Fire Emblem Review
Posted by Laurie Blake
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Released on the Famicom in 1990, the Japan-only Fire Emblem was a slice of strategy role playing heaven, but despite building up a loyal army of followers in its native Japan the series didn’t make it over to the Western world until Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance took up the sword in 2003. By this time the series' staple mechanics had been sharpened to a fine point, and the title, released simply as Fire Emblem, will surely make players wonder why it took so long to journey across the pond.
Fire Emblem is a turns-based strategy game with an RPG flavour, in which battles are fought on top down grid-based maps. It’s kind of like chess but far more dramatic, because each skirmish is tied together by an epic story of medieval heroics in the face of great adversity.
A typical battle has you moving your characters around the map and engaging enemy forces. Conflicts are won in a variety of ways such as defeating all the enemy troops, surviving a set number of turns, seizing a location or laying the enemy general to waste. Doing battle with an enemy soldier is as simple as moving your units into the square next to them on the grid, selecting a weapon and watching the conflict play out in brilliantly animated fight scenes. There are three main types of weapons – swords, axes and lances – organised like an exceedingly pointy game of rock, paper, scissors, where each death-dealing implement is strong against one but weak to the other. For instance, a sword will often best an axe, scoring two strikes instead of one and having a higher chance of hitting. Don’t take the system for granted, though, as there are weapons which buck the trend, like the Sword Reaver axe that effectively reverses the triangle. There is a similar system of magic with light, dark and elemental variations for Mages to wield. Toss in the ranged attacks from bows, plus the fact that many classes can wield multiple weapon types, and you’ve got a lot to take into account when sizing up the opposition.
While there are a lot of decisions to make and stats to juggle, the whole system will become second nature by the end of the tutorial battles. Once you’ve got a firm grasp on the basics, the tactical depth is blown wide open; you’ll soon find yourself baiting enemies by plonking your stronger units within their movement range and counter-attacking with the full force of your army as your next turn rolls around. Further strategy comes with the ability to pick up other units, thus removing them from harm's way – using a physically weak soldier to whittle down an enemy boss and then rescuing them before the enemy can retaliate is a gamble with a big return, should you pull it off.
Throughout the thirty-odd chapters, you will lead your forces across grassy plains, into castles and traverse cracked pathways surrounded by lava pits, and the environment can play a big part in the outcome of battles. Different terrain can limit the movement range of your characters; for instance, mounted units like Paladins can roam over large distances on flat terrain, but their steeds are slowed when moving through forests and cannot traverse mountains at all. Using the trees as cover lowers the chance of your enemy hitting, and having your units rest on a fort will see them recover some of their health at the end of the turn. In some battles, walls can be destroyed and bridges can be built, opening new routes and flanking possibilities.
Each chapter is centred on one battle and gives further exposition to the overarching story. You are cast as a wandering tactician who joins up with one of three lords; your role then becomes that of omnipresent general overseeing all the battlefield goings-on. The continent of Elibe is in great turmoil, and it’s your job to sort it out: the dark druid Nergal and the Black Fang, his crew of deadly warriors, are waging war on the land in an attempt to open up the Dragon’s Gate. This seal separates the fiery wrath of the immensely powerful dragons from the world of humans.
The main narrative thrust is told from the perspectives of Eliwood, Hector and Lyndis. Lyndis’s story comprises the first ten chapters in which you learn the ropes, and sees the green-haired warrior princess discovering her royal heritage and reclaiming the throne of Caelin. Eliwood’s tale follows on from Lyn's and makes up the next twenty chapters putting the young Lord on the trail of his missing father, the Marquess of Pherae, a quest which sees him lock horns with the Black Fang and the fate of Elibe come to rest on his shoulders. Hector’s campaign tells of Eliwood’s quest from a different angle, with a few new battles and narrative segments; each character's tale can be selected separately upon starting a new game, but to get the full story you have to play them all.
The story is told mainly through the use of text boxes and anime style character portraits bolstered by the occasional painted image at particularly dramatic moments. Wading through the text can take a fair amount of time, but the story beats and art style will really help to draw you into the game’s sense of character. While the scripting can be hit or miss and often errs on the side of melodrama, Fire Emblem has a strong grasp of character, and everyone that you meet has a distinct personality. The great characterisation means that you’ll have some tough choices when picking your ten or so squad members from the game’s forty unique characters.
Fire Emblem drives home the relationship between player and character with perhaps its biggest quirk: permanent character death. Should one of your units fall in battle, that’s it – you can never use them again. There are no revival spells, just a short deathbed monologue and then the spark goes out. Obviously you can carry on without units, but losing somebody you’ve grown attached to is enough to have you reaching for the reset button, even if it means tackling a one hour battle again. Should any of your Lords come a cropper to the slings and arrows of the enemies then it’s game over: the war is lost.
Losing units is particularly tough when you’ve put time and effort into raising their unique stats. Each unit falls into a certain class, like Archer, Pirate or Mage; as characters defeat enemies they gain experience and will eventually level up with a short fanfare and the obligatory stat boost. Certain characters over level ten can even change class by using items found in treasure chests during battles. Working on transforming a Thief from a relatively weak support character into an ultra-deadly Assassin with a ludicrously high critical hit rate is the ultimate reward for persistent training. More units will join your team as you progress, but you’ll often have to talk to them mid-battle with a specific ally to gain their trust – this can be dangerous as some of the strongest units are fighting on the opposite side and have no qualms in making mincemeat out of your weaker units.
Putting together a balanced team comprising multiple classes is a skill unto itself as all-out attack isn’t always an option. It takes a good tactician to know when to deploy Bishops wielding healing magic staves or use the hit and run tactics reserved for Pegasus Knights and Wyvern Riders. Every class has its own unique tactical advantages, and effectively combining them all is essential to victory. Balancing all your equipment and items is another necessary evil; weapons have a limited number of uses before they break, so keeping your characters well-stocked is a must. This can be done prior to battle when selecting units and formation – trading items between characters and the convoy of armaments is simple. New weapons can be bought in shops on the battle map or gained from defeating enemies, but characters can only carry a limited number of items at once so you’re constantly micromanaging ahead of tough skirmishes.
Fire Emblem has a charming graphical style that is well suited to the system; the simple grid map gives way to some wonderfully animated battle sequences that make combat incredibly engaging. Critical hits especially show off the sprite work with twirling blades, charging horses and explosions of colour. The music plays along with the medieval theme, always reflecting the mood of the story and intensity of the battle. Some catchy tunes crop up here and there, but generally the music suits the action.
Fire Emblem is a long game, and battles can last anywhere up to an hour to complete, especially if you’re trying to win with all your units intact. Luckily, it includes the ability to suspend play at any time, returning you to that point in the battle with a click of the resume button. This also means that you can’t just shut the game off if a unit dies, as it will just load up at that very point, forcing you to watch the moment again and again. If you can soldier on without them then good for you, but if not you’ll have to restart the chapter, making Fire Emblem one of the toughest games for those with a sentimental streak.
Budding tacticians will lap up every second of Fire Emblem’s whopping campaign – the charming graphics and satisfying gameplay will draw many in, while the expansive story and sheer number of strategic options will have people obsessing over it come bedtime. Watching a favoured unit dodge a lethal blow is a heart-pounding moment that most other strategy games can’t replicate – there’s nothing like it, and it’s just one of the many reasons why many gamers will carry a torch for Fire Emblem.