Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance

The future's bright.

Fire Emblem's quite popular in this house. So much so that last week I decided to resolve important life issues in the style thereof. Asking Kristan if he wanted me to pick anything up from Sainsbury's involved striking a heroic pose whilst peering out of the window, humming the theme music, and holding up bits of paper with flowery motifs bordering nobly worded guff about journeying to the merchants in the north in pursuit of sustenance. Getting into a turn-based bar fight was more challenging. [One of these anecdotes is actually true. Guess which. -Ed]

So much is it popular, in fact, that I spent several hours at E3 last month playing the partially-translated US version of the GameCube's first instalment, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, memorising menu layouts so that I could come home and import the Japanese version. Ladies, I'm still yours for the taking.

Alas, I didn't remember everything (damn you airport bar!) but it proved useful nonetheless. Having become so engrossed in the several-chapter demo on display at E3 for story and mechanical reasons, being forced to skip through all the Japanese exposition due to a total inability to comprehend any of it gave me a much better appreciation of the raw procedural stuff.

First impression? It's pretty much exactly what we had before, except in three dimensions, and featuring a phenomenal 3D cel-shaded introductory cut sequence (Dear Nintendo, please leave this subtitled as you did at E3, or I will SMITE YOU).

Second impression? Ooh, they did some things.

But first, let's sort out the basics, since only about forty-seven of you bothered to buy the first Western version of the game on GBA last year - despite it being by my favourite developer of all, Intelligent Systems, and despite it being a taste that once acquired lasted longer than chewing gum with time-release pockets of flavour built in.

If you've played Fire Emblem before and know what it's all about, scroll down until you see me waving. The rest of you, continue on. Consider this a side-mission. ImpressionsX.

Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game with role-playing overtones. You control a band of transparently and endearingly noble adventurers who are on a vital quest to save a fantasy world from destruction at the hands of almighty reawakening evil. The story and characters change from game to game, Final Fantasy-style, but that's the usual gist of it. The Cube one obviously does this too.

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The game is played out chapter by chapter, as you move your band around a playing area split into a grid. Each unit has a particular class from which you get various weapon or magical abilities, movement ranges and the like - so you might have a mixture of mounted knights who use lances and swords, heavily armoured but clunky generals with enormous javelins and lances, nimble swordsmen with rapiers, mage-like cloaked types who hurl fire and brimstone, benevolent healers, and so on and so forth. You have at least one particular unit who must survive at all costs and, critically, if somebody dies then that's it for them. They are dead. You can keep going, but you generally can't bring them back in controllable fashion in any of the subsequent chapters.

There are lots of other layers to it as well. You can befriend certain NPCs on the battlefield after mid-chapter in-game cut-scenes show events unfolding, you can use your character's turn to buy items like armour and health pickups from various shops, you can spend a turn sat on a fort-like icon to recharge yourself a bit, and you have to worry about things like the weapon triangle - which in paper/scissors/rock-style sees swords as stronger than axes, axes than lances, lances than swords.

All of this is played out ingeniously, with some of the finest and most elegant presentation witnessed in any role-player or strategy title on any format, battle animations on separate screens, sweeping scores - despite it being a largely 16-bit series - and memorable characters, unpredictable plot twists and more.

Its chief flaws are the divisiveness of the "perma-death" system, waiting for animations to play out, and some other time wasting bits and bobs. (And, actually, the way the game clock accumulates only time spent on the occasions you successfully complete missions. Given how much effort I've sunk into replaying Fire Emblem to emerge victorious with my entire troop intact, restarting chapters and skipping lengthy cut-scenes repeatedly, a bit of recognition would be nice!)

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Onto the Cube version then. But first...

COOO-EEEE! OVER HERE! YOU CAN JOIN IN AGAIN NOW!

Right, that should be everyone back with us.

Fire Emblem on the GameCube has given me two rushes of excitement sandwiching a big long streak of contented strategising. The first excitement had to be the way it looks. Kicking off with a phenomenal intro sequence that sees our hero sparring with his father - movement, facial expressions, body language and the warm summery environment gorgeously cast - with a glorious 3D anime look that could hold me for the duration of an entire film, it quickly heaps on comic-book-style story sequences where beautifully hand-drawn characters' dialogue is shown in speech boxes fleshing out the plot, and then onto the actual battlefield where units and the environment are fairly well detailed, before climaxing as you go into your first proper battle screen and the animations give Intelligent Systems' artists much-deserved licence to explore the intricacies of these ornate warriors.

Fans of the series, incidentally, will get a double-kick out of seeing familiar-looking units borne out polygonally.

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Then comes the big long streak of contended strategising as you just play it. It works in much the same way as it has in the past. When it's your turn, you select a unit, choose a square within your movement range - marked by blue highlighting on the battle grid - move there and then decide what to do, whether it's Attack, use an Item, or just Wait. (I'll get onto other things in a jiffy.)

Winning is simple but also very complicated, particularly as you get further in. Of course all you have to do is survive and meet the victory condition, whether it's "seize the gate" or "defeat the boss" or "defeat all your enemies" or what-have-you. But you want to be careful and meticulous, visiting the houses of villagers for item pick-ups, doing a spot of shopping, making sure you never position an ally within the movement range of an enemy if he or she is low on health, not killing enemies who you might befriend by using the "Talk" command, not exposing those flying Pegasus Knights to archers, trying to avoid striking an enemy on your turn if you think conceding two blows would kill you, because you will inevitably receive one in response and then be left at the mercy of the computer when your turn concludes and it's "Enemy Phase". And so on.

It's incredibly absorbing in the exact same ways the others were, and, but for a few quirks of the "This is our first stab at doing this in three dimensions" variety, like horses that zigzag along grid lines instead of just running from A to B, it's exactly what was required.

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And then comes the second dollop of excitement when you start to realise what's changed on a subtler level. There are new character classes. You can assign skills to characters between chapters so they can see further and so on. You can zoom in and out and rotate the camera.

And my two favourites. First, when a unit completes a turn-cycle weakened and you realise they've fallen just within the attacking range of an enemy, which so often means a complete reload of the chapter in Fire Emblem games past, you can now opt to nudge them one square in a particular direction using another unit.

Second, and I have to confess to reading about this one on the Internet and not actually extracting it from the impregnable throng of Japanese text using my powers of intuition, you can now apply experience to particular characters post-battle. This will be incredibly useful, because you're often limited to a certain number of units in a particular fight, and unless you cycle them chapter-to-chapter (which you inevitably won't because you'll pick favourites), then a number of those on the fringe will be totally useless later on. By applying this pool of experience to those who sat out, this is less likely. Heh - an intelligent system.

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So yes, Fire Emblem remains popular around here, and this being a first impression I need make no apology for being so hopelessly in love with the whole series. But it's a good thing I'm making no secret of it either, because it's entirely possible that when the game comes out in the US this October or Europe a month later you'll remember this write-up and think "Gosh, I should have a go at that". Yes you should, but it will be something that you either love in spite of its slight flaws or come to hate on account of them - a mystery I'll try and unravel for you when I'm sitting in front of a fully English-language review copy later this year.

In the meantime, this is definitely one to watch, and fans of the series will be pleased to hear that it plays just as well, looks great without losing sight of what was charming about it in the first place (witness the death animations, which see characters yield by slumping to one knee), seems to have been refined in a few interesting ways and, judging by the E3 build, will be translated with the same grace and elegance as the GBA instalments - refraining from slipping too much into the traditional "goofy" territory that Final Fantasy and others have become associated with here and there.

And, in the hope of getting a sound bite onto the back of the PAL box, let's end on one, with a bit of carefully positioned emphasis to stress the potential subjectivity: "Walking the Path of Radiance left me beaming." Sorry.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is due out on GameCube in Europe this November.

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