Platform: Gameboy Advance
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Campaign Completed ~90 Hours
Fire Emblem is the seventh game in the series to be made, but the first released in English on American shores. You might also see it referred to as Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword or something like that. It is a very popular series in Japan, and for good reason. The developer, Intelligent Systems, are the people who brought us a the Advance Wars series (which started out strong). They also made the successful and incessantly copied puzzle game Tetris Attack/Pokemon Puzzle Challenge/Planet Puzzle League (same mechanic each).
Fire Emblem gives you a large and diverse cast. Additionally, unlike most SRPGs you can take a good many of them into battle at once. Up to around 14 in your party. So battles are long strategic affairs. You move your crew slowly and cautiously over large spaces populated both densely and sparsely.
The game is a deep, detailed and large game, do not be fooled by its presence on the GBA. There is much more to be said and experienced about it than I will mention below. However I will cover points important from my unique perspective, and with some small bits of humor.
The battle layout of Fire Emblem is more or less a top down upon a 2D playing field. The environment art provides the illusion of slight 3D. Gameplay is measured out on a square grid and almost all attack ranges are within two squares. You can move all members of your team in any order during your turn.
- Combat Hierarchy Triforce – er, Triangle: A staple of the series. Sword beats axe; axe beat lance; lance beats sword. A triangle if you will, and the impetus for many hours of strategic decisions. Such a simple mechanic, but well executed. Not too dogmatic either, in that a skilled swordsman can still beat an lance wielder. It just requires more skill and is chancier.
- You are Conceited: Your role in the game is the conceit that you are an unnamed tactician. You are seen briefly in the overhead view from time to time. It actually works quite well and succeeds in injecting the player into the story. You are needed and thanked personally by the characters who also give you respect. This greatly adds to resonance with the game.
- Knight-time MP3s: Sweeping is an apt word for the music. The large orchestral sounding tracks really transport you. The smaller character/situation based tunes are at times fun, creepy and sad. The music will enhance your gameplay, and some of you may be inclined to continue listening to it afterward.
- Difficulty Delayed: After the opening prologue battles, you have an opportunity to set the difficulty level. A good idea which gives the player a chance to know what they are getting into first.
- Moving Pixels: The battle animations are excellent and interesting. Especially the critical hits. For example the main female sword wielding hero has a special which shows her blurring into multiple images then zooming in a streak to strike numerous slicing blows. Much fun.
- Talking Heads: The conversations were handled well. Entertaining yet so simple. It is amazing how much can be communicated with portraits, positioning, sound effects and shaking. It was a system handled with care commensurate with the quality of the story.
- Sealed for your Protection: Characters gained attributes through experience, but class upgraded through the use of “seals”. Main classes had special seals just for them. The Earth Seal promoted any non-lord character, and the Heaven Seal promoted one of your three main lords. Seals were granted by game progress, but not enough for everybody. You customized your crew your way by choosing who gets one.
- Over the Top Sound Effects: Intelligent Systems built a fine library and used it well. In conjunction with some of the special attacks as described above, it can be quite entertaining. Magic attacks and blocks too. There were not a ton of sounds but the ones included were well executed.
- End over End: Two mechanisms gave the ending poignancy. One was the rundown on all your characters and the resolution of their personal stories. After all you spent much time with them leading to interest in this area. The second mechanism was the “15 years later” glimpse. This method also seen in Grandia and Vandal hearts was cathartic and really helped wrap up the story.
How did they fit so much story content into such a small cartridge? Additionally, just having a lot of story is not enough. It has to be delivered in an understandable and entertaining way. Fire Emblem did not lack on this front and even included welcome side quests.
It is a sweeping epic with optional prologue stories depending on the hero character with whom you choose to start. You will find yourself quickly investing in the trials of these people. You will likely resonate with at least two of the three heroes, and at least half the supporting cast. That is not a bad score.
One of my favorite things was the chapter transitions. Beating the final battle in a chapter opens a world map and starts sweeping music. The arrow moves across the screen while text fills you in on what is happening. The music, simple but fitting camera work and brevity of these interludes enhanced the playing experience. Little touches of quality like this make a difference.
The Good & Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Separate but Equal: When in the top down view you initiate combat a special screen is brought up featuring side views of the characters performing their attacks. This method is not rare, and may have more to do with the limitations of the platform. It is interesting seeing the combat detail, but some might be put off by the loading time away from the big picture. Thoughtfully there is an option to turn it off, although I did not.
- Die Another Day… or Now: Normally the possibility of real and permanent death of a character fallen in battle would rank in the good section. It can add to enjoyment paradoxically by encouraging deeper investment. However in Fire Emblem’s case too many uncontrollable factors made death much more common and easy. Restarts and frustration take away from the awesomeness of this game.
- Asking for (Art) Directions: The portrait art may not be my very favorite style, but it was well done and consistent. The pixel art animations were excellent. However the background environments were just okay. We know this platform is limited, but others have made such visuals more interesting and pretty.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Auto-Retaliation
Like some SRPGs, Fire Emblem employs an automatic counter attack. If you attack them and they survive, they will attack you back (if possible). It is more important in Fire Emblem than other SRPGs. Here your hit point count is low and it only takes one encounter gone bad to send a character permanently to the graveyard.
Every move both offensive and defensive has to be made with this in mind. If you have a knight for example guarding a pass and he is attacked by a weaker opponent, he can counter and destroy him. However that makes room for another weaker opponent to attack and get destroyed. This can lead to a deadly conga-line of doom for your knight who can eventually succumb to an outrageous number of attacks in one round.
Such multiple attacks may also wreak havoc in regards to the finite uses of your warrior’s weapons. You may not have planned on 5 uses in one turn of a rare and perhaps irreplaceable weapon. While auto-retaliation adds plenty of strategic thought, it does come with a price of occasional frustration and added time in restarts.
Fire Emblem is hard. It is not for the casual gamer, and may not be for the casual SRPG player. It is not the best entry-level SRPG like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. However many of you reading this are fans of the genre and would relish the challenge. Fire Emblem certainly provides it.
I played on “hard” which in retrospect was probably a mistake. I do not like to lose characters, nor restart levels (unless the AI pulls a cheese). So this forced a rather overly cautious and somewhat tedious style of play. Even the regular difficulty would still be hampered by occasional cheaply appearing enemy units and strangely potent enemy power surprises.
If you allow real character death like Fire Emblem did, all the more care is necessary when adjusting difficulty level. Players should win or lose on strategic decisions, not high powered surprises that force restarts. Nor enemy reinforcements suddenly appearing and attacking your back without your having a chance to to anything but watch.
- Watch Your Step: Sometimes the top-down map was indistinct in regards to whether a grid square was traversable. In another game this might not be a big issue, but in Fire Emblem where every move can be a character’s last this proved crucial. It is one thing to lose a warrior because of an unfortunate strategy, it is another because of bad terrain communication.
- One Part Fog; One Part Ballista; Two Parts No Fun: Some levels employed fog of war which prevented seeing enemy units more than a few grid squares away. Ballistas were weapons that could fire at targets over many grid squares. Some classes were extremely vulnerable to such weapons… Someone around a design table thought this would be fun. They were wrong.
- Flying Horse (Manure): Sometimes in SRPGs archers get the “shaft”. In fire emblem that award goes to Pegasus Knights who were not very strong to begin with and had an incredibly huge weakness versus arrows. There was just not enough reason to invest in that wasted class.
- Amulet of… WHAT?: “Oh, but wasn’t there a special amulet that protected units from arrow attacks?” Yes, yes there was. My Pegasus Knight was wearing one when an arrow took her out. &^$@*! How about a special item that means what it says?
With real permanent death around every corner, designers needed to be extra careful about the X-factors and variables. Depending on the level difference, sometimes characters could attack twice in one turn. Some weapons allowed for two attacks in one turn. These factors combined sometimes allowed characters to attack four times in one turn! Who can calculate for that? (-and enjoy it.)
Then there was “confusion”. In some games this special attack is fun. However Fire Emblem was a system where one hit could permanently kill a character. So some designer thought that an enemy using confusion from a great distance would be fun. It was not fun to watch one of your high-powered heroes cut down a supporting allied character with a single stroke. It was cheap.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Fullness Through FAQs
There is a big cast in Fire Emblem. Many of whom you will encounter no matter what. However some require specific actions not easily discerned without a FAQ. I do not like reliance on FAQs. A game should intuitively lead you to encounters and leave you with a choice whether to pursue or not.
For example Harken was a dashing and fun character. However he would only offer to join your party if you killed three or less sages on a particular level. Huh? How are we supposed to know that? In a game where you usually win each level by killing all enemies, this is really unlikely to be stumbled upon without a FAQ. It was not like whether or not you decided to help an old lady… THAT would make sense.
Some games make you look back on the time spent with regret (*cough, Ogre Battle 64*). FE7 is not one of those. Even the rather ridiculous amount of hours playing in this case shine.
FE7 is one of those rare games where everything came together well and gelled. Every department from design, to art to music to story pulled in the same direction. Would that it was more common, but it is not. FE8 will have a hard time matching this experience. You WILL feel like you went places and made a difference.
The writing transmitted realistic reactions from characters. The makers were wise enough to know when a light throwaway line was called for and when the player may really be moved. Getting player investment into game characters is a laudable goal. If you were not saddened by the fall of your good female spy, perhaps you were playing a different game.
By whatever means you can, warp yourself into this 2003 game. If you have any love for this genre, and are looking for a quality experience, you will not regret it.