I’ve long been a fan of turn-based strategy/rpg games. I’ve written in the past about some of the older ones I played, like the Shining in the Darkness series, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I played Warsong on my Sega Genesis. To this day, Dragonforce is easily my most fondly remembered Sega Saturn game (I’ve thought about getting a Saturn again just to play that particular disc, and have long lamented that the sequel never made it to North America). More recently, I’ve played and reviewed some games that were fun, but left me a bit disappointed in places (like Record of Agarest War and Vandal Hearts: Fires of Judgment).
Somehow over the years, I’ve missed the Fire Emblem series. I did some research on it recently and realized it’s been around for quite a few years, on systems I had and just never picked up on it. I remember first discovering the Marth character in an early Super Smash Brother’s game. So, a couple of months ago when I stumbled onto Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn for the Wii, I decided to take it for a spin and see if I liked it.
The short answer is that yes – I liked it quite a bit. The game’s characters were interesting, and it led me to research the prior games. It’s then I realized that this particular title is a direct sequel to the Fire Emblem game for the Gamecube that I recall getting great scores when it came out.
The game itself is pretty straight forward. You follow a band of characters through some storyline elements that lead to set piece turn-based combat. There’s units that vary in weapon use and skill, and you try to take advantage of their strengths while masking their weaknesses against computer controlled units. There’s level progression, stat increases, a large variety of weapons and skills and quite a bit more.
The pros were pretty numerous for me. The game had quality built-in tutorials, several very deep systems (like the support system where if you have two characters who spend some time around one another and supporting one another in combat, then before their next map deployment you might get to pair them up, offering some bonuses when they are close to one another on the map. Have them converse on the battlefield and support one another and you may get an option to strengthen their support then later – and this is a process you can do a couple of times until they reach “A” level support). There’s a weapon forging system, lots of spells, a skill allocation system and more.
Overall, I felt like the graphics were better than Vandal Hearts, and the depth far more impressive than what Agarest War provided. That said, it is not all roses. The game is tough. I’m not new to strategy games, but like the old Warsong game, if a key character dies, you have to restart the level. If a non-key character dies, they are gone forever. This is a far cry from Agarest War, which almost requires that some of your characters die in bigger fights, so you can bring them back to life and chain ridiculous super moves. Not the case here. If you support character dies, there is no bringing them back on that map – or ever again. And you will have characters who die in just 1 hit if you don’t protect them adequately. There are times the combat just feels cheap, and you may have to go entire maps without making any mistakes, or risk having to start the map over or progressing without a supporting character anymore.
Let’s break down the gaming components and render a verdict now, shall we?
Graphics – 5:
I have always felt that some games benefit more from graphics and sound than others. If you’re playing a first person shooter or an atmospheric survival/horror game, then you need graphics and sound to help immerse you in the experience. RPG and strategy games don’t need these elements to be successful because they pull you in with other convesions like their story-telling and character progression systems. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have nice graphics, and this game does – in the cut scenes. The occasional full video gets played before chapters and key events, and they have a neat ‘events to come’ prelude that really worked for me in the context of the game, but honestly the in-game visuals looked like something that would have been right at home on the Gamecube or DS. Even my son at one point got that mixed feeling. He watched a round of combat, and said that the characters looked silly, but then a screen popped up showing the experience gained and showed a nicely illustrated portrait and my son immediately said, “His armor looks a lot cooler here.” The overall graphics just look muddled and relatively lacking in detail. One thing I did like is that the backgrounds were a notch above most other strategy games of this ilk, at least in art direction if not technical execution. They actually reflected some of the background scenery nicely and I recall one area where I was fighting in a swamp that characters were standing knee-deep splashing around in the water as they fought, which was cool.
Sound & Music – 7:
The music is okay, but again just has a last-gen feel to it. Nothing I can put a finger on, but nothing terribly memorable either. Except later in the game – I got to a chapter and suddenly I noticed the fight music was different. This made me wonder if the entire game’s fight music to that point had been pretty much the same or not – and I found I could not recall. The combat sounds are pretty minimal as well. The voice work is not bad, but you seldom get any. Between chapters there’s sometimes a narrator voicing over a map about the story’s broader events, but those sections are usually lacking in character and did little to really pull me into the story. The cut scenes had some decent voice overs, but they were too lacking in number to help bring the score up much.
Gameplay – 8:
Some people picked on this game for not making use of the Wii remote’s capabilities – I personally have no problem with that design choice. Like a sports game or a shooter, the aiming mechanic draws you into the game. I don’t see waggling a remote at the screen to march my units around as a terribly immerse component. The menu’s are good, there’s no slowdown, and I never had trouble operating my units, so to me the game succeeded in what it was trying to do.
Intangibles – 8:
When you gain levels, the stats improved are random. There are class evolutions your characters can experience too. The battle maps felt so much more organic than anything I saw in Agarest War, where I felt like my 6 guys were dumped into a small, level battle field. Here there were houses, roads, paths, terrain elements, varying win conditions and unit allotments – it felt much more in-line with the actual story that was being presented. That said, the story was a bit odd – it was not the best story ever, but there are chapters where you change parties and perspectives, and that lends itself to seeing what could have been a horribly cliché storyline into something a bit more interesting due to the varied vantage points experienced. There’s no online or multiplayer to be had, though to be honest I would not expect those things from a game like this. You can save mid-battle too, which is not only a huge time saver, but a sanity one too since there are times you will lose someone to some unforeseen circumstance, and you’d otherwise be faced with the decision to start the level over, or press on without the lost character. I’ve read that you can import saved data from the Gamecube version – Path of Radiance. I didn’t get to test this myself, but if so that is a cool feature for fans of the series. There’s also a new game plus that lets you slightly alter the storyline at one point and enlist the help of a few more characters from what I read. There’s also slight variations to the end storyline depending on which characters have formed support bonds and if their score is an “A” or not.
Overall – 7:
The ending was pretty cool – it was nearly a 20 minute affair if you, like me, sit through the credits after a long, hard fought game. I dropped about 55 hours into it, according to the save data, though I’d guess I spent an extra 10 over that on replays from last save due to the annoying death of a character. I games like Shining Force or Vandal Hearts, you lose a character for a round – not the game. To me that’s always been a slightly harsh game mechanic and one that definitely caused me some frustration here. It’s a tough game, but deep and it rewards you for time, patience and forethought. It’s an older game, but one that I enjoyed more than most of the recent ones I’ve played from the genre.