FIRE EMBLEM: PATH OF RADIANCE / Nintendo / Gamecube
Path of Radiance was the first Fire Emblem entry to move into 3D (the planned Nintendo 64 entry was repurposed as the first GBA game) and the only series release for the Gamecube. Interestingly, it rolls back a lot of the gameplay additions from the preceding trilogy on the GBA. There are no more arenas or optional dungeons to level-grind in and no non-linear aspects whatsoever. It goes straight back to the NES/SNES days with a linear series of maps to plow through, with only limited opportunities to obtain gold and EXP and all of your shopping done in between maps.
I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be a paean to furries now too. The story moves to a previously unseen corner of Fire Emblem World split between some human kingdoms and some beast-man kingdoms of various types. It begins with a war between two human kingdoms, Evil Dickhole Kingdom invades Good Guy Kingdom for no particularly good reason, there's a princess on the run, etc. It's all the usual instantly forgettable Fire Emblem plot sludge that just sort of runs together from installment to installment. The big difference here is that instead of playing as the prince or princess, you're some mercenaries that eventually get involved with the princess after a couple of opening missions to establish personalities.
But anyway, the anthro animal kingdoms eventually get involved and then they sort of turn into the center of the plot over time. Humans are broadly racist toward the anthro animals and we learn that that's very bad, plus you get this one cat chick early on who seems to have a tsun-tsun thing with the main character, though I think that plays out in optional conversations that I opted not to bother with.
Anyway. Whether or not Nintendo saw how furries were keeping Sonic afloat and decided to go for those sweet sweet furbucks, I dunno. What I do know is that you don't really play Fire Emblem for the plot, because I've played every previous game in the series (with the exception of one SNES one) over the last 11 years and I can't remember a damn thing from any of them. You play it for the chess-like take on the SRPG, where you have to carefully nurture a small squad through battlefields protecting them from permadeath.
Unfortunately, a lot of Fire Emblem's reputation for challenge isn't predicated so much on deep strategic difficulty as it is on just pulling cheap bullshit periodically. And, even more unfortunately, Path of Radiance runs right back to that design philosophy after the GBA games had started to drift away from it a little. Returning from previous games are the enemy reinforcements that pop in randomly from random sides of the screen; made worse here because they instantly get a turn right after they pop in. There's also still the whole thing about recruiting NPCs by having to talk to them with some particular character, which half the time is just your leader but the other half of the time is some complete rando. Also, they're lodged in awkward places where they or you might easily get killed trying to get to them, or they appear way away from the action somewhere after the map is already well underway.
The particular bit of cheap bullshit that drove me away about halfway through the game was some enemy mook asshole lurking around near the end of the map with a "Killer" weapon, the type that virtually guarantee critical hits with every attack, which are a virtual guaranteed one-hit kill on all but your very strongest characters. I sink 40 minutes into a map playing with very good strategy and doing a great job, then this dipshit just jumps out of nowhere and kills off a critical character. Fuck off, game. I'm Dad Age, life is starting to look a lot shorter here, I don't have time for this kind of horseshit.
The cheap bullshit isn't layered as thick as it is in the SNES games, where it hit its absolute peak for the series, but there's enough to run off newbies/casuals and even make experienced SRPG vets think twice about bothering. The "return to tradition" focus here means you're getting the same ol' Fire Emblem tune as always, a fragile support character could die 30 minutes into a map because some asshole jumped in off the edge of the screen unpredictably and all you can do is either write the character off or write the 30 minutes off and start the entire thing over.
The graphics are also a disappointment. Now, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Fire Emblem for pretty graphics. However, this was the series' big transition to 3D models, and it also came out very late in the Gamecube's life (2005). Given those things, it really looks like an unacceptable level of effort was put into them - blocky models that look more like something from the Dreamcast library, simplistic but drawn-out and repetitive battle animations, generic map graphics. Fortunately, at least the soundtrack had some effort put into it. It's the usual marchy stuff consistent with the style of most of the rest of the series, but I think this entry might be the best of the bunch. It has my favorite standard map theme at least.
The plot is supposed to redeem all the rough edges, but I really don't see what all the praise is about. It's the usual shambling collection of JRPG tropes with a lot of forgettable one-note characters and predictable "safe for console kids" boundaries that Nintendo always hews to, with the dialogue done by a fanfic writer. A main antagonist is literally called The Black Knight, for Christ's sake. Nothing here is going to surprise you.
Ultimately, Path of Radiance is for the Fire Emblem Converted who have made peace with the finicky RNG and super-fussy defensive play style. It's not nearly as rough as the SNES entries, but it feels like a step back from the GBA entries in several ways in spite of the vastly increased horsepower. It's not worth the exorbitant prices for a physical copy, but big series fans will probably want to give it a look if Nintendo makes it available as a download at some point in the future at a reasonable $10 or so price point. Everyone else can safely ignore it.
* Gameplay Video
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