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

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

"Your favorite character has perished in battle. Realizing there is no hope of reviving him, grief plagues you, and you pick up the pieces, go back to square one and restart the chapter with a scornful vengeance, coldly calculating your every move as to punish the enemy for your loss and avoid repeating the same mistake. It is the gift and the curse of the Fire Emblem series, the permanent loss of characters upon death and the sense of urgency and grandiose that goes with it. When coupled ..."

Your favorite character has perished in battle. Realizing there is no hope of reviving him, grief plagues you, and you pick up the pieces, go back to square one and restart the chapter with a scornful vengeance, coldly calculating your every move as to punish the enemy for your loss and avoid repeating the same mistake. It is the gift and the curse of the Fire Emblem series, the permanent loss of characters upon death and the sense of urgency and grandiose that goes with it. When coupled with a story that will likely leave you attached to at least a few members of the colorful cast of characters, it really is a lash on the back when someone kicks the bucket. The gift of it is that that lash is what drives you onward, what keeps you from becoming careless, and what makes Fire Emblem unique.

Some say that Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones lacks the constant pressure that defined it’s prequel. Let me first dispel this rumor by mentioning that there is a hard mode available from the get-go, and secondly that the normal mode is on par with, or perhaps slightly less difficult than it’s predecessor’s. It’s difficult to make a direct comparison between the two because of two factors - one, the absence of a tutorial or equivalent Lyn’s mode, a 10-chapter exercise in tedium that introduced you to the first game, and the fact that the your path diverges around halfway through the game and converges again near the end, with one of the paths being markedly easier. Rest assured though, if you go into the game seeking a challenge, you won’t be disappointed.

Combat is based on a weapons triangle, with axes crushing lances, swords besting axes, and lances dwarfing swords. If you strike an opponent with a superior weapon, you gain a point in damage and heightened accuracy, but it works both ways. It may not be the best idea to strike an axe-wielding enemy with your swordsman if there are two enemy lancers in range, aching for the end of your turn. Maybe there’s a recruitable character up ahead who won’t be there for long, so you send your Pegasus knight to fly around the three enemy units. Before you hit move, you realize there’s an enemy archer up there, and Pegasus knights are ultra-susceptible to bows. So you send your lance-wielding, mounted cavalier past the axeman and the two lancers to kill the archer so you can recruit the character, which unfortunately puts him in range of the two enemy lancers, but that’s okay because of his high HP and the fact that he can run back down to be healed by your cleric next turn.

No chapter is alike, and every situation is strewn with variables that must be accounted for before your next move is made. The amount of characters you can bring into each chapter is limited, so choosing a well-balanced team is imperative. Your selection is quite large, ranging from nimble thieves to armored knights, dark mages (part of a magic triangle, paralleling the weapons triangle) to priestesses, horsemen to pirates and more. The characters gain levels, with some prone to receiving different stat upgrades than others. Once a character reaches level 10 and the proper promotion item is acquired, they can be promoted into more powerful classes, definitely a rewarding experience. This game differs from the original in that you now have a choice of two classes in which to upgrade, really allowing you to customize your team for maximum performance.

Also unique to Sacred Stones is the addition of a world map, in which you can traverse back to old armories and item shops and eventually even battle hordes of monsters in-between chapters, ala Final Fantasy Tactics. The only valid argument towards the lack of difficulty in this game is the inclusion of the Tower of Valni on the world map, where you can fight limitless amounts of weak monsters for experience points. It should serve only to train frail, newly acquired units to the point where they can avoid getting decimated in the chapters to come, not to abuse and have everyone reach level twenty early in the game.

There’s a reason some units are so weak when you receive them - they are members of the newly incorporated trainee class, and actually start ten levels behind the default classes. They may seem useless and prone to death at first, but if you put forth the effort, they blossom into some of the most formidable units in the game due to having ten extra levels under their belt. On the contrary, units that are already promoted from the start tend to hog experience points and pale in comparison to your regular units once they reach the equivalent level.

Alternating with the intense strategizing are segments of story which drive the plot along and motivate you in your quest. Unfortunately, the plot of Sacred Stones isn’t quite as dramatically poignant or fleshed out as it was in the previous installment, but it still remains a big aspect of the game. Every one of the thirty-plus characters you acquire has their own backstory, personality, and reason for aiding you in your quest to attain the Sacred Stone, the game’s namesake and the only thing left on the continent powerful enough to defeat the Demon King. The Demon King is an entity of pure evil, responsible for the nation of Grado’s sudden attack on Renais, ending grimly an 800-year era of peace and plunging the continent of Magvel into turbulent waters. Eirika and Ephraim, heirs to the throne of Renais, go on a journey to find the Sacred Stone after receiving word that their father, King Fado, has died by the hands of Grado’s soldiers. Midway through the game they split up, allowing you to choose which one to tag along with for the next ten or so chapters until both paths merge back together for the finale. This provides for some replay value and a bit of leeway when it comes to difficulty as Ephraim’s path, into the heart of Grado, is more straightforward and challenging.

The main character no longer has a love interest, and the plot twists are far less surprising and emotionally charged (with the exception of one moment at the end that nearly brought me to tears), but the gameplay is as solid as ever. The gameplay mechanics are fundamentally the same as Fire Emblem’s, but why mess with a winning formula? The only changes are additions, such as the world map, trainee classes, and the choice of two classes upon promotion, all for the better, assuming you don’t abuse the Tower of Valni. After a while, combat will become instinctual, and what seems like a nigh-infinite amount of variables on paper proves to be a challenging experience, yes, but not confusing or overwhelming in the slightest.

One of the highlights of Sacred Stones is it’s immense replay value, due to the massive cast of characters and being able to use only a fraction of them in battle. For the most part you’ll stick with one team, occasionally subbing in and out a character or two, because there’s no way you could pull off a decent rotation and still have the experience points to survive. There are a few staple characters that you’ll likely be using every playthrough, but there’s a ton of flexibility and character choice really comes down to personal preference. The fact that there are two paths you can go by seems like icing on the cake when it comes to playing this game more than once for the full experience.

Presented in this cartridge is thirty (multiplied by x per replay) hours of solid, stimulating gameplay with a plethora of distinct characters whose’ personalities intertwine with the central storyline, orchestrated by music powerful in emotion, fighting the limitations of GameBoy Advance speakers to prove the seriousness and sincerity of war. If the music fails to reach out to you, no doubt you will be touched, better yet, shaken, when the character you’ve seen through from the beginning is crushed with the twisted indifference of combat under the cold, steely blade of the enemy.

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Community review by meeptroid (January 29, 2008)

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