Whenever there is a popular handheld series, it’s inevitable that requests for a home console installment will follow. Pokémon Sword and Shield have caught the attention of many by being the first mainline entry of the series on a home console. These desires are unsurprising; for most of gaming history, handhelds have been far weaker than their household contemporaries. A home console game typically has many features that can’t be implemented on a handheld system. While Fire Emblem originated on the NES, western audiences only had the opportunity to play handheld entries. When Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance released in 2005, the entire world was able to witness a drastic yet refreshing departure from the rest of Fire Emblem.
After years of Game Boy Advance Fire Emblem games, fans grew weary of the similar gameplay. While Intelligent Systems worked on The Sacred Stones, they also began a far more ambitious project: a home console entry befitting of the GameCube. At the time, Fire Emblem‘s most recent home console game was Thracia 776 for the SNES. A return to the family room was destined to break the stagnation of the GBA entries. While Intelligent Systems was understandably cautious about jumping into 3D game development, the support of Nintendo and worldwide success of the series prompted the development of arguably the most ambitious title yet: Path of Radiance.
Long ago, the Dawn Goddess Ashunera created the world of Path of Radiance. From her world the Zunanma rose and evolved. The Zunanma eventually split into two races: the Beorc and the Laguz. The Beorc are similar to humans, while the Laguz can transform between a humanoid and animal form. Eventually, the two races went to war. Ashunera tried to stop the conflict, but her emotions cause the world to flood, leaving the continent of Tellius as the main landmass.
Devastated by her actions, Ashunera separated the emotion from her body, creating Yune. Ashunera’s original body, now a being of justice, became Ashera. While Ashera was revered by the Beorc and Laguz as a being of order, Yune was believed to be a being of chaos. Yune was eventually sealed in the Lehran’s Medallion, possessed by the Herons of Serenes Forest. Admittedly, the story of Ashunera isn’t too important for Path of Radiance, except for establishing the common origin of the Beorc and Laguz. The story of Yune and Ashera will be far more important in Radiant Dawn, the sequel to Path of Radiance.
Hundreds of years after the Ashunera’s split, several nations emerge. Begnion, Crimea, and Daein are Beorc countries, with the latter two once being part of the former. Gallia, Goldoa, Phoenicis, and Kilvas are Laguz nations. Tensions are rising once again between the two races, as the Herons were all but wiped out in the Serenes Forest massacre. During the massacre, Lehran’s Medallion was gifted to Elena, the mother of Path of Radiance‘s protagonist Ike. After the “mysterious deaths” of Daein’s heirs, Ashnard takes control, promptly making the nation militaristic and beginning a war with Crimea.
Ike is the latest member of the Greil Mercenaries, a group run by his father. The group holds no loyalty to one country, defending villages from brigands for pay. One day, Ike finds Elincia, the secret daughter of King Ramon of Crimea. Not long after, a mysterious figure known as the Black Knight kills Greil, leaving Ike as the sole leader of the Mercenaries. The Black Knight was sent to take Lehran’s Medallion from Mist, Elena’s daughter, in order to allow Ashnard to free Yune.
Ike and Elincia travel to the Laguz nations amidst the racial tensions to create an alliance against Ashnard. Ike tries to heal the problems between the two races while attempting to save Crimea from Daein’s annexation. Ike also has a personal goal: he seeks to vengeance against the Black Knight for his father’s death. The journey sees Ike grow to fill his father’s shoes, eventually defeat the Black Knight, and help Elincia save Crimea.
The story of Path of Radiance is one of the most refreshing ones in the series. It shows the way war affects common people, as opposed to just how nobles are impacted. Ike was the first protagonist to have no ties to a nation. He and the Greil Mercenaries are simply trying to survive. For much of the game, Daein seems to be the clear victor of the war, yet Ike doesn’t back down. Path of Radiance doesn’t tell the story of a noble caught in politics. It tells an endearing tale of a boy who wants to impress his father, going beyond his astronomical expectations. In that regard, Ike is a protagonist that is far more relatable than most, as wanting to please those we care for is a natural trait.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Fire Emblem game without moral conflict. Instead of making a deep villain to fill the questionable morality quota, Path of Radiance opts to approach a social issue: race. Despite originating from a common ancestor, the Beorc and Laguz despise each other. Even those with mixed Laguz and Beorc blood, known as the Branded, are despised and discriminated against. One group will attack the other, fueling hatred and creating a never ending cycle of conflict. It’s up to Ike and his group to mend the relations between the two groups.
Tackling the topic of race is nothing new for media, but it’s refreshing to see all the same. It shows that conflict can be created through manipulation of the common people, not just corrupt kings. One example of this is when the Begnion Senate “revised” history to make the Beorc and Laguz seem less related. Perhaps most interestingly, much of this manipulation won’t be revealed until Radiant Dawn. It makes one question what other deception is hiding in plain sight. I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic of race shows up in Three Houses, as there is a drastic tonal shift between the “School” and “War” phases of the game. Perhaps nefarious influences will spread propaganda in each of the three nations to promote a war?
One of the major additions of Path of Radiance is the base system. Between battles, the player is given time to manage the army by moving equipment, viewing conversations, and applying bonus experience. As opposed to providing shops within the maps, Path of Radiance allows players to shop in the caravan traveling with Ike’s army. This has a similar result to Sacred Stones‘ system of allowing players to revisit shops between battle: there isn’t quite as much stress during battle, which can be interpreted as a loss of a strategic layer or as an understandable adjustment.
Among the traditional wares, Path of Radiance introduces an additional type of store: a forge. In the forge, the power, accuracy, critical hit chance, and weight of a weapon can be improved. The weapon can also be renamed for a touch of personality. However, the smith doesn’t charge lightly. This high cost generally makes the system balanced in Path of Radiance. One can’t simply create an arsenal of deadly weapons, they have to carefully think about the carrier’s weaknesses and how they can be negated.
However, in Fire Emblem games that have infinite sources of money, such as Awakening, the forge is far more powerful. The excessive price of a maxed out brave sword doesn’t matter if it can all be earned back with a few skirmishes. Fire Emblem Fates attempts to address this problem by requiring multiple copies of the weapon when forging. There, completely forging a weapon will take 128 copies. I’m intrigued as to how Three Houses will attempt to balance the forge. Perhaps it will be tied to student proficiency, or will be unavailable until the “War” half of the game.
While previous Fire Emblems had support conversations to connect story to gameplay, Path of Radiance furthers this tie with the conversation system. Before every map, there is a set of optional dialogue sequences that can be viewed through the base. Some are trivial, a few provide hints for the coming battle, and others grant weapons, new battle options, or soldiers. Of course, supports return from the Game Boy Advance entries. However, they are unlocked based solely upon how many chapters the units in question have been deployed together, so they generally occur less often. The Base system conversations guarantee that there is always some sort of break from the war at hand, while the support conversations further the development of one’s favorite units.
The final part of the Base system is the unit management. At the end of every battle, a certain amount of bonus experience is rewarded to the player. The amount is based on turn count, encouraging players to fight an aggressive yet strategic war. There’s a reason the Roman tortoise formation was implemented. Slowly marching towards the objective as a group is one of the most effective ways to limit casualties, so Intelligent Systems needed to promote creative strategy. Bonus experience can be applied to any unit in the Base, providing normal level ups to whoever is deemed to be in need. This is a great way to encourage low turn counts because it’s organic. There is no arbitrary limit of turns so one can play however they wish, yet the bonus experience subtly pushes for quicker completion.
The second part of unit management is the Skills system. Introduced in Genealogy of the Holy War, skills were mostly absent in the GBA games. In Path of Radiance, there are two types of skills: Soldier and Citizen. Soldier skills are tied to a class, and are always equipped. Citizen skills require a certain amount of capacity to use. Each character comes with citizen skills, but they can also learn them from Scrolls. Scrolls can only be used on a single character, so it makes death even more impactful.
Each character has a certain skill capacity for their Citizen skills. This allows for some customization, as each player can set up skills differently. This capacity based skill system is similar to modern Fire Emblem, where a character can equip 5-6 skills from a pool of unlocked choices. However, the idea of assigning a capacity value to each skill is a clever one. One can not just overload a character with overpowered skills, they have to think tactically. Skills will likely return in Three Houses, but I hope that a system can be implemented to balance them. Perhaps certain skills will take more time to teach than others, or the capacity system will return.
The Base system is seemingly trivial, yet it ties together all the features of Path of Radiance while making the experience a bit more convincing. The soldiers in your party aren’t just lines of code, they have experiences, conflicts, and growth. The problem with allocating character development to support conversations is that the development will never be witnessed if the character isn’t interesting enough originally. The Base conversations ensure that every character will have some time in the spotlight. The character development and inventory management are incorporated more organically than before. Something similar to the Base system has appeared in most Fire Emblem titles since.
Awakening has an area in which random characters could converse or do activities. Fates has the My Castle system, in which every character relaxes between battle. Three Houses has the most obvious influence of all: the first half is set in a base! It seems that Byleth will be able to witness his allies live their lives in Garreg Mach Monastery. The Base system doesn’t add to the battles, but it organically connects management systems and reminds the player why war is being fought: for the people.
But what’s the point of managing an army without a battle to fight? Like all Fire Emblem games, Path of Radiance contains many turn-based strategy missions. Objectives generally include routing the enemy, defeating a boss, or defending for a certain amount of turns. Escape missions return from Thracia 776, but optional side missions have been removed. Promotions have been adjusted, the biorythm system has been added, and the Laguz have a unique combat system.
Unfortunately, The Sacred Stones‘ branched promotion system does not return in Path of Radiance. Instead, the way promotion is conducted has been adjusted. Between levels 10 and 20 of a base class, a character can use a universal Master Seal to promote. While some prior installments had a universal promotion item, this was the first game to consolidate item-based promotion as a whole into a single item. In addition, characters who reached level 20 automatically promote without the use of an item. This creates a strategic layer, as players must decide when an early stat boost is worthy of a Master Seal use as opposed to just waiting until level 20. Three Houses‘ promotion system is a bit like this, as characters can take a promotion exam before meeting a weapon rank requirement, but risk failing. I like when promotion requires careful thought, as opposed to there being clearly optimal promotion timing.
The next system is biorythm, perhaps one of the least useful in the series. Upon loading the game, each character is randomly assigned a biorythm, impacting battle performance. Skill activation rate, hit rate, and avoidance rate are all slightly helped or hindered. To me, this system always came off as mundane. I understand that it was designed to encourage the player to use a variety of units, but the effects are so minuscule that one can easily ignore it. The randomness doesn’t help; one could easily reload their save until optimal biorythmes are present. This system was removed after Radiant Dawn, so I doubt it will ever return.
Easily the most interesting part of Path of Radiance‘s gameplay is the Laguz system. Laguz and Beorc aren’t differentiated solely for story purposes, their combat styles differ as well. Each Laguz has a transformation meter ranging from 0-20. It is randomly filled a certain amount at the beginning of battle, and fills each turn. It also fills after a Laguz is in combat. While in human form, Laguz can not initiate combat or counterattack. However, once transformed, Laguz receive a major stat and movement boost. The transformation meter slowly decreases while a Laguz is in beast form, and so the cycle begins again.
The Laguz combat system adds depth to Path of Radiance‘s combat. Defending the Laguz until they transform is a self-inflicted side objective, creating all the more strategy. Future games handle races capable of transformation a bit differently. In Awakening and Fates, beast units transform automatically upon entering combat. While one has yet to be introduced, I doubt that Three Houses will omit beast units as a whole. I hope that if they are included, Intelligent Systems adds a new transformation system. Making beast units automatically transform in combat removes what makes them unique, as they are just utilizing a glorified weapon type. Path of Radiance‘s system helped make Laguz feel truly different in combat.
Among the many changes, Path of Radiance‘s arguably most radical change is the visual style. The new 3D style is a rapid departure from the rest of the series, which used sprites. Today, the map models look a bit fuzzy, but the combat models and animations generally hold up. This style is important because Three Houses is the first Fire Emblem to utilize it since Radiant Dawn. Admittedly, the pre-release footage doesn’t look the best, but there has been clear improvements in later demos. I will miss the sprites, as the characters in Awakening, Fates, and Shadows of Valentia looked stellar. However, I have high hopes that Three Houses will manage to create a cel-shaded look that ages well.
The orchestral soundtrack of Path of Radiance also set a tone for the rest of the series. The composers are no longer limited by the GBA soundfont, and created tracks with a much grander scale. The Tellius games have some of my favorite tracks from the series, and after listening to some of Three Houses‘ soundtrack, I have no doubt that the series’ reputation for stellar soundtracks will continue.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is a revolutionary title. It deviates from the typical political drama of Fire Emblem to tell a story of social corruption. It reminds the player that despite being a fantasy game, many themes are present in real life as well. I hope Three Houses decides to add social problems to Fódlan as opposed to leaving the war purely political, since having three perspectives of the tale will allow for many unique opportunities. The Base system added a bit more character to the game, and the Skill system made a triumphant return. The visuals show the risks and rewards of 3D: poorer aging, but better animations. Path of Radiance won’t be the last of Tellius, however. Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn will expand the story of the Beorc and Laguz, and will also come with a game pitch that seems suspiciously like Three Houses.