If you play with fire...

I groan as my fingers dance on the joysticks of a Gamecube controller. I'm trying to figure out what move to make next as my headquarters is within reach by the enemy. I know I can use my knight to block it, but then my defenseless mage will be left wide open. But all the rest of my units have exhausted their actions for this turn! My brow furrows as I realize my one and only chance is for the mage to kill the unit breaking through my wall of unique, medieval characters. I finally decide there is no other alternative: I send my mage into immediate danger in order to buy myself one, last turn. I watch as he runs within range of the enemy unit that can reach my base, should he survive to his next turn.

The screen transitions to a new, three-dimensionally rendered screen showing my mage standing down a soldier with a spear. He casts a giant fireball and launches it at the enemy...

And misses.

After the failed attack and my screaming at the screen ("NO! NO! NOOO!"), the soldier decides not to move toward my base, which would mean the end of the scenario and defeat of my army. As I begin to breathe a sigh of relief, I catch myself as I have a sudden realization. More enemies have moved forward and are now surrounding my daring mage. I know I've made a grave error as the nearest one launches an attack, lands a critical blow, and my mage fades off of the battlefield. He is dead and gone forever. With a grumble and an angry throw of my controller to the floor, I stand up, walk to my Nintendo Gamecube, and reset the system for the fourteenth time, even though my base is spared and my next turn begins. I know I won't give up until I get through the mission with no casualties.

This is the story of a game involving heavy strategy, a ton of patience and maybe even a bit of luck. This is the story of my very first Fire Emblem.

Path of Radiance Cover Art

A Prelude

And a bit of a background on a great game series.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is actually the ninth installment in a long-running series of Japanese tactical role-playing strategy games. However, it is often regarded by fans of the series to be the title that raised great awareness for the franchise in North America. In truth, it was actually the third title to be released in the U.S., but it was the first to be released for a home console (the Nintendo Gamecube). For many fans of the series in North America (or even Europe), they owe their first experiences with Fire Emblem to Path of Radiance. I am one such person.

The story of Fire Emblem: PoR is similar to most titles in the series in that it involves a mystical and divine medallion called, you guessed it, the Fire Emblem. However, that is where the similarities end in this game, as far as plot is concerned. PoR does a lot of things differently than other entries previously in the series, but keeps some key mechanics that have made the games a favorite in Japan for years at that point.

"That point," by the way, was the year 2005, when a Japanese studio known as Intelligent Systems distributed this game all around the world. And they live up to their name; this game is a tough one, involving some intense tactics if you want to get through missions without losing any characters. There is a lot to think about, and even if things are planned carefully, still some elements of chance. There are many reasons why Path of Radiance might stand the test of time and remain a must-play even in this day and age of gaming. However, there are a handful of reasons why it may not appeal to every gamer out there today.

I'm going to review both sides of the medallion, so to speak. Let me light your path...

A Compelling Storyline

Path of Radiance stands apart for me because of its plot. The game has some pretty deep storyline elements for its genre, incorporating some very realistic political turmoil as well as a very compelling revolutionary backdrop. Some of the most notable themes of PoR are the overcoming of racism, political alliance of enemies to combat a greater foe (and becoming friendly because of it) and the unlikely rise of one, small hero to become the great leader the world needs to survive. What's not to love about any of those themes? This is all what makes the story of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance one that I'd never forget.

Try to keep up as I try to break it down as quickly as I can.

The simple backstory of the world of PoR is that it takes place on a continent called Tellius. On this continent are three nations with "human" people (the game calls them beorc). One of these kingdoms is ruled by a ruthless king named Ashnard, who decides to raise a massive army of dragon riders to conquer all other nations on Tellius, and basically rule the world. A typical rpg-esque backdrop for a plot, right? Evil army, overwhelming odds (I mean come on; they ride on dragons); but still, wouldn't the other nations overwhelm the forces of one big army? Although being just one kingdom outnumbered by thRacism in Path of RadianceCredit: Screencape rest, at the time of these events there is a lot of political unrest among the continent. A majority of the lands are divided among a race of shape-shifting humanoids called the "laguz," whose true forms are that of giant animal beings. The problem is that the laguz themselves stand divided by species--beasts, ravens, herons, hawks, and dragons--and not all of them get along well. To make matters worse, all of the beorc (remember: these are what we understand as "humans") have a unified stigma towards laguz as "sub-humans" or "half-breeds." To put it simply, they are racist towards them and don't welcome them into their societies. Since the "mad-king" Ashnard holds the largest military force and greater soldiers, he seems to have a good chance to conquer each of the divided nations, one-by-one.

Enter our hero, Ike.


Credit: Screencap

This game is as much about his growth as it is about the racial dilemma of the people in Tellius. In the beginning of the game, your main character, Ike, is the son of a mercenary leader named Greil. He is presented as a young and naive swordsman with a lot to learn if he ever hopes to take over his father's company. Along the way, he seems to learn how to better fight as the player does, with the first portion of the game getting the player familiar with the tactics of the series. However, certain circumstances force him to take over his father's company earlier than expected, and Ike is suddenly forced to do a whole lot of growing up very quickly, rising fast to a forced leadership position.

Ike isn't like other beorc, however, and perhaps because of his sudden need for powerful allies, seems to treat the laguz the same way he would treat anyone. Even as several people are apprehensive of allying themselves with the animal people, Ike is ready to treat them as valuable assets and members of the same society. As he continues to fight, he quickly develops into a strong leading figure, and both beorc and laguz--even those who at first are at each other's throats--soon learn to coexist under his forceful, but fair, orders. Eventually, he not only unites what remains of the last beorc kingdoms, but also plays a role in repairing some loose ties in the laguz nations, until by the end of the game, his rabble of mercenaries is spearheading a full-fledged revolutionary army. 

A lot more happens than that, including an important sub plot involving the Fire Emblem itself, but going into that would involve far too many spoliers. In a nutshell, this story is about Ike and his sudden underdog rise into a young, but larger than life, hero. He singlehandedly fights the racist stigmas of his society in order to create a large enough united force to fight the evils that could see everybody destroyed. He shows the world to live united, or fall divided. And it's pretty cool to watch.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance - Gamecube
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Not the best presentation...

Okay, I've been too serious so far (sorry, the plot is that good!). Now it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of the story. The dated presentation of the cutscenes and dialogue is a bit lesser in scale than the game's awesome plotline. It's one of the few things about the game that I expect may make it less than desirable for people's collections in this day and age.

So what exactly is wrong with it? The truth is the cutscenes of the game are not the most spectacular. Characters talk to eachother with pre-rendered backdrops and their models facing eachother. All of their speech is shown in a text window on the lower part of the screen, and if any other characters join, the screen will fade-in to whomever is speaking at the time to let the player know. Now why would it need to do that? Well the character's mouthes don't even open and close to let you know. If not for their names above the text and this fading in and out, it would be very hard to tell who was speaking at the moment. And if a character turns toward another character, they simply flip their character art model to make it backwards. It all just seems...lazy. And a little boring at times. Don't get me wrong! The dialogue itself is great. The presentation, however, is rather bland and dry. Not at all easy to swallow.

Case and point:

Didn't get all the way through that clip, did you? If you did, this won't be much of an issue for you. But most of the time, you have to already be a fan of text-based games (such as jrpgs or old-school titles) to ignore the blandness of the delivery in this game. Even the sound of the text slowly scrolling across the screen... It starts to sound like an annoying midi-bird after hearing it for a long time (especially in the sections without music). The form of dialogue inside of battle is more standard to jrpgs. There are small 3D sprites representing your characters and when they speak a text window--separate for each of them--will pop up with their character portraits. This is a bit easier to follow and at least since you can actually see a battlefield with units moving around to speak to each other, it's a bit more dynamic than just a bunch of character portaits speaking to each other with telepathy.

But wait, one might say. This is the first Fire Emblem to have both voice acting and pre-rendered 3D cutscenes. However, these instances are few and far between and to be totally honest, their quality isn't very good, even for Gamecube standards.

'Bout tiiime!

It's not the graphics as much as it's the voices. If you're going to be the first Fire Emblem to have a couple of voice overs, I would probably make sure they're better than this. I mean, Ike is supposed to be a badass swordsman, and he starts the game already decently powerful as a character. But in this cutscene he sounds like a little girl. The rest of the characters just don't sound very believable either. In a game with some decent dialogue, delivery is key. It really sets the cutscenes apart from the rest of the script because they all have some kind of crappy voice acting. 

Still, these things are smoke from the fire. The real meat of the game, and what makes it pretty timeless, is the battle system and game mechanics.

A Game of Invigorating Strategy

But tiresomely challenging at times.

The gameplay of Path of Radiance is what makes it one of my favorites. The player acts as a tactician, having control of how each character moves and acts, one at a time. The game is turn-based, meaning that the player has a "phase" in which to order all of their units, and then, when each of the units has been exhausted, the enemy makes their own move. Success doesn't mean simply knowing what one's own units can do, but also foreseeing the actions of one's enemies. It takes some very careful planning and, sometimes, some risks.

That makes the game sound simple, though. If anything can be said of PoR, it certainly wouldn't be that it is simple. The possibilities sometimes seem endless. Every character has stats reminiscent of any RPG; strength, skill, speed, magic, etc.. But even more so, they each have a class, and that class determines their starting stats and which ones tend to rise more as they level up. For example, a character that falls under "knight" will probably gain more defense and strength, but less speed and skill. A swordsman, on the other hand, will tend to gain a lot of speed, very little defense, and a lot of skill.

The stats are pretty easily understood. Strength makes a unit hit harder, defense makes them take less damage, speed makes them attack faster (or attack twice, if their's is significantly higher than their foe's). Credit: ScreencapWhen characters take part in battle (in any way; attacking, taking hits, healing, using magic) they will gain experience points. With enough experience, they level up. The thing about this and any other Fire Emblem game is that people level up randomly. Based on their classes, stats have a certain percentage chance of going up. They could all go up (if you're lucky), or, yes, they can level up and get nothing at all, or nothing useful. Fans of the series affectionately call the latter getting "RNG(random number generator)-screwed." This makes the game harder, sometimes, but it also means replaying the game may be different for you, depending on how people level up.

That's not the only way every playthrough will be different. In the game, there is a total of 46 playable characters by the final act of the game, but most maps only allow you to use around a dozen. That means you have to pick and choose which characters to use. While some characters remain favorites because they tend to just naturally be stronger than others, you can really get away with using anybody you wish as long as you are careful to train them. Possibilities go through the roof at that point. You may prefer units that can move well, and use a lot of people who ride horses or fly. You may like mages and use one that excels in each element. You may like sword units. Axe units. Units that have high defense but low movement. Maybe you like the laguz and you'll have an army of people who can transform into powerful animal units. No matter what you do, there is a lot you could do. 

But no matter how good your team is, people will die. And when people die in this--like most Fire Emblem games--they don't come back. That unique character is gone from the game for the entire remainder. It should go without saying that if Ike dies, it's just game over. Now, if someone else dies, you can choose to just go on without them. But this has a lot of disadvantages.

For one, before every mission, the player can talk to members of his army inside the base, usually leading to new plot elements as well as the occasional rare item. As units are used in battle together, they also develop "relationships" in which those certain units gain boosts to their stats when they are near each other on the battlefield. Basically, losing people is bad. The problem is, the game is so difficult, it almost expects you to lose people along the way. I recall a mission where there is a certain character that begins the map at level 1, but the player can't reach her until their second turn. She can actually die before the player even reaches her, as she starts in the line of fire and cannot be controlled at first. Basically, she has to survive the enemy's initial attacks for the player to even have a shot at recruiting her. I must have reset the game over a dozen times trying to save her butt, nevermind because one of my other characters happened to die.

It's easier to lose people in Fire Emblem than you think. Remember how units had stats? Well, the skill stat and speed stats play into whether that unit can hit (or dodge) an attack.
Credit: Screencap Basically, every time you order a unit to attack, a little screen will come up and give you the amount of damage you can do if you succeed, and then the percentage of a chance you have to actually land the hit. This percentage is rarely 100, which means there will be times you need an attack to land and you miss. I've missed with more than 90% of a chance. It just happens. It would be no easy task to get all the way through Path of Radiance without somebody dying. You can choose to just let them go if they were a character you didn't like much, or you're going to have to reset the game, and reload the save file. There is no option to save mid-battle.


The Verdict? 7.75/10

Worth playing, still, for hardcore gamers.

I just want to be clear that I've barely scracthed the surface of this game's mechanics. Characters have special skills unique to them, they can prestige into even stronger classes when they get high enough in level, and there is a plethora of weapons that everyone can use, based on their classes. Some weapons are good against others (i.e., swords to axes, and etc.) and still others can attack from a distance (archers, magic). There is a LOT going on in this game, and it isn't for every gamer. For someone to truly enjoy Fire Emblem despite it's hard to grasp mechanics and unforgiving, chance-based gameplay, they would need to enjoy both role-playing elements as well as strategy. But if you're somebody that enjoys heavy strategy, good storylines and a game with nigh infinite replayability due to its huge cast of character choices, this is not a game to miss.

Credit: Screencap

Even today, the gameplay is solid and the mechanics are still stimulating for the mind. But the difficulty is frustrating at times, especially if you try to go through the game without any casualties. This coupled with the fact that the cutscenes and voices this game originally boasted are now terrible, and fact that the presentation of the dialogue is a bit underwhelming, makes me say it isn't for everyone. If you have a Wii, you can still play this game on it. You just need a Gamecube controller. It probably doesn't cost much, anymore. For gamers who are no strangers to the genre or just plain like a challenge, you can still enjoy this game. 

As a matter of fact, I'm playing it again (this time on Hard mode), and I love it as much as ever! I hope I can inspire someone else to give it a try.

Official Nintendo Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance Player's Guide
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