Maybe it's a good thing that Zelda was delayed, because Fire Emblem might have stolen Game of the Year from it.
The continent of Tellius has suffered through constant war for centuries. Battles between humans and the races of Laguz changelings have been fought on and off for the past two hundred years, with increasing violence. Recently though, a cease-fire was established, and a wary peace began to build between the two warring forces. A new danger is rising, and threatens to destroy everything. Will Ike, the young son of Grail, be able to command his father's band of mercenary warriors to prevent the ultimate disaster? Or are the seven Kingdoms and their people doomed to play out yet another bloody war?
Before this review gets too far in-depth, it would be prudent to remind all potential importers that Fire Emblem: Souen no Kiseki (Path of Radiance in North America) is absolutely laden with the evil entities known as kanji. Without extensive knowledge of this black-hearted alphabet, the game is going to be rather hard to fathom. Considering that Fire Emblem's GameCube debut is hitting North American shores in English this fall, it might be prudent to wait for the localization. If you're very confident in your Japanese language skills, you can order the Japanese version now from Lik-Sang.
The first thing that anyone notices about any title, regardless of quality, is graphics. On this point, Fire Emblem is sure to initially disappoint. Models could be considered rather below the standard for the GameCube. Backgrounds are sparse, in terms of polygon count, and textures are rather sub-par. In fact, some backgrounds feature a uniquely "amateur" failing of would-be texture artists: the textures don't line up properly, destroying the illusion of a uniform surface. This is especially apparent in forest locations with dead leaves. Another complaint would be the rather bland character animations. This isn't to say that the animations are terrible -- they're merely adequate and suffer more so if compared to Intelligent Systems' sprite-based offerings. Battle animations simply do not have the "bite" of even the GBA games' excellent sprite graphics. Instead, the models look awkward and clumsy, belying the talent of the developer. One nice little detail, however, is that the weapon the character holds is unique. It is simple to identify which enemy is holding which weapon by merely looking at them on the map screen, instead of having to check their inventory. Granted, this is Intelligent System's first, entirely 3D title, but that doesn't excuse them for merely adequate details of their third-dimensional Fire Emblem world. As with Paper Mario, it is their 2D prowess that saves Fire Emblem's visual appeal from a complete disaster.
Indeed, it is the traditional hand-drawn artwork that gives this game life. From the opening movie to every dialogue scene, Fire Emblem's world is brimming with fantastic vistas and characters. From the most humble backgrounds that your army may camp within, to the gorgeous overlays that are delicately sequenced during story elements, it is easy to see that each hand-painted work of art was lovingly created. Character portraits are huge, high-res, and clean. It is lamentable that with the jump to the GameCube, Intelligent Systems was not given the choice to make the entire game in high-resolution 2D. It would have certainly been a sight to behold, but alas, it was clearly not to be.
To further the stellar production values that Fire Emblem creates with static 2D images, there are also cel-shaded FMV scenes. Though these are few in number, they are quite pleasant to look at, feature the first voice-acting for the franchise, and are of high video quality. In addition, the music is equally enthralling. Departing from what many would consider "traditional fantasy videogame music", Fire Emblem opts for a stringent classical theme. There are no digital instruments here, only analog. Though the game's rich aural tapestry is technically synthesized, the quality of the sound samples are superb and easily give the illusion of an orchestral event.
For all of the excellence that pervades Fire Emblem: Souen no Kiseki's presentation, its apex is in how the game plays. After dithering about for a time on the GBA, Intelligent Systems finally reclaims Fire Emblem's full glory on the GameCube. This game is difficult, even on the easiest setting. For those who have been craving a difficult game ever since the GBA titles held off, "Maniac" mode is waiting and it is positively brutal. Skills have returned once more, but instead of tying them to classes, they are available as items which disappear after use and are very hard to come by. Each character has a meter of varying capacities, and each skill takes up a certain number of Capacity Points, depending on the nature of the specific skill. Quick Strike, if activated, ensures that your character will attack first, regardless of which side initiates combat, taking up ten Capacity Points. Some characters possess unique skills that are not available otherwise.
Classes have once again been amended, with certain classes being altered and others eliminated. The ubiquitous Social Knight (Cavalier) has been split into several classes: Lance Knight, Sword Knight, Axe Knight, and Bow Knight, all of which will now evolve into the Paladin class. Upon reaching the second class, characters may pick an additional arms skill if their destination class is traditionally capable of using more than one weapon. For Paladins this means they may wield any two weapons from the aforementioned Knight classes. Though the weapon circle retains the status quo for this title, magic has taken a page from the earlier Super Famicom titles. Instead of Anima, Light, and Dark magic, the three most common types of magic are Wind, Lightning, and Fire, and these make up their own triangle. Each of these is corresponding a Laguz weakness. The Felines fear Fire, Dragons are susceptible to Lightning, and Wind will certainly set a Hawkman's feathers the wrong way. The Laguz themselves have a unique method of battling. Utilizing a "Transform Gauge", the Laguz changelings are unable to attack until the gauge has filled and transform into their true form. However, upon shape-shifting, Laguz are fearsome warriors that can help ensure victory for Ike's band of mercenaries.
Other additions to the game include a new "Partner System", party experience and blacksmithing. Occasionally during a battle, a character will temporarily aid the party as they have a common cause. Such units are denoted by a yellow circle instead of the traditional blue. Ike cannot directly command these units, but may give them general directions in which to proceed. Ike may choose a spot for the partners to travel to, or he may leave the decision entirely up to them. Party experience is gained after battle and may be used at any time in between campaigns to power up units. This is especially useful, as most characters join the party at an extremely low level. This may seem overpowering, but giving this non-battle experience to a unit means it does not gain weapon experience, which allows it to wield more powerful arms or magic spells, so it is therefore wise to limit its use. The most interesting new feature in Souen no Kiseki would have to be the blacksmithing option. After picking any base weapon type such as Tetsu no Tsuguri (Iron Sword), the player is able to alter any of its stats and create a very powerful weapon. Depending on the base power of the weapon (it is possible to customize even the higher weapon types), the price of the finished item will increase dramatically. It is possible to name this unique armament and also change its colour.
Fire Emblem: Souen no Kiseki is a fantastic addition to any gamer's collection. With a long, enjoyable and difficult campaign, Souen no Kiseki returns to the halcyon days of the Super Famicom era. Nintendo should be proud of Intelligent Systems' efforts in bringing Fire Emblem back to console gaming.
Fire Emblem has finally made its way home, and it has been a long time coming.