Not long ago Fire Emblem was one of those cool looking Japanese games that we never got the chance to play over here. Thankfully in the past few years gamers in the west have been graced with that latest 3 (the 7th 8th and 9th instalments), 2 for the GBA and one on the GC. The one featured in this review is the GameCube outing Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance.
For those who don't know Fire Emblem is a turn based war game that engages the player in lengthy battles. You choose your units, weapons and positions and then out to war you go. Of course there is a lot more to this which I will get to.
As far as the story goes it is pretty solid, it is easy to pick up and develops well with the occasional twist. In the game you play the role of Ike, son of Greil who is the leader of a band of mercenaries called ... The Greil mercenaries. Without giving details away the story sees Ike, the Princess of Crimea (Crimea being the land with which our hero resides) and his band tries to liberate their country from the hostile army which occupies it. In the process you find that there are many issues between his country and the ones he seeks help from, which inevitably hinders your quest for help. Another conflict played out in this game is between Beorc (humans) and Laguz (beast-men), any Beorc Laguz relationships are tenuous at best.
The game is divided into chapters which consist of the pre-battle story followed by the battle preparations, the battle itself and then (providing you didn't die) the post battle story. This is the standard layout for each chapter and it stays this way through the whole game. The story's are told via still images of the characters with what they say appearing as chunks of text below, like a comic book. There is no voice over for this so you will find yourself reading a hell of a lot.
A major, and bold, aspect of this game is that there is no option to move outside of the battlefield. That is to say you can't actually roam the world map or anywhere, ever, at all. This makes the game exceptionally linear, it does just feel like you are reading a book with little choice over what you do. Personally I didn't mind this a huge amount, the story is interesting enough and free roaming can get tedious in games, but there will be occasions where you just wish you could aimlessly roam the world.
Over the course of the game you will find there are characters that join you, its not always an easy process as there sometimes are pre-requisites to a character joining. Each character has their own story and they will interact with others in your band if certain conditions are met in battle. While these interactions change nothing to the plot they do provide some development an attachment to your individual units. Most members who join you have the potential to die in battle but there are a few who will only be injured, this really plays well on attachments you make to the characters. This aspect of the game is what makes it so special because you cant just use characters as cannon fodder, if a character falls in battle they are gone for good Its quite a tough situation when a character dies near the end of an 1 hour battle and your stuck with the choice of restarting the battle or continuing on without them. You will always find that you have a surplus of characters available for each chapter but the ones you invest time and effort in are simply irreplaceable.
Your units have different abilities and skills according to their class, most also have the potential to be upgraded in class as well. Engaging in combat will give the unit experience and when the exp bar is full they will level up. Levelling up randomly increases the attributes of the unit, yes randomly. A base level class unit can reach level 20 before they are promoted to an advance unit, at this point they start from level 1 and can reach level 25. It's not just combat which increases the experience of your unit, there is also bonus experience that can be earned and allocated to units. To earn this bonus experience one must complete a battle in a specific way (e.g. kill as few enemies as possible), depending on how well you did bonus exp will be given to you. What unit you give this exp to is then totally up to your own discretion, I usually find that the healers are best deserved of bonus exp as they don't have much combat experience.
Whenever you are about to enter a battle you get to the preparation screen where you can purchase, equip, craft and sell weapons and items for each unit in your band. As your weapons have a use limit and items get used you will need to replenish stock every few battles. The preparation can become a time consuming task, especially if you like to be cautious. Once preparations are done all you need do is start the battle (I know, all this writing and I have yet to get to the best bit!)
At the beginning of a battle you can check its condition for victory, it isn't always kill the other side you know. There are occasions when you have to stay alive for a designated time, capture a specific point and even run away like a big wuss. You also get to view where the enemy has their units, unless they are hidden in wait for an ambush.
First thing first, the battlefield is divided into squares and its one character per square only. The fields are all of rectangle shape with varying terrain consisting of grass, water, rocks, trees, bushes and a couple other variations. Now depending on what class the unit is there will be limitations to where they can travel. Basically if you can fly there is little that gets in your way, if you can't.. well you're buggered when it comes to trees, rocks and water. At the start of a battle you choose which units you are going to use and then can position them in a limited section of the map. In many circumstances the way you have your initial formation determines the difficulties you will face.
Now if the battle map alone wasn't tactical enough for you, you are in for a real treat when it comes to units. There are so many classes with different traits but in order to keep things simple I will divide them into 4 groups. These units all have individual strengths and weaknesses and they are Beorc, Laguz, Mounted Units and Flying Units. Each of these units can equip and different range of magic and weapons which at a simple level work like paper, scissor, stone. As mentioned earlier different units have advantages when it come to movement ranging from mages who move little, to flying units who can travel far. It is worthwhile to note that some terrain will slow down/ speed up specific unit types. This element of the game makes for very careful planning and decisions, especially when there are 2 enemies together where one is weak against you while the other strong.
That's the strategy side pretty much covered, now on to the actual combat itself. The battles are divided into clear cut turns, it will either be you the enemy or a 3rd party who moves all their units before anyone else makes their move. What this means is that you end up planning way ahead and thinking every single move careful not to jeopardise a unit. When you move a unit within attacking range of an enemy you select your weapon from the ones that unit has available and then attack. You will be given a short scene of the characters duelling (you don't actually control your character) and then the numbers churn in the background calculating your damage. There are many variables to attacks and sometimes you will hit the enemy several times, be warned however that they do fight back when you attack them (unless you are crafty and attacked them out of their own range). You are actually given a good estimate to what damage you attack will do before you choose to attack them, but as I said there are many variables which easily change this. Other options in the field are items which lets you use a item and wait which basically skips that units turn leaving them in their current position. When opponents attack you it works the same as you attacking them, only this time they get the first turn and you cant change what weapon that unit has equip. All battles can be suspended by the player which saves the game at that particular point in time, a well thought of feature. That's pretty much Fire Emblem : Path of Radiance summed up in a nutshell.
Fire Emblem is definitely not a game for everyone, if you don't like turn based strategies that make you think several turns ahead don't even bother with this one. If however you enjoy a nice challenge and love your turn based strategies then this is the best the cube has to offer. Yes it has a linear story, there are few cut-scenes and a lack of voice-overs (which gives you the feeling that your reading some sort of interactive book) but this shouldn't stop you if the hour long battles appeal to you.