Guest Review – Fire Emblem Retrospective – Part 2

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Previously on the Fire Emblem retrospective: general notes, Genealogy of the Holy War, and Thracia 776.

PART 2 – THE GBA ERA

Fire Emblem 6: The Binding Blade (Fuuin no Tsurugi)

(Sometimes translation The Sealed Sword, or The Sword of Seals)

2002 – GBA – Japanese only

   We leave the continent of Judgral to enter a new continuity, this time on the continent of Elibe. With its transition from the SNES to the GBA, the Fire Emblem series also replaced the dark and realistic graphics from FE4 and FE5 (well, as realistic as you can get on a SNES) with colorful and cartoonish graphics that stayed throughout the Game Boy Advance era. The GBA Fire Emblem games, possibly due to their transition to a handheld system, also had their mechanics simplified and streamlined. For example, the skills got removed (so, no more Astra; maybe they wanted to give the enemy a chance). No more leadership stars or movement stars either. In theory, this helps make the characters more balanced, but stats differences, and, unlike in FE5, the inability to influence stat growth, mean that there are still major differences between the strongest and the most useless characters.

   The main character in The Binding Blade is Roy, whom you may know from Super Smash Bros, just like Marth. And, like Leif, Roy is one of the few lords not to have blue hair. Too bad they didn’t extend the originality to his personality, but oh well.

   While not as hard as FE5, FE6 is still a very difficult game, one of the hardest in the series. There are many reasons for that, one of them being that the weapons have relatively low hit rates, making it difficult to reliably hit the enemy. Which is ironic, because FE6 also introduces the 2-RN system.

   Let me digress a bit in order to explain this, because I find this system really clever, and because it was used in all the other Fire Emblem games since then. Usually, when having to deal with odds, strategy games use a random number generator. For example, if you have 85 hit (that is, 85% chance to hit the enemy), the RNG would produce a number between 0 and 99, and if this number is lower than 85, you would successfully hit the enemy (and miss otherwise). The problem is, this is how randomness works in reality, but not how people perceive it (and it leads to many frustrations, such as “what? I missed with 85%? Nonsense!”) To solve this, Fire Emblem started using the 2-RN (as in, two random numbers) system. To determine odds, the RNG produces two numbers instead of one, and then takes the average between the two. Now, without getting too mathematical here, what this means is that odds below 50% are actually lower than what they should be, while odds above 50% are higher than they should be. And increasingly so: for example, 85% with a 2-RN system actually means close to 96%. The good thing is, in Fire Emblem, it’s usually in the player’s favor, since their characters tend to have better accuracy than the enemy.

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   Let’s get back to FE6. The game might be difficult, but the story is solid, if simple. While Roy is a pretty boring character, Zephiel is quite interesting as the antagonist, and so is the backstory of the true final boss. But one major problem is that you need to obtain all the divine weapons in order to access the final chapters. How anyone would figure that out is already a problem on its own, but it’s also rather difficult to find out where most of those weapons even are (and they can be missed permanently, since the story is linear). This is another one of those games that are better played by looking things up on the internet. It’s a shame too, since the true final boss and her origins are some of the most interesting parts of the story.

   The biggest contribution of FE6 to the series, at least in my opinion, is the addition of the support system. It’s more or less the successor of the love system from FE4. But here, characters can form friendships instead of couples. Having two characters spend turns adjacent to each other increases their support points (it doesn’t work with any duo of characters though, but unlike FE4, they don’t necessarily have to be of opposite genders). With enough support points, you unlock a support conversation, and that’s the most interesting part: those optional conversations between characters are a great way to flesh them out. Admittedly, the dialogues themselves are not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s really nice to learn more about the characters as well as the plot. There are three support conversations for each compatible character duo (rank C, rank B, then rank A), with their relationship improving with each rank, up to the point of close friendship. Gameplay-wise, support ranks give bonuses to both characters when they fight alongside each other.

   Incidentally, FE6 has a lot more characters than most games in the series (from what I remember, close to 60). This makes a lot of them seem redundant when you already have someone of the same class with better stats. But in a series where you can get very attached to your characters, and where people’s favorite characters can vary a lot from player to player, I suppose it’s nice to have many options.

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Fire Emblem 7: The Blazing Sword (Rekka no Ken)

(Or as it’s known in the West: simply Fire Emblem)

2003 – GBA

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   This was the first Fire Emblem game I played, so it has a special place for me. I might be biased, but this is very clearly my second favorite, and the one I always like to revisit. It’s also a very good introduction to the series for any newcomer, and it seems Nintendo agrees, since it’s the first game that got released in the West.

   In most aspects, FE7 is pretty much identical to FE6. Same graphics (if a bit refined), and practically unchanged gameplay other than some very small additions (like thieves being able to promote, something that got arbitrarily removed from FE6 for some reason). But FE6 and FE7 being very similar actually makes sense. They complete each other perfectly.

   FE7 still takes place in Elibe, about 20 years before FE6, which makes it a prequel. Indeed, the main characters in FE7 are Eliwood and Hector; Eliwood is Roy’s father (which shows that blandness is genetic), and Hector, the much more interesting character (and the one with blue hair), is the father of Lilina, another major character in FE6. There is also a third lord, Lyn, who is one of the very few female lords in Fire Emblem (but not actually the first one: the first one was Celica, from Fire Emblem Gaiden). FE7 starts with Lyn’s story, which serves as a tutorial. The second and longest part of the game is, depending on your choice, either Eliwood or Hector’s story. It’s essentially the same plot but from either Eliwood or Hector’s point of view, and Lyn eventually joins the group in both versions of the story.

   You have to play the game through Eliwood’s story at least once in order to unlock Hector’s story. In subsequent playthroughs, however, there is no reason to ever choose Eliwood’s story: Hector’s story contains everything that was in Eliwood’s story, as well as additional chapters and characters. Hector’s story is also slightly more challenging, although this is only truly evident while playing hard mode.

   Speaking of the difficulty: I believe that FE7’s difficulty is simply perfect. Normal mode is neither too hard nor too easy, which is really good for newcomers. Meanwhile, veterans of the series have everything they need with Hector Hard Mode, which at times almost reaches FE5 levels of insanity.

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   Like FE6, the plot of FE7 is solid. While there is no need to have played FE6 to understand it (which is good since it wasn’t released outside of Japan), having played both games adds a lot to the appreciation of the world and the full story. There are a few characters who appear in both FE6 and FE7 (with a much younger appearance in FE7, obviously), and Zephiel’s evolution as a character begins with a major subplot in FE7. However, FE7 has a story that only really gets fleshed out by viewing a lot of optional content (hidden chapters, support conversations, etc.) In a sort of Dark Souls way, you actually have to work to get the full picture, but it’s much more satisfying when you do (I’m thinking of details such as the Kishuna character, or Nergal’s past, or anything involving Renault; details that you could spend the whole game without knowing anything about, but that just improve the overall experience when you do). Unfortunately, the cryptic nonsense is back. Just try to figure out how to access chapter 19xx on your own. Go on. Just try it. I dare you.

   But where FE7 truly shines for me, is in its fantastic cast. There are fewer characters than in FE6, but I simply find them much more engaging and interesting. The support system from FE6 comes back, of course, and I eventually reached a point where I would play FE7 only to unlock more and more support conversations. Also, it seems that FE7 inherits a bit more from FE4’s system: there are several duos of characters who, when they reach an A rank, get a paired ending (which usually means they get married at the end of the story). This was already the case in FE6, but only Roy could have a paired ending. Incidentally, the support system is designed in a way that each character can only have one A rank during a playthrough, which offers a lot a replay value if you want to have different characters become best friends or fall in love. Speaking of which, there is one small detail that I wanted to mention because I find it interesting: in FE4, for obvious reasons (i.e. having children), you could only have characters of the opposite gender fall in love. This was still the case up to FE6 even though the generation system didn’t exist anymore, but in FE7, there actually are a few options for same-sex relationships. Granted, those relationships are rare and pretty subtle (which seems to be the policy they’ve been going for in the following games as well; FE9 and FE10 come to mind). But they’re still there. Nintendo probably wouldn’t allow the writers to make said relationships too clear. Kinda reminds me of a certain animated series that ended 11 years later, but I digress.

   Since we’re on the “small details” train, one thing that always bothered me with FE7 is the legendary weapons. Of course, they were absolutely overpowered in FE4, and too well-hidden in FE6, but at least they really felt like powerful, ultimate weapons, that you would be proud to possess. In FE7, there are very few divine weapons, and they only appear at the very end of the game. Same with the S-rank weapons (the best weapons other the legendary): they just appear much later than when they would have been useful. (Yes, I did have to nitpick in order to say something negative about FE7. It goes to show how good this game is.)

   Fun fact: FE7 has a bonus scene after the end credits that shows Eliwood and Hector years later, as well as their respective children, Roy and Lilina. It also shows Zephiel, and how he sets into motion the events that would lead to FE6. This scene was kept in the North-American version, but was removed in the European version. This was probably the smart thing to do; it would be a shame to get people hyped about FE6, a game that would never be released in the West.

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Fire Emblem 8: The Sacred Stones (Seima no Kouseki)

2004 – GBA

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   The last game in the GBA era before the series’ return to home consoles. The Sacred Stones is the only game in the series that isn’t linked to another one: the new continent, Magvel, only appears in this game.

   In a way, you could feel that this game was a filler while the designers were preparing for the series’ transition to the GameCube. Once again, other than some slight improvements here and there, the graphics are exactly the same as they were in the previous game. FE8 is also shorter than FE7, which admittedly, doesn’t seem like a fair criticism considering the huge amount of content that was in FE7. There are no secret chapters anymore, and the cast is smaller as well. The support system is still there, just like it was in FE7 (with the paired endings), but… as a whole, FE8 just doesn’t feel as impactful as FE7. It seems lightning couldn’t strike twice, which is understandable, if a bit disappointing.

   That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to be liked about FE8. Because there is. For one thing, the plot is much more focused than it was in FE7, and the forces of antagonism in the story feel much more human and relatable. Nergal was fine as the antagonist of FE7, but he lacked a personal connection with the protagonists that would have made the conflict much more effective. FE8, on the other hand, has Lyon, a fascinating antagonist. What makes him work so well is not just his personality, but the fact that his relationship with the two protagonists, Eirika and Ephraim, is absolutely central to the plot. (Incidentally, the lords are twin this time, and Eirika is the one with blue hair.)

   In addition, FE8 didn’t let its status of filler game get in the way of bringing innovation to the series. It introduces two major things: the first one is an improved world map in which you can travel freely, fight in skirmishes, revisit shops, and fight in the two repeatable dungeons (one of which is unlocked near the end of the game). Technically, Fire Emblem Gaiden was the first to introduce a freely navigable map, but… Let’s digress again for a minute. FE2 was pretty much the black sheep of the series. At the time, the series was still trying to find its identity, and, just like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link or Super Mario Bros. 2, tried new and different ideas that would not be retained in the following games. Because of that, those second games look and feel quite different from the rest of their respective series. And unlike Zelda 2 and Mario 2, very few people nowadays could claim to have played FE2. This is why the freely navigable world map in FE8 really does feel like a novelty for the series.

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   The second big innovation of FE8 is the branching promotions. Characters in Fire Emblem can usually promote to a more powerful class when they reach a certain level, but up to this point in the series, they only had one option. In FE8, every starting class (with very few exceptions, such as the lords) has a choice between two advanced classes they can promote to. For example, while until FE8 cavaliers could only become paladins, they now have a choice between paladin and great knight (a more defensive but slower kind of knight). However, while FE8 did introduce some new classes, such as summoner or rogue, many of the choices are actually classes that already existed before. For example, myrmidons can now become either swordmaster or assassin, while originally they could only become swordmaster; meanwhile, thieves now have a choice between assassin (their original option) and rogue; which means several starting classes share promotion options with other classes. Interestingly, FE8 also brought back some of the classes from the SNES games, such as mage knight (although mage knights in FE4 and FE5 could also use swords). Now, this new system is great in theory; but in practice, a lot of branching promotions have an option that is clearly better than the other (why would you ever promote an archer to sniper when ranger has more movement and can use an additional weapon?) Still, this system was a good idea that unfortunately wasn’t reused until Fire Emblem: Awakening.

   FE8 also tries to bring back skills from the SNES games, but there are so few of them it’s barely worth mentioning. Generals have a chance to block damage (not that they usually take that much damage anyway). Snipers have a chance to do an attack that cannot miss (not that they ever miss anyway), and so on. Actually, this is a pretty good transition to the core problem with FE8.

   The core problem with FE8, and what truly brings it down, is the difficulty. Embarrassingly enough for a series that tends to be challenging, FE8 is simply… too easy. Enemies have lower stats than usual while your characters have very good growth rates. The ability to redo the bonus dungeons and fight in skirmishes means that you will gain experience very easily, and can quickly become overleveled. And, possibly the worst part: remember my paragraph about the Jagen characters, in part 1 of this retrospective? Well, FE8 has Seth, a paladin you get in the very first chapter, and who is so good he can pretty much solo the entire game. No, really. Finally, to make things more insulting, the difficulty got reduced even more in the versions of the game that got released in the West (though not by much, and admittedly it happened to FE7 too). I suppose the reasoning is that Western players are not as good as Japanese players. But the fact is, when nothing in the game feels challenging, nothing you do seems meaningful. What is the point of finding the best branched promotion when anything works just fine? How are you supposed to feel threatened by the demon king and the monsters ravaging the world when you can defeat them so easily?

   Overall, despite a good story and many good ideas, FE8 is an underwhelming experience. It’s interesting to see how a single problem can have a disastrous effect. I remember the saying that there are so many ways to screw up a movie. To that, I’d add that there are even more ways to screw up a video game.

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   Next time: the Tellius era.

– Number 5

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Four screenwriters candidly writing about film, television, novels, comic books, video games, and fanfiction.

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