Guest Review – Fire Emblem Retrospective – Part 3

FE9 cutscene screenshot (Black Knight)

Before we begin, here is an interesting piece of news. Earlier in the month of January 2015, the 14th Fire Emblem game was announced: so far, it is known as Fire Emblem if. There isn’t much information about it yet, except that it seems to have similar graphics to Fire Emblem Awakening (which I’ll get to in part 4). In any case, it’s nice to see that the series is still alive and well.

Back to the Fire Emblem retrospective. Previously: The Binding Blade, The Blazing Sword, and The Sacred Stones.

PART 3 – THE TELLIUS ERA

Fire Emblem 9: Path of Radiance (Souen no Kiseki)

2005 – GameCube

FE9 Title Screen

We leave the GBA era and get back to home consoles with Path of Radiance. Finally, the game looks different from the last one for once. The graphics were greatly improved. Of course, Fire Emblem follows the times and introduces fully voiced cinematic cutscenes (but thankfully doesn’t make excessive use of them, unlike many modern games).

What truly stands out in FE9 is the effort that was put into the world building and the characters. We are now in the Tellius continent. The blue-haired protagonist, Ike, is very human and has a true character arc, which makes him quite likable (at least you’d better hope you’re going to like him, because we’re stuck with him for two games). And yes, once again, this is the Ike who shows up in Super Smash Bros (although his Smash version is closer to how he looks in FE10, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). In addition to Ike, all the characters in your group, the Greil Mercenaries, are nicely fleshed out and interesting, but most of all, their development and personalities are mostly depicted through their actions and how they interact with each other. For example, when Ike inherits the leadership of the Greil Mercenaries from his father, several members show that they don’t immediately accept him (some of them even leave the group). Ike isn’t treated like a designated protagonist; instead he actually has to earn his comrades’ trust through his own actions. It all feels very organic, and in the end, you can really see the Greil Mercenaries as a family rather than just an army. Meanwhile, we have the Black Knight. This character is truly memorable, partly due to his design and partly due his actions throughout the story. He really feels like this unstoppable force against which the characters don’t stand a chance. And he is not even the main antagonist (his subplot only gets resolved in the next game); he’s just the character with the most presence.

Come to think of it, there is not much to criticize in the story department. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that FE9 is the best-written Fire Emblem game. The story doesn’t have the complexity of FE4, but the writing itself is quite excellent. If I had had to fault FE9 for anything, it would probably be the decision not the resolve every subplot and instead leave several plot threads to be continued in FE10. And… well, we’ll see how well that went.

The gameplay is pretty solid too. FE9 reintroduced the skills from the SNES era, in a much better way than FE8 did. Pretty much all the skills from FE4 and FE5 are back, in addition to a few more. There was also an effort to rebalance them. For example, there must have been a memo at some point about how broken Astra was, and years later, the designers finally read it. Astra now does half the damage it used to do. Unfortunately, this pretty much makes the skill useless, because it causes fast weapon degradation…

Moving on. FE9 also improved the support system. As much as I like it in the GBA games, I have to admit that it was pretty stupid (or at best, counterproductive) to simply have the characters stand next to each other. It led to many situations in which, instead of seizing the throne or the castle in a chapter that you otherwise completely cleared, you would just skip turns over and over, doing nothing, just having all your characters grouped in a small area in order to build supports. Oh, all the time I wasted doing that, ruining my tactics rating in the process, just to get those support conversations… So, in FE9, the support level between two characters simply increases by having them both participate in a chapter. That’s it. You just need to bring both characters to the battlefield. Make them participate in enough chapters together and their support rank will increase. Now, it’s a system that works much better from a strategic perspective (since you don’t need to waste your time and can finish every chapter in the exact number of turns it would normally take you). But at the same time, it still doesn’t feel like the perfect solution. Unlike the previous games, you don’t really have to put any effort to bring the characters together. FE9 pretty much does all the work for you. It makes more sense, sure, but it’s just less rewarding.

FE9 gameplay screenshot (map view)

Other than those improvements, FE9 doesn’t bring much in term of innovation. There is the biorhythm system, which could easily win the “most useless new mechanic” contest (what it does is not even worth explaining, because the effect is completely unnoticeable), and there is a forging system that allows you to improve your weapons, which I absolutely never needed to use. And here is why:

For a long time, I have had the opinion that FE8 is the easiest game in the series. But now I’m not so sure anymore. What’s clear is that FE9 is a serious contender for that title, and once again, the lack of challenge really hurts the otherwise excellent atmosphere that the game built. Sure, you can never beat the Black Knight until the end of the game, but unlike, say, Galzus in FE5, you’re never put in a situation where he poses he real threat to you. Meanwhile, FE8 had Seth, and FE9 has Titania: also a paladin, and also able to trivialize the whole game. To make things worse, FE9 has a “bonus exp” system: you are rewarded with additional experience points for clearing a chapter under certain conditions (for example, winning under a certain number of turns, or keeping certain NPC units alive) which you can then freely distribute among your characters. It’s not a bad system in theory, but in practice it means you don’t even have to deal with one of the most challenging aspects of Fire Emblem, which is bringing underleveled characters up to speed. And besides, it’s one of those game mechanics that reward skilled players with something that they don’t need and that would be more useful to those who are struggling with the game. Not that struggling with the game is a concern that you should arise in FE9, since, as we’ve established, the difficulty is really lacking.

Unlike FE8 however, FE9 is saved by its amazing presentation. The writing alone makes it worth playing, and the gameplay is perfectly adequate as well. I consider FE9 a very good introduction to the series. If not FE7, then definitely start with this one.

Fun fact: if your characters reach level 20 by the end of FE9, and max out some of their stats, they will have better starting stats in FE10 (if you transfer your FE9 data, obviously). This is actually more useful than it sounds, as you’ll see in a moment, and since FE9 isn’t challenging anyway, you might as well do the extra work to try and max out as many characters as you can. Also, try to get an A-rank support between Ike and Soren. Generally speaking, A-rank supports do carry over to FE10 in a small way, but in the case of Ike and Soren, it also unlocks an additional scene during the ending of FE10.

Music Sample

Fire Emblem 10: Radiant Dawn (Akatsuki no Megami)

2007 – Wii

FE10 Title Screen

Your first thought might be how absurd the idea of a turn-based strategy game on the Wii is. Worry not: you can (and most definitely should) play Radiant Dawn with a GameCube controller.

FE10 is a sequel that takes place three years after FE9. All the characters from FE9 come back and can be recruited again (all but one, actually; there is exactly one minor character who doesn’t come back, for some arbitrary reason). With the addition of all the new characters, FE10 has the largest cast of any Fire Emblem game, with a total of, believe it or not, 73 playable characters. Now, obviously, you don’t control all of them at the same time. FE10 tells a very large story, in which the point of view switches several times. This allows you to control different groups of characters, and sometimes even alternate between the two opposite sides of the ongoing conflict. The game is divided in four parts: part 1 centers on a new group of characters, the Dawn Brigade; part 2 is about Elincia, who was a major character in FE9 and now has her own side-story; part 3 finally brings back the Greil Mercenaries; and part 4 has all the character joining and putting their differences aside in order to fight a common threat.

Right off the bat, the first major problem with FE10 can be noticed. After a couple of embarrassingly easy games, FE10 went the opposite direction. Simply put, the game is very difficult. To make things more confusing, it had the opposite problem that FE8 had in term of localization. The difficulties in the Japanese version of FE10 were named “normal”, “hard”, and… whatever the name for the hardest difficulty was. In the Western version, they got changed to “easy”, “normal”, and “hard” respectively. This means that when most players chose the “normal” difficulty, they didn’t know they were actually playing the “hard” difficulty. In any case, a return to a challenging game is not exactly unwelcome, but the difficulty curve in FE10 is, sadly, extremely unbalanced. It’s a common problem for Fire Emblem games to start difficult and get progressively easier as your characters get more powerful, and the enemy’s growth in power cannot keep up with your characters’ growth. But in FE10, this is more blatant than ever. During the early chapters, you’re stuck with the Dawn Brigade, a group of inept characters who die if a small breeze blows in their general direction (in case it doesn’t seem obvious in writing form: that was hyperbole. But I’m sure you get the point.) Meanwhile, from the moment you get to control the Greil Mercenaries in part 3, the game gets considerably easier. And by the end of the game, you have so many overpowered characters that you can beat the last few chapters pretty much effortlessly.

Unfortunately, FE10 doesn’t really fare better in the story department. The intention was clearly to go for an epic feel, and a much larger conflict than in FE9. But the plot goes all over the place. The Dawn Brigade may have been able to carry its own game, but putting them with the Greil Mercenary doesn’t give either group enough time to develop, despite the already insane length of the game. The second part, Elincia’s story, is ironically the best-written part of the game, despite (and probably because of) the fact that it’s mostly disconnected from the rest of the plot. It’s also the shortest part, which gave it the focus it needed to tell a much more personal and relatable story. Part 3 is the one that would have had the most potential, but is where the story completely falls apart. I really liked the idea of having a moral dilemma forcing both groups to fight each other while both having logical and understandable reasons to fight. But it completely falls flat when a quick examination of the facts shows that one of the options in the actual dilemma is very clearly better than the other. In the end, all the story ends up doing is making Micaiah (the leader of the Dawn Brigade and secondary protagonist) extremely unlikable, since the reasons for her actions are completely irrational. To be fair, Ike isn’t at his best either, but he already had his character development in FE9, so we’ll let that slide. And finally, we get part 4, in which the plot gets hijacked and completely changes focus in the most contrived way imaginable.

FE10 screenshot (Micaiah vs bandit)

Still, credit has to be given where credit is due. It’s better for a game to fail because it was too ambitious than to fail because it didn’t try hard enough, and if FE10 had to be described in one word, it would certainly be overambitious. But there are parts of the game that work really well, and where the intended epic atmosphere really comes alive. The music is certainly epic, the level design is excellent, the graphics are the best they’ve ever been, and messed up difficulty aside, the gameplay has never been as good since FE5. The defense chapters in particular really manage to create some absolutely exciting and memorable battles (partly due to the way ledges and height differences now contribute to the game mechanics), and Elincia’s last chapter (the end of part 2) has to be one of the best chapters in any Fire Emblem game. However, even the level design is not immune to the occasional blandness, which is mostly the case in the uninspired endgame chapters. Among other things, this makes the final battle between Ike and the Black Knight much less satisfying than if should have been (not to mention the anticlimactic way in which his identity is revealed).

FE10 also had to deal with the characters’ power inflation: since many of them already reached a high level in FE9, it wouldn’t feel right to send them back to level 1. So there is now a second promotion, which means characters go through three classes instead of two. Stats suffer from the inflation as well, going from the usual maximum of 30 to a new maximum of 40. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but as I mentioned in the introduction, simple calculations and formulae are a very important aspect of Fire Emblem’s design philosophy. This works better with small numbers, and increasing the stats (a trend that unfortunately got even worse in Awakening) is just messing up with the system. Anyway, the third classes all gain a class-specific skill, or “mastery” skill. Astra is one of them, and is back to how powerful it used to be. But by the time you get those overpowered mastery skills, there just aren’t many situations in which they would be necessary anymore.

The last thing that I want to mention is how FE10 changed the support system. I say “changed”, but perhaps a better word would be “murdered”. Now, any character can support any other character, which is good news from a gameplay perspective since you can plan according to which stat bonus you would get from specific supports. But since it would have been an impossible amount of work to write support conversations for every single combination of two characters, well… there just aren’t any. Characters only have one or two generic lines that they use no matter who they get paired up with, with only the name changing. Needless to say, this change was the quickest way to make me throw the game into the lions’ den, but, personal feelings asides, if there was any game that would have benefited from support conversations, it was FE10. The Dawn Brigade in particular desperately needed the additional character depth. Maybe even Micaiah could have been salvageable.

So there you have it. FE10: a very good gaming experience, but falls short in every other aspect. And certainly a disappointing conclusion to FE9’s masterfully written story.

Fun fact: to access all the secret, optional content, you need to play the game at least twice. This is also the only way to have a dark magic user in your army.

Music Sample

Next time: back to handheld systems.

– Number 5

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

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