NOTE: The following editorial discusses Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn in depth. Those that wish to avoid spoilers for either game should be advised.
With the recent release of Fire Emblem: Awakening in North America, fans have a lot to celebrate. An all-new tale with a structure and features that serve as a love letter to the series and its history, it has the critical potential to be fondly remembered as one of the best games in the franchise and perhaps the strategy RPG genre as a whole in the years to come. But while we’re all still basking in the glow of Awakening’s release and a radically changed Archaneia, let’s stop for a moment and examine another Fire Emblem setting that westerners should already be familiar with.
Introduction to the Worlds of Fire Emblem
In 2005, Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, the first non-handheld entry in the series to see an official release outside of Japan, and, as with previous entries, established a new universe with new characters. It was followed two years later by Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, which continued and ultimately resolved plot threads that were left hanging at the end of the previous game. Both entries are set on a fictional continent called Tellius; a continent divided by sharp national and racial boundaries.
Previous Fire Emblem universes had been similarly established over the course of multiple games. Thracia 776, for example, is actually set within a time gap that occurs in the story of the previous entry, Seisen no Keifu. The game that westerners call Fire Emblem, in actuality the second title in the series produced for the GBA, is a prequel to the events of the previous game, Fuuin no Tsurugi. And the most recent entry, Fire Emblem: Awakening, is set in the distant future of the world visited in the first three Fire Emblem titles. Of these various settings, only two have had all related entries released in North America at this point: Magvel, which only appeared in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, and Tellius.
Tellius is first established in Path of Radiance through the eyes of Ike, the untested son of a mercenary commander who, mere days into the start of his life as a full-fledged mercenary within Crimea’s borders, becomes caught up in the aftermath of a full-scale Daein invasion. The plot follows Ike’s journey from his humble, naïve beginnings and through the adventures that continually test him as he protects Crimea’s Princess Elincia. Over the course of the game, he eventually becoming a respected leader of not just a mercenary company, but an entire army as he fights to liberate Crimea and restore Elincia to her proper place on the throne. The story is a personal one, chronicling the ups and downs of Ike’s life over the course of a full year, from the death of his father at the hands of Daein’s Black Knight to his final confrontation with Ashnard.
Radiant Dawn, by contrast, travels along a very different path. Rather than focus on a single character’s story, the narrative is driven by a series of events that take place over multiple acts. In the first, it chronicles the struggles of Daein freedom fighters working to liberate their nation from the oppression of Begnion’s occupation force put in place following the war chronicled in Path of Radiance. The second act follows Elincia and her Crimean allies, who find themselves caught a coup attempt that threatens civil war. In the third act, Ike returns to the stage in support of the laguz, who have chosen to go to war with Begnion, only to find themselves at odds with Daein’s army, as well. It is only in the fourth and final act that all of the characters come together in a struggle against a goddess that passes judgment on the people of Tellius and turning almost everyone to stone.
Characters vs. Events
It’s probably easy to tell from those simplistic synopses, but Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, despite their narrative connections, are very different stories in the ways that they’re told. Path of Radiance is very much a character-driven narrative. The focus is squarely on Ike, Elincia, and the Greil Mercenaries as they journey around the continent before arriving at their ultimate destination. In this sense, we get to know these characters especially well. The goal, to drive Ashnard out of Crimea and restore Elincia to the throne, is a fairly standard scenario presented with good/evil morality, but the simiplicity of the core narrative is augmented by the interactions Ike and the others have with those around them. Racial tensions at the core of Tellius’s history aren’t cut-and-dried; laguz and beorc of all temperaments are encountered on both sides of the various conflicts.
Plot details are further established should the player advance through the myriad support conversations that the game has to offer. Along with the various romances and more comical character bits, there is also plenty of lore to be found as well. Important facts about some characters won’t ever come to light unless the player maxes out the support ranks between two specific characters, or makes an effort to ensure that specific characters fight each other on the battlefield.
In Radiant Dawn, the narrative isn’t driven by characters, but by the events of the world. It jumps from one region of Tellius to another, gradually expounding on the state of the world by showing different parts of society in different circumstances, and putting the player in the thick of some very unusual situations, even by series standards. There is no singular “Lord” character whom the narrative revolves around and whose safety is paramount in most every stage. Perspectives jump frequently from one group to another. There’s one battle early in Part 2 in which the player’s only units are the returning characters Nephenee and Brom, and one new figure in Heather. Nephenee and Brom weren’t of any major importance in Path of Radiance; the player could see them die and not be forced to turn back. Yet here they are, the stars of the show in their own chapter as they fight off enemy troops without the aid of Ike or any of the other supposed primary players.
Just as the world events take precedence over the characters in Radiant Dawn, so too do the support conversations. The game actually opens the support system up so that it’s possible to form relationships between any pair of the player’s choice. This aspect has a great effect on the gameplay, as it frees the player to cultivate relationships between characters they use frequently. It can especially be a boon in the Part 4 Endgame, when the player is forced to select a core force to take into the final five chapters of the game. However, the conversations themselves tend to suffer as a result, becoming more template-based and generic. The Info conversations viewable in the camp make up for this to an extent, but it’s difficult to make up for the lack of color in the relationships that the player forges.
Good and Evil vs. Order and Chaos
I mentioned earlier of how the primary narrative in Path of Radiance is one of good versus evil. The game is, in truth, not particularly subtle in this arrangement. Where Ike is brave and resilient and Elincia is purehearted and nobile, the villain Ashnard is a cackling supervillain that dresses both himself and his entire army in ebony armor. The education system of his kingdom teaches the Joy of Racism on the first day of class. His master plan is to sow the seeds of war across the entire continent in order to free a dark god from within a medallion he covets for almost no other reason than just because he can.
Ashnard is not a nice person, is what I am saying. Strip away the subplots and other themes of the game, and you’re left with a narrative that at heart is a very black and white tale of good and evil. But to be reductive in that sense, and to strip away the color from the conflicts and the numerous other characters, is to not give the game credit for its accomplishments in building its cast around the primary goal of defeating him. Everything else that occurs, from rescuing Leanne and ending a laguz slavery ring to Ike’s quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the Black Knight, is ultimately done in the service of accomplishing the primary goal of liberating Crimea.
On the other hand, when the finale of Radiant Dawn arrives, the conflict ultimately isn’t about good and evil, but order and chaos. Specifically, Ashera, the goddess of order, attempts to create pure Order-with-a-capital-O by turning everyone to stone, while Yune, the goddess of chaos, wants to stop her so that a balance can be achieved. Though the game does feature its share of evil characters, like the Begnion senators, the endgame’s focus is more on the concept of stopping Ashera and restoring balance to the goddess than on thwarting the bad guy.
Even without focusing on Radiant Dawn’s finale, there is in a sense a greater degree of moral complexity in the game overall. The various factions each have their own motivations. The Dawn Brigade fighting to repel Begnion and liberate Daein in Part 1 follow a path similar to the Greil Mercenaries, uniting their cause behind an iconic figure in Micaiah while the corrupt Begnion officers and senators seek to cling to power. In Part 2, Elincia and her allies struggle to contain a rebellion of opportunistic Crimean nobles that see her as a weak, unfit ruler. Part 3 concerns a war between the laguz races and Begnion, reigniting the racial tensions that had been smoothed over only a few years before. And then of course, Part 4 is all about the fight against Ashera’s judgment.
Connecting these dots are machinations instigated behind the scenes by Sephiran, the Begnion Prime Minister that served as an ally during the course of Path of Radiance. Like Ashnard, he seeks to sow war across the continent, but not to awaken the “dark god” in the medallion (who is in actuality Yune). Rather, his goal is to awaken Ashera due to his belief that the people of Tellius had failed to live up to his hopes. He had bargained with Ashera for time to allow the beorc and laguz to prove that they could coexist peacefully, but feeling judgment is inevitable, he instigates and stokes the various conflicts throughout the game in order to awaken her from her slumber. Not out of an evil malevolence, but out of a disappointed sense of failure.
Playing to Expectations versus Defying Them (or, The Super Jagen)
With as long as Fire Emblem has been around, the series has cultivated a list of character archetypes and tropes very specific to the nature of the games and their history. And while Path of Radiance adheres to many of the basic ideas that serve as hallmarks of a Fire Emblem character roster, Radiant Dawn goes out of its way to shake things up. The most obvious difference between the games in this regard is the use of the Jagen.
A “Jagen,” for those that aren’t familiar, is a common Fire Emblem archetype that has existed since the very first game, and is named for the first character to embody it. Jagen is a paladin and the first character of a pre-promoted class that the player receives at the start of the game. He is a senior member of the Altean knights, as well as a mentor to Marth and others. In terms of his gameplay abilities, he begins head-and-shoulders above the player’s other units and can tear through enemies with relative ease. Ideally, he is a character used to augment the player’s other units until they’re of a sufficient strength that they too can hold their own. The downside is that he has a limited growth potential, and will eventually become relatively useless as the player’s other units outclass him.
Similar units appear in later Fire Emblems, including Path of Radiance, where the archetype is represented by Titania. And like previous Jagens, the experienced Titania is a paladin unit that serves as a mentor to Ike and the other junior members of the Greil Mercenaries. With the one exception that Titania’s growth potential allows her to remain a viable unit to bring into battle for the whole game, she is the spitting image of a traditional idea of a Jagen.
In Radiant Dawn, however, there is no Jagen. As the game opens Part 1 with focus on Micaiah, Sothe, and the Dawn Brigade, the lack of a paladin, or a pre-promoted unit of any sort, is a striking omission. The lack of a Jagen’s presence not only alters the player’s strategies, it signals that the adventure to come will not be like other Fire Emblems that came before it. Curiously, almost comically, the player is granted temporary control of the Black Knight in the Part 1 Endgame, turning those early struggles with low-level, low-tier units on its head by providing the player with a unit that can single-handedly obliterate every enemy on the map. It’s almost as though the game makes up for the lack of an early Jagen by granting use of a Super Jagen for a single chapter, giving the player the most powerful meat-shield in the game so that the Dawn Brigade units can grow a few final levels before the spotlight turns elsewhere.
The rest of Radiant Dawn is similarly filled with surprises that keep veteran Fire Emblem players on their toes. The shifts in perspectives between different forces, the focus on events rather than on specific characters, and the upending of established tropes all work in concert to present a game where the expected usually isn’t. In terms of the presentation of its storyline, Radiant Dawn is unlike any other game in the series that came before it.
This isn’t to say that Path of Radiance is in any way inferior, however. While the game holds on to established tropes and a plot structure familiar to anyone that’s played a Fire Emblem before, everything it does, it does with aplomb. Where it holds to tradition and tells a great, character-driven narrative, Radiant Dawn eschews tradition in favor of challenging the player’s notion of what Fire Emblem is versus what it can be.
Though Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn share the same universe and many of the same characters, the ways they approach their respective stories are vastly different. Neither is specifically superior, though we all certainly have our preferences in that argument. But despite how traditional or not the presentation and story are, the Tellius games are fine examples of the diverse ways narratives in the series can and have been told. And with Awakening finally on western shores, we can all see what manner of story that the latest Fire Emblem has to offer.