The Tellius Duology
It’s now been more than a decade since the Fire Emblem series graced television screens, so going forward perhaps it’s instructive to look back at the last time the series was on home consoles: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. I’ve always described these entries as Matsuno-lite since they remind me so much of the tone from Ogre Battle series. The Tellius games — named after the continent they both take place on — incorporate many different countries, different political factions within those countries, different races in the form of human-like Beorc and beast-like, shape-shifting Laguz, and the games tackle weighty subjects such as racism and genocide. They are my favorite entries in the Fire Emblem series and, based on the prices they go for in the secondary market, lots of people haven’t played them so perhaps they deserve a proper introduction.
These releases, the first on a home console system since Thracia 776 was released for the Super Famicom, incorporated a number of firsts for the series. These games are the first to have 3D graphics, full-motion cutscenes, and they are the first to have voice acting. Although the graphics are a step up from the Game Boy Advance titles that first introduced Fire Emblem to the west, these console entries are not a visual tour de force. Most of the story is still told via portraits and text bubbles with occasional cut-scenes to highlight big moments. These games also incorporate support conversations, though as someone who got into the series with Awakening, it was shocking at how restrictive the system was, limiting each character to five conversations total. It’s a decision made to maintain the combat balance, since characters get stat bonuses depending on the relationship ranks, but it’s still jarring for someone introduced to the series by Awakening.
The combat in the Tellius games is quite the challenge. Casual mode is still years away, so permadeath is the rule of the day and results in plenty of restarts. Coming to these games from Awakening, I found them to be considerably more challenging — I even dropped the difficulty to easy to get through Path of Radiance. While these games still use the typical sort of grid-based tactical combat the series is known for, there are a few things that stick out about it. The games employed lots of fixed emplacement ballistas and catapults, the ballistas being particularly frustrating by limiting flight over huge areas of the maps that included them. There is also a good variety of missions, including lots of interesting defensive missions set in forts. There were also night missions where the field of view was greatly reduced. It’s a cool idea, and I think it did capture the sort of confusion that must result from a night encounter. However, there was an occasion where I lost a Pegasus Knight to an archer just out of view, but still within range with his arrows. Maybe they weren’t such a great idea after all.
Turning to the games themselves, Path of Radiance employs a more traditional Fire Emblem setup, with Ike, leader of the Greil Mercenaries, stumbling into Princess Elincia of Crimea as she is fleeing the capital ahead of an invading army. The Greil Mercenaries vow to protect Princess Elincia from the invading forces of Daein and its king, Ashnard. The rest of the game plays out as the Greil Mercenaries protect Elencia as she travels across the Tellius continent, building alliances between countries as well as healing the wounds between Beorc and Laguz to create an army to defeat Ashnard and return her to the throne of Crimea. The story itself is fairly straightforward, but the characters elevate the material. Maybe it’s my affection for the overall game influencing my judgment, but Ike is my favorite Fire Emblem protagonist. He starts the story taking over the Greil mercenaries after his father is killed by the mysterious Black Knight of Daein, but over the course of two games he grows and becomes a strong leader. Soren, a sorcerer and tactician with a sour attitude, has a lack of decorum and niceties that always brings a smile to my face. But my favorite character is Naesala, the King of the raven Laguz. He’s the Littlefinger of Tellius; continually stabbing people in the back, but somehow managing to talk his way back into the other character’s good graces only to stab them in the back again. Some of this behavior gets explained away in Radiant Dawn, but his character was entertaining for a similar reason that Littlefinger is interesting: it’s fun to see how each is going to manipulate everyone for his own gain.
Radiant Dawn is the more interesting, if not quite as well executed entry. It picks up not long after the events of Path of Radiance. King Ashnard is dead and Daein has been occupied by its neighbor Begnion. At the beginning of the game, players control Micaiah, who is leading the Daein resistance to the occupation. I loved that Radiant Dawn immediately flips the script and now the player is put into the role of the country that was the antagonist in the previous game. Not to mention that the Black Knight, who in the previous entry was an evil character who murdered Ike’s father, is now the player’s savior and fighter for the resistance. It drives home the idea that while political leaders wage wars, it’s the populace that pays the price for their follies. That first chapter illustrates that while Daein was the antagonist in the previous game, it wasn’t the general public’s fault that King Ashnard was waging war across the continent, though now they are feeling retribution from the other countries of Tellius for waging those wars of aggression. I’m impressed at how the game emphasizes the point that history is told from a certain perspective and there is always a different side to the story. We, as humans, tend to focus on big events like wars, plagues, and economic collapses and lose track of how those events affect average people. I always appreciate when any sort of media is willing to explore grey areas rather than simply fall back on labeling everything as black and white, good versus evil and Radiant Dawn is fascinating in how it addresses those issues.
As Radiant Dawn progresses, each chapter focuses on a different region of the continent and stars different sets of characters. I love how crazily ambitious this game is; splitting the narrative between different countries and showing different sides to the story before tying everything together to fight the ultimate menace in the finale. This game has all kinds of interesting ideas but lots of resulting gameplay issues. Radiant Dawn supports importing save files from Path of Radiance, so players can carry over character levels into the new game. Combined with the fact that the acts of the story are not of equal length, there are serious late-game balance issues. One thing Intelligent Systems incorporated to address this (which was also a feature in Path of Radiance) was Bonus Experience. Typically, in Fire Emblem games, a character must be on a mission and carry out actions to gain experience. However, Bonus Experience, which was awarded after each successful mission, allowed players to freely dole out an additional pool of experience to any character they pleased. It was a useful way to level up characters that weren’t durable enough to survive on the front-lines where they could accumulate experience. The other way Intelligent Systems addressed the imbalances wasn’t as successful or fun. In the final act, once all the characters are united, there are half-a-dozen maps that are filled with grunts to be experience fodder before the final trials. It certainly worked as a way to level up characters that didn’t have the same opportunities to get experience in the game, but it was a tryingly tedious way to accomplish that task.
The Tellius games illustrate much of Fire Emblem at its best. Memorable characters combine with interesting, ambitious storytelling to make an impressive experience. The gameplay was solid, with a wide variety of different missions. There is just something special about carrying characters over from a previous entry; it can go wrong if the characters aren’t likable, but it worked really well in this instance and I formed a tight bond with them. I think that is what resonates with me so much about these games: Ike, Titania, Soren, Elincia, and Naesala continue to stick with me years after playing the games. Combined with storytelling that challenges the player’s preconceived notions of good and evil, the Tellius games make for a really amazing experience.
Path of Radiance was my gateway to the Fire Emblem series as well as to strategy/tactical RPGs as a whole. It’s still the bar I use to the measure the rest of the series with. I was very much engrossed by the story, the world, and the characters, and I fell in love with the subgenre. You really hit upon what it is I found engaging in Path of Radiance, and to a lesser extent, Radiant Dawn. One thing that especially stood out when I first played Path of Radiance was the support conversation system. I was amazed at how these extra conversations not only allow characters to interact outside of the story, but also flesh out people’s personalities and backstories. Path of Radiance has several characters appear during the main story, but many more never say a peep during the plot after they are recruited. These supports make up for that, as do the similar base conversations. Supports were how I was endeared to several characters in Path of Radiance, like Mia, Calill, and especially Keiran, the boisterous and half-crazy Ax Knight who is so devoted to his training that he nearly kills himself practicing on multiple occasions. It really did disappoint me when Radiant Dawn came out without support conversations, though that game did have base conversations.
As for the gameplay in the Tellius games, I enjoy it so much that playing the GBA titles afterwards felt disappointing. Bonus Experience is certainly one aspect that I wish were in those games. Another is how class promotion works. The Tellius games have automatic class promotion upon reaching level 21, instead of needing an item or having to go to a shrine. The promotional items are very hard to come by in The Blazing Blade (aka the GBA Fire Emblem without a subtitle), and only a little more common in The Sacred Stones. Having individual promotional items for specific classes, with the Master Seal being a rare universal one, was also tedious. I would like to be able to promote the characters that I want to without having to worry about having the right item. In recent games, only the Master Seal is needed for promoting and they are easy to come by. The only exception to this is Fire Emblem Echoes, and that’s because characters only need to reach the minimum level for promotion, then go find a Mila Shrine, which are generally easy to reach. Even though there’s no need to worry about having enough items to go around, I would prefer it if the next game goes back to automatic promotions, just to take out that extra step.
I also miss the way the Canto/Re-Move skill works in the Tellius games. This skill allows mounted and flying units to be able to use their remaining movement after performing an action. It’s hugely useful for rescuing vulnerable characters or moving the mounted unit to safety. It’s also not as overpowered as the skill Galeforce in Awakening and Fates, which allows the unit to move and attack twice in one turn if they kill an enemy. Additionally, I sorely miss the base in the GBA games. The base allows for convenient battle prep by checking units, giving and equipping items, purchasing more items, doling out Bonus Experience, and seeing support and base conversations. Battle prep in The Blazing Blade is especially clumsy and the game really could have used a base. I also miss the forging mechanic, first introduced in Path of Radiance, as that allows for tweaking weapons for a price.
I’m not trying to knock the GBA Fire Emblem titles too much. They are good games in their own right, and I imagine their shortcomings are due to the technical limitations of the Game Boy Advance. Regardless, the Tellius games are vast improvements on the prior titles and it’s a real shame that they sold as poorly as they did. I still haven’t decided if I prefer Path or Radiance or Shadows of Valentia more, and really need to get around to playing these games back-to-back to make a fair judgment.