Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Review Day: Fire Emblem

Overview
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is one of those hybrid games released with little hype that doesn't sell well because it's too hard to categorize. At its core, it's a turn-based tactical combat game with some semblance of role-playing elements like leveling up characters, numeric stats, and an overarching dramatic storyline. The game consists of 28 levels in which you maneuver your army across the battlefield like chess pieces, striving to accomplish various goals such as routing the enemy, seizing a location, or staying alive for ten turns. The story (which is a notch higher than the usual RPG dross) plays out through non-interactive cut scenes between levels, and a whole lot of text. If you are illiterate, you will hate this game.

Graphics and Sound (7/10)
The graphics are a mix of bland 3D and cutesy animé cartoons, which are sufficient to get the point across but won't win any awards anytime soon. Every time one of your men attacks an enemy, the view switches from a bird's eye view of the map to a 3D battle scene where the units perform fancy moves and swing their swords. Thankfully, you can turn this feature off (something I did almost immediately). I hate not being able to skip things in games as it is, and with hundreds of mini-battles in each level, these scenes got old very quickly, despite how cool they looked (see also, every single cut scene in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

The sound effects in the game are passable, but the music is quite good -- an old-fashioned orchestral soundtrack that will remind you of old school Super Nintendo games. The instruments are obviously MIDI-based and not sampled, but the way it evoked memories of older games made this decision work. This game could have appeared as is on an older system and would still have been just as fun. There are only a few major themes that play through the levels, so hearing the same old battle music got old about halfway through the game. However, just as I was getting ready to mute the TV and pop in my Johnny Cash Monkees Boxed Set, all the music changed for the remainder of the game. The battle music became rearranged with a lusher orchestration and everything seemed to be written at a more epic scope (and the story in the game itself became more epic as well).

Gameplay and Interface (6/10)
The instruction manual is useless, and there are billions of numbers and options throughout the game which are only explained through a context-sensitive help system that really doesn't give you a big picture. The game does provide some tutorials on how to play, but none on what all the numbers do. Luckily, you can completely ignore almost every superfluous number and still enjoy playing the game. Each fight between units essentially boils down to an attack and a counterattack, so the only numbers that truly matter are how much damage your guy will do and how much he will take. Death is permanent in this game, so if one of your men dies, he cannot be used in any future levels. Between levels, your army returns to their base where you can manage the recruits, buy new gear, and assign bonus points here and there. The menu system here is easily the most cumbersome menu system in the history of menu systems, with menus that have submenus going four and five levels deep. The simple act of telling one guy to give his sword to a friend and then buying him a new sword takes over 20 button clicks to do.

Fun Factor and Difficulty (9/10)
There is a luck factor in the game -- sometimes characters will score a critical hit or dodge a massive fireball, but as I played, I never felt that the outcome was too random. The game is almost a puzzle-game in a sense, because it rewards careful planning, good formations, looking a couple moves ahead. The way you organize your men is key, and you'll generally want your tough nuts in front with the pansy healers and magic users in the back. Each unit has a specific matrix of positions where they can attack, but it's not so strict that it becomes a glorified chess game. I found myself appreciating the game more as I got deeper into it and began to understand how counters worked and the best ways to position my people. Once you know what you're doing, the game is not very difficult at all, although there are a few frustratingly long levels that you will lose right near the end and have to replay several times (you can only save the game between levels, not during). If you are just intent on blazing through, you can probably beat the game in under thirty hours. If you are anal-retentive like me, and insist on having every single one of your men survive for the entire game (and also want to kill every single enemy on the board and get every piece of treasure), it will probably take you over forty hours with replays. In this case, your best friend is the button combination Start-B-X which resets the game so you can start the level over when things aren't going your way.

Translation (7/10)
Japanese role-playing games can be made or broken on the strength of their English translations. I recall a supposedly touching moment in one of the old Final Fantasy's where a main character was killed that made Japanese gamers everywhere cry. Either they're a bunch of pansies, or they had better dialog than the English version which was something like "I am dead. Urk. Don't cry me." The translation of Fire Emblem is very solid English, but not as witty or charming as the translation for Paper Mario. Where video game characters of yesteryear always said "Yo" when they were translated for Americans, now they say "...". Whole conversations can go on with just "..." which I presume can be translated as This character is not currently saying anything but he is struggling inwardly or showing a look of disapproval. Here are a couple examples of how you would use "..." in your daily life:

Bottom Line
If you like thinking/strategy games which require no reflexes whatsoever and don't mind a cumbersome interface, buy this game. It's accessible enough to pick up quickly, with loads of deeper features for people interested in exploring them all. It's very rare these days that I actual have the will power to beat a game, so the fact that I beat this one must mean it was worth my while. Plus, it's possible to play this is short spurts of an hour or so and still find yourself making steady progress through the game.

This game also taught me that I need a new roommate -- it's very hard to take staged pictures of yourself.

Vomiting and jellyfish and too much time on his hands
"That's fine, I can go pee," Silos said. "Let's go pee."
Vengeful mouse sets house ablaze

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