Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is the latest installment in the venerable series of tactical RPGs by Intelligent Systems. The game kicks off with the members of the rebellious Dawn Brigade attempting to free the oppressed country of Daein, and then spreads out across the whole continent of Tellius. War, hey? What is it good for?
Radiant Dawn is the first Fire Emblem game to grace the Wii, though you'd be hard pressed to identify it as a Wii game simply by looking at it. The graphics tend to look very last-generation, with blocky, simple animated characters skating around the screen. The 3D battlefields are nicely done, and are able to be zoomed and rotated to a certain degree but aren't going to inspire any loving odes to the Wii's graphical power. There are a few moments where the eye candy factor takes a teensy upward nudge, particularly with the zoomed-in combat scenes that present a 3D 'on stage' look at whatever conflict is currently underway. Mention has to be made also of the various pre-rendered, motion captured cut scenes that are scattered - very thinly - throughout the game. They're gorgeous and a refreshing break from the otherwise okay-ish looks of the game.
We're bringing up Radiant Dawn's graphical shortcomings so early in the review because ultimately they don't really matter. It's difficult to not want things to look as good as they possibly could, but Radiant Dawn is functional enough in the graphical department. It presents a lot of information in a mostly clean and clear fashion and the 2D art work is attractive in that saucer-eyed, spiky-haired anime style that Intelligent Systems are so fond of. Yes, a bit more flash and glitter wouldn't hurt, and if the next installment doesn't pull its socks up a bit we'll be disappointed, but for the moment, we'll forgive Radiant Dawn's slightly frumpy fashion sense and move quickly along.
Fire Emblem's reputation is staked largely on solid, turn-based tactical gaming, supported by RPG-style character development and it's a combination that remains as compulsive as ever. The meat and potatoes of the game sees you manoeuvring a party of combatants across grid-based maps, trying to achieve various objectives, such as killing every enemy unit or reaching a certain spot on the map. Each party member has different strengths and weaknesses and it's up to you to keep everyone coordinated and working to the best possible advantage. Most battles will be immediately lost if a particular character dies, or some other victory condition isn't met.
You can lose other characters and still win a battle, but these characters will be gone for good. There's no post-battle hospital where you can meet up with the fallen and venture on. It can be agonizing to finally beat a particularly tough battle, but to have lost two or three prized characters in the process. Reload and try again or push on? It's a decision that lends a certain weight to each battle, and you'll genuinely feel the loss of every passing character. Not necessarily in an emotional way, but more in a slightly grumpy "Oh great. So who's going to be the healer now, hmm?" frame of mind. We eventually become a bit more cavalier with the characters, as there always seemed to be a ready supply of replacements waiting to step into the breach. Some characters, at the end of the day, are just cannon fodder. There's an undeniable glow of satisfaction that comes from getting every character through every battle, but be prepared to do a lot of reloading and replaying if you can't bear to lose anyone.
Even if you're happy to leave a long, bloody trail of dead chums in your wake, you'll still be facing a significant challenge. As mentioned earlier, most battles will immediately be lost if a particular character dies and the game's AI has a knack of knowing exactly who to kill to bring things to a shuddering halt. We played the game on the Normal difficulty level and found that the going gets tough right from the very beginning - particularly at the very beginning, actually. It takes a while before characters start levelling up, or before you have enough team members to form a good defensive line in front of vulnerable characters, so it's remarkably easy for a battle that's progressing quite nicely to be ended by a single arrow. It's never unfair, exactly, though the frustration level spikes perilously high on occasion. One particular map late in the first chapter sees your team reduced to two characters in a darkened maze that's swarming with the enemy. It must have taken at least fifteen attempts to get through the battle, thanks to the enemy's ability to leap out of the darkness and kill the vital, game-ending unit with one blow. Not so much a strategic challenge but more one of crossing fingers and hoping the dice rolled in our favour.
The consistently high difficulty level of Radiant Dawn is something to keep in mind if you're a more casual strategy gamer. The game will punish you for every mistake, even if it might have been more fun to let you slip through the net every now and again. The game also reinforces its 'permanently dead characters' mechanic by making it impossible to quickly reload a game if you lose a non-vital character that you'd rather keep alive. You actually have to exit the game entirely, right back to the Wii menu, before launching the game from scratch and then loading up a saved game. It's quicker to deliberately sacrifice a vital character, get booted to the Game Over screen and then reload. It's not exactly user-friendly, but completely indicative of the hard-as-nails approach the game takes.
The RPG side to the game lets you customise your characters in various ways. You can buy weapons, potions and spells, dish out bonus experience points as you see fit, add or remove skills and make sure everyone has been tuned to optimum efficiency. You can determine support relationships between some characters, which gives them a statistical boost if they're kept reasonably close together when fighting. Underlying all this are pages of statistics that cover every imaginable aspect of a character. They even have biorhythms that let you know if the character is having a bad day and therefore might best be kept off the front line. It all works well to make you feel that these are your guys, hand-reared and nurtured into the adorable little killing machines that they become.
The game is wrapped up in a large, epic storyline that is unfortunately slapped out like so much cold, lumpy mashed potato in a prison refectory. The story itself isn't the problem, just the tired, leaden way it's served up. Expect endless screens of text as characters pelt each other with the most God-awful, angsty swill masquerading as dialogue. It's quite possible that in Japanese it all reads like Shakespeare but it simply doesn't work here. Even putting aside the excruciating awfulness of these exchanges, surely there's a better way of telling a story than this kind of text heavy verbal ping-pong? Occasional in-game cut scenes that display every limitation of the graphics engine don't help in the slightest. There's something inherently depressing about the lack of imagination in the story's delivery. The constant political intrigues and firehose-like gushing of new characters all eventually meld into a kind of bland, grey stodge that's as dull as it is indigestible, and it's best to skip past it as quickly as possible.
The game is controlled entirely with the Wiimote, or you can use a Classic or GameCube controller if you fancy. We used the Wiimote almost exclusively, simply because it involved less plugging in and faffing around than the other options. Radiant Dawn is an entirely waggle-free game - there's no swishing anything about to attack, for example - so feel free to use whichever method is most comfortable for you. Also, for what it's worth, there are no multiplayer or online options. Radiant Dawn is an entirely single-player game.
If you're looking for a steel-plated, take-no-prisoners strategy game on the Wii, and you're not bothered by abysmal storytelling, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn will fit you like a well tailored pair of battle-shorts. Otherwise, gird your loins and approach with caution. Radiant Dawn is not for the mildly curious or easily frustrated.