For such a long-running series, it's hard to believe Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones was only the second game to leave Japan after GBA predecessor Fire Emblem. Since then the series has had a far bigger presence in the West, a fact underlined by Sacred Stones' status as a 3DS Ambassador title.
If Sacred Stones is your first Fire Emblem title, not to worry: its story isn't connected to previous entries. Set in the continent of Magvel, it follows royal siblings Ephraim and Eirika and the outbreak of an unlikely war with a long-standing ally, coinciding with the appearance of monsters. Told through stacks of well-written (if occasionally stuffy) dialogue, its militaristic concerns dovetail with themes of loyalty, family and more; it's rarely light and breezy, but at least it's interesting.
Equally interesting is the split storyline: Ephraim and Eirika each have six unique chapters in the 22 chapter story, but you can only choose one path per playthrough. To experience the full 28 chapters you'll need to complete the game twice: it may not be quite as strong as Shining Force III's Synchronicity system for replay value, but it's still a welcome step.
As with previous titles most of the action takes place on the battlefield. Veterans of Advance Wars or Shining Force will be right at home with the idea of two armies taking turns to attack, with a weapons triangle giving balance. These mechanics have hardly changed, and with good reason: it's delicately balanced and always engaging. Even simple early battles prove tense at times, not least because of the series' main calling card: permanent death. Lose a unit in battle and it's lost forever: no resurrections here.
There are sizeable changes in Sacred Stones, though. Unlike previous games, there's an (admittedly simple) overworld map to explore in between battles. It's hardly Granseal, but the ability to poke around Magvel brings a welcome change of pace: shops and optional battles lurk off the beaten track, giving curious players something else to look out for.
Things are different in battle, too. Units have branching promotion paths, granting you more control over their development than before: a cavalier can become a paladin or a great knight, with different pros and cons for each route. Likewise, you'll encounter trainee fighters along the way whose progression is in your hands: their use in battle is all down to how you train them and the decisions you make.
Graphically the game is hit-and-miss: character profiles are well drawn and attack animations are simply superb, but backgrounds can be dull and lack detail. Blown up on the 3DS screen they suffer even more, becoming blurry and washed out, so we recommend that Ambassadors push Start or Select when loading the game. Music is, however, rather good throughout.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones further refines the series' battle system with subtle additions, while the writing and animation is as good as ever. The introduction of a world map, branching unit promotions and unique chapters for the two lead characters mark this as the best GBA entry in the series and a great title for Ambassadors.