Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Review
When Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance concluded, the game seemed destined for — or, at the very least, fully deserving of — a sequel. There were numerous open-ended bits to the epic strategy RPG’s finale: Ike and his mercenary companions, under Apostle Sanaki’s guidance, had been exposed to the depravity and corruption of the Begnion Senate, but had been able to do little to confront it; Prime Minister Sephiran mused over his ominous warning that Ike’s rapid ascent in Crimea would breed jealousy from the aggrieved nobles; and, of course, there was Lehran’s Medallion, still glowing brightly as it fed off the flames of the war Daein’s King Ashnard began, its seal perilously threatening to break. It was clear that, though Ashnard had fallen, the problems in Tellius were far from over. So it was that there was much rejoicing all around Mudville when it became clear that Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn was exactly such a sequel as Path of Radiance had begged for.
Radiant Dawn picks up three years after the end of the Mad King’s War, and it wastes little time in reminding gamers how catastrophic the conflict had been for Tellius — though this time the player is seeing things from the eyes of Daein, not the victimized Crimeans as in the first go around. Daein begins the game under the jackboot of the Begnion Occupation Army. A resistance movement is brewing amongst the populace, which is grown weary and angry at the hands of the Senate’s subjugation. However, this is not the extent of Radiant Dawn‘s story. Unlike Path of Radiance, which followed Ike’s journey from start to finish, the tenth Fire Emblem game takes a rather unusual tack in switching between several different main characters and covering multiple narrative threads. While one moment the player will guide Daein’s rebel leader Micaiah in her fight to retake her homeland, the next you could be helping Crimea’s Queen Elincia as she struggles to maintain order and solidify her rule, or traveling alongside Ike’s Greil Mercenaries as they embark on their next assignment. Though the series has made minor attempts at such a storytelling style previously (in the form of Lyn’s extended tutorial-cum-prologue in Fire Emblem 7), the end result makes the game’s tale feel far more ambitious than the normal Fire Emblem story; there’s a truly epic feel to it, and switching between different perspectives, each with their own troubles in different parts of Tellius, makes the overall story feel so much broader and more expansive in scope. It’s very reminiscent of the third games in the Suikoden and Shining Force series.
The writing in Radiant Dawn is generally quite excellent, with sharp dialogue, an interesting story, and a compelling cast (much of which is comprised of veterans from the game’s predecessor, which gives a sense of familiarity to the characters). The story itself is excellent, and given its history (both the immediate and ancient kinds), Tellius feels like a really vibrant world in which the player is deeply invested. The game adeptly handles those plot threads left lingering or open last time around, and expands upon just about everything that happened in the last adventure. It’s very satisfying. Newcomers to the series who haven’t played Path of Radiance will still find much to enjoy about Radiant Dawn‘s story, though this is a direct sequel and, contra games like Chrono Cross which eschewed heavy linking to the original story, it makes no bones about that fact. Given this, some impact will naturally be lost in translation (but hey, backwards compatibility, right?).
If there was one noteworthy problem with the story of Radiant Dawn, it’s that support conversations were significantly minimized this time around… at least, from a story perspective (as a gameplay system, they were greatly improved). In prior Fire Emblem games, supports allowed different playable characters to form and evolve bonds over the course of the game. In the process, they also served as a valuable means for advancing character development beyond that which is normally afforded in strategy RPGs. This time, the game allows for supports between any set of characters (a change from the norm) and the system is stripped away of its role in character development, serving as strictly a gameplay system. This is disappointing, but a fairly minor blemish — as most of the characters in the game are returnees, it’s unclear how much would really have been added by coming up with a whole new set of support conversations for all of them. Additionally, the game seems to have added a number of additional base conversations — while they don’t play as big a role as supports in earlier games, they’re still a nice means by which to see some prime character interaction.
While the story elements of Radiant Dawn are excellent, this is a strategy RPG, and it’s the gameplay that really needs to shine. Thankfully, it does. The typical standards of quality that the series has maintained through its many installments are here: the classic triangle system, for instance, is back, allowing different weapons and magic elements to beat one type while being vulnerable to another. The series’ normal jobs are back, too, and while they haven’t quite received an overhaul, there are some noticeable changes built off what Path of Radiance first began implementing. Now combatants can be divided not just by the weapons they use, but their combat style, too: light armor, heavy armor, and mounted. Each weapon type gets a class for each combat style, so the player can decide if he wants his axe user to be a swift-moving paladin or a heavily armored tank. It gives another layer of strategic depth to the well-balanced system. And while it’s an oft overlooked aspect of the gameplay, Radiant Dawn deserves particular kudos for its level design, something as critical to a successful SRPG as it is to a platformer. The game’s level design is creative and ambitious — levels are almost never straightforward, but are instead deeply tactical with the player forced to consider terrain, key defensive points, obstacles, carefully placed ballistae, and branching routes. The maps are huge and require careful planning and close observation, and the victory objectives are varied and clever. It’s one of those “devil’s in the details” areas of a game that’s easy to come across as mediocre, but Radiant Dawn delivers.
Beyond the routine elements one expects in a Fire Emblem game, though, there are also numerous modifications and perfections to the mechanics here, as well as new gameplay additions, making Radiant Dawn one of the most progressive games in the series. For instance, to help aid the feeling of this being the most epic game yet, Intelligent Systems added a third promotion tier for the classes. Before, characters of level ten or up could be promoted once to a more evolved class, but now they can then be promoted again upon reaching the tenth level in their new class. Supports were heavily reworked. Now different characters award significant bonuses in certain stats (all of which is visible to the player), and the bonuses are awarded as long as the characters are within three spaces on the battlefield. The game also does what Path of Radiance failed to do in justifying the move from 2D to 3D in adding, for the first time, height considerations to the battles. It’s actually implemented much better than in earlier SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics in that height can be used to create actual defensive fortifications that can then be held by a small number of units. Again, this adds a lot to the overall strategy of the game. Radiant Dawn also implements in-battle saves (earlier games saved at every single action, meaning a single mistake would mean the need to start the whole battle over), changed how the half-animal laguz function entirely, and rebalanced how bonus experience is awarded and how it works, and made numerous other small changes that really add up for a much more refined experience for series fans.
For all that it will appeal to series fans, though, newcomers might have a harder time. Radiant Dawn is, in many ways, the most difficult game in the series. The game helpfully provides three difficulty modes so that it’s possible to play an easier version of the game, but even so, the normal difficulty may come as a shock to people not used to Fire Emblem‘s unforgiving nature. Easy mode or not, know upfront: this is not a game for people who aren’t willing to play a consistently challenging (and sometimes even frustrating) game. This isn’t really a negative, though. There’s nothing wrong with difficulty, even if it’s not for everyone. And by designing the game specifically as a direct sequel to another Fire Emblem, Intelligent Systems seems to be suggesting that newbies get their feet wet before tackling this game.
As top notch as the story and gameplay are, other elements of the game aren’t quite on that level. Like most strategy RPGs, Fire Emblem doesn’t do a whole lot to push graphical boundaries. There’s a noticeable increase in quality — between the character models, the battle animations, and some of the backgrounds — from Path of Radiance to Radiant Dawn, but it’s nothing that will make the player say “wow.” Nothing looks bad, really, but the game certainly isn’t going to be winning any visual awards next to games like Mario Galaxy. There are some impressive CG cut scenes interspersed throughout the game, but they’re few and far between. On the other hand, the game’s music is great. Composed by the series’ veteran sound team, Radiant Dawn‘s music has a soaring orchestral style. The battle themes, of which there are many, are the highlight, as they perfectly accentuate the dangerous fights in which the player finds himself. Radiant Dawn also has a decent amount of voice acting, though not as much as many traditional RPGs. The narrative segments between chapters are all fully voiced, as are the (as mentioned, sparse) CG cut scenes, but that’s it. There’s still a lot of text in the game the player will need to read through.
It’s somewhat regrettable that Intelligent Systems didn’t use any of the Wii remote’s features, as there’s a great deal of potential in using it as a mouse-like pointer to speed up gameplay. But at the same time, the game thankfully delivers a traditional experience that isn’t changed just for the sake of changing it. There’s no waggling, there are no minigames, there are no Miis marching about Tellius, and odds are this is exactly the way most strategy RPG fans want it. The controls used in the game are solid, and a variety of methods are provided: the classic controller, a GameCube controller, and two methods with the remote (horizontal and vertical). The vertical controls are actually quite comfortable. By holding the controller like a standard remote control, it’s possible to play the game in a relaxed position with only one hand.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn may not be a visual powerhouse and it may not be the game that justifies the Wii’s existence through clever and innovative use of motion sensing technology. Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece of a strategy RPG. It offers a decidedly old school approach to the genre but it does so with excellent design, an engaging story, moving music, and a meaty campaign that dwarfs its predecessor in size and scope. From level design to class balance to the sort of challenge that will test even the most experienced gamers’ skills at strategy, Radiant Dawn is hitting on all cylinders. With the quality Intelligent Systems has delivered here, it’s hard to see how the team will top this game, which has undoubtedly earned itself a place in the canon of the genre as a classic.