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In my freshman year of high school, I mastered the art of not paying attention in class. In particular, I mastered the art of hiding my Game Boy behind my chemistry textbook. “Aha!” I’d think to myself as the teacher surveyed the room and failed to give me so much as a second look. “I am so sneaky and clever!”
In hindsight, I’m fairly certain I was not being very sneaky or clever. My teachers had to know what I was up to, but fortunately they never scolded me. Instead, they left me free to tear through the “Fire Emblem” series, a dangerously addictive set of games in which you direct an army of knights and mages against the forces of evil.
So last semester, when I discovered “Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance” (FE:PoR), a “Fire Emblem” game made for Nintendo’s GameCube, I had to play it.
FE:PoR is set in a fantasy universe where, apparently, access to absurdly-colored hair dye is both cheap and extremely in vogue: if I had a dollar for every pink-, purple-, orange-, green-, and blue-haired character I encountered during my quest, I could pay half my tuition bill. You assume the role of Ike, an idealistic, courageous young swordsman who is a member of his father’s mercenary company. (But don’t fret! Ike’s mercenary band is a bunch of good guy mercenaries. They spend their time saving peasants from bandits, because that’s a completely plausible business model.)
The plot that follows is riddled with fantasy clichés: of course the mercenaries are employed to protect a mysterious princess; of course Ike and the princess fall in love; and, of course, there’s some dark, evil force that’s been sealed away for ages, waiting to reemerge and threaten the existence of humanity itself.
Clichéd though the plot may be, the characters are surprisingly endearing. Throughout the game, you’ll recruit a hilariously overzealous knight, a cunning and manipulative lady-mage, and—my personal favorite—Haar, a lazy knight who spends most of his time shirking work and sneaking off to take naps. (“Oh man,” a friend of mine commented while watching me play, “that Haar guy totally acts just like you!”)
The actual gameplay is similar to chess—if chess pieces were paladins and pegasus knights instead of pawns and rooks. And if chess pieces could hurl fireballs and lances at each other. And if you could recruit new chess pieces as the game progresses.
Okay, so maybe it’s not a lot like chess, but the general idea of two armies battling in a tactical, turn-based format is still there. And if you’re like me, whenever it’s the enemy’s turn, you’ll spend the whole time crossing your fingers and praying to God that your precious, weak pegasus knight doesn’t get grazed by a stray arrow, because if she dies you’ll have to start the battle all over again.
Q: But Julie! This is a tactical war game! Doesn’t that mean you can always just buy more faceless grunts to do your bidding?
A: Nope. There’s a limited number of characters. If you let too many of them die, then good luck getting through the game.
Q: But surely I can revive characters! There’s a spell for that or something, right?
Q: But—but that’s really annoying!
A: YES IT IS.
This feature is what makes “Fire Emblem” both one of the most frustrating and one of the most rewarding video games ever.
Frustrating, because I can guarantee you anyone who’s ever beaten a “Fire Emblem” game has a story that goes like this: “There I was. I’d eliminated every single one of the enemies. I’d recruited every possible potential ally into my army. I had gotten all the items. The boss had only one hit point remaining, and the most powerful knight in my army had a perfect position from which to kill him. But THEN the stupid knight tripped, missed, and the boss proceeded to land a critical hit and KILL MY GOSHDANGED KNIGHT AND I HAD TO START ALL OVER AGAIN.”
But at the same time, when you finally do manage to win these epic battles, you feel like more than a tactical genius or an elite warrior. You feel godlike. You kept every single person from dying. You left no man behind. Take that, “Saving Private Ryan.”
Given the fact that this game is easily twice as long as its Game Boy counterparts, it’s probably a good thing that it was released for GameCube—otherwise, I’d relapse to my old high school ways and start playing it during class. But hey, at least saving princesses and slaying dragons in lecture would be a bit more epic than the usual Facebooking.
—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at email@example.com.
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