Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is the first home-console game of the loved Strategy-RPG franchise Fire Emblem. Like all other games in the series, it was developed by Intelligent Systems, a subsidiary of Nintendo. This game is the third instalment in the series that's received an international release and hopefully by far not the last. It certainly had a lot to live up to, being the first game in the series to feature 3D graphics and following two superb Fire Emblem games on the Gameboy Advance. Fortunately, apart from a few minor issues, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance did just that.
The story of this game is set on the fictional continent of Tellius and is totally unrelated to any of the previous Fire Emblem instalments and is inhabited by humans known as Beorcs and a new race called Laguz, which are humanoid creatures that can transform into powerful animals. You follow the story of a young mercenary named Ike, who works for a company called Greil Mercenaries that's led by his father. Just when Ike was finally allowed to fight alongside his companions, his homeland Crimea is starting to get invaded by the country Daein and its power-hungry King Ashnard. It doesn't take long for Ike and his group to get involved in this mess and so his epic, long journey through the lands of Tellius begins.
Along the way, you'll meet plenty of characters that you can recruit for your team of mercenaries. Not all of them will just happily agree to fight for you though, as you'll often times have to do different things to make them join your group. You won't get another chance if you've missed a recruitable character, so it's always a good idea to pay attention to the dialogue in search of any potential hints. Fortunately, that's not the sole purpose of the dialogue in the game as the story is really well told with a cast of very interesting characters, often with deep personalities, and should keep you going till you eventually reach its conclusion after almost 30 chapters.
After a couple of chapters, you'll gain access to a new feature in the series which is the Base. There you can prepare your army for the next battle by equipping them with items and weapons, either found in previous chapters or bought from an armory and a shop. You can also read Support conversations between units that both have participated together in enough chapters and various interesting Info conversations that offer backstory, hints on upcoming situations or even a new character that joins your team. Probably the most useful addition is a so-called Bonus Experience system. For each chapter, depending on your overall performance, you get an amount of Bonus Experience that you can distribute to weaker characters that aren't fully able to stand up to enemies just yet. You'll also get another chance to move items and weapons between your units in a Preparation menu before each battle scenario of a chapter.
The main thing that makes the Fire Emblem series so great is its highly addictive gameplay, which I personally like to describe as chess but much, much more complex. Basically, each chapter has one battle scenario where you have a map, usually crawling with enemies, and an objective to complete. That objective can simply be killing all enemies but it's also possible that you have to only kill a boss, arrive somewhere within a limited period of time or seize a certain square on the map. Each map is divided in squares and each unit can move for a different amount of squares each turn. Once things get serious and you clash with the enemy, that's where things get really interesting.
Before you actually engage in any battle, you can and should always try out every possibility you have by moving your units close to an enemy, selecting Attack and the weapon you want to use. You'll then see a quick summary that shows the important factors in a battle. These things include the Health Points, hit percentage, damage and and critical hit percentage. Critical hit percentage should be given extra attention, as one of those deals x3 damage and almost always dramatically changes the outcome of a battle. If you think it's too risky, you can always cancel your move as long as you didn't initiate the battle because that's when have no control over what's going to happen. All you can do is pray that your unit is going to survive and hopefully kill the enemy as well. Fans of the series will know for what reason I said 'pray' instead of just 'hope'. Well, that's because any character that dies in Fire Emblem games is gone for good and if it's a character you're required to use for a chapter, it's an instant Game Over and you have to restart the whole chapter. Characters that are vital to the story, however, will only retreat but they can't be used ever again.
If you've won a battle, the unit will gain Experience Points, usually about 30. For every 100 points it gains, it will grow a level and (hopefully) also get some stat increases. Fire Emblem has a very unique system when it comes to this, as every character only has a certain chance for each stat to increase, called Growth Rates. These normally range from 0% to 100% and play a big role in determining a unit's usefulness as they are different for each unit and class. The problem here is that you can't actually find out how high or low they are because they aren't shown in the game. If you don't want to use a walkthrough then it's recommended that you simply stick with the characters you like. Once your characters reach Level 21 (or you use a Master Seal on them when they're Level 10 or above), they'll promote into a higher tier unit, granting them considerable stat bonuses and, in some cases, access to new weapon types.
I'd quickly like to mention here that watching the characters you carefully trained and have started to love slowly turn into powerful badasses that will completely destroy anything you put in their way is one of the most satisfying feelings I've had in any game and makes up a huge part of the overall enjoyment I got out of this game.
The skill system, which wasn't in the previous two GBA games, also returns in a different form. Each character has a skill capacity and can learn skills by using skill scrolls found throughout the game. Each skill has different uses but mostly they give an unit an advantage in battle. Some will always work while others will only trigger based on a percentage that's usually related to the character's Skill stat.
Now all this might sound really complicated to any newcomer to the series but fortunately Path of Radiance features well made in-depth tutorials that explain everything you need to know in order to succeed. Those tutorials will be unlocked as you progress through the game and face tougher challenges. They can be viewed anytime during the gameplay too and really help in making the game more accessible to new players.
The graphics department seems to be the place where most of the controversy about Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance originate from. 3D graphics were a big leap for Intelligent Systems who weren't exactly used to them at the time and I think they look just fine, if a bit bland. There's a lot of room for improvement though. The animation, while nowhere near as good as the fantastic battle animations in the GBA games, is still pretty good and critical hit animations never fail to make you feel badass each time they occur. The game also features a couple of FMV sequences throughout the game that look very impressive and leave you with a desire for more. However, the high point of the graphics are without a doubt the beautifully drawn, slightly animated 2D Anime character artworks that are mainly shown during conversations.
The soundtrack has a very orchestra feel to it and does an excellent job in making every moment feel epic, though there are occasional sad or funny moments as well. The only problem I have with the sound has to do with the small amount of decent English voice acting during the few FMV sequences. The voices are so quiet compared to the sound effects and music that I had a hard time understanding much if anything and there sadly are no subtitles either. It's nothing major as there isn't much dialogue during those sequences anyway but it still leaves me wondering why they didn't notice and fix that before releasing the game.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, like most other Fire Emblem games, has an insane amount of replay value thanks to almost 30 chapters and 30-40 hours of playtime in one playthrough. There are three difficulties, though Easy and Normal mode are the same gameplay-wise, except that Easy mode has a bigger focus on tutorials. Hard mode, however, provides a much tougher challenge and will easily double the total playtime you can get out of this game. There are some extra incentives for multiple playthroughs as well, such as the option for fixed stat increases where your units won't end up great but they won't end up bad either. Of course, each playthrough is different on its own because you always have to adapt your playstyle depending on the characters you choose and how they turn out.
The 3D graphics are alright, but could be a lot better. The same thing can be said about the animations. The beautiful 2D anime character art is the graphical highlight though.
An excellent, epic soundtrack that has a very orchestra feel to it. English voice acting during the very few FMVs, while decent enough, is sadly very quiet compared to the other sounds and therefore hard to understand. It's not a big deal at all though, especially when compared to the fantastic soundtrack.
Fire Emblem's amazing, complex and highly addictive Strategy-RPG formula refined to perfection. You'll have a hard time finding anything better than this.
Playing through the almost 30 chapters is going to take you 30-40 hours, depending on your playstyle and amount of chapter restarts. A hard mode and the nature of the game motivate you to come back for more.
Summing up, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is one of the best entries in the long-running franchise, if not the best, and certainly won't disappoint any fan of Strategy-RPGs. It refines the classic Fire Emblem formula to perfection and makes it a lot more accessible to newcomers in the process. Together with an excellent soundtrack, great graphics and interesting characters it forms an overall fantastic package and a must-own for any (Strategy- )RPG fan. I love this game so much that I can't even express how much I regret not picking it up any earlier because I'm sure I would have done multiple playthroughs of it by now because it's just such an addicting and fun game.
Final Score: 10