Whenever a sequel to a game comes out, it's important to know whether the game can stand on its own or if newcomers will be completely lost without playing the previous title. In the case of Radiant Dawn, however, this concern can't be fully answered in simple one-word terms.
To explain this in further detail, let's examine the aspect of plot. The game has the player take control of a sage named Micaiah and a group of rebels known as the "Dawn Brigade" as they fight against oppression in their homeland of Daein. As time progresses, so does the scope of the story, and it soon involves battles and wars throughout an entire continent.
The story itself is easy enough to understand, and the game does a good job of providing enough backstory so that the player knows what's going on. Many of the plot twists and betrayals, however, won't be as interesting to people who didn't play Path of Radiance. Furthermore, Radiant Dawn lacks much in terms of character development. Traditional support conversations, which were often a way to learn more about a character in Fire Emblem games, have been eliminated for a more gameplay-friendly, generic support system. While the new supports are good for tactics and strategy, the characters and their pasts become neutered as a result. People who've played Path of Radiance will find this less frustrating because they're already familiar with about fifty of the seventy-two playable characters, but newcomers won't know too much backstory about anyone who's not a main character.
The gameplay, however, more than makes up for any shortcomings in exposition. For one, Radiant Dawn is a long game and will take roughly 30-40 hours to complete. Furthermore, because certain characters can only be recruited (with some new story elements, too) after a player completes their first game, it is not unlikely that they'll feel motivated to complete Radiant Dawn a second time.
In terms of how the gameplay works, Fire Emblem veterans will know what to expect, as not much has changed barring a few minor details. For those unfamiliar with the series, however, the basic elements of the game are relatively simple. The player controls a group of characters on a map grid, attempting to defeat enemies through turn-based tactics. Even though the concept is straightforward, a lot of strategy is needed in order to keep all of one's units alive. While the deaths of most characters won't lead to game overs, Fire Emblem is a unique strategy RPG because once a person dies, they are no longer playable for the rest of the game. Therefore, if someone loses one of their favorite characters in battle, it's likely that they'll want to redo the chapter in order to keep that unit in the game.
There are many elements that factor into gameplay, like certain weapons having advantages over others, the effects of terrain on a character, and countless others. It'd be impossible to explain all the little details that affect strategy in a Fire Emblem game without doubling the size of this review, and yet they all come together neatly in a way that's not too difficult to figure out. The game also provides optional tutorials on multiple aspects of the game, so that new players will be able to jump in without feeling overwhelmed.
But, in the end, the essential question remains: can Radiant Dawn stand on its own as a game? The simple answer is, yes. Those who have played Path of Radiance, however, will get a lot more enjoyment and understand more of the finer details than those who haven't.
Controls: There's no waggle or point-and-click controls in this game, but since it's a strategy RPG, there doesn't need to be. The game is playable with a Wiimote, a GameCube controller, or a Classic Controller.
Visuals: Radiant Dawn certainly doesn't push the Wii graphically, and the visuals are nothing that couldn't be seen on a GameCube, leaving much to be desired. It should be noted, though, that the FMVs and battle sequences show graphical improvement over Radiant Dawn's GameCube predecessor, Path of Radiance.
Sound: Sound is one instance in which this Fire Emblem disappoints. The English voice acting is mediocre at best, with some scenes even being cringe-inducing. Fortunately there aren't too many scenes with voice acting in Radiant Dawn, but it's regrettable that players won't even look forward to these scenes because the voice acting is so poor. As for the music, it's generally fine and fits the atmosphere, but a MIDI soundtrack in this day and age doesn't make it stand out in any way.
Story: As is the case with most Fire Emblem games, the plot is grand and epic. The story in Radiant Dawn is unique, however, in that the game has more than one protagonist. At certain points, the game will even pit two of the protagonists against each other, making the player fight characters that they previously controlled a few chapters back. This approach helps to keep the story interesting, and let's the player experience events from multiple viewpoints.
Difficulty: This game is hard -- very hard in fact -- but in a good way. It's not oppressively difficult or frustrating, especially with the newly added "Battle Save" feature, but it's certainly challenging and will require good tactics and skill to prevent character deaths and game overs. Of all the Fire Emblems released outside of Japan, this one is probably the hardest, but for those who find the "Normal" setting to be too difficult, the "Easy" setting lightens the load considerably and should be simple enough for beginners. There's also a "Hard" mode available for true Fire Emblem experts.
Final Score: 7.5/10 -- Radiant Dawn certainly has its flaws, and it's definitely not a game that everyone will enjoy. Being a strategy RPG, it lingers in a niche that not all gamers tend to like. None of that changes the fact, however, that Radiant Dawn is a great game that's fun to play. While it may fall short in some places, the one area in which the game completely delivers is the most important: gameplay. Fire Emblem fans will appreciate the addition of this game to the series, while SRPG fans and interested newcomers will be able to enjoy the tactical elements that Radiant Dawn offers and delivers so well.