I'm officially halfway done with my 2014 gaming quest, and I'm not even halfway done with 2014. This is way, WAY more promising than last year, and I'm excited. Also, welcome to June. My apologies for the blogging-free May, but I was busy with (A) being out of the country for 10 days attending a wedding and exploring Austria and Germany; and (B) playing Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, which I'll review presently.
I delved into my personal history with the Fire Emblem series in late 2012, when I replayed Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi. Here's that review. Bottom line - I was super into Fire Emblem in the neighborhood of 2005-2006, played four Fire Emblem in that span, and tried several others. My favorite in that set was FE7 ("Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword" in Japan and just "Fire Emblem" in the United States), but I also burned through FE8 ("The Sacred Stones"), and emulated versions of FE4 ("Geneology of the Holy War") and FE6 ("The Binding Blade" or "The Sword of Seals"). I didn't own a GameCube until 2007 or 2008, so playing FE9 (the game that I'm supposed to be reviewing right now) wasn't really an option when it landed in 2005. (have some more parentheses)
I don't remember when I bought Path of Radiance, but I figured it was something I would play eventually and I knew it was a little rare, so I bought it on a whim.... sometime between 2009 to 2011. Not really sure when. Well, I was correct, because I decided I wanted to play it in 2014 and here we are. I played Path of Radiance right around a month ago, in mid-May, and I quite enjoyed it.
Story and Characters
Look, the first thing I bring up when I bring up a Fire Emblem game is... probably the level of challenge. But after that it's characters. In each Fire Emblem game you recruit between 25 and 70 characters, who have stats that grow at semi-random rates and are usually colorful and fun, but have extremely specific methods of recruitment and roles in battle. The cast of Path of Radiance (which I'm calling FE9 from now on) is an entertaining one that I enjoyed delving into. There are 45 recruitable characters total, but I only managed to wrangle 44 of them. One died accidentally, and as in most Fire Emblem games, if a character dies it's gone for good. Out of those forty-five, I had a clear-cut top nine, plus maybe another seven or eight occupying spots in my lineup during the game. Time to break it down a bit; I'll talk about the nine I used the most.
Ike: he's the main character, or "Lord" of FE9. The Lord of each FE game is usually at least pretty good, but holy smoke Ike is a monster. He has above-average stat growths in every stat except Luck, and my Ike maxed every stat except for HP, Luck, and Def, and he wasn't too far off with HP or Def. If that wasn't enough, at the end of the game he gets a powerful infinite-use sword with 1-2 range, like a magic tome. Sweet jayzus.
Soren: the magic system in FE9 is a straightforward triangle, with each of the three elements (wind, fire, and thunder) having different power/weight balance and different strengths and weaknesses. It's sensibly organized. Of the available magic users, the one I used the most was Soren, who has very nice offensive stats and is available for most of the game. The magic users weren't as numerous as the physical characters, though, and that's kind of a shame. Wish there was some more variety. The other ones are useable (Ilyana, Tormod, Calill, and I think another one I'm forgetting), but Soren stood out to me.
Mist: Mist was the single most difficult character to use in the game. She's a healer that joins a little late at level 1, and healers level up *slowly* most of the time. I used the BEXP system (more on that later) to give her a LOT of help, but the end result was a really strong healer that could use a magic sword to devastating effect. Was it worth it in the long run? Probably not. But I was told by multiple friends to put time into Mist, and I suppose it paid off.
Nephenee and Volke: why am I putting these two together? Well, they're both specialized infantry units with only one weapon available (lances for Neph, knives for Volke) and AWESOME stats. Both of these two turned out magnificently for me, with Nephenee comparable to a lance version of Ike and Volke hitting 30 (the maximum for most stats) on Speed and Skill. That's awesome. If I ever play this game again, I am using these two again for certain.
Oscar, Kieran, Jill, and Astrid: FE9 has the best collection of mounted units in any Fire Emblem game (Jill is a Wyvern Rider and the other three are Cavaliers). In addition to these four being among of my absolute best units, there are two rock-solid Paladins (Titania and Geoffery), some other decent flying units (the only ones I used were Jill and Haar, but the PKs seemed decent), and one last Cavalier (Makalov) that I didn't use only because I was already using four other horse units at the time). That's... ten mounted units that can be solid assets in the endgame, with no duds like FE6's Zealot or FE9's Isadora. Astounding. I had a blast using them, as I really like cavalry units. If I ever replay FE9 I'm using Makalov for sure.
In addition to those nine, I got good mileage out of Titania, Boyd, Tormod, Calill, Stefan, Geoffery, and a few of the transforming Laguz characters. In general, this cast is a little stronger than most Fire Emblem games, with high growths and appealing designs. The support writing... wasn't as good as in my favorite FE games (FE6 and FE7) but there were some amusing and/or enlightening conversations in there. Support conversations are easier to trigger than they were in any of the GBA Fire Emblem games, and are also better-organized in the status screen. These are very good things.
The story in FE9 is... better than I expected. It takes on issues of class struggle, racism (between humans, beastmen, and birdmen, but still), and meritocracy in some neat ways, and a large number of the characters are memorable. Ike is a good main character, with appealing righteouness and determination bordering on the ridiculous. Like a Fire Emblem version of Steve Rogers. Watching Ike carry his old man's mercenary company through a war spanning an entire continent and steeped in centuries' worth of political intrigue is... pretty impressive. I quite enjoyed the narrative in Path of Radiance. It ends on a satisfying note, but I can sort of see where there is room for a sequel (that sequel, of course, came out in 2007 on the Wii as Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn).
Playing the Game
If you want a detailed explanation of how stats and growths work in a Fire Emblem game, check my review of FE6 linked above. I won't go into great detail here, but here are some basics: combat takes place in alternating rounds on a tactical grid; characters fight using eight or nine basic stats and using only regular attacks appropriate to equipped weapons, which usually have a limited number of uses; stat increases are gained through normal levels, but are semi-random in how they're increased; each character occupies a specific class and can learn new skills and upgrade its class, but not change roles on the battlefield in a specific way. And last, but not least: if one of your characters dies in battle, it is dead for the rest of the game (or incapacitated, if it's an important story character). If Ike dies, it's a Game Over.
So this is a typical Fire Emblem game, with all of the strategy wrinkles of its predecessors. The strategy involved is a little "dry" in that it keeps a tight difficulty curve, isn't very forgiving to players who make errors, and doesn't allow much in the way of character customization or over-grinding - that's less a commentary on FE9 and more a feature of the Fire Emblem series as a whole. FE9 does a cool thing with its Bonus Experience (BXP) system. After every battle, your party earns BXP, with more if you fulfill certain objectives or finish the battle quickly. You can then spend BXP on characters in between maps, which is perfect for leveling up under-leveled characters or healers. It's how my Mist became awesome and my Tormod became pretty good. You can also reset if you get unlucky with levels-up when using BXP, and I exploited the fuck out of that. All of my characters were probably at least 20% better because of my liberal use of BXP. Right on.
Like I mentioned before, Support conversations are much more sensibly
done in this game. It's both more transparent which units can initiate
Supports, what bonuses they give, and what you need to do them. All of
this is an automatic step up from the GBA Fire Emblem games. For the
first time, I was able to plan and manage my Supports without checking a
guide, and that made them much easier to deal with. I Supported Ike
with Soren, Oscar with Kieran, Calill with Nephenee, and Astrid with
nobody. Sorry, girl.
One addition that I wasn't too keen on: laguz characters. Laguz are animal hybrids that are sitting ducks when in human form, and HELLA STRONG when in animal form. There are were-versions of cats, tigers, hawks, crows, and dragons, and they are really powerful when they're transformed. However, getting them to transform requires manipulating a meter, they don't equip weapons, and they don't promote. Laguz are a better option than a human character very rarely, and that's too bad. Would have liked a few more reasons to use them.
One additional refinement to classic Fire Emblem systems is skills. Several characters in past FE games have skills that are learned or passed around, but FE9 has a modern take on it (re: something akin to Tactics Ogre or FFT). Instead of skills being 100% static, you can find and buy scrolls that attach skills to characters, and many characters come with skills equipped. Yeah, this is an easy, simple system, but for Fire Emblem it's practically a revolution. They are still using the same stat-up items that the series had twenty years ago.
The maps themselves have a pretty good amount of variety. Most of the time you win by defeating a boss or seizing the boss's castle, but there are also escape missions, outlast missions, and protection missions to mix it up a little. Several missions have side objectives (allowing special nonessential units to survive, for example) that reward extra BXP, special items, or even new characters if they're completed. These maps are varied, interesting, and challenging, but if you stress out in RPGs with missable content or have similar competist tendencies, you might want to check a guide before each mission. Some of these special objectives aren't obvious. If I hadn't checked guides (I did for some maps and for a few character lists) I would have missed out on a handful of cool tidbits.
Visuals and Audio
FE9's visuals are nice, clean polygons with an option for Progessive Mode output (which is true for many, but not all GameCube games). Loading times were pretty good, I didn't notice much in the way of jagged bits or slow-down (I think twice ever, both times during the same specific battle animation), and characters are distinctly clothed and detailed. Even if sometimes it's just hair color or armor color.
The battle animations are particularly fun, with great-looking normal attacks and VERY satisfying critical hits. Seriously, other than a nice Mission Complete or a super-lucky level-up, the most satisfying moments in a Fire Emblem games are critical hits. I could (and have) watch YouTube videos of those critical hits for way too long. Right, *ahem* back to the animations. They look nice. I especially enjoy the new (for Fire Emblem to that point) camera angles during battle. There are panning sequences and dramatic cuts during battle for the first time ever. Sure, the battles are nicer-looking in Radiant Dawn and Awakening, but I'm impressed!
The music, well, it's okay. The Fire Emblem games have always had decent music, but only a handful of tunes in the entire series are seriously memorable. The brief jingle that plays when characters level up is probably the most iconic thing in Fire Emblem's sound repertoire. The music feels like a Fire Emblem score, but it's not sticking with me the way, say, the music of Digital Devil Saga or Rayman Origins did earlier this year.
The sound work is more extensive than any other Fire Emblem game prior. There are voiced anime cutscenes that look and sound pretty good, and a few characters have voiced dialog as well. These scenes look pretty solid for a GameCube game, but are only occasional. When they happen, though, they're pretty solid. The basic sound effects of battle (strikes, whiffs, etc.) are hella satisfying. Again, those critical hits.
The Final Word
Look, this is a Fire Emblem in the classic sense, but it's probably a good choice for someone's first Fire Emblem, since it has a good story, strong characters that are unlikely to end up duds, and a few modern adjustments like skill scrolls and bonus EXP. I always play Fire Emblem games checking a character guide and an objectives list throughout, though, and maybe that is a testament to Fire Emblem's specificity and newbie-unfriendliness. It's hard to wrap your head around a Fire Emblem game if you haven't played one before, or if you don't do a little research. Otherwise what's to prevent new players from overusing the Jeigan character (Titania in FE9) early on? FE9's modern bits lower that barrier to entry a little, but I feel it's still there.
And why the hell am I even bringing that up? I'm already in. I've beaten five Fire Emblem games now, and FE9 is probably one of the top two. If you're into strategy RPGs with unforgiving difficulty, large casts of characters, and a hell of a legacy, then maybe Path of Radiance is exactly the game you're looking for.
Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
12. Sonny 2
So I finally got this out there, and I also finished my months-in-the-making list of top ten PSP games earlier this month. Now all I have is some Persona stuff (probably two separate articles) and deciding what my next target game is. Might be Persona 2, might be XenoBlade, might be Batman. Or I might decide to replay some Game Boy Color shit. Not sure. Plenty of options.
Also, you may have noticed that in recent reviews I've divided the post into sections. Background, Story and Characters, Playing The Game, Audio and Visuals, and The Final Word. Why? Well, I'm not trying to constrain my thoughts to sections; they were already divided like that anyway, for the most part. I only did it to break up the walls-o-text that my reviews usually end up being. A better plan would be to include more images in the reviews, but I lack the expertise to create original content like that. Unfortunately. So it'll be those named sections until I get tired of them.
Final note: I beat the Sonny duology. Again. Sonny 2 gets my vote as the best Flash game of all time. I'll be reviewing those two in a single post in the near future. Again, not going to write a full review for P3P. Could do a post comparing Portable to FES, though. In fact, that's almost definitely happening.