Prior to trying out Path of Radiance, I wasn’t too fond of strategy games. Whenever I saw the words “tactical thinking” or “strategy-infused” in descriptions for games, I usually shied away from paying attention to them. This fear probably stems from traumatic losses in Starcraft back in the old days, when I thought I was good enough to hang with the guys on Battle.Net. Unfortunately, I was made mincemeat, and ever since then, I’ve cringed whenever a game forces me to use tactics. Oddly enough, I was so voraciously reminded of the Fire Emblem series by friends of mine, I decided that I’d give the genre another shot. So how do I now, after putting 30 hours into the game, feel about strategy? In the words of Julius Caesar, I came, I saw, I freaking owned.
Path of Radiance tells the tale of Ike, the son of the master tactician and leader of his mercenary group, Greil. Although Ike isn’t much of a warrior at first, he’ll have to learn quickly, as a global conflict is about to spring up, and he’ll be caught right in the middle of it in true RPG fashion.
Essentially, the plot tells us that the evil king of Daein has invaded the peaceful, neighboring nation, Crimea, and all that remains is the king’s secret daughter, the fair Princess Elincia. After discovering the noble unconscious and injured in the woods, Ike and the Greil Mercenary Group take up arms to defeat King Ashnard of Daein and restore peace to the fallen Crimea. Although it may seem a bit cliché and tired, Path of Radiance succeeds in supplying complex and lifelike characters by the boatload, enhancing what would be a mediocre plot tenfold.
Where this game (and the entire Fire Emblem series) really shines, though, is on the battlefield, which is where the entirety of the gameplay takes place (save for some menu manipulation between missions later on in the story); there’s virtually no exploring, nor will battles be random at all. Missions will take place on turn-based grids, where you’ll move your troops out to attack the opposing force or keep a stonewall defense structure, depending on what the objective demands.
Each fight is part of the story, and just as losing a character in a battle will affect that battle, so will losing a character forever affect the story. There are no Phoenix Downs, there are no Revival Herbs – once a warrior falls, that character vanishes from the plot altogether. It’s with that in mind that you’ll always have to be on your toes, for if you let a fellow comrade die in action, you’ll never get them back (nor will you get back any valuable items they may have been wielding). If Ike dies, however, you’ll simply get a Game Over and the chapter will restart.
Since this factor puts so much pressure on you, Intelligent Systems was kind enough to include a “helping hand” kind of feature: Bonus Experience. Once Ike takes command on the group, you’ll be able to distribute extra experience that you win after a mission among the group. It’s in this way that you can raise younger, weaker units into being forces to be reckoned with.
Also in your favor will be the diversity of your party. Once again, the triangle of weapon efficiency returns (swords beats axe, axe beats lance, lance beats sword), but you’ll also see a triangle of magic usefulness, with fire beating wind, wind beating thunder, and thunder beating fire. Light, the fourth variable, is neutral to all other forms of magic. Besides these rock-paper-scissor mechanics, though, will be the diversity of the characters themselves. Unlike previous Fire Emblem games, Path of Radiance includes a new race: the laguz. Coming in three different forms (beast, bird, and dragon), they’ll be instrumental to your victory. Although they can only stay in their feral forms for a certain amount of turns, they’re nearly unbeatable while transformed, making them great for clearing out stronger enemies and large groups. Beware, though, as each sub-race is susceptible to a different kind of magic, and when met with this magic, they’re more easily vanquished than with conventional weapons.
It’s when all of these features are put together than this game becomes immensely addictive and amazingly fun. And with each mission only lasting 20-45 minutes, it’s great to pick up and play when you just want to kill some time. With a stellar learning curve, even tactical lost causes like me are able to deal with each new challenge, slowly climbing from simple objectives to combating complex strategies.
Visually, Intelligent Systems really shows its inexperience with true 3D, as troops looks bleak and boring while on the grid, only saved by the beautiful high-resolution character portraits that accompany the dialogue. Furthermore, attack animations are hardly varied, and you’ll soon turn them off altogether to speed the missions along. However, in return for your suffering through the bland in-game graphics, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous cel-shaded cinematics. Honestly, these CG cut-scenes can only be described as breathtaking and really need to be seen to be understood. I can only pray that cel-shading looks this good next generation.
Path of Radiance features an aural treat, with music being brilliantly composed and perfectly tuned to be in sync with the tone of the game. Also, even with it only making an appearance in cut-scenes, voice acting isn’t too shabby, suiting each character surprisingly well.
In conclusion, I have no real complaints about this game, since I can forgive Intelligent Systems’ shoddy work with the graphics. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is a game that definitely should have been released at the beginning of the GameCube’s life; it could have easily become a killer application of Final Fantasy VII proportions had it only been given launch-window recognition. Really, it’s that good. Go out and buy it, folks, this could very well be the GameCube's Game of the Year.