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Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Review
By James Best
With the month of January being rather dry for new game releases, there's only one thing left to do in the downtime between now and February: Retro Review!  And what better game to do a retro review on than Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance...cause Fire Emblem: Awakening is coming out next month.  I've always had a soft spot for Path of Radiance.  I've played it through so many times I know it like the back of my hand.  Not only was it the first Fire Emblem game I'd ever played, it's also one of my favorites.  In fact, I used to think that it was the best game in the series.  But after all these years how does the sole GameCube iteration of this revered series hold up?  Do I think it's still the best Fire Emblem game ever made?  And here's why.

Like its predecessor, Sacred Stones, Path of Radiance follows the plight of a royal driven out of their native kingdom and their odyssey to reclaim it.  As a bit of a twist, you don't follow the royal, but a group of mercenaries who decide to help her out.  The main character of this mercenary band is Ike, an inexperienced swordsman and son of the company's leader.  In the effort to restore the royal to her lost kingdom, Ike and his fellow mercenaries embark on an epic quest filled with intrigue, betrayal, danger, and circumstances beyond their wildest imaginations.

There are several themes in Path of Radiance's plot.  The most prominent is that of the racial prejudice between the human beorc and the half-beast laguz.  Other themes include class distinctions and the pomposity of the ruling class.  These themes are expertly woven into the narrative.  The plot also boasts a great cast of characters, who can be even further fleshed out through support conversations (which have the added bonus of boosting the two units' efficiency in battle).  The writing is entertaining and well-written.  I'd always remembered Path of Radiance for it's amazing storytelling, and I'm glad to say it stands the test of time.

Well, mostly anyway.  There are a few complaints I have against it.  The first is the way in which it tells that story.  Basically, characters are 2D drawings with the text appearing in a box beneath them, a format I shall hereafter refer to as “talking heads”.  The problem is that these “talking heads” don't make much of an effort at animation.  Aside from the occasional blink and their mouths opening and closing whenever they talk, they remain unmoving.  Even their emotions remain more or less static.  Ike, for example, looks pretty angry no matter what's going on, even when the text imparts otherwise.  I suppose this is a complaint that can be directed at the series as a whole as the “talking heads” format has been used in every Fire Emblem game that I can think of.  I'd almost be willing to forgive the Fire Emblem GBA games this flaw on the grounds of hardware limitations.  But even that excuse is extremely shaky, as the Ace Attorney games were designed for the GBA as well and used the exact same storytelling format.  And the talking head in those games were fully animated and exuded personality and character.  They moved, they changed position, and, most importantly, they emoted.  As it stands, Path of Radiance has absolutely no excuse for relying on the “talking heads” format and doing such an uninspiring job with it.  Many of the story's more emotional and action-packed sequences are shot in the foot by this unnecessary and avoidable limitation and a lot of the potential pathos is lost.  This game is on the GameCube; they could have done so much more with it, even all the way up to fully animated CGI cutscenes.  To be fair, the game has a few those anyway, but they're short and don't carry the narrative very far.  But seeing as the slight amount of voice acting already in the game was pretty bad to begin with, perhaps it's a boon they didn't rely  on CGI cutscenes.  But even making the “talking heads” more animated or maybe throwing in some voice acting (provided it's good voice acting) would do wonders for the game.

Another problem I found with the story was its plodding start.  The first few chapters of the game are spent fighting random bandits, skirmishes that don't advance the plot in any way.  This opening segment could have been better handled, as shown by Sacred Stones. That game jumps straight to the matter while not feeling rushed in the slightest way.  The opening is tangent to the main story.

One final complaint I have is with Path Radiance's main antagonist: Ashnard.  Overall, I'd say Ashnard was a pretty one-note villain.  Don't get me wrong, he's still a great villain and a tremendously difficult boss battle.  But, he lacks the compelling back story and sympathetic portrayal of previous Fire Emblem antagonists like Lyon.  Sure, he may get more back story in Radiant Dawn, but it doesn't add much.  Sequels are supposed to improve on the elements of their predecessors.  Path of Radiance seems to have taken a few steps back in the antagonistic department.

Whew, I'm glad that's over with.  Trust me when I say it wasn't easy bashing this game so harshly.  But, these complaints aren't really major.  Path of Radiance is still an amazing game, so let's talk about what makes it such a great experience.

It keeps the best parts of Fire Emblem tradition alive.  Players are still commanding a small force of units against a much larger horde of enemies, using steel, sorcery, and strategy to attain victory.  Of course, there's the perma-death feature, which has two-fold applications.  For one thing, it makes the death of a unit far more poignant.  Unlike other strategy RPGs, your units in Fire Emblem aren't just faceless killing machines.  When one of them is killed and disappears for the rest of your game, you're losing a virtual human being, a personality with hopes, dreams, quirks, loves, and fears. It also allows players to determine the game's difficulty.  Sure, you can select between Easy, Normal, and Hard when the game starts.  However, even Easy mode can be pretty challenging if you go into it determined to keep every character alive.  If a character dies, you can restart the game, but you'll have to do the entire level over again.  It's up to you to decide whether the life is worth it; whether you should go back or go forward without them.

As with other Fire Emblem games, Path of Radiance has an incredible amount of replay value.  As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, I've played this game many times, and every playthrough has been unique.  In my most recent playthrough, for example, I used a particular character I'd never played with much before.  He turned out to be a pretty powerful asset for my team, and made a terrific support partner for one of my favorite units.  There are just so many units to play with, support partners to develop, and secret conversations to find.  Even with all my many playthroughs, I doubt I've seen even a fraction of what this game has to offer.

One new thing Path of Radiance brings to the series are the previously mentioned laguz characters.  These units have two forms: human forms and beast forms.  While in beast form, they are tremendously powerful, and can deal impressive damage even at lower levels.  However, they can only stay in this form for a limited time.  Once this time has ended, they revert to their human forms and are unable to attack or defend themselves.  The laguz units add some much appreciated variety to the gameplay.

Path of Radiance may not stand as the best Fire Emblem title as I had previously thought.  That honor goes to Sacred Stones, at least in my opinion.  The game's story is held back by the "talking heads" format.  Its antagonist is a bit under par for this series.  But that doesn't change the fact that Path of Radiance is an incredible game.  It's still one of the best in the series and it's still one of my favorites.
There will be demo for Fire Emblem: Awakening coming to the eShop this week. I'm quite surprised that Nintendo would do that. Normally, they don't do demos for their first-party titles.
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January 12, 2013
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