JRPG Journey 2020: Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (September)
Summer bonus game: Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line
October’s game: Romancing SaGa 2
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is the first Fire Emblem game I’ve touched, seen, or played in any capacity. The only things I knew about this series going in, aside from Smash Bros. character appearances, were that it’s a turn-based tactical RPG with permadeath and a lot of character work, and it’s typically considered difficult.
While I enjoy TRPGs, I haven’t played many of them, and the closest experience to this that I’ve had is Advance Wars on GBA. While I found that game fun as a kid, it quickly became too difficult for me and I lost interest. Perhaps this is why I avoided Fire Emblem for so long. Now, I’m regretting that decision almost more than any other gaming-related choice, since the Fire Emblem back catalogue is quite expensive with almost no exception, and I want to play as many of them as I can (I’m so hyped to play Radiant Dawn, the sequel to this game, that I’ve already started it and likely won’t review it for this series). I loved this game, and I finally understand the core appeal of the tactical RPG genre.
When playing Advance Wars, I often felt like there was too much dialogue between missions, and I just wanted to get back to the combat. While some of that sentiment will always exist for me, I got into the characters and story way more in Path of Radiance. The classic fantasy setup connects with me more than sci-fi weaponry (though maybe this is because I’ve been playing so many classic JRPGs lately), and I thoroughly enjoyed getting familiar with, and eventually mastering, what I now know are series staple mechanics and characters such as the sword/axe/lance trio, Canto (though Canto refers only to Reyson’s double movement skill in this game, which confused the hell out of me for a while), item use, fliers, and dancers.
Permadeath, meaning characters who die in combat stay dead permanently, has been described to me as a pain point of the series for some, but it didn’t bother me. Typically in a game like this, I wouldn’t want to lose anyone anyway, so I never minded reloading. With that said, I actually did allow myself to lose a few minor characters who I didn’t plan to level up anyway, and I was OK with that. This balance felt great to me, although I was playing on Normal mode and can’t speak to the higher difficulties. (I took a step up for Radiant Dawn, however, and am playing on Normal, which is the Japanese Hard difficulty.)
The experience system, on the other hand, took more adjusting to, what with bonus EXP and earning a random amount of stat boosts with each level. I’m the kind of player who likes to have a plan for where my party is heading, and with this many characters to choose from, I used outside resources to get character recommendations shamelessly. These games are known for being tough, and while I now know that Path of Radiance is actually one of the easier games in the series (and it certainly was very easy overall for me on Normal), I wanted all the knowledge I could get heading into this one. I’m glad I did this, as there were a lot of mechanics brand new to me, such as unit promotion rules and recruiting new characters in combat. (I missed Marcia due to now knowing this at first, but hey, Jill and Haar ended up being fantastic in the flier role.) I was able to put my bonus experience into the most worthwhile characters (Ike, Boyd, Oscar, Titania, and Jill were mainstays), and with a little save scumming to get 4–5 stat boosts per level up, I sailed through most of the game. This is my preferred way to play, and the loop of slowly getting stronger, being able to double attack more often with more units, forging crazy powerful weapons, and executing strategy perfectly was highly addictive to me, and in the best way.
The story is rather standard fantasy JRPG fare but kept me mildly interested throughout, which is enough. The appeal lies more in the characters, both for me and seemingly most series fans (I now get why there are so many Fire Emblem characters in Smash), and Path of Radiance knocked that out of the park. Sure, it’s “just” another anime-style game, but well done anime-style characters always appeal to me.
Mission design also felt perfect, with missions for the bulk of the game not lasting for too long, which is one of my few complains with Valkyria Chronicles, the only other series of this genre I’ve spent a decent amount of time with. New mechanics were carefully introduced at a steady drip, and maps were decently varied in appearance and layout. By the end, they were getting rather complex and involved careful cross-unit planning, but this felt appropriate for such a late stage of the game. The difficulty curve in general was perfect, and while I didn’t come close to beating the Black Knight, it would be a lot of fun to go back and try a playthrough specifically building toward that goal. This kind of decision making that leads to replay appeal is one of the best aspects and kept me wanting more.
Path of Radiance might be the most “into” a game I’ve gotten throughout this whole year, and I’ve played a ton of great titles, including a few classics. I finished within 15 days, a record, and this was a lengthy game. (I spent 44 hours on my one playthrough, including resets.) This reminds me of my experience with Valkyria Chronicles, which I became similarly obsessed with. Something about this genre clicks for me in a resolute way. I very much count myself as a Fire Emblem fan now, and I can’t freaking wait to tear through more games in the series, starting with Awakening once I’m finished Radiant Dawn, and then Three Houses. Expect to see at least one of those in next year’s edition of JRPG Journey.
Until then, however, you can look forward to October’s game: Romancing SaGa 2, a Super Famicom classic that didn’t made it to the West until recently. I know next to nothing about this one, so I hope it’s another hit.