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• Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

developed by Intelligent Systems/published by Nintendo/2005.5.23
1 Player (2-4 in Battle Arena)/Cartridge (3 saves + 1 interrupt save)/GBA

Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy RPG series from Intelligent Systems that predates the Shining Force, Ogre Battle, and Tactics games by several years. It’s the twin brother of the Famicom Wars series – made famous by its GBA incarnation Advance Wars. And like Advance Wars, Fire Emblem’s worldwide debut came on the Gameboy Advance – after more than 6 iterations on earlier Nintendo consoles. The Sacred Stones is the third game in the series made for the GBA, but only the second one released outside of Japan (Nintendo skipped Fire Emblem: Sealed Sword).  The Sacred Stones mixes things up a bit with its game play additions, which somewhat unbalance the game’s difficulty.

Story

If there’s one thing that Fire Emblem games need to work on, it’s the back story (“the heroes are fighting an evil, all-powerful sorcerer / emperor / etc who is trying to take over the world!”). The Sacred Stones falls into the same trap, but this time it appears that the evil has found an apt pupil in Prince Ephraim’s childhood companion, Prince Lyon (heir to the throne of the neighboring Grado empire). The hunt is on for the sacred stones, magical artifacts left behind by 5 heroes who used them to seal the great evil before, which is now manipulating Lyon.

This  marks the first time (as far as I know) that monsters have appeared in a Fire Emblem game. They help to spice up the battles a bit, as it’s not always immediately clear how they work within the typical battle triangle (more on that later).

On the plus side, the game stars the twins Ephraim and Eirika, and about 1/3rd of the way into the game, you must choose which one to follow.  Eventually the two meet up again for the last few missions, but there’s a handful of exclusive missions to tackle for those who want to play twice and get their money’s worth.

One of the best things about Fire Emblem is the character development. Dialog between characters before and after missions is always entertaining and well written. Characters speak with recognizable grace or gruffness depending on their upbringing and status and cute little quirks appear between companion characters.

Game play

As usual, the basic battle and movement systems remain the same as in the previous Fire Emblem. Characters who fall in combat are gone for good, so you’d better think carefully before sending someone to the front lines. It tends to happen when the enemy surprises you with waves of reinforcements with impeccable timing, but The Sacred Stones has a few new features which made up for it. For starters there’s an open-ended world map, which allows you to take a break in between missions to buy items and equipment from towns and reorganize your troops and supplies. You activate the next mission by moving to its place on the map.

Then there’s the monster skirmishes and optional dungeons offering a chance to win gold, treasure, and valuable experience for your crew. As a result, you can now do some level grinding to even the odds. You still risk losing characters in combat, but with some time and patience, you can max out your characters. This unbalances the difficulty of the game, but it’s the main reason I prefer this over the previous Fire Emblem.

Finally, you’ve got your standard mission objectives. The missions progress the plot while allowing you to recruit new characters. Often you are given the objective to simply kill the enemy leader, other times you have to defend a neutral character or simply survive for a set number of rounds. There are more than 30 missions in total and they all take place on unique maps. You’ll fight battles at sea, in towns, castles, deserts, forests and more – and every terrain affects units differently. Fog of war or darkness may obscure your vision of what lies ahead, so be sure to bring a thief with some torches. As you take over enemy forts, you can place a unit there to stop the flow of reinforcements while replenishing their health, and archers can commandeer long-distance ballistae.

The important thing is that the missions are varied, challenging, and fun to play. I often had to replay certain missions (because I reset when a character dies) and it didn’t stop me from enjoying the game.

Battle System

The battle system, for those who are unfamiliar with Fire Emblem, is a fairly basic rock-paper-scissors weapons and magic triangle (Sword bests Axe bests Lance bests Sword, and Anima bests Light bests Dark bests Anima).

Where things start to get complicated are the many exceptions to the rule. For example, there are different grades of material (iron, steel, silver) that affects the strength of a weapon. There are some weapons, such as sword-reavers, axe-reavers, and lance-reavers, which completely reverse the weapons triangle. And the strength of your magic book can also affect the outcome of a battle. Characters on horseback can usually attack twice in one round, and so on.  In other words, mastering the triangle is essential, but it’s still only the basics.

Organizing an Army – Levels, Classes, Skills, & Support

Units earn experience points during battle; small amounts for an incomplete duel, and large amounts for finishing off an opponent. Experience is affected by the unit’s level – for example, a strong unit will get much less experience for killing a weak unit, but if a weaker unit fights a stronger unit, they’ll get a ton of experience. Once a unit has reached level 10 (out of a possible 20), they can be promoted to a higher class. They can then continue to acquire experience for another 20 levels.

There’s a small handful of squires who can earn experience through 50 levels, and can be promoted to a variety of different classes over the game. The trade-off is that they begin at a much weaker state than other characters.

Like other strategy RPGs, you’ll amass a large fighting force – but in Fire Emblem, it really feels like an army. With a little luck, you’ll recruit a total of 33 characters over the course of the game, and each has a unique personality. Some characters will join you automatically, others need to be rescued or engaged in conversation by the right character. Even certain enemies will join you if the right character negotiates with them.

Each unit belongs to one of 46 classes in the game. Some classes can use multiple weapons or magic, others can only use one type, some are healers that can’t fight at all. Some classes have a high movement ratio in water, or can fly over any terrain – while others move very slowly but have high defense. You’ll find that all of the classes have strengths and weaknesses which may make them both essential and a liability on the battlefield. It will take planning if you are going to promote your units to represent a good balance of classes.

One of the most difficult aspects of the game to master is the optional Support System. Every character has the ability to bond with a set group of other units. If you keep two units who can bond adjacent to one another for 3 rounds or more, sometimes the option to “support” will appear. This triggers a conversation where the two characters get to know one another a little. These conversations give an inside look into the personalities of your soldiers, while at the same enhancing their fighting abilities. When characters have bonded, they fight well together – in other words, keeping them close to one another increases their percentages during combat.

Graphics & Sound

Fire Emblem really shines when it comes to the battle animations. Each character class has a regular attack, a critical blow, and a dodge move, and they all look great. There’s a ton of frames in each animation, resulting in silky smooth (not to mention highly entertaining) battles. Turning them off speeds up the game dramatically, but I still leave some of them on (you can set the battle animations on or off for each character or as a whole) just to spice things up. In fact, the battle animations are so great, I prefer them to the 3d stuff in the GameCube and DS Fire Emblem games.

The character portraits are also quite nice. They’re larger and more detailed than in other RPGs, and they have easily recognizable thumbnail versions for the status screens (very important when you’ve got 33 characters to organize). As a result, the intermissions play out great.  As usual, the map screens are about as detailed as they need to be and get the job done – with the tiny characters easily identified by class.

The music is great in most instances but the battle themes can get a little repetitive, especially if you are raising your characters for hours on end. Luckily, the game switches up the main battle themes two or three times over the course of the game, so you won’t get too bored of them. There’s a great deal of variety to the music in the game, and most of it is very good, so you’ll want to play this game with headphones on your GBA or DS.

Length & Final Thoughts

The Sacred Stones will take the average player about 30 hours to complete (40 or more if you raise your levels). You can easily spend double that, as the game features two story threads, as well as the creature campaign (where you can recruit enemy bosses) after the game is finished.

In my opinion, there’s no doubt that The Sacred Stones is one of the best fantasy strategy RPG for the Gameboy Advance. Fire Emblem’s brand of strategy is more complex than Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and it features a better storyline. The Sacred Stones is a challenging game, but not as unforgiving as the previous Fire Emblem. While you can unbalance the game by excessively raising your characters, it will take a lot of time and patience to do so. There are a couple of games, Shining Force and Yggdra Union, which are also quite good but these are ultimately derivative of the Fire Emblem series as a whole.  And the graphics and music are better too – if that sort of thing is important to you.

Advance Wars is the other major contender for best strategy game, but I prefer having a cast of memorable characters over faceless grunts, so for me The Sacred Stones takes the cake. Advance Wars does have a couple of features that outshine Fire Emblem though, such as custom map creation and a better multiplayer mode, so check it out as well. Both are the product of Intelligent Systems and their lineage is noteworthy.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • 30+ missions
  • 30+ recruits
  • Freely explore map & skirmish
  • Well-developed story
  • Good challenge

CONs:

  • Fallen troops are gone forever
  • Waves of enemy reinforcements can seem unfair
  • Level grinding unbalances the game’s difficult

One Sentence Review: A challenging turn-based strategy game and a great addition to anyone’s GBA library.
One Word Review: Hard.

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