Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is set to hit the GameCube in just a few short weeks, and we've been able to spend some time with the finished localized version. We've gotten to chew on a lot more of the storyline this time around; we've gotten to meet the major characters and see just how the game's action unfurls. We've also got a few new details about the gameplay and how things have been refined a bit. From the time we've spent with the game, it looks like Fire Emblem makes the shift to the GameCube in fine form.
Things start off in the nation of Crimea, a mostly peaceful kingdom minding its own affairs in the continent of Tellius. We say "mostly peaceful" because there are still plenty of criminal elements running about in the form of brigands, pirates, and bandits. When villages become targets for assault, they can always turn to the Greil Mercenaries, a band of skilled warriors that will right wrongs and save the day so long as there's a steady paycheck at the end of it. The main hero of the game is Ike, a blue-haired youth who's been learning the trade from his father, the gruff and mighty Greil himself.
At the beginning, Ike's finally getting a chance to prove himself with the mercenaries, and it comes at a crucial time--Crimea's capital is razed by an unprovoked assault from the nearby kingdom of Daein. Ike and some of his companions scout out the outlying destruction and find a young woman, unconscious. She ends up being Elincia, the princess of Crimea, and she's in a lot of trouble. She begs the mercenaries to help her reach the beastmen's kingdom of Gallia, fleeing the Daein forces that are chasing her. Greil accepts the job, and from then on the small band of fighters is swept up into the greater intrigues of the world.
This is traditional Fire Emblem storytelling through and through, with plenty of text-based story sequences to chew on between battles, and even a few computer-generated cutscenes to accent the action. While you can skip these, you wouldn't want to, because the cast of characters is pretty engaging right from the get-go. Though Ike and his friends all fight under the same leader, they do not all fight for the same reasons, and often have wildly differing viewpoints on the matters of morality and their own responsibility. When they discover Elincia's true identity (as the Daein army crowds outside), some of them are calculating enough to want to turn her over and ingratiate themselves with what might be new employers. It's a nice mix of heroic and more logical sensibilities, and it's easy to grow fond of the various characters.
The turn-based gameplay moves to the GameCube in a lot of ways unchanged from the previous versions, but some additions flesh things out. Knowing your enemy's move range, for example, is something that's pretty important when moving your units around, and this game gives you an easy way to check. Moving the cursor over an enemy unit and pressing the A button stamps that unit's move range on the field in orange and locks it there. You can do this with multiple enemies at a time, so you can get a quick and painless set of visual clues to let you know where it's safe to move your fragile mages and healers.
Another new feature that helps protect characters is "shove." Using shove on another character pushes them over a square. We used it a few times to move a healer into danger range and let him heal a needy warrior, then send another fighter over to punt the healer back into a safe zone. You can still rescue weakened characters and move them out of harm's way, but shove lets you encapsulate that kind of thing in a single turn.
The character augmentation system's undergone some changes as well. Your characters still can change into a more powerful class, but this now happens automatically at level 20. No muss, no fuss, no items required. And there's a whole new set of characters with the laguz, a demihuman race of beastmen that have the ability to transform into powerful creatures to fight for your cause. There's also a new system of skills in the game. Some skills are class-specific, while others are more general, but each skill will enable your characters to use new and useful abilities. One such power is the stealth ability, which lets your character move undetected past enemy forces, for either a surprise attack or some treasure-chest robbing.
The game's 3D implementation seems serviceable enough, with plenty of the more traditional 2D-style artwork cropping up for all the game's many conversations. The cutscene art plays out like a textured animation, cartoon-shaded but with lots of depth, providing some nice eye candy at regular intervals. The musical score is well suited to all the action and drama, and there are plenty of great and subtle sound effects at work. While a mounted knight galloping across a field yields the sound of turf being chewed up by hooves, the sound of a paladin running mounted across the same surface will be accompanied by the faint jingle of armor and harness. In-battle sound effects aren't too shabby, either, with the critical attacks sounding especially vicious.
Fire Emblem fans (and the rest of you turn-based strategy junkies) should definitely keep their eyes on Path of Radiance, scheduled for release in mid-October. We'll have a full review and more soon, so watch this gamespace for the latest in updates from the war-torn lands of Tellius.