Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 5

Game Completion: Starting Chapter 4-1.

I am finally in the final stretch of the game. The story has been great the whole way and the gameplay is a lot of fun, but the difficulty has been fairly high for a while now, so I am going rather slowly. I hope I can beat this game by Christmas.

The biggest difference between this game and previous Fire Emblem games is the way the story shifts perspectives between different groups. It is a great storytelling device, that lets the player see the plot from different perspectives and adds to the complexity of the story. Because the different perspectives are often on different sides of the main conflict for large stretches of the story, it prevents the story from degenerating into a simple story of heroes against villains, and lets the many tragic elements of the story play out effectively. Suikoden 3 is another RPG that makes great use of this to tell a story about a tragic war, and I imagine that any game that wants to portray a conflict as senseless or tragic needs to make some use of this technique in order to be effective.

One of the more surprising things that results from the shifting perspectives in this game is the way that it affects the characterization of Ike, the main character of the previous game and a major character of this game. In the chapters where he is an ally he is the same kind, trusting, and noble warrior he has always been, but in the missions where he is the enemy commander, he takes on a fierce, ruthless quality, without the creators even changing the way he speaks or acts. When he went onto the field of battle himself and advanced towards my units, it was one of the more terrifying things I experienced in the game. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

Anyways, enough about story, it's time to talk about gameplay.

Having the game shift between three or so groups of characters drastically changes the way a Fire Emblem game is played. Traditionally, the series has been about recruiting characters and slowly turning a small army into a large one, as well as slowly sifting out the characters you recruit, ignoring weak ones and building up characters with potential. Radiant Dawn turns that upside down. Because of the shifting perspective, the player must use about 60-70% of the available characters at a time, and in many missions, you must use every character available to you, rather than the old formula of choosing your favorite dozen characters for every mission and ignoring the rest. Even though there are even more characters than in the last game, there are fewer characters you can ignore, and there are even far less people you recruit in the traditional style of the series (instead, you tend to get a large block of characters every time the perspective switches to a new group).

One of the less obvious ways that this change affects the game is the way it changes the difficulty of the game, In older Fire Emblem games, you could usually count of having the best possible team for any given chapter, built only from characters with high levels, good equipment, and good stat growth. Because Radiant Dawn forces you to use a larger percentage of your team, and you can't choose from your whole lineup for any given mission, you are forced to use sub-optimal teams and below average characters on a regular basis. Also, your few powerful weapons and skills need to be stretched between a wider group of characters, so any individual character has fewer options than in the previous game. These effects are compensated for somewhat by evening out character power a bit more than usual, making bonus experience plentiful, and giving out more powerful, character-specific weapons, but it does a lot to add to the game's difficulty.

Finally, Radiant Dawn makes very good use of the combination of shifting perspectives and the iconic Fire Emblem rule that any character who dies in battle is permanently lost. Missions where you have to fight against the characters you like and have worked hard to build up are even more dramatic and complex than normal missions. Killing controllable characters is not fun, and hurts your chances at completing the game, so the player naturally wants to avoid hurting them, and the game designers integrate that emotional reaction into mission design and the story. They turn that impulse into an unspoken mission objective, and write ways to avoid such losses into the mission objectives, so the player is never forced into killing a controllable character, while at the same time making the battle and mission objectives believable. These battles are stressful and difficult, but are also some of the best missions in the game.

One of these missions, Chapter 3-Endgame, deserves a whole post dedicated to it, so I will write more on it another day.

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