearing. It’s a story of conspiracy and madness that touches on discrimination and political scheming, and the sequel elaborates on all of these things to the point where anyone who finds anything of worth in Path of Radiance (99.9999% of people) needs to have both games. The stories fit together so well and flesh out the world and characters so fully that it’s simply one of the most fulfilling gaming experiences out there.
This isn’t a gritty realistic world that shoves darkness and vice in your face around every turn, though the story manages to be quite dark in certain sections while maintaining its high fantasy veneer, and the graphics reflect this somewhat. Path of Radiance meets the anime aesthetic halfway without ever going overboard, with character portraits that are cel-shaded and 3D representations of characters on the battlefield that are kind of in the middle between normal models and cel-shaded characters. It’s hard to describe, but check the screenshots.
Music is always where Fire Emblem games always shine. The way the music adds to the story is always so good, and it really makes each game in the series feel totally unique. There are horns and strings and harps playing a number of different themes that always capture the mood of each scene, ranging from somber to triumphant and everything between, and while this is most obvious during dialogue scenes, it also contributes greatly to each map as you’re positioning your characters. It really makes you feel like you’re moving a small army of highly-trained mercenaries.
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