"Fire Emblem remains gaming's best series thanks to another near-perfect installment."

"This is some kind of monstrous joke..."

It's difficult enough to make a series with one or two great games, but Intelligent Systems churns out greatness so often that it seems routine these days. But make no mistake -- the Fire Emblem series continues to get better, with Radiant Dawn the latest example of a series all others should aspire to. If you translated this into a boxing match, opposing trainers would have thrown the towel in about five rounds ago.

As many know by now, idiotic reviews from pseudo-professional sites that shall remain nameless decided to cry about Radiant Dawn for all the wrong reasons. Most famously, they kept pacifier companies recession-proof by whining about the game being too hard, too difficult for casual gamers to get into, and for being a Wii game with no Mii support.

Do not listen to those people. They are communists. If you're some whiny casual gamer never looking for a challenge, you're getting into video games for all the wrong reasons and Fire Emblem doesn't want you anyway. Of course the game will chew up and spit out those terrible at games. That's a huge premise of what Fire Emblem design is. Even then, Radiant Dawn has Whiny Child's Difficulty (also known as "Easy"), so this is a moot point. As for the lack of Mii support nonsense, this only proves that professional reviewers never bothered playing a Fire Emblem game -- they probably never even got an advance copy of Radiant Dawn, come to think of it -- before writing about it.

Now for those of us that don't suck at video games, Japan was nice to us this time around. Typically, Japan assumes American gamers are stupid and doesn't put the hardest difficulties into their games. In Radiant Dawn, they finally gave us Americans some credit. American Easy is Japanese Normal (though it's still kid's mode), our Normal is their Hard, and our Hard is their Maniac. If you're a complete masochist, Maniac Mode in Radiant Dawn is one of the hardest modes of the entire series.

In short, people crying about Fire Emblem games killing them are just bad at video games and are wholly irrelevant. It's nice seeing a series that doesn't care about easymode casual play and focuses on making a game challenging, but still fun. Nothing else. Fire Emblem has always done this very well, and will continue. Radiant Dawn even goes one step further, giving the middle finger to casuals and pandering to the FE fanbase at the same time.

"I will make your death as painful as I know how."

The core gameplay mechanics remain the same as they've always been. Most of your time playing Radiant Dawn will be spent on giant chessboard-like maps, with some storyline in between. The basic premise is you typically control a small group of characters and must complete whatever goal the map provides. Typically your goal is to kill every enemy on the map, but sometimes you'll have to defend a certain place for a set number of turns, seize a certain spot on the map, or just kill a boss. But regardless of the ultimate goal, you basically control the good guys and kill the bad guys. And unlike the CT system in Final Fantasy Tactics, you and the enemy exchange phases and take turns moving. You have all your own characters perform actions on the map, then the enemy does this, and so forth until someone wins.

Easy, right? You wish. One thing Fire Emblem games are famous for is perma-death. If a character dies, they die. No reviving, no second chances. The only way they're coming back is starting the entire map over, which can be major if someone dies near the end of a map. Certain integral characters dying means game over and starting the entire map over anyway. Radiant Dawn actually introduces a battle save option if you want to save mid-battle and test the waters, but it's better not to rely on this if you ever plan on playing hard mode. That option goes bye-bye then.

Given perma-death, battles come down to true strategy, especially given the increased difficulty in Radiant Dawn. Enemies are significantly stronger in this game than in games past, and in early stages of the game especially you'll feel on-edge in fights. The way through all this is learning the ropes and taking your time, more or less. The balancing act for weapons and magic returns from past games in Radiant Dawn. The main thing is the weapon triangle, in which swords best axes, axes best lances and lances best swords. Magic elements have a similar triangle, but it's virtually irrelevant given how all magic users have high resistance to magic attacks -- one or two points of damage here and there doesn't make a huge difference like it does with physical weapons. You also have your bows. They attack two and sometimes three panels away and are very effective against enemies with one panel melee weapons, but can't attack one panel away.

Lastly, there are certain shapeshifting units called laguz, which are very powerful in animal form, but can typically only stay in animal form for a limited time and have their own way of being balanced. Laguz on all fours (cats and wolves and the like) are really fast, but are made of fur. As such, fire magic destroys them. The birds are even faster and avoid most attacks, but arrows and wind magic can take them all down. And then there are the rare, super-powerful dragons. They're the strongest of all, but are rather lumbering and get absolutely rocked by thunder spells. A lot of purely human units on your team have similar ways of being balanced out, such as everything on horseback getting nerfed in this game, pegasus knights having the same old issues with low HP and arrows, and wyverns having a newfound weakness to thunder spells.

Everything balanced out in the end, but you have to worry about people not dying in Fire Emblem games. Do you send your sword user to kill an enemy wielding an axe, knowing that a lot of enemies with lances are looming? Will you risk flying your wyvern knight over a wall to kill a potentially dangerous enemy, only to put him or her in range of some tool with thunder magic? It's all very involved, and the perma-death aspect adds a level of tension rarely seen in other games. And of course, there are always the threat of critical hits. Good players will rarely put themselves into position to die from that magical 2% chance the enemies always seem to get, but sometimes the enemy has a "killer" weapon with a high critical percentage, superior numbers or plain old blind luck. Some people whine about how these factors paired with perma-death makes FE games too hard, but again, these people are communists. Ignore them. The reality is these factors are part of what makes FE gaming's best series.

Radiant Dawn however, even though it's difficult, provides a ton of options to flat-out break the game and make things a little less insane. Skills from FE9 are back, and better than ever. There are an absolute ton of them, ranging from increased damage to birds to nullifying enemy criticals to nullifying enemy skills and everything in between. The big addition skill-wise is nearly all your units having three tiers of job classes instead of two. Typicall you get a unit and can promote them once. In Radiant Dawn, most human units have three tiers of job class. Not only does this give you 60+ levels of stat growth instead of 40, but each tier three job class acquires an automatic mastery skill that more or less equates to "If it goes off, the enemy dies". These mastery skills are a cause of ironic debate in the Fire Emblem community; while a lot of casuals are out whining because Radiant Dawn is too hard, a lot of Fire Emblem fans whine because mastery skills supposedly make the game too easy. Game designers really are stuck in a lose-lose no matter what, since everyone whines about nearly anything these days.

Laguz also get mastery skills, but it's acquired through an item since laguz do not promote. Laguz also only get to an overall level of 40, whereas humans get to 60. The mastery skill debate does have some fair points, but they are not the end-all, be-all of fights. They don't go off half as much as some would have you think, and earning them requires a lot of leveling on some units. Yes, some units come ready-made in tier 3 or close to it, but others join your team rather far off from it. Either they're horribly underleveled, or flat-out suck in fights for a rather long time without some outside help, like bonus experience. The main problem with mastery skills isn't that they exist, but that the game is very one-sided about the whole thing. Nearly anyone in your party can have them, but you will very, very rarely see an enemy slap you around with one. In fact a certain late boss in Radiant Dawn is perhaps the hardest boss in any Fire Emblem game, in part because he has a mastery skill that goes off quite often if you aren't packing Nihil. If more enemies in the game acted like this, people would likely have a more favorable opinion on the entire thing. Frankly, the endgame chapters are difficult enough to get around most game-breaking stuff you can come up with, which is another reason Radiant Dawn is so awesome. No matter how good your team gets, the game will usually throw something better at you. But damn if it isn't fun getting characters to broken levels anyway, plus Intelligent Systems has a huge track record of improvement. In the next game, they'll probably give more bosses mastery skills and map-wide attacks, while possibly nerfing the mastery skill damage or proc formula. They're awesome designers like that.

Speaking of bonus experience, it makes a return in Radiant Dawn, as well as a few other things that are mostly improved upon. Bonus exp is a great way to give weaker characters a boost, skills have obviously returned, and the amazing Base system is back from Path of Radiance. No more doing everything at the very beginning of a fight. Well technically you still do everything at the beginning of a fight, but having a base feels more realistic for your characters, rather than just watching them map-hop all game. You do all customization in a base before a battle, and you can even view the next map, then return to base and continue preparing for what you've seen. You can do everything here: items, weapons, shopping, info conversations, forging weapons, bonus experience, skills, reading up on characters, looking at who did the best on past maps, and so much more.

The support system is a bit weaker this time around from a character perspective, but from a gameplay perspective it makes the most sense. Any character can have a support with any other character which makes for the best gameplay support option available, but the actual conversations are fairly generic. So it's good if gameplay is your big thing, bad if you love seeing all your FE characters with deep backgrounds. But again, it's Intelligent Systems. They will improve upon this, or perhaps go back to the Path of Radiance support system and simply add more conversations for more characters. They're awesome like that. The one other gameplay issue is how adding and removing skills is actually an item, causing skills to pop up in your inventory space. You either have to ignore it, or constantly keep sending skill scrolls elsewhere. It's annoying, but nothing that ruins the game.

"Bathe in my radiance!"

The Fire Emblem selling point is the gameplay. People play it for the amazing gameplay, and nearly everything else, no matter how good, tends to be a bonus. This will not be true for Radiant Dawn, because it has the best story of any Fire Emblem game.

Radiant Dawn takes place three years after the events of Path of Radiance, making it the first direct sequel in the series. 7 was a prequel to 6, but there have never been two games in order in the series until now. In Path of Radiance, the kingdom of Daein invades Crimea, and Ike's band of mercenaries save the day. Three years later, the continent of Tellius enters turmoil once again.

In the beginning of the story, you view things through the Dawn Brigade, a small group of Daein survivors struggling to keep their country afloat from the oppressive, evil rule of the occupying rule of Begnion -- the country that won the war. Begnion of course turns evil in the three years since the Path of Radiance events, and commits a ton of atrocities through rule of Daein.

Believe it or not, you don't begin the game from Ike's perspective. The leader of the Dawn Brigade is Micaiah, a Daein girl with the gift of farsight. Through this ability and her small group of troops having superior skill to their enemies, Micaiah's Dawn Brigade travels all over the place helping oppressed Daein citizens and helping to give them a normal life. The Daein citizenry views her as the Maiden of Miracles, and eventually the Dawn Brigade isn't able to work from shadows very long.

This sounds like your basic "good combats evil" plot in which you expect the Dawn Brigade to plow through the game and liberate Daein while annihilating Begnion, but Radiant Dawn works very differently from games past. It's a lot like the various episodes of Starcraft, in which you view a giant overarcing plot from various perspectives culminating in a gigantic unexpected climax. This is simultaneously the story's biggest strength and greatest weakness. Nearly every character and country from Path of Radiance returns, all perspectives are explored and you're more or less viewing the storyline from all the world's view all at one time. The game does an excellent job of essentially bringing two games together all at once, but it's difficult to get attached to any one group of characters when you're jumping all over the place. The story is divided up into four parts plus an endgame, with everyone very separate until near the very end.

It's done extremely well, but the story might have benefited from one or two fewer perspectives just to give you more time with the characters you do end up caring about. This said, the story has so many great plot twists from so many different directions that you won't likely care about this diversion stuff by game's end. Everything turns upside down and right side up and every other which way all throughout the game, culminating in an amazing final group of story scenes playing out like a book you can't put down until the end. You'll want to play through Path of Radiance first to fully appreciate the stuff Radiant Dawn does, but all the time spent will be worth it come the endgame chapters and the way everything ends. Radiant Dawn's story is as good as any in gaming, which is surprising given how Fire Emblem games are generally only known for their gameplay.

"Your end is near."

And yet even with the insanely good gameplay and story carrying the game, everything else is done nearly as well. Graphics aren't a very important part of what makes any game fun, and Radiant Dawn proves this. Radiant Dawn looks exactly like its Gamecube counterpart, but looks equally epic. There are a fair amount of cutscenes -- as an aside, the intro movie has a TON of spoilers in it once you start playing through the game and figuring out what it all is -- and mastery skills while overpowered look amazing. And if you turn battle animations off and skip all this, the game still looks just fine. Music also isn't an important part of what makes a game enjoyable or fun, but it sure can help. Radiant Dawn's soundtrack assists the overall epic feel of the game, especially Ike's theme and the music that plays for the final fight of the game. The overall soundtrack is amazing, but those two tracks stand out more than the rest -- the former of which was selected for Brawl's soundtrack and is the best tune on it by a mile.

Radiant Dawn is a game very worth playing, so long as you've played Path of Radiance first. Its issues are overall minor pests, and it's a fantastic gaming experience in nearly every way. Sure it isn't geared toward casual gamers as much, but who cares? It's like when people complained Metal Gear Solid 4 wasn't a good game to begin the MGS series with, because it might turn off and confuse casuals. Does it really matter? Not everything is about sales figures and pandering; sometimes you specialize a game and appeal to the people that care the most.

Gaming's worst-kept secret is the more you cater to non-gamers, the worse a game gets. There is insurmountable evidence of this. Radiant Dawn is a perfect example of what happens when a smart developer stops caring about sales and solely aims to make a game as good as possible. You end up with a damn good game in every way possible. This is not a coincidence. And if you sell slightly less copies and lose a few whiny "Why can't I use my Mii?" crybabies to make a game better, good. Fire Emblem is unforgiving and doesn't care about you, it never will care about you and it does not want you. Go away.

Rock on, Intelligent Systems. You unmistakably live up to your namesake.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 06/19/09

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

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