Following in the wake of the GameCube’s Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn sees the story of Tellius develop from several perspectives. As is typical in the series, the world is gearing up for battle: the Laguz (Beastmen) and Beorc (Humans) are fighting against themselves and each other’s nations- the civil order that Ike and Greil’s Mercenaries restored in the previous game is in ruin. Full-scale war is on the horizon - war, the proverbial hammer needed to break the seal on the dark god’s prison within the Fire Emblem. Something sinister is afoot, and each nation has its own tale to tell…
Told from the perspective of the strong political forces within Tellius, each ‘part’ of Radiant Dawn forms a cornerstone to what is the grand narrative. As the game progresses, these separate stories become intertwined - culminating in a climax of epic proportions. Because of heavy emphasis on story, there is a heck of a lot of text to read - prior, post, and during battle. Regular segments where the story is dictated to you by the narrator, and the occasional cutscene, makes a dent on the amount of reading, but there’s still a lot to get through. For the most part though, the plot is pretty engaging - if somewhat cringingly clichéd at times.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the gameplay is where Radiant Dawn comes into its element. As previously mentioned, Fire Emblem feels like a crossbreed of Risk and Chess - or, to qualify a gaming example, think Final Fantasy Tactics mixed with Advance Wars. You have a series of units - the characters in the game - that you can move around on a grid-based battlefield in order to meet your objective: killing anything not on your side. Each side takes it in turn to move their units though the battlefield, trying to gain a measure on purchase on the opposition’s ranks through tactical deployment and use of the terrain.
Core to battles is the combat: at the basic level we have a trinity of steel (swords beat axes, axes overpower lances, and lances defeat swords) and magic (fire scorches wind, wind buffets thunder, and thunder zaps fire - how’s that for a verbose overload!) Then there are archers, ballista mechanisms, healing mages, throwing weapons, thieves, and mounted units such as horses, dragons and unicorns… oh, and, that’s just the Beorc. The Laguz are a different kettle of, er, beast: their clan-based transformations make them the toughest units, but they need to revert back to their weak human forms after a short while - meaning they're a bit of a double edged sword. Each unit gains experience in battle, which allows them to increase their strength through levelling up.
While the selection of units is important, terrain plays a vital role in the strategy too- after all, bottlenecking an enemy in a corridor is much more effective than letting them overwhelm you in a hall. There are levels when areas of the map become shrouded wherever allied forces are not - aka, Fog of War. In such missions, enemies are not opposed to a spot of blindsiding. In addition to this, the Wii version sees height advantage considered - he who has higher ground can twatt the opponent harder (my proverbial masterpiece there). It goes without saying then, that you need to be well prepared for battle- i.e. your units must to be kitted out with the right equipment at base camp.
I mentioned earlier that the objective of Fire Emblem is to kill everything not on your side - that was a bit of a lie. Firstly, there is a bonus experience system in place that rewards players based upon the satisfaction of specific criteria - e.g. not killing certain enemies, protecting villages from bandits, or winning within a set amount of turns - giving you additional experience points to level your units up at base. Secondly, I did not mention the paramount objective: keeping your units alive - If someone dies in combat, they’re gone for good. With this in mind, each battle becomes a deluge of calculated decisions to ensure victory without suffering the loss of even one individual - a mighty task!
To elucidate on every aspect of combat is nigh on impossible, so just be rest assured in the fact there is a detailed tutorial. That being said, one final aspect does merit attention: the difficulty. Simply put, Radiant Dawn is hard. Very hard. The enemies are numerous and ruthlessly efficient - they will go for the kill whenever possible. This means you have to constantly be on your guard and think every single movement through. It’s pretty easy to become crestfallen when playing Radiant Dawn - to have half an hour’s worth of work obliterated due to a previously unnoticed threat, or a lucky critical hit, is extremely infuriating.
Finally, we have the visuals: in this respect, Radiant Dawn does what it needs to, and nothing else. Apart from the odd cutscene, the story is told by static images, which gives the impression of reading a book. Maybe things could have been a bit more polished - especially the battle animations - and there is no real Wii functionality, but these seem to be such trivial things when compared to the perfect orchestration of the game’s lifeblood, war.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is a strategist’s heaven. With over 30 hours content, the wide variety of levels, tactics, and missions will more than satisfy your thirst for war. Be warned though, this is no easy game: you will be tried and tested at every turn by the brutal opposition. The presentation of the story is not the best, and there are vast chunks of text to get through, but strategy fans don’t really mind that, do they?