GameCube port stuck in the past.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to GameCube's Path of Radiance. While recommended, it's not necessary to have experience with it or any other Fire Emblem. Throughout the game, you will be often reminded what has happened in the past. Three years have passed since Path of Radiance's story ended with Daein loosing Mad King's War against Crimea. Now Begnion troops occupy Daein and try to maintain peace with an iron fist. You follow the story of Dawn Brigade, a group of Daein rebels fighting against the oppression. After that you quickly jump to Crimea to hastily see what's going on there, and then join the laguz fighting against the empire of Begnion. In each part you control a different group of characters, most seen in Path of Radiance - as a matter of fact all characters from the previous game make a comeback here, including a few dead ones. First the story feels very shallow and generic and regrettably it takes twenty hours before it finally starts to develop and twist. Of course you'll have to make it that far first.
If you've played Path of Radiance, the carbon copy gameplay won't hold any surprises. Long-time fans may find it a good thing but for me the game feels out of place. What's the point of making a Wii game if you won't take advantage of the one strong point? You can use GameCube controller, CIassic or Wiimote sideways to play the game. In combat the system works well, but a click-and-drag system with the Wiimote pointer could have done wonders in the menus and point and click in battles should even be more fun. In the current state, it can sometimes take way too long to do the basic maintenance after every battle. Talking about menus, you may encounter strange stuttering in the inventory and shop screens once your team has grown larger and Wii's DVD drive does the best it can trying to keep up with the massive amount of items.
There are two human races in Fire Emblem, beorc and laguz. Beorc are the ordinary humans with warrior, mage, thief and archer cIasses. Laguz also known as the beast people don't wear armor, use weapons or cast spells, but rather shapeshift into animals. Unfortunately they can't stay in animal form forever and are completely useless in human form. Beorc have stronger nations and unsurprisingly find themselves superior to laguz bringing up the game ethics and philosophies. Laguz are divided to hawk, raven, dragon, wolf, tiger, heron (sort of angel) and cat tribes. Every cIass and tribe has their weaknesses and strong points and you'll have to keep a close look at the rock-paper-scissors system. Lance wins sword, sword wins axe and axe wins lance. The same method continues with magic as fire is superior to wind, wind to thunder and thunder to fire. That alone is enough for a newcomer to learn, but it's not all. Every turn you'll also have to think about terrain advantages, mounted and flying units, bows and counter-attacks. Fight against your weakness and you'll find yourself dead in no time. Even on the easiest difficulty, you can find yourself reloading after mistakes to keep characters alive as if someone dies, he is gone forever. Thankfully, an option to save in middle of battle has been added making the experience a lot more enjoyable.
Except for choosing the equipment and few special skills there isn't much character customization going on. Though you can rarely get the gears you want because except for gaining money at predetermined locations, there is no way to obtain cash as the game is completely linear automatically taking you from chapter to chapter. As your characters gain experience and level up, they gain attributes in predetermined order. Once beorc characters hit level 21, they gain a cIass upgrade and start again from the beginning. As a change from Path of Radiance, the level cap for laguz has been raised to 40 and all beorc cIasses have gained an additional cIass upgrade. When certain characters have fought enough together, you can set them to support each other gaining a small skill bonus whenever within the range.
Graphics have never been the high point of Intelligent Systems' games and neither is it the case now. Path of Radiance was no beauty queen and strangely the graphics haven't improved at all. Some of the higher level magic effects are joy to look at but otherwise the game doesn't come even close to the best looking GameCube games and are simply dated on Wii. Intelligent hasn't even tried to mask how the game started off as a GameCube project - on any field. At least the cutscenes are still gorgeous, but now with more powerful systems available, I wish the game was on one of them so the whole game could look as good.
Besides the cutscenes, the whole story is told through long conversations with static cardboard cut-outs. The dialogue is vast and usually sharp. Ironically all of the characters remind cardboard cut-outs as none of their personalities go further than their cIass. Ike is your ordinary hero, Laura is ordinary priest, Skrimir your ordinary young lion prince and Soren your ordinary tactician. And as strange as it may sound, the conversations have no real widescreen support even though rest of the game does. It wouldn't be such a big problem if you didn't spend hours upon hours reading the dialogue. Widescreen could have really helped the presentation as if there is more than three persons in a conversation, all of them won't fit the screen at the same time.
Voice acting is quite rare in the game and you won't find it outside cutscenes and narration between missions. And frankly with the usual JRPG teen heroes, I couldn't stop laughing when I heard some of the characters for the first time. Especially the (very) young archer Oscar and Silver Haired Maiden Micaiah are quite something to listen to. Fortunately all of them aren't quite that bad and cutscenes only pop up once in five hours.
If there is a field where JRPG's usually shine, it's the score. Unfortunately in Radiant Dawn the music is rather generic. Some of the tracks have a chance to rise over the grey mass but lack the kick to become memorable. And the same problem continues with sound effects. A massive explosion that covers most of the screen sounds like a puff and attacking an enemy resembles bug squishing. Though this emphasizes the powerful critical hits which become more and more rewarding with flashier animations the longer you advance.
Radiant Dawn is a fan service. Old players of the series are hungering for more of the same, while newcomers may find the unforgiving difficulty and overall stuck-in-the-past feeling major turn-offs. Everything from the dated graphics to Game Boy controls and bad voice acting screams last-gen. Nearly everything from the gameplay to presentation could just as well be on Nintendo DS, only thing missing would be the beautiful cutscenes. The game still has the magical strategy feeling but all the small annoying flaws do a good job of burying it. As long as you can get past the first twenty hours, you'll get another good twenty out of it. It is often said that only Nintendo knows how to develop for Wii. As a first party developer, the lack of effort from Intelligent Systems is a real shame. Even though it's not a Wii game, it's the best strategy title on the Wii. If you don't count Path of Radiance that is.