Much like how the unassuming young hero of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance eventually rises up to face incredible odds, so does this strategy role-playing game turn out to be a resounding success despite a plain-looking presentation. Those who've played the Fire Emblem games for the Game Boy Advance will find that, above all, Fire Emblem for the GameCube doesn't mess with the series' successful formula and signature touches. That means you can look forward to a long series of challenging turn-based battles, a gripping storyline that takes the time to develop a huge cast of great characters, and the feeling that the decisions you make in combat carry life-or-death consequences for your squad. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance probably could have taken a few more risks with its design, and its 3D graphics ironically lose some of the personality found in the GBA games. However, these are minor setbacks for what is by all means an incredible, epic journey well worth experiencing by Fire Emblem fans or by anyone who likes role-playing games.
Ike may look like your prototypical anime protagonist, but his story in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is unusually good.
At the center of Fire Emblem's storyline is an aspiring warrior named Ike, son of an experienced mercenary commander and the heir to his father's dangerous business. The Greil Mercenaries initially seem content to take on odd jobs to earn a living and clean up the countryside. But when the neighboring country of Daein suddenly mounts an all-out attack against the Crimean capital city, the Greil Mercenaries must decide where to place their allegiance. Ike finds himself in a leadership position earlier than he anticipated, and as his mercenary company threatens to break apart amid the turmoil, he finds himself heading toward the country of Gallia for refuge. But Gallia is the land of the laguz, a race of werewolf-like demihumans capable of transforming into savage beasts. Tensions between the laguz and the rest of society run high, and soon Ike finds himself caught in the middle of two significant conflicts: Daein's imperialistic endeavor to conquer the continent, and a deep-rooted animosity between his people and the laguz. During the course of the adventure, Ike and his mercenary company become central to the future of their world, and they take to this responsibility in many different ways.
The story in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance unfolds mostly through onscreen text and lightly animated portraits in between and during battles, though some nicely done cinematic cutscenes are included to accentuate key moments. This is the same exact technique as what's used by previous Fire Emblem games, so now that the series is on the GameCube, the simple presentation and abundance of written dialogue may be initially off-putting. However, the storytelling in this Fire Emblem is as good as ever, and the story is really what ties the whole experience together and soon makes you anxious to help Ike and his companions fight for their every victory (even some of the bad guys are sympathetic). It's easy to get wrapped up in all the details of the game after only a few hours, as there's so much background and history to absorb and the dialogue is so well written. Through it all, the story keeps you guessing, touches on some of the same serious themes as the previous games, and somehow avoids becoming overly convoluted.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance consists of a linear sequence of chapters, and you must successfully complete the battle in each chapter in order to move on. But the many optional characters and conversations that you'll encounter along the way, not to mention the fact that your characters' lives are in your hands, help make you feel like an active participant in the events, rather than a spectator. Strip away the storyline and you're left with a well-designed, turn-based tactical combat game, which does a great job of simulating the lethality of battle. It typically doesn't take more than a couple of hits from a sword, axe, or spear for a character to be killed. And if that character happens to be a member of your squad, then he or she is gone forever. Fire Emblem takes place in a fantasy world, but there are no convenient resurrection spells here--death is a frightening reality. The game ends if Ike dies, but the story goes on if pretty much any other comrade of his falls in battle. You can always reset and restart the mission from scratch if you want to avoid any casualties, but some of the later battles are difficult, so sacrifices may need to be made in the name of progress. Fire Emblem's character death system has always been one of the series' distinguishing features, and it's every bit as punishing and compelling this time around.
Take good care of your units during battle. If they're struck down, it's game over for them.
The gameplay on the battlefield is virtually identical to the GBA Fire Emblem games, though fans will notice some minor additions, such as Ike's ability to give computer-controlled partner units basic orders, and how you may equip characters with certain special skills that give them unique advantages in battle. Thankfully all the character art is hand-drawn, and the isometric, fully 3D battles are the relative low point of the game's presentation. The graphics don't look like much, but at least it's easy to distinguish between your different units at a glance. You can typically bring about a dozen unique units into battle, and you may move them in any order during your turn. After your turn, the enemy may move all its forces until either you win or you lose. Many missions require you to wipe out all your enemies, but sometimes you'll need to reach a certain location, defend your position for a certain number of turns, defeat a particular target, and more.
The odds of each battle tend to be less than favorable, and the computer-controlled opposition won't hesitate to target your most vulnerable forces and generally give you a good fight. When one unit attacks another, the game cuts to a close-up as the two units exchange blows and damage is dealt. You may toggle off these sequences if you want the gameplay to move along faster, which is useful for when you're replaying a tough mission or have simply grown weary of watching the same animations over and over. The combat animations mimic the same look and feel of the great-looking battles in the GBA Fire Emblem games, but they lose some of the series' distinctive visual style in translation to 3D. Fortunately, critical hits still look as deadly as ever, and some character classes like wyvern riders and paladins do look great. On the other hand, we were disappointed by how measly the knights, and especially the generals, in the game look by comparison to their 2D counterparts. However, the visual presentation in this Fire Emblem is clean and attractive on the whole.