As RPGs have become more and more popular over the years, the US has had its eyes opened to many popular Japanese series that were once fated to remain exclusive to the Far East. Over the years, we've gotten more Dragon Quest, almost all of Final Fantasy (barring the excellent Famicom III), Shin Megami Tensei (in the form of Persona), the Tales series, and the Ogre games.
And yet, for some strange reason, one RPG monolith had never made the heroic voyage to our shores - Fire Emblem, the great progenitor of the modern strategy/RPG. Back in 1990, one of Nintendo of Japan's R&D teams - soon to become known as Intelligent Systems - created a swords n' sorcery-based strategy game with many RPG elements. It started the trend of grid/square movement-based combat that has been used from everything from Shining Force to Disgaea. Needless to say, the game was hugely popular - popular enough to spawn 7 titles to date.
It is the latest installment that proves to be the lucky number for us Western gamers, as we can finally play one of Nintendo of Japan's flagship series in English. However, it comes at a time when similar games are crowding the marketplace - With Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Onimusha Tactics available, and with other RPG-style titles like Sword of Mana coming soon, is Fire Emblem worth the investment of your time and money?
The answer is a resounding yes. Not only is Fire Emblem the best strategy game available on the GBA, it may be one of the platform's best games of the year.
At its core, Fire Emblem is the basic strategy RPG: you have a giant grid on which you and your enemy move around on. When an enemy is in range, you choose to attack and deal damage. You can also use items, healing and offensive magic, along with other various special abilities. The core gameplay is easy to learn and solid enough, but is backed up by some clever additions.
First, when you are attacking, the enemy unit will always counter if they are not killed (or have an equally ranged weapon equipped). This adds a bit more strategy than just rushing in and attacking like crazy - if you send a unit with low HP into the fray, there’s the very real danger they may get wiped out and not come back - ever!
That leads us to the second point: Once your troops fall in battle, they’re gone for good. No priest or Phoenix Down or anything is going to ever get them back. This tends to make protecting their welfare a very high priority. Is the sacrifice of a strong unit for the rest of the game worth winning the battle? That is a choice you’ll be faced with.
Third, the game boasts a unique rock-paper-scissors style element to weapon and magic combat. Most soldier-type units can equip and use various combinations of swords, axes, and lances. These relate in each other in combat: Swords have a damage and hit ratio advantage against an axe-user, axes win over lances, and lances are powerful versus swords. Magic functions in a similar fashion: Anima (element) magic is advantageous against Light magic, Light overpowers Dark, and Dark wins out over Anima. Keeping your equipment in mind while fighting is vital! There are other weapons, too: Bows are weak in that they cannot attack the space next to them (making countering a pain), but strong in their ranged attacks and their guaranteed critical hits against winged units. Staves have special effects in battle, like healing or status.
Finally, other distinctions that set Fire Emblem apart from most other SRPGs include the fact that the only thing that happens in between battle sequences are story events. Instead of shopping and conversing with the townsfolk when you’re done with fights, you’ll have to make your purchases at stores scattered across the battlefield, and ride into villages to prevent them from being ransacked. And let’s not forget that money is a bit hard to come by, making purchases and resource planning even more vital. Compound this with the fact that your usage of weapons is limited before they break, and you’ve got some thoughtful resource management ahead!
So the gameplay’s strong and engaging, but how is the rest of the game? Quite good, actually. The story isn’t anything revolutionary, but is done well enough to hold your interest throughout. The translated English dialogue is also error-free and flows very well. Character designs are attractive and appealing, and the personalities of those who join your group are generally likable - making you feel more than a little bit of regret at a character loss. The characters tend to have a lot of background and relationships with each other, but finding out some of their backstories can be tough: much of the characters’ relations are revealed through the “support” system, where connected characters are able to exchange dialogue (and status assistance) with each other after standing next to each other for several turns. This takes a while and can sometimes be difficult to accomplish, so if you want more backstory, be prepared to plan for it!
Fire Emblem’s graphics are nice overall, with striking illustrations for pivotal story scenes and fully drawn (though strangely lacking of much expression variety) character portraits for dialogue. Battle sequences feature wonderfully smooth and impressive animations of the combatants executing their attacks. The actual battle maps and sprites, however, tend to look very bland and basic in comparison to the colorful character art and exceptionally animated battle scenes. The game music is also good, with some nice battle tunes and character themes that will stick around in your mind even after you turn the GBA off.
But perhaps one of the best things about the game is how accessible it is to players of all levels of SRPG experience. People who have never touched (or don’t even really like) SRPGs will still find this game very easy to get into. The interface is easy to use and doesn’t involve sifting through menu after menu after menu to find or accomplish what you want to do. (Some players will notice similarities of the interface presentation to the Advance Wars series - also by the same developers.) The first eleven battles or so are more “tutorial” battles to introduce the player to important aspects of gameplay. (That doesn’t mean you can slack off on them, though!) That’s not to say that a SRPG veteran will find the game overly simplistic, either. Unusual and unique circumstances in several fights and the exploration of advanced combat tactics will cause any strategy buff to happily play away hours of their time.
The game does seem deceptively easy up to a point. I say “deceptively” for a few reasons: you are given some very powerful units early on that can become experience hogs if you’re not careful, taking potential gains away from weaker units who could become much stronger with proper development. Also, many battles later on take surprise twists that will keep you on your toes. But for you strategy masters who still think the game’s difficulty is lacking, you’ll be extremely pleased to find that beating the game will give you not only an extra set of scenarios with a different lead character, but a hard mode that will certainly challenge even the most hardened tactician.
In fact, Fire Emblem has an amazing amount of replay value. Secrets abound in the game; there’s hidden sidequests, secret characters, and lots of things to be found on the battlefield. There are also many different troops to recruit and develop, all of who grow strong in individual ways, and who have many different Support interactions. You are bound to miss things on your first and even your second playthrough, but the game is so enjoyable (and the story scenes skippable) that you won’t mind going through it a few times - especially when you’ve unlocked the bonuses at the end.
In the end, Fire Emblem is a fun, intuitive, and very replayable strategy adventure. But once it’s over, you’ll definitely want more - not only to learn more about the continuity of the game’s world, but also to enjoy more of the excellent gameplay. Remember: Every purchase of a Fire Emblem cartridge helps tell Nintendo to bring us more!
· · · Heidi Kemps