Intelligent Systems is one of the greatest developers in the world. They definitely have one of the greatest track records, in the Wars series (Famicom Wars, Advance Wars), the Paper Mario series, and the Fire Emblem series. If you go by the critical reception of these games, there’s not a single poor game among them, and the ones I have played have certainly lived up to their reputation. The Sacred Stones is another entry in the long-running Fire Emblem series (I think this is number eight), which has spent most of its life in Japanese only. After experiencing this one, we can only hope Nintendo relent and translate all those early games for the Wii Virtual Console.
Turn-based strategy with heart
At the heart of Fire Emblem is a great tactical scenario-based turn-based game engine very similar to the one in Advance Wars. But where Advance Wars is classified a Turn-based Strategy game, Fire Emblem is a Strategy RPG, which makes it significantly different, as the plot and characters are even more important than they are in Advance Wars. I suppose the main difference within the scenarios is that the characters take part in the battles, so each unit has a name, a story and a personality. In fact, while in battle the characters can support one another by encouraging those they know, or having conversations, and it is this type of interaction that makes this series so different to generic tank and artillery tactical games.
The plot is fairly standard fantasy fare, with a former ally of the kingdom of Renais suddenly attacking and overrunning the land. The royal heirs, Eirika and Ephraim, are left to fight back with the remnant of the people and whatever allies they can pick up on the way. It turns out the Sacred Stones have some important part to play, as denoted by their prominence in the game’s title. Before each scenario there is a significant plot portion, giving a large amount of context to each battle. In these story-telling interludes the characters are introduced and take shape, the self-same characters that take to the battlefield in the tactical battles. What is especially interesting is that if a character dies on the battlefield they are dead, gone for good, and this means that whatever subplot their character was participating in is also gone for good. I am of the sort that will be sad for their loss, but press on regardless as reloading seems plain wrong, but there are many that would want to make sure every single character in the game survives to the end, a 100% survival rate. For many this is what sets Fire Emblem apart as it’s not a question of completing the map (which is not very difficult), it’s a question of completing it with no casualties, which can be a tough proposition.
Complex RPG Mechanics
Each of the characters has a whole bunch of stats such as Hit Points, Skill and Speed, as well as proficiencies in certain types of weapons. It is important which weapon you equip them with, and it’s also important which weapon you choose to attack the various enemy units with, as some weapons are better against others and some are much worse. Being a fantasy world, there are also magic users which do things like Heal or attack with Lightning. Even among these attacks, some are better than others against different enemy units. All in all, the tactical combinations that arise in the game are vast, and will present great intellectual challenge and reward to those willing to invest time in these details. Fortunately, it isn’t really necessary as the game play is simple enough to ignore all but the most important factors (such as which weapon to attack with and where to place your units so they are not in danger). In this way it is similar to an RPG, which is simply meant to be played through and enjoyed at a person’s leisure, not an exercise in frustration. Of course, there is a difficult option for those ready to take it on.
The other RPG carryover is the idea of leveling your characters. Some people join your party as a simple Recruit or Pupil, and through careful nurturing (since you can’t let them get killed), you can help them grow stronger by defeating enemies and in time change class to a Knight or Mage and then finally to a Great Knight or a Sage. For each of these graduations you are able to choose between different classes, and each have different weapon or magic abilities. There is a large variety in the classes available that make each character very unique. The Sacred Stones is the first Fire Emblem that provides an arena in which to level your characters, an arena you can go back to at any time once you’ve reached it and simply grind through to get more experience. If you do this a lot you’ll find yourself easily scything through the enemies later in the game, but it is very enjoyable to watch your young Journeyman grow up to become a Warrior in time.
The Soul of Fire Emblem
While the tactical mechanics are the bread and butter of tactical games, and Intelligent Systems have nailed those to a tee, the story is of great importance. I have mentioned that it is fairly standard, and this is true. However, the character designs are so uniformly excellent; the artwork so consistently of a high quality; and the dialogue always enjoyable to read that they more than make up for a generic story. By requiring that certain characters do specific things while in the midst of battle in order to further a certain subplot or acquire a new party member, the characters are all afforded much importance in the game and each one is memorable for their contributions in the ultimate goal. I am not giving away anything when I say that the credit sequence is perhaps the best I’ve witnessed in gaming; after the usual list of programmers, designers, artists and musicians (which must also be especially commended on a wonderful soundtrack) each character that was ever in your party is displayed one at a time, with a little description of their story. For those who died in battle, it says something like “Silent Gilliam, died at Scorched Sand,” and for those who lived something like “went on to become a well loved Champion around the five kingdoms.” I have been back to watch this epilogue a few times to remember a game and a story that was played and enjoyed so much.
Intelligent Systems seem to have a knack for somehow imbuing a very rich and complex set of game mechanics with a soul. Advance Wars is what it is because of the idiosyncrasies of its array of characters and their interaction on top of a top notch turn based battle engine. Fire Emblem has all the features of the best strategy RPG games, variety, tactics, long term strategy in leveling characters, all of which are the basis for a story told well and wrapped in astounding quality, attention to detail, polish, and beauty.
Images Source: Nintendo, Europe