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Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Game Boy Advance) artwork

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Game Boy Advance) review

"Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is about a princess named Eirika who must save her continent from the Grado Empire, which has recently started up an odd policy of kicking all their neighboring countriesí asses for no good reason. Through her quest, she must reunite with her missing twin brother, unravel the Grado Empireís darker plot, and stop an age-old evil from resurfacing and covering the world in eternal darkness. Starting with only her rapier, her wits, her trusted companion, Seth, and her ..."

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is about a princess named Eirika who must save her continent from the Grado Empire, which has recently started up an odd policy of kicking all their neighboring countriesí asses for no good reason. Through her quest, she must reunite with her missing twin brother, unravel the Grado Empireís darker plot, and stop an age-old evil from resurfacing and covering the world in eternal darkness. Starting with only her rapier, her wits, her trusted companion, Seth, and her Sailor Moon-style miniskirt, she will rise to the occasion, discover new friends, battle new enemies, and learn the true nature of the world around her.

So, yeah, Sacred Stonesí story sucks. It features a host of clichť characters who go around doing clichť things to advance a clichť plot. Itís predictable, rehashed, and has some of the most melodramatic and overblown dialogue this side of that crappy Alexander movie that bombed a few months back.

And I could not give any less of a damn. Despite my love of good stories, despite my worship of competent character development, despite my despising of guys with blue hair, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones still managed to claim a solid two weeks of my life. Thatís just how good it is.

Itís the gameplay. And the miniskirt doesnít hurt, either. Hooray miniskirts.

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a strategy game, probably made in the vein of a bunch of games that Iíve never played before. Iím not a big fan of the genre; they generally require a high level of thinking, an activity thatís been to known to bring me great amounts of pain. As a matter of fact, the only other strategy game Iíve ever liked is Advance Wars, a game that made complex strategizing a simple affair, like Chess with a larger board and more pieces. And explosions.

Thatís probably why I dig Sacred Stones so much; the gameís like Advance Warsí messed up twin brother, the kind that gets all angsty about his looks and gets his hair dyed and his skin tanned so he can look as different as possible. Movementís basically the same; each unit has a certain range they can go to, terrain they can pass through and terrain they canít. Some can attack from a range; some only do it up close. Each unit has some strength to it, a skill that makes them invaluable in the right situation, and the key to victory is known when and where to put them to work.

And thatís where the similarities start to stop. Where Advance Wars gives you an infinite supply of soldiers to call forth (well, thereís a lot more to it than that, but Iím trying to keep focus) Sacred Stones limits you; your army grows as you progress through the story. You come across new friends; they join the party. You satisfy certain goals in the midst of combat, a few enemies wind up taking your side. Your army grows and grows, but itís not getting filled out by a bunch of disposable toy soldiers; you army has faces, names, backstories, relationships. Yeah, theyíre one-note for the most part, but one-note is better than no note at all.

The game steps even farther away from Advance Wars by embracing some RPG elements; each character can be fined tuned and powered up, gain stronger stats to face the trials. Each level brings up the stats in a few areas, small changes that can have a big impact on the overall. Characters with superior defense make ideal frontrunners, soaking up the pain and giving some little back, too. Magic users stay behind the front lines, dealing damage from a distance or healing up the wounded, whichever you prefer. Some can fly over mountains, others can walk over water; if you play everything straight, by the time you reach the gameís halfway point youíll have just about every kind of fantasy-based badass you could want. Thieves, archers, Pegasus riders who fly through the sky and rain down speared death on the enemy, and many more besides.

And thatís just the tip; most of these character types have at least one level you can upgrade to, a higher plateau of power with greater strength and more varied abilities. You donít always have to choose the same type of upgrade, either; more often than not youíll be given a choice of two character types to move on to, allowing you greater freedom to fill out your ranks as you choose. Should you change your thief into an assassin and reap the benefits of a quiet killer? Or should you keep him on the path of the picked pocket and turn him a bandit, a thief capable of acquiring whatever he wants whenever he wants it?

It forces you to think, to make your own choices, and youíd better choose wisely. The game doesnít pussyfoot around war; youíre working with a set of living characters, living characters thatíll stop living if youíre careless. And when a character in Sacred Stones dies, he stays dead. No phoenix-downs, no taking back your move, no respawing him again for the next mission. Since the game automatically saves your progress after each turn, you canít even reset and go back a few moves to before you fumbled, a worthy trick that I pulled many a time with Advance Wars. No, the only way to bring back a dead character in Sacred Stones is to start the whole battle over, go back to base one and build up again. Winning the battles isnít all that hard, not even towards the later levels. Itís winning them with all your people in the not-dead category that proves a challenge; the farther you go, the more youíll need them, and the tougher it gets to keep them alive.

It might seem like an annoyance at first, and Iíll admit, having to start all over just because I overestimated one of my menís ability to take a punchÖnot the happiest of feelings. I cursed a few times. But the threat of permanent death adds a sharper element to the gameplay; you canít rely on sacrificing units for sneak attacks like youíd do with Advance Wars, youíve got to find a way keep the enemy busy that includes minimal risk, whether it be attacking en masse and making sure each character is covered or striking in quick bursts from the darkness, guerilla tactics.

But, if youíre like me, you donít want to just outsmart the enemy; proving Iím smarter than a game cart doesnít really satisfy me. No, I get the most fun out of crushing the enemy, in utterly obliterating him at every turn, the relentless offensive.

For such a show of brute force, you need units that can deliver the heavy damage, units that are leveled up far beyond what you could get from just playing the story. For this, the game gives you some sidequests, massively multi-tiered dungeons that exist for no other purpose than testing and strengthening you skills, making each fighter all the more well-rounded. If thereís ever a level you canít pass or an obstacle you canít overcome or a boss you canít beat, itís just a simple matter of heading to one of these dungeons and killing whatever crosses your way inside. Before you know it, your characters can dispatch even the toughest of enemies on their lonesome, cleaning out the enemy in waves and ripping apart anything dumb enough to come your way.

You see, success in Sacred Stones is about tweaking, and itís not just simple leveling up that paves the way. Youíve got to manage you army, keep them stocked. Weapons donít last forever; they break, become useless. Youíve got make sure each character goes into battle with ready weaponry; strong fighters with broken weapons make nice diversions, but not much else. Youíve got to look at the battlefield before hand, choose the units you want to take into battle, anticipate where the enemyís going and get there before he does. Magic makes things tricky; youíve got to know where to use and who to use it on, keeping an eye out for those elemental affinities. Itís about micromanagement; itís about winning the battle before the battle even starts.

I love it.

The beauty here is that it makes something so complex into something so simple. There are variables you have to look out for, sure, but nothing that the game throws from left field. It shows you how far each unit can go, lets you scout the strength of your enemy, anticipate how each individual battle with go. If youíre not strong enough to win, it shows where you can get strong enough. Nothing requires you to keep coming back to the instruction booklet; youíll never have to stop in the middle of battle to see if you misunderstood something. Always straightforward, plug-and-play, a smooth ride from the moment you press start.

If you liked Advance Wars, odds are youíll like Sacred Stones. Yeah, the original Fire Emblem is already out, and this isnít even really Fire Emblem 2; itís like the seventh in a series that never made it to the US orÖsomething like that. I donít care and I donít really need to; even if the game brought up its predecessors, the storyís suckiness cancels out any chance of that mattering. Itís a fun game. Just buy, put it in, and go.

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Community review by lasthero (September 12, 2005)

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