Sunday, December 16, 2007

Radiant Dawn, Chapter 3-Endgame

The final chapter of the third part of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is an amazing piece of level design, combining story and gameplay perfectly. Obviously enough, there will be some serious spoilers for the game.

A lot of the reason for the greatness of this particular level comes from the dilemma I mentioned in my previous post concerning this game. The battle in this chapter is the climax of the tragic battle between the Daein Army, which fights against its will, and the Apostle's Army, which knows nothing of Daein's plight and continues the battle out of desperation. The player is given control of the Apostle's Army, has allied forces, and the enemy numbers over 90 units, including every controllable character from Micaiah's perspective, with more units reinforcing every turn. Finally, the winning objective is a total rout of every enemy.

The stated winning condition is the most surprising aspect of this fight. In every previous battle between controllable characters, it was possible to achieve the stated objective without hurting a controllable character. In this fight, the mission objective is asking you to completely wipe out a whole team of them. This is a situation that can be dramatic and painful even for the player. However, this is the one point in the game where the stated winning condition is not the real one. Normally I hate deceptions in winning conditions, since it makes things random and confusing in a genre which normally rewards precision and tactical planning, but here it is used to highlight the difference between the character's intentions and the actual events unfolding behind the scenes, and the real mission objective is clearly implied.

The Fire Emblem, Lehran's Medallion which seals the Dark God, has been the main object of interest for both Path of Radiance and the third part of Radiant Dawn. It has been made clear that it will be released if enough chaos is brought from war, and that the events of the third part of the game have brought it beyond the point where it was controllable. Even from this chapter's name, "From Pain, Awakening," it is clear that the Dark God's revival is at hand. When the battle begins, a strange blue number appears at the upper right part of the screen, the indicator for the true winning condition of the battle: the sacrifice of enough lives to release the Dark God.

The blue number increases with every death in the battle, whether it is the death of an ally or an enemy. The very color of the number ties it as to the blue flames of the Medallion and the Dark God, and it pulses with a heartbeat. As the number increases, the heartbeat increases in frequency and volume. When the number reaches certain values, the game cuts away from the battle to show various scenes which reveal the revival of the Dark God growing closer and closer. The number of deaths needed to bring about the revival is not known, leaving the end uncertain. The end effect is ominous and dramatic, and no matter what, it is clear that the player's own actions are going to be the final trigger for the Dark God's revival.

I was expecting the number of deaths to be somewhere around thirty to fifty, but the actual required number was as high as eighty. This high limit forced me to go through some fairly tricky maneuvering to avoid killing the character's of Micaiah's team, and every time I got close to a multiple of ten I prayed that it was the magic number that would end the battle before I lost an interesting or valuable character. It is an interesting experience, wanting to wish death of many unnamed characters and the revival of a Dark God, so that a few characters may be spared. It brings to mind a similar dilemma faced by the heroine of the game, where she is willing to kill countless soldiers, but would risk her army to prevent the death of a single person she cares about. Having a game put me in the same complicated emotional state as a character, even for a moment, is a rare experience.

The way this one mission combines so many elements so well is proof that, in a good game, the story and gameplay are interwoven and inseparable. While the events that lead to this chapter are somewhat forced, and the events after are somewhat cliche, this chapter is a marvel of good game design.

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