Review by MasterTurtle
"Bad Fire Emblem, good game."
The Fire Emblem series has always provided excellent strategy-RPG gameplay along with an interesting storyline and great characters. The latest few games in the series, mainly Sacred Stones (with it's unlimited available exp) and Path of Radiance (which made several mistakes like badly reworking the animations and introducing unnecessary new features like Biorhythm) haven't quite lived up to the legacy, but they're still great games in themselves. How does Radiant Dawn compare? Sadly, it takes the mistakes of the past few games and enhances their flaws, while destroying some of the better features of the series, though it remains a solid game.
Unlike previous games, the story in Radiant Dawn shifts between several different groups of characters several times. It starts out following Micaiah and Sothe of the Dawn Brigade, a group of freedom fighters in Daein. Daein was defeated in a war by Crimea and Beginon 3 years ago, and Beginon has since established an iron grip on the citizenry, so naturally it's the duty of all those who stand for good (your party) to break the reign of oppression. The second part involves Princess Elencia of Crimea and events taking place in her kingdom, while the third part switches over to the Ike and the Greil Mercenaries (the heroes of the aforementioned war) in addition to going back to Micaiah and Elencia's groups from time to time. The fourth and final section involves all three of these groups thanks to events unfolding at the time. The first and second parts are rather dull tales of one-dimensional heroes and villains you'd expect to see in a bad Disney movie. The story gets more interesting in the third and fourth parts of the game, but still really isn't up to Fire Emblem par, or the standards of most other games.
The basic gameplay of all Fire Emblem games has stayed the same - you're given a squadron of units to command and a mission (things like "Defeat all enemies", "Reach the target position", "Survive for X turns", or "defeat the boss"), and you're set free to wreak havoc. As you continue completing missions, your army will increase in size from a variety of sources (some units join you automatically, while others require persuasion from a specific member of your party and may even start out as enemies), and you can buy more and more powerful items from the shop in between missions. You can also distribute Bonus EXP (experience points which can be given to any character, earned by completing levels as quickly as possible and other special objectives), purchase or forge new items, assign skills, and obtain information. All of this has been done before, but the core gameplay is still solid. The way that Radiant Dawn goes about some of the nuances of gameplay is what hurts the game, however. In previous games, once a character had joined your party, they were there for good. In this game, however, you're forced to switch parties frequently - only in the last 15% of the game can you actually choose the party you want. This also ends up hurting the variety of characters available; character usability has always been a factor in previous games, but nearly all characters were more or less usable. In this game, thanks partly to the nature of split parties, the gaps between good and bad characters are even bigger, making it hard to do well with the characters you like.
The biggest problem with the gameplay, however, comes from the randomness of it. Biorhythm, introduced in the previous game, returns and has far more of an impact on the gameplay than it previously did. Basically, Biorhythm either increases or decreases a character's accuracy and evasion depending on what position they're at on the cycle (which looks like a sine/cosine curve). It's hard to describe in words, but it's essentially random (you can't control it at all) and adds an unwelcome and completely unneeded element of luck into the game. It's not like that's not a part of the game already, though. The stats characters receive upon level-up are randomized - sure, each character has different chances of gaining different stats (a mage has a high chance of magic increasing but a low chance for strength, etc), but the final decision is up to Lady Luck, and playing this game seems to put her in a bad mood. The system works in theory, but it's hard to care about theory when your character is level 15 but has the stats of a level 10 character. The truly criminal thing about this is that the previous game (Path of Radiance) introduced an optional Fixed Stats mode, where a character's stats are determined purely by growth rates, no luck involved. It was one of the absolute best changes to the series, but for whatever reason, it's just not included here. A few other nice features (like Bands, which let you modify character's stat growths slightly) were removed, too.
The level of difficulty throughout is somewhat unbalanced, as well. The game starts out as quite possibly the hardest game in the series (especially odd considering most games on the Wii are designed to branch out to large audiences), but mellows out and eventually starts to feel too easy towards the middle, though the level of challenge picks back up somewhat towards the end. A new feature designed to make the game easier for newbies is Battle Save - in previous games, one of the toughest parts was the fact that firstly, characters die and do not revive once they are killed, and secondly, the fact that you cannot save and reset in a battle. Battle Save allows you to do exactly the latter, and it's a welcome breath of fresh air. That absolutely massive map isn't nearly so daunting if you've got the capability to save in the middle. Unfortunately, Nintendo decided to not place a limit on the number of Battle Saves you're allowed - so, in other words, you can save after every single move you make and reset if what happens isn't to your liking. It does a good job of making the game more accessible to don't enjoy extremely difficult games, but there's absolutely nothing stopping you from abusing it. The levels are solid - there are a few that stand out as being poorly designed, but the game still manages to keep it interesting. The laguz (the races of beastmen that were introduced in Path of Radiance) make a return, and are still unfortunately balanced quite badly.
As for the new features that this game brings...the biggest one is the welcome addition of a third tier of units. In previous games, most characters started out as a basic class, like a Soldier, Fighter, or Mage, and were able to level up until level 20. After this, they were promoted to a second class like Halberdier, Warrior, or Sage, which provided characters a useful statistical boost, with higher stat caps, better movement range, additional chances to level up, and often additional weapon choices or special abilities. Now, there's another tier beyond that, with classes like Sentinel, Reaver, and Archsage. This hardly ends up affecting the gameplay (the only real change besides higher stats is that each class is automatically given a special skill, all of which are basically beefed-up critical hits), but it's nice to see the characters you've raised get taken to the next level in power. A few smaller additions were made as well; there are ranged weapons for Sword users now, some levels have ledges which act as barriers to horse-mounted units, and Knives and Dark magic are both standard weapon types now. The fact that you can now transfer abilities between characters without losing them is useful, since you can test out different skill combinations and change them back if you don't like them. The ability to transfer some stat bonuses from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is a nice touch, too.
One removal that will anger long-time fans is the removal of Support conversations. In games with large numbers of characters, it's very easy for the game to slip into a trap of introducing a character, and then forgetting about them completely, giving them no new development at all. Previous Fire Emblem games avoided this with an excellent system called Supports - after a certain amount of time near each other, two characters that were compatible could "Support" each other. This did two things - firstly, each Support initiated a conversation between the two characters that revealed more of this character's past and motivation, and it caused both characters to gain stat bonuses while near each other. In this game, Supports still exist, but the conversations are removed, and any character is capable of supporting with any other character. This causes the game to fall completely into the "character gets introduced and then forgotten" trap for all but a few characters (several characters are quite literally introduced with one line of dialogue and then forgotten completely until the very end), and removes some of the strategy from building teams, since you can now choose any two characters to work with each other.
Taking a look at the battle graphics first, it's clear that there's improvement over Path of Radiance. Characters seem much more alive - in PoR, they simply stood and then attacked when it was their turn to do so, but in RD they play an animation when they first enter battle (Bandits raise their axes and beat their chests, while Soldiers ready their lances). Animations vary a lot more during battles as well - a lighter character like a mage will dodge an attack like a javelin or an arrow, but armored characters like soldiers will deflect the weapon and you can see it bouncing off in the background. The characters look decent from a distance but still lack detail up close, and some of the animations (particularly ones from flying units) look extremely unrealistic. Many of the animations are reused between classes, too. Map and background graphics are decent looking but nothing special. The movie sequences are well-done and do a great job of mixing the anime-like style of Fire Emblem's characters with a 3D world. The graphics are decent overall, but when compared to those of other games on the Wii like Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Super Mario Galaxy, they're somewhat lacking.
As far as music goes, the game does fairly well. The battle themes to tend to get repetitive, but the music in general is of good quality and no tracks really stand out as being bad. Sound effects are good, as well. The problem sound-wise comes from the voice acting, or lack thereof - aside from a few brief animated scenes here and there, all the interactions between characters play out as silently scrolling text. Given that voice acting is something of a standard in video games and has been for the past few years, there's really no excuse for the lack of language. After hearing the acting from one of the few voiced parts, however, you might be glad for the silence - the small amount of voice acting present in the game is absolutely terrible.
Replay value: 5/10
Compared to previous Fire Emblem games, there isn't a whole lot to see here. Nintendo of America did it again and removed the extra-hard "Maniac" difficulty from the game, though you can still replay it on Hard mode, and using a different group of characters adds some variety to gameplay, but that's about it. The game itself is actually quite long, though, so it's somewhat forgivable.
Pros and Cons:
+ Classic Fire Emblem gameplay remains solid
+ Longer than any other game in the series
- Unbalanced difficulty (very hard early on, but very easy later)
- Lack of voice acting stings
- Missing many of the features that make other Fire Emblem games great
Overall: 7/10 (not an average)
Rent or Buy?
Buy. A better option would actually be to see whether or not you find the Fire Emblem series enjoyable by playing another game from the series, since Radiant Dawn would make a rather poor introduction, but the game is far too long to be finished during one rent session.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/05/08, Updated 05/07/08
Game Release: Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (US, 11/05/07)
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