Review by egervari3

"The Best Fire Emblem to Date, But The Formula Is Showing Its Age."

Introduction
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Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is the 10th installment in the long-running series of RPG-strategy games. Although North America has only had the pleasure of playing Fire Emblem 7 through 9, the series quickly caught on and became one of Nintendo's premiere franchises for RPG-strategy gaming. So how does the latest installment hold up? Is it a Wii-make that under delivers? Does the game still offer that deep, compelling strategy and storytelling experience? Or has the series overstayed its welcome? Let's find out!

Story
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The story takes place directly after the GameCube game, Path of Radiance. You play as the Dawn Brigade, which is a group of ragtag resistance fighters trying to liberate their country Daein from the occupying forces of the Begnion Empire. In the last game, Daein was the evil empire you (with the help of Begnion) had to defeat, so now the story is flipped around as the Dawn Brigade is trying to right the wrong-doings of corrupt soldiers from the Begnion Empire and take back their country.

The story in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is as good as it's ever been. While the story is clearly more about events than people, there are definitely some good character moments as the story progresses – dealing with the story's main characters: Micaiah, Ike, Elincia, Sothe and several others. The pacing is slow to start, and it takes some time to pick up in Part 2.

In tradition with the Fire Emblem series, there is a lot of story elements between chapters. At times, the story can be very wordy as it's all told through text and character still images. Story events typically span 10 or 15 minutes of playtime in between chapters. If you don't like reading dialog, then this game probably isn't for you.

Unfortunately, not all the dialog is well written. It's sometimes trite and fails to make an emotional connection. However, later on in the game, you can empathize with Elincia and a few other characters.

While the game is billed as playable for first-timers, the game offers such a wide-range of characters that it can be overwhelming at times. Each new chapter introduces 3 or 4 new characters, most of which are given little to no introduction – it is assumed the player knows about them. Radiant Dawn only gives major characters like Ike and a few others a proper introduction. Most characters are only given a few lines of dialog between missions, hardly fleshing them out and giving them purpose. It goes without saying Radiant Dawn is a true sequel, and playing Path of Radiance will both make the story more enjoyable and comprehendible. While the game is still playable, new players will definitely have a tougher time getting into it.

On the bright side, the game features an extensive character library, which tells you who the characters are from, their relationships as well as a description.

Gameplay
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The gameplay in Radiant Dawn, like all Fire Emblem games is very deep for a turn-based strategy game. The core gameplay is that you move your units around on a overhead map to attack enemies, heal your allies, etc.

The game features a rock-paper-scissors mechanic where different weapon types have an advantage over others: Swords beat Axes, Axes beat Lances, Lances beat Swords. The same is true for magic types as well. Beyond the weapon types, you can use terrain, positioning and other strategic elements to gain advantage in battle as well.

Unlike other Fire Emblem games, Radiant Dawn supports having multiple parties, which have different inventories, money and contribute to the storyline in their own unique way. Each part of the storyline features a different party to play, so there's always something fresh and new to use rather than using the same party for 30 missions throughout the game.

Radiant Dawn definitely changes the formula right from the beginning. Not only are you given a brand new set of characters to play as (excluding Sothe, who's arguably this game's Jaigan with a few twists), but the party makeup is like no other you've played before. The game essentially forces you to play differently than in other installments. Not having a pair of Knights changes your strategy, and having a Lord that's a magic-user is also a welcome change.

The game includes a new feature called “Battle Saves” in response to gamers' feedback. While purists will definitely cry foul, they are great and long-overdue addition to the game. While they are useful to prevent RNG failures at a critical time, the best use for them is to simply save time by not having to play the whole chapter all over again, which in this game, takes an hour or more. For adult players with little time on their hands as it is, this is a welcome change. In previous Fire Emblems, it very frustrating to complete 90% of the “safe” part of the chapter just to reattempt the part you died at.

While Fire Emblem's gameplay can be a near religious experience at times, the game has its share of problems. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with being a Wii-make, but more about the core gameplay itself.

This latest installment features almost no new game mechanics or classes to speak of. The gameplay is the same as before, which will largely determine if you will enjoy this game. Those looking for something new and fresh won't find it here. Unlike Path of Radiance, which revolutionized the look and feel, as well as taking the franchise over to 3D, Radiant Dawn offers very little innovation.

The game does feature new terrain obstacles, which allow non-Paladin characters to hop over ledges and cliffs. These areas can also be used to your advantage. If you attack from higher ground, there is nothing the enemy can do about it.

The original classes are given third tier promotions, which is fairly exciting and was much needed. Now, all characters get high-level abilities that were previously gained from Occult skills after gaining their promotion. This makes all characters viable to use, rather than spamming Ike's Aether attack over and over.

Lastly, not all characters are made equal. While this is true in all Fire Emblem games, this game once again takes it to ridiculous levels. It's no surprise that Ike and his team make a reappearance in this game being a sequel from Path of Radiance. However, Ike's mercenaries are nearly unstoppable, even on the hardest modes. This is partially because statistical bonuses are given if you've played Path of Radiance. Still, the sheer strength of Ike's team gives the player little reason to use any of the new characters, minus a select few.

Overall, Radiant Dawn offers the same gameplay, yet refined even further. However, the game mechanics are definitely showing their age, and in my humble opinion, they are poorly designed compared to today's modern systems. Let's take a look at some of them.

Gameplay -- Level-Up System
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Radiant Dawn harkens back to the days of old, where random number generation and numerical statistics were the norm. The biggest problem with the game is the character leveling system. Each character uses a set of growth rates that determine how their stats increase upon leveling up. The strength of your characters is not based on how well you play the game, but by a Random Number Generator (RNG). The usefulness of one character over another is largely determined by luck, which can be down-right infuriating at times. While the system was intended to produce characters that are uniquely different with each playthrough (yet comparable to the base average), the system has its fair share of problems.

It's not uncommon to experience level-ups that only boost one or two stats. It's also terribly frustrating to receive a bonus to one or more stats you don't even need. When this happens multiple times in a row, you can't help but feel cheated by the system when your level 16 character is performing at level 13. While these mechanics have pervaded the series for a long time, that doesn't mean there's nothing wrong with them.

The RNG essentially forces the player to either accept their loses and push forward… or use the Battle Save feature to maximize their stats by saving just before their character levels-up. The player can simply reset the game to receive a different set of stat increases. Bonus Experience can also be used to maximize on uncapped stats later in the game to produce more powerful characters since 3 stats are always increased using this method. Both approaches clearly abuse the system.

Knowing that the level-up process can be circumvented, it makes one wonder why the system is designed this way to begin with. A fixed system for each class would have made the game much more approachable for new players and more enjoyable for experienced players. Perhaps, the game could have used a system to move away from stats altogether. A complete reinvention of the game will be needed if this game is to survive, as sales are not so high in Japan and North America.

Gameplay - Difficulty
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As far as North American Fire Emblems are concerned, Radiant Dawn is by far the hardest Fire Emblem yet. In fact, even the easiest setting will frustrate gamers since it's harder than even the “Normal” mode in previous installments. While hardcore and experienced gamers will appreciate the added challenge, this does make Radiant Dawn less accessible to newer players. The first few chapters can be quite challenging and will take several tries for even veterans of the series to successfully complete. Admittedly, the game does get a little easier in later stages.

Given the difficulty, it would have appreciated to have the modes renamed to "Normal, Hard and Insane" while including an easier difficulty setting – a setting anyone can enjoy, like my cousin who hardly plays video games and may enjoy this.

While the difficulty in the game can be appreciated, Radiant Dawn goes to extreme lengths to make the game the most challenging yet. Above and beyond increasing the levels and statistics of the enemies you'll face, the game uses heavy randomization for literally everything: attacking, casting magic and dodging a blow. This can make the game unfair and downright frustrating… so much so, that it can be considered a design flaw – especially when very unlucky situations can be circumvented using Battle Saves anyway.

For example, it is not uncommon to be fighting the final boss in a chapter, and despite having a 90% chance to land a hit, you're characters will miss repeatedly. This causes the boss to survive for one extra turn, often giving them a chance to kill one of your characters and forcing you to restart the battle – all because the game dealt you poor dice rolls at a critical time. The price of RNG failure in highly favourable positions can sometimes cost you the game.

Luckily Battle Saves can protect you from this; however, I have experienced times where I had to run the battle 4 times just to get the RNG to roll within statistical averages, which is borderline ridiculous.

There are much better ways to add randomization to Fire Emblem, like adding damage variation, which aren't permanent to your character's stats. Consequently, the game could have removed hit/miss % altogether in favour of damage variation – at least that adds some predictability and makes healing characters more useful. As it stands, some of these mechanics are flawed, and the game is definitely showing its age.

Gameplay - Biorhythms
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Biorhythms make their way back into Radiant Dawn, which affect your characters chance to hit enemies as well as your chance to avoid enemy attacks. Unlike Path of Radiance where Biorhythms had very little effect on your characters… in Radiant Dawn, the effects have been taken to ridiculous levels.

All Biorhythms serve to do is annoy players, adding in even more randomization and difficulty to the game that is very much unwarranted – especially in the first few chapters where your Biorhythm can drastically improve or diminish your characters.

The fact that Biorhythms can affect, quite possibly, the two single most important stats on your character is cause for concern. And like much of the random elements in this game, you can reload the chapter as many times as you like until you get the Biorhythms you want, thus creating even more ways to circumvent and abuse the mechanics in the game. How does skill even play into the game when you randomize your way out of it? And the people that play fair can also be punished.

With all the random elements to game, it seems that to avoid being punished, you have to take measures into your own hands. One might say that you are actually fighting with the game itself, trying to get your way with it. Overall, regardless how you decide to deal with it, the overall experience and enjoyment is diminished considerably.

Also, because of the profound affect that Biorhythms have on your characters, units with hit and avoid percentages (with or without using Earth-element support) are superior to all other units.

Usability
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Much has been to make Radiant Dawn a far more useable game than any other Fire Emblem. Intelligent Systems and Nintendo should be commended. There are all sorts of nice polishes and final touches that make the game better than its prequels.

For example, weapons will now flash when it is effective against a certain units. Character skills can now be assigned and removed repeatedly without losing them, which allows the player to have fun experimenting and not worrying about making a poor decision.

Also, when hovering over a unit, you can see their health, weapon, current experience level, the laguz transformation bar and other information. The game also shows you all the life bars of every unit on the screen, which is very nice to alert you to troubled allies in a pitch.

There are also several usability enhancements that should have been added, especially the Wii's processing power and functionality. While not necessary, using the Wii Remote as simple pointing device would have been nice. Luckily we can use a GameCube controller, the Wii-Remote flipped on its side or the classic controller to play the game, which gives us plenty of options. I myself have switched between them as batteries need to be recharged.

As for non Wii-specific enhancements, some of the game's mechanics could have been more useful or user-friendly. For example, if you end your turn by accident when some of your units haven't taken an action, the game won't ask you, “Are you sure?” While this has only happened to me once, it was annoying and felt like the game cheated me out of a learn – I just restart from my last save when this happened.

Also, the game doesn't tell you how much damage you'll deal or receive or how many attacks you'll have before you engage in a battle, which is definitely a bummer. Some of this information can be mathematically calculated, but should the player do that when the Wii can do that processing for you? And what if new players don't understand the mechanics? – it's a blind guess as to their character winning the battle or not, and in my opinion, this only serves to alienate newer players to the series. And they keep asking, “Why are sales dropping?”

Presentation
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To put it simply, Radiant Dawn is a Wii-make. Originally released for the GameCube out in Japan, the developers didn't feel the need to upgrade the presentation to take advantage of the Wii's graphical capabilities when they decided to port it to the Wii for the North American release. Radiant Dawn isn't going to win any awards for its presentation.

With that said, the graphics are adequate and suit the gameplay very well. The gameplay is strong enough to hold its own, and by and large, you'll enjoy the simplicity and elegance of its design. Characters are colourful and uniquely identifiable on the battle map, terrain is interesting and dynamic (much more than in previous games), and the battle animations are some of the most satisfying you'll ever see in a Fire Emblem game yet. Critical hits and skill activations are extremely satisfying.

Nintendo/IS has even polished the existing engine. Now characters move much more fluidly, and there's an option to have them move at normal pace, or speed them up with a button press (Although, this should have been the default option in my opinion).

Path of Radiance only featured a few styles of environments – forests, castles, towns and snowy areas. Almost half of the areas were filled with grass and trees, which became boring. The level designers remedied that in Radiant Dawn. Every chapter features a completely different locale, and all of them look great. You'll have to play through several chapters to see an environment reused, which really freshens up the overall experience.

You'll explore temples filled with treasures, ancient ruins, the city streets, murky swamp lands, dry desserts, dark caves, and even wage war in the clouds! Even the grassier areas look unique, featuring different tree/bush arrangements, 3D cliffs, as well as different colours.

Also, each environment features distinct backdrops during a battle – and they mirror the location the battle is taking place on the map. For example, if there's a pillar or wall in between the two characters, the game will show you that wall during the battle sequence.

In Path of Radiance, if you had “Battle Animations” turned on, battles took a few seconds to load. In Radiant Dawn, battles start almost immediately as the environment is cached. While it still may be a good idea to turn battle animations off to save time, the pacing and transitions of entering battles seem much quicker compared to Path of Radiance.

Even though the animations during the battle have been improved, Radiant Dawn still shares Path of Radiance's problems. For example, whenever an enemy is attacked and their HP is reduced to zero, the animation of him dying happens AFTER the attack. It has no affect on gameplay, but it definitely affects the immersing factor.

Radiant Dawn's Full Motion Video sequences are awesome, and you'll be treated to several throughout the adventure, especially in the last half of the game. While the FMV's are not at the visual level of other games, they suit the style of the series and are a marvel to look at. The voice acting during these sequences isn't the best, but much better than in Path of Radiance. The anime style is simply gorgeous.

As for the in-game storytelling, there's a lot to be desired. While the character anime stills look great – better than ever before. They also change upon promotion for most of the characters, and some of them look fantastic. However, this approach looks dated, as stories are being presented far better in other games (take Mass Effect for example, which will be released in the same month as Radiant Dawn).

Overall, Radiant Dawn's graphics won't impress, but they won't disappoint either – it's merely adequate. It's worth noting that Radiant Dawn captures the essence of the SNES and GBA releases much more effectively than Path of Radiance ever did. Perhaps that's enough.

Sound
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The sound in Radiant is quite good. While most of the sound effects are recycled from Path of Radiance, they definitely do the job nicely. The musical score is also far superior to that of Path of Radiance. It's far more epic and is more like the Gameboy Advance releases. However, the tracks themselves don't have the recognition and superb melodies that some of the Gameboy scores did.
Radiant Dawn also features voice narration between chapters, which is welcome addition. Unfortunately, outside the FMVs, there is no voice acting at all, which really cuts down on the emersion factor of the whole experience. Yet again, the player is forced to read volumes of dialog spoken by the characters. This is quite absurd given the space allowed on a Wii-based DVD and the fact that games have been voice acting extremely “talkative” stories for many years now.

Also, during the cutscenes, the game doesn't use your specific sound settings. So if you have a television where the music happens to be significantly louder than the voices, you will be barely hear the spoken dialog.

Overall
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It goes without saying, if you enjoyed Path of Radiance and are just dying for the same gameplay, then Radiant Dawn is the game for you – go out and buy it if you haven't already, as Radiant Dawn is a far better game in almost every way.

However, even being a fan of the series since Fire Emblem 6, I can't in good conscience give this game a higher review, so I give it 7 out of 10. The game's fun and will certainly be enjoyed by most. But the old and frustrating game mechanics, lack of innovation, lack of voice acting, and extensive use of randomization keep this game from being a classic and a truly remarkable experience.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 11/12/07

Game Release: Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (US, 11/05/07)


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