"Fights consist of more and more enemy troops, many of which can pop up anywhere at any time as reinforcements, while many factors make picking your group of heroes for each battle a decision to not be taken lightly. Units with heavy armor may not be mobile enough to be useful on the largest battlefields, while heroes that subscribe to the “brawn-before-brains” code likely will get beat down in encounters with multiple magic-wielders."
I still see the accusing stares of the dead whenever I close my eyes. I envisioned myself a great general -- a strategic genius the likes the world had never seen -- and, to be honest, history books will back up that claim after I won a war seeming destined to send the world into a dark age of chaos. But when I look at the body count my careless actions created, I still feel I somehow failed.
The wyvern rider Heath showed his nobility in dashing off to rescue an imperiled traveler in a remote desert region. While he was able to buy that person enough time to escape, he fell beneath the might of the enemy forces. The wily mage Canas found his devastating spells outmatched by the brute force of an axe’s blade. A courageous warrior named Dorcas, who had been by my side for many battles, breathed his last in helping give my army the victory in the decisive conflict. And they weren’t the only ones I’d failed. Regardless of all my victories (and I racked up an impressive number of them), it is those defeats that haunt my dreams.
And that is why the Fire Emblem series came close to becoming the perfect strategy role-playing experience. Unlike Shining Force, Front Mission and other such games, there can be harsh consequences for even seemingly insignificant tactical errors. To put it simply, if a character perishes in battle, they stay dead. There are no life potions, no helpful priests and no resurrection spells. One mistake can rob a budding general of one of their best and brightest soldiers forever.
Sadly, the second installment released for the Game Boy Advance (and seventh overall) was the first to see American shores. Simply named Fire Emblem, this game made me wonder why Nintendo of America, who had churned these games out for the Famicom and Super Famicom, had deprived me of such a wonderful series for so long.
The gameplay is simple and addictive. The assorted classes of characters are proficient in different kinds of weapons or magic, which determines what foes they’re best-suited to fight. For one example, archers will be lucky to even scratch heavily-armored melee troops, but will slaughter anyone foolish enough to mount a pegasus or wyvern and fly within their range. At times, it almost felt like I was playing “rock-paper-scissors”, but with the lives of people.
In case any of the game’s mechanics seem a bit tricky, Fire Emblem starts the player off with a few easy missions. Upon starting a new game and naming your budding military strategist, it’s off to help a young woman named Lyn. During the 10 or so missions of her quest, you’re taught how to talk to potential allies, explore towns, make companions even more powerful by promoting them to a superior class and other useful tactics. It’s a nice, if overly long, way to get introduced to Fire Emblem’s mechanics. As an added bonus, any character killed off in these fights is only lost for the rest of this scenario, but will be brought back for the main portion of the game.
Now, you’re working with a young man named Eliwood. The heir to a throne, Eliwood enlists your help in a quest to find out just what happened to his father -- a quest that will get more and more complicated until Eliwood and his army (which eventually includes Lyn and her companions from that first scenario) are locked in combat with a vile sorcerer who has some ominous plans for their world.
Eliwood’s quest, which composes the bulk of the game’s 30-plus battles, is where Fire Emblem starts to really get good. Fights consist of more and more enemy troops, many of which can pop up anywhere at any time as reinforcements, while many factors make picking your group of heroes for each battle a decision to not be taken lightly. Units with heavy armor may not be mobile enough to be useful on the largest battlefields, while heroes that subscribe to the “brawn-before-brains” code likely will get beat down in encounters with multiple magic-wielders. Since weapons in this game can only be used a set number of times before breaking, you’ll want to make sure none of your characters are on the verge of losing their sword, leaving them helpless for the majority of a fight. While I’ve played a number of fun and challenging SRPGs, I can honestly say that none made me contemplate each move I was about to make like this one did.
Unfortunately, as I said, Fire Emblem is only close to being the perfect SRPG. A few annoying flaws detract from this game’s excellence. First, it simply takes too long for Fire Emblem to truly get good. Lyn’s tutorial missions are very simple, with a few consisting of little more than you getting walked through a few simple commands. To make matters worse, you have nearly a dozen of these “beginner” missions, meaning it will take some time for a player to get to the meaty part of the game. Quite frankly, Fire Emblem made a poor first impression on me, as all I initially noticed was a simplistic, ugly little game.
While the game never impressed me visually, as soon as I started Eliwood’s scenario, I stopped noticing the bland visuals, as I was captivated by one intense battle after another. Sadly, Fire Emblem wasn’t able to keep that momentum all the way until the end. As I approached the final battles, my collection of high-level, promoted characters was more than capable of butchering virtually every soldier the enemy could muster, making these late-game fights exercises in tedium. While the brutally tough final battle (which mainly consisted of boss-class enemies) did redeem things somewhat, I have to say the final quarter of Eliwood’s scenario was a bit too easy. After beating the game, you are rewarded with a more-challenging (and longer) version of Eliwood’s scenario from the perspective of the noble, yet rash, Hector. Still, it would have been nice if some of Eliwood’s final battles were a bit more tense and climactic.
I also had qualms with the story at times. For the most part, Fire Emblem’s plot was wonderfully fleshed out, with most of the important characters (whether good, evil or misguided) given some sort of personality. However, as the game progressed, I became painfully aware that it was released as a prequel to the original GBA installment in the series (the Japanese-only Fuuin no Tsurugi). About three or four battles in Eliwood’s scenario revolve around a plot point that seemed tacked on at the last minute just to provide a connection between the two games, and a good chunk of Fire Emblem’s ending also seems to do little more than set the plate for Fuuin no Tsurugi. Personally, I found it a bit questionable that Nintendo left these things in the American version. Usually, I’m against scenes being cut or altered when shipped over here, but in this case, it just seemed like they were promoting a game they never saw fit to give us.
Still, I must say that Fire Emblem is a fine game. While it does have its share of annoying flaws, when this game is hitting all cylinders, it easily surpasses virtually every other SRPG I’ve played. With a little more consistency in quality, it likely would be as close to perfect as I’ve ever played -- still, it’s definitely one of the more memorable games I’ve played.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 30, 2006)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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