Version tested: Wii
It's become a bit fashionable in certain circles to make fun of the Wii, to the point where games can't really escape it. Present these people with a game that uses the Wii controls and they'll say it's newfangled, unnecessary nonsense. Present them with one that doesn't really bother, and they'll say that the Wii is just two GameCubes duct-taped together. Radiant Dawn is good news for people that can't get to grips with motion sensing - it doesn't use it at all. Not even one little wave or gesture.
So the second criticism it is, then. It's more valid here than it is normally. Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to the GameCube's Path of Radiance in every conceivable way. It looks and plays exactly the same, and given that Path of Radiance was pretty ropey-looking itself, that's hardly a compliment two years down the line. You can load up your old GameCube saved game on the Wii for character and stat bonuses, and many of Path of Radiance's characters make reappearances. Strategy-wise, it's still wonderful, employing an inspired set of weapons and magic triangles and character support, but story-wise it doesn't quite live up to the standards of its forebears, and the awful presentation is even more dispiriting now that we've seen what the Wii can actually do.
You also find yourself taking control of some of your former enemies, the Daien, in a typical Fire Emblem corrupt and war-torn setting, as you assemble fighters for your little team of rebels. There is an enormous amount of content here - the story is split up into quarters, each of which covers the warring countries' efforts to recover and rebuild after the events of Path of Radiance from a different perspective. It's a good narrative structure, and keeps suspense going throughout, as well as splitting up the game's 45 different battles into rather more manageable chunks.
As always, each of the game's characters is an individual, and should they fall in battle, they're gone forever, complicated back-story and all. More fastidious Fire Emblem fans will be familiar with restarting battles again and again in order to triumph without any casualties, whereas most players will find themselves making different choices about which characters are going to be sacrificed. Radiant Dawn's most significant addition is the ability to save mid-battle, stopping you from having to do the entire thing multiple times - or, alternatively, accidentally trapping yourself in a position from which there is no hope of victory.
In terms of gameplay, tweaks are minor. You'll still control your lamentably fuzzy-looking units on a grid-based system in order to win battles, using swords against axes, axes against lances and lances against swords. You'll still earn experience, and promote your units to more powerful classes, and you'll still watch the story's events unfold in reams of text over still backdrops and cut-out characters.
There are slight changes to weapons categories and weapon-forging is now unrestricted (so long as you can pay for it), and there are two magic triangles instead of one. It's as in-depth a fantasy strategy RPG as you could ever hope for, rewarding consideration and attention to detail with tangible bonuses - doggedly forging your warriors and watching their stories develop is as rewarding as ever, and accidentally getting someone trapped in a corner and killed through carelessness is just as affecting, especially as they're never coming back.
Fire Emblem is the best in its class at what it does, which is very in-depth fantasy-based strategy. Its basic premise has been refined over the course of eighteen years into something wonderfully balanced and rewarding, but the series' complete refusal to adapt with the times gets very frustrating. As it gets more and more complicated, it gets less accessible, which further alienates newcomers from the series - especially as the difficulty is unrelenting right from the first mission. It's undeniably a great game in its class, but it's the same great game we've been playing for at least five years. You'll have to make your own mind up as to whether that will bother you.
Worse than that, though, is the completely horrible presentation. The environments are drab and fuzzy, the 3D character models completely bland and lifeless. The battle animations are laughably basic, and there's not a pretty lighting or water effect of which to speak. The 2D storytelling looks nice enough, but the 3D graphics really are very substandard. The worst thing is that it doesn't need to be like this - occasionally the game throws out a lovely cel-shaded cut-scene with beautiful style and gorgeous effects. Why can't the entire game incorporate that sharp, cel-shaded style? Why can't the battle sequences use those lovely flashing swords, show those devastating final blows with panache? Why is there absolutely no use of the Wii remote in a game that actually could put pointing and clicking to perfect use?
As with many of Nintendo's best-loved franchises, you could see the Fire Emblem series' refusal to alter itself either as commitment to good design or as unimaginative re-treading of old ground. But Fire Emblem has never had the spark and giddy light-heartedness that makes most of us forgive Mario and Zelda for occasionally repeating themselves. The fact that the core game hasn't changed at all is excusable because it has been honed to strategic perfection over decades, but the fact that it hasn't even received the most superficial of makeovers for the Wii is less forgivable. A Wii Fire Emblem with pointer controls, beautiful battle sequences and a cleaner, more stylistic graphical style would definitely delight fans, and would draw in far more new ones than this will.
So, good as it is, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is not something I can unreservedly recommend. For anyone who's ever loved this series, or Shining Force, this is a no-brainer - buy it immediately, and enjoy its perfect balance and enormous wealth of strategic complexity. If you've never played Fire Emblem, then this instalment's appearance and difficulty might prove dispiriting; the four-year-old Fire Emblem on the GBA is a prettier, more bite-sized introductory alternative. Radiant Dawn's core of creamy white strategy nougat does shine through its horribly drab exterior, but only just. We've seen it all before, and this can't help but seem like a wasted Wii opportunity.
7 / 10