Review by CO Adder
"Not -quite- Radiant, but a good game nonetheless."
Introduction: Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is the latest installment in the long running Fire Emblem series. Well, it's not so long running on western shores, but it has a respectable four games under its belt. Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to Path of Radiance (one of my very favorite games). I'll get right to the point here- Radiant Dawn is a very good game. However, the weight of stagnation weighs so heavily upon it that an enjoyable experience is marred unnecessarily.
Fire Emblem's gameplay is simple- you have a small force of 12 or so units (this number varies wildly, but twelve is the general average) that you command via a series of menus. General flow is something like this: pick a unit, move it, attack, repeat. Naturally, it's not that simple- few games are. To wear the moniker Strategy RPG, a few tactical elements have to be involved. Some units are weaker than others, and thus, marching your frailer soldiers into a group of enemies will result in certain death- which is permanent. Once a character's HP reaches the big zero, the only form of revival is the handy-dandy reset button. This adds an element of difficulty to the game- in theory, at least. By the end of the game, you can quite honestly send most of your units to the wolves and watch them come out victorious.
There are several different kinds of characters- archers, which can attack from a distance, healers, that die at the tip of a hat but can help injured units recover HP, magicians that can attack from both close up and afar with magical doohickeys, and the general point and smite physical warriors. Returning from Path of Radiance are Laguz, shape shifting fellows that can turn into giant animals like tigers and hawks. Unfortunately, they're mostly useless due to the fact that they can't fight when in human shape, and with a few exceptions (said exceptions generally rank among the game's best characters), they can't stay transformed indefinitely. This makes your Beorc (human) soldiers far more effective. Weapons break over time (most have a set number of uses. For example, an iron sword can be used fifty times before breaking.), but at least they can be used for the duration of the battle. As your army fights, they gain experience points and level up. With each level up, their stats increase.
This is one of the game's major flaws- having been a Fire Emblem fan for quite a while, I can say this confidently. The stats level up randomly- each character has a unique set of growth rates, which determine the likelihood of a stat going up or not. Depending on how the random number generator favors you, you can end up with a group of demi-gods or ineffectual weaklings. The randomness doesn't stop there- the entire battle system is worked around it. Good planning and intelligent use of your soldiers can only get you so far when a string of blows land upon your supposedly dodgy sword master and kills him- when they really shouldn't have. Further randomness is added by biorhythm- during battle, your characters gain boosts and penalties depending on where their biorhythm marker is. This not really random in the true sense of the word- you can see it coming by paying close attention to the chart, but there's nothing you can do about it. Seeing as enemies also have biorhythm, an enemy at his peak that attacks a character who's having a difficult time can totally muck up your strategy. It adds more challenge to the game, but not one I particularly like.
On the bright side, Intelligent systems has been kind enough to put in place a few features to guard against the whims of chance. Most notably the battle save- a feature in which you can save your progress at any point during a chapter. Newcomers to the series may very well be looking at me blankly- what's so special about that? Nothing. But it's the very first time an FE game has incorporated such a thing. In previous installments, if you made a move, it was made for good unless you restarted the entire chapter. You can only imagine the frustration that could bring about. Also modified to help players who suffer from ill fortune is a new twist to Bonus Experience (experience points earned by doing special things that are assigned during chapter intermissions), where if you level up by using them, three stats are -always- gained- no more, no less.
Now, why only seven out of ten? Because, quite frankly, the gameplay has been the same since time immemorial. Or at least since the late eighties. Only minor changes have been undergone since the first game, and quite frankly, if you've played even only the games released outside of Japan, the formula is getting incredibly stale. The only new thing of note that was added in this installment are Third Tier promotions. That is, formerly, a unit could reach level 20, use an item and promote to a new, better class. Now characters can do that twice. But that's not even really a change- just a progression to keep up with the game's considerable length. Thus, a solid if flawed formula is brought down by sheer familiarity.
Graphics have never been entirely important to the Fire Emblem series. However, there comes a point in time where you have to stop suspending your disbelief and wonder: Why the hell didn't they do a better job with this!? The game looks like a Gamecube game, and not a particularly fancy one at that. The graphics would have been considered great about three years ago, but now, even for the Wii, they just look half-assed. Nevertheless, they do manage to look serviceable and in some cases quite good. While the map models and in-battle models look aged, the character portraits are very good looking and artistic, and the environs themselves are fairly interesting. Also improved are the battle animations- instead of one motion over and over and over and over again, like in previous installments, characters actually vary their motions a bit, sometimes performing a somersault to dodge or fancy jumping strike to attack. They're still far from riveting, but it's a step in the right direction. Thusly, graphics earn an even seven. It should be noted, however, that in terms of Wii Functionality, it falls flat on its face.
Sound is where this game shines the most. The soundtracks of FE games are very enjoyable, and oftentimes memorable. While Radiant Dawn's soundtrack is lovely, most of the tunes lack a certain quality that makes them genuinely memorable, and most that are come from Path of Radiance. Be that as it may, however, the game still manages to sound like a fantastical medieval epic that's easy on the ears, and it also delivers a few tunes that really do stick in your head.
I'll be frank- the plot of this game really isn't special. To be fair, Fire Emblem in general doesn't delve into deep narratives or anything of the sort, but they still manage to be entertaining. I can't really discuss at liberty what the actual plot contains, because aside from a few very basic details, almost all of it is a giant spoiler. Direct sequels have a tendency to follow this pattern. It's told fairly well, which brings up the score. The narrative switches between a voice acted narrator (who, I am happy to say, does his job very well) and sequences between the characters interacting and moving the plot forward. The characters are endearing and colorful (and beautifully drawn!), but Fire Emblem, as it always has, suffers from a terrible malady: Mute cast syndrome. When a non-principle character shows up, he gets his day in the sun and just disappears for the rest of the game, except when he goes out to fight. Tons of potential is wasted this way. Intelligent systems has tried to rectify this through various means- the most prominent of which would be supports. Through various means, characters that were compatible could converse with each other, adding character depth and backstory- they also got stat bonuses when near each other.
Not so in Radiant Dawn. The stat bonuses remain, but now all characters can support each other. This entails that conversations last two lines and do nothing to delve into character. While this adds to strategic options, it totally strips the minor characters of whatever story development they would have normally. The information conversations in intermissions are not enough for a cast of seventy. Still, the story earns six out of ten for presentation and not being mind- numbing.
There's really no need for me to review this. It's almost impossible for such a game to mess up controls, being menu based and all. However, I will take this opportunity to note that this game does nothing with the Wii's unique control scheme. Not that it really -has- to, but if they're not even going to improve the graphics, then really- not a whole lot was put into this game.
Difficulty balance: 5/10
Now, make no mistake- this game has an ideal difficulty- it makes you think, some of your units are very frail and must be placed carefully, and your enemies are generally on the same level you are. At least, for the first ten or so chapters. However, after this, the difficulty fluctuates wildly from the original level to MINDLESS SLAUGHTER. If they could have kept it constant, this section would have scored much higher, but the game just can't seem to make up its mind about how hard it wants to be.
Replay value: 7/10
Now, despite the fairly middling scores I've given here, the game, against all reason, still manages to be compelling and fun enough to stack up with the others. As in most Fire Emblem games, most of the replay value comes from using different characters in your team each time through. This time around, Intelligent Systems has also included a few secrets and characters only available on the second play through on. There's enough here for two play throughs, more if you're a diehard fan.
This may be a bit strange for a score, seeing as most of them have been sevens. However, I don't take averages, and sometimes, packages are greater than the sum of their parts. This is the case here. This game has several flaws- I will make no mistake about this. However, it's good points and overall appeal manage to earn it a solid eight. This may be because I am, at heart, a huge Fire Emblem fan that just finds satisfaction from the formula, but I think that there's something else to it. I would recommend renting this, and if you like it, then buy. Fans of the series should buy outright.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/14/07
Game Release: Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (US, 11/05/07)
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