The Fire Emblem series has been very well-known for a very long time in Japan. The first game, developed by Intelligent Systems (who later worked on Paper Mario and the console Pokemon games) was released for the NES in 1989, starring Marth, who many 10-year-old boys would come to know as the girly blue-haired guy in Brawl. The game, while somewhat archaic in retrospect, basically created an entire genre, melding turn-based strategy with RPG mechanics (such as unique characters with their own identities, stats, and inventories, along with mainstays of RPGs like experience points and loads of weapons) to create a unique, well-loved system. However, for reasons not entirely known; perhaps it just wasn't seen as a lucrative business venture; Nintendo didn't chance releasing the generally well-off Japanese title overseas.
However, in 2001, the Fire Emblem series contained five games, with a 6th one for the GBA very close to release. SORA threw in classic hero Marth along with the new game's protagonist, Roy, for the sake of promotion, and shipped the game overseas. Marth and Roy, total enigmas to almost every American that played the game with their medieval get-ups and Japanese voicing, became very popular. Nintendo saw this as the best opportunity they could ask for to get Fire Emblem to America, and the seventh game, a prequel to the sixth and also for the GBA, was promptly localized in 2003. Said game is the one I'm reviewing now.
Anyways, Fire Emblem has been something of a mainstay in Nintendo's first-party lineup ever since, though it already was in the east. With its mix of a colorful cast that all mostly go beyond a few lines and a single character trait, bright, well-sprited graphics with something of a retro appeal, and strong tactical gameplay that really makes you think, Fire Emblem is easy to love once you get into it. However, exactly how
easy is it to do that?
The Laus family reunion apple-slicing competition ended up getting a bit out of hand...
Fire Emblem is pretty welcoming at first. You start on Lyn Mode, a prologue + 10 chapters and 1 side-chapter, that works as something of a prelude to the main story, as well as an introduction to the game mechanics. After you complete it, you move onto Eliwood Mode, which is a whopping 21 chapters + 6 side-chapters; there's also Hector Mode, which becomes available after you beat the game in Eliwood Mode and is basically Eliwood Mode but with a slightly changed narrative, a couple new chapters and a different main character, obviously. The game is laid out on a grid, with your blue player units as well as the red enemy units on it. Objectives for completion to tend to change, but they are usually either seizing the map's main control point (a gate or throne) with your main character, defeating all enemies on a map, or protecting an NPC for X number of turns.
A steady stream of tutorials is spit out at you initially, easing you in and making the learning curve softer by fixing the numbers in your direction a bit. It works well, though the high amount of tutorials that you tend to collide with can get annoying eventually; especially if you're a strategy gamer in general and thus have a decent grasp on what you're doing; but it's a good idea for the most part.
However, once the tutorials let up and you're set to think on your own, the game comes into its own. It's not always complicated; sometimes there is an obvious chokepoint somewhere that is easy to get to with a decent unit and hold; but often I found myself sitting for a minute or two and thinking more intricately about unit formation, weapon equipment, and who would be seeing the bulk of the battles, kills, and experience. There are some characters that are good right away, but grow poorly and lag a lot later in the game. Others are bad when you first get them, but if you have the blood, sweat, and tears to train them they can be excellent later on. Then of course there are those who are balanced and reliable, not particularly good at any point but never bad either. When the game gets deeper in and allows you to put yourself in the shoes of a tactician, the real fun comes out, and you can find yourself releasing a fist pump when a plan goes successfully.
Additionally, units, as I mentioned earlier, are all generally unique characters rather than just being generic infantrymen or tanks, a la Advance Wars. Statistics are fairly basic; HP, Strength/Magic (depending on whether you're physical or magical; most other games in the series use both stats for every character), Speed, Skill, Defense, and so on. You get EXP from battling (thieves can also get some from stealing items off of enemies), and whenever you get 100, you level up; the amount of EXP you get from each battle and kill is determined by your level in juxtaposition to that of the enemy's. Nobody gets a set amount of stats each level-up, either; characters have growth rates that gives them higher or lower chances of getting the rate's concurrent stat each time they level up. It's randomized with a number generator, so a character could get every stat or just HP when they level up. This tends to be frustrating, as it feels like the game follows Sturgeon's Law constantly.
There are a myriad amount of classes to define characters by as well. Cavaliers ride on horses, increasing how many spaces they can move per turn, and are capable of using both swords and lances. Fighters use only axes, having great HP and Strength in exchange for poor Speed and Defense. Archers are foot soldiers that use bows to attack from afar, usually without fear of a counter-attack unless the enemy is using a ranged weapon as well. There is only one of the bard and dancer in the game, and both are never in the party at one time; in exchange for their generally low stats and inability to fight, they can allow one unit to move again each turn. Along with standby classes like cleric, thief, and mage, the field is generally full of fun, usable classes.
As long as I've gone on about all this, let me explain some of the bad here. One of the things everyone notes about Fire Emblem is the permanent character death; and yes, it is unforgiving. I understand why this is here in ways; sometimes, a character will die, and I can easily see what I did wrong in that situation, and thus go back and restart the chapter. Other times, though, it's obvious that the random number generators used with things like critical chances are completely screwing you over. Imagine working for twenty straight minutes strategizing and setting up a generally good plan to kick off the chapter, holding some starting chokepoints. Everything is going smoothly once you end your turn, but suddenly, just at the end of the enemy phase, an enemy that the battle screen lists as having a 2% chance of getting a critical hit lands it, and murders your unit that wouldn't have died and taken the hit under normal circumstances. This is where Fire Emblem gets to unreasonable, tear-your-hair-out levels of difficulty.
There are other things, too; the game likes to spawn reinforcements in random places, especially near YOUR spawn area where your merchant is. Since it's impossible to predict this happening and you didn't post a guard, and you can't get someone back in time, your merchant dies, leaving you only with the items in your characters' inventories. This is called trial-and-error, forcing you to restart the chapter now that you've already failed once. Couldn't the game at least give some warning as to what's going to happen a bit before the reinforcements spawn?
Fire Emblem can be fantastically when things are working as they should be, with you moving your team around like chess pieces, putting the right units up against each other (such as putting the weapon triangles; sword > axe > lance > sword, anima > light > dark > anima; to work), and analyzing the mistakes you made and redoing them effectively. It has its frustrations, but you can't doubt that the game gives you loads of tactical power on the tiny GBA.
THUNDER. THUNDER. THUNDERCATS.
The game is fairly bright in its color pallets, and the sprites, while done well enough, are fairly basic. The battle sprites, despite their spotty physics at times, are animated nicely and fluidly, and match up with each character (which is a better accomplishment than you might think, considering how easy it would be to just pull out a generic blue color pallet for every single class, which is something the series did on the first games).
It isn't as if the game is spectacular in the visual area, but things are telegraphed effectively, and the CG images that occasionally appear are quite nice to look at.
The footstep sound that plays when a unit moves on the map is too glorious for the naked ear to behold.
This game's music, while at times simplistic, was definitely worked hard on. Some are just remixed versions of previous themes; such as the theme for battling in the arena, or the victory themes; but others are original tunes that are done very well. Scars of the Scouring, one of the map themes, is a personal favorite of mine that I found to be fantastically done. There are others that can be named; Distant Travels, Inescapable Fate, When the Rush Comes; that can get your blood pumping or flowing. Again, many are just remixes of previous themes, which does feel a bit lazy, but the soundtrack is still very nice.
Sound effects aren't much to write home about, but they don't need to be, really; this isn't Call of Duty. I suppose the thunder sounds with some spell animations are cool?
This is the worst example of taking advantage of a situation ever.
Fire Emblem begins as you create an avatar for yourself in the game's world; he (sorry, you can't make a girl) is placed as the tactician. It's a cool touch; though you never answer back, characters will address you during story scenes, and your month of birth, which determines your affinity, will affect some characters by improving their performance. It's limited interactivity, but interactivity nonetheless.
The game begins in Lyn's story, though going through it is optional on playthroughs following your first. Lyn is a girl from the plains of Sacae, a nomadic country in the east of the game's continent, Elibe, who decides to go out and travel with your character in order to become stronger and avenge the death of her parents. However, she quickly that she is far more important than she initially suspected. From there, her quest becomes one to reclaim her homeland and reunite with her grandfather. The tale is rather simplistic despite some clever dialogue, but it opens up into the larger story, Eliwood's Tale.
Here, Eliwood, the prince of a small province called Pherae, leaves home on a quest to find his missing father. Meeting up with his friend Hector and helping out Lyn when her own home is invaded, the three of them team up to save Eliwood's father and, later, stop the machinations of the villainous Black Fang. The plot contains some riveting twists and contains some compelling moments. It's no masterpiece, particularly in some of its occasional leaps of logic, but it's definitely entertaining.
There is also Hector's Tale, which is pretty much Eliwood's Tale in terms of plot, although Hector instead is seen as the main character and features more prominently; the first chapter is changed entirely, some new chapters are added, and some scenes are seen exclusively from Hector's perspective. However, in scenes where the characters are all present, I have to say it still felt odd that the focus felt like it was still on Eliwood in places. Additionally, the new chapters added don't even have anything to do with Hector, and may as well have been included in Eliwood's Tale. While Hector's Tale also amps the game up in difficulty, it does feel a bit watered-down as a gameplay mode overall, if even unnecessary.
One thing the game deserves praise on is the way it handles its characters. There is a system in the game called support conversations; in Eliwood's/Hector's Tale, if two characters stand next to each other for a long enough amount of turns, they will have a conversation and go up in support rank, which also offers some gameplay bonuses to certain statistics, depending on both characters' support affinities. These conversation trees (containing up to three for almost every character) can be both difficult and easy to get, and often flesh out characters' personalities and pasts. Some characters are deep, some characters are amusing, some characters are quiet, and some characters are dedicated. There is a huge cast and a great range of personalities, and this system allows almost everyone to receive development, and I enjoyed the system and the character writing.
Fire Emblem is often a compelling game despite the small screen it features on. It falters occasionally, but generally delivers constant entertainment with its driven tactical gameplay, firm story, and a soundtrack that will have you humming along. If you're looking to map out strategies, build up characters like any RPG, or just have a good time on the GBA, Fire Emblem is high on my list of recommendations.