Title: Fire Emblem
(Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken
Developer: Intelligent Systems
April 25, 2003 (Japan), November 3, 2003 (North America), TBA (Europe)
Platforms: Game Boy Advance
Game Boy Advance Game Pak
E (Everyone), Violence
Although it has been relatively unknown elsewhere, the Fire Emblem series of high fantasy tactical RPGs is, in Japan, considered one of the classic Nintendo franchises. This, the seventh game in the series, is the first to be localised for release in North America and Europe. Intelligent Systems, the developers of the acclaimed Advance Wars games have turned their considerable skills to create a deep, difficult, and detailed tactical RPG. Longtime tactical RPG fans may notice some similarities with the Shining Force games; this is because they were significantly influenced by the original NES and SNES Fire Emblem games.
Plot (no spoilers)
The first ten missions ('chapters') are the tutorial and their plot follows a young swordfighter named Lyn as she discovers her true identity and defeats a grave threat to her family.
After the tutorial, the game follows a young nobleman, Eliwood, as he searches for his missing father and investigates the rumours that war may soon be coming to his home country of Lycia.
Unlike many tactical RPGs, where you can move around freely outside the battle screens, in Fire Emblem all of the game's action takes place upon the battlefield. Shopping, visiting villages, and interaction with non-player characters all take place on the same tactical map as battle, and usually occur concurrently with a battle. Battles take place on the usual 2D grid, with your units coloured blue, your opponent's units coloured red, and independent units coloured green.
Attack and Defence
The main battle strategy is simple but detailed. Weapons can be built for 'direct combat' (swords, lances, and axes) or for 'indirect combat' (bows), or for both (e.g. javelins). Direct combat weapons are governed by a structure called the 'weapons triangle', giving the three types of direct weapons a paper-rock-scissors relationship. Swords power up against axes, axes power up against lances, and lances power up against swords. This leads to considerable strategic diversity, as your mix of sword-wielders, lance-wielders, and axe-wielders for maximum effectiveness must match your enemy's mix of axe-wielders, sword-wielders, and lance-wielders. Bows stay outside this system, but have their own balancing factor; when attacking someone incapable of participating in indirect combat there is no chance of counterattack, but bow-wielders are incapable of participating in direct combat and thus cannot counterattack when attacked.
Combat magic also appears, and obeys the 'trinity of magic', analogous to the weapons triangle. Light magic beats dark magic, dark magic beats anima magic (i.e. elemental magic), and anima magic beats light magic. Magic-wielding characters are capable of both direct and indirect combat, and generally have a high magic resistance. Magic-wielders have low physical defence, although unlike bow-wielders they have the ability to counterattack to a direct physical attack.
All weapons, including magic books, have a limited number of uses available. When all of these uses are gone, the weapon breaks and must be replaced. Magic books lose one point of durability whenever they are used, and physical weapons lose one point whenever they hit the enemy.
Movement and Terrain
For the purposes of movement, there can be considered to be three different types of characters: characters on foot, mounted characters, and flying mounted characters (pegasus and wyvern riders). Characters on foot have the shortest range of the three, but are not impeded as much by rain or snow and are, unlike mounted units, capable of entering mountainous squares. Mounted units, both flying and not, are both able to move again for their remaining range after performing a non-combat action.
Terrain has a major effect on character defence. A character in a forest square has increased defence, a character in a mountain square more defence, and a character in a fortress square has considerably increased defence. Also, a character that is in a fortress square at the beginning of their turn recovers a significant amount of HP. Unlike many other tactical RPGs, there is no concept of a character 'facing' any given direction, with bonuses and penalties given to combatants based on their relative positions.
Since there is no accesible 'field' screen in Fire Emblem, shops, houses, and villages appear on the battle screens. Shops come in two kinds: vendors who sell magic books, staves, and healing items, and armories who sell lances, swords, axes, and bows. Houses when visited give advice to the player characters, and when a character vists a village they often receive help, from items to money and sometimes even a new character to join up. Also, after a village is visited, it shuts its gate which prevents any bandits who may be on the map from sacking the village.
As with most tactical RPGs, experience points are tallied incrementally after each action. All actions are worth experience points, although unsuccessful actions are only worth a single EXP. Characters each have a character class, and this class is fixed for that character with only a single exception. When a character reaches level 10, they can advance from their original class to a new, better class as in the original Final Fantasy. This transformation requires a special item which is class-specific and usually difficult to find.
One of the things that makes Fire Emblem difficult is its approach to character death. Specifically, that once a character falls to 0 HP, they are gone and will not be back for the rest of the game (or the rest of the tutorial, whichever is appropriate). If one of your Lord characters (that is, Lyn, Eliwood, or Hector) falls to 0 HP, the battle is immediately lost. Needless to say, this leads to a certain degree of perfectionism in battle since if a character is lost there is no way to revive them.
Graphics and Sound
Fire Emblem's graphics are vibrant and detailed. Each character is represented on the field of battle by a small but detailed icon; this icon is unique for each class and changes colour depending on which side the character is on, blue for friends, red for enemies, and green for neutral. When an action occurs involving two characters, the perspective 'zooms in' on the pair of characters for the action to resolve. (Those who remember the Shining Force games may find this somewhat familiar.) In this view, all of the friendly characters have their own distinct sprites.
This ties in to a larger feature which greatly increases the appeal and immersiveness of the game. Each player character is a developed character with a distinct personality and their own reason for joining the group of player characters. Some characters are more important and thus better developed than others, but there are no randomly-generated 'generic' player character units.
Although the sound effects and music are really nothing special, they mesh very well with the gameplay. The sound effects accompanying different actions are distinct and provide feedback beyond the animation on the screen. The music is the usual epic RPG fare. It will stick in your head after having played Fire Emblem for hours, but it is not good listening outside the game. The biggest synergy between the soundtrack and the game action is when the game 'zooms' to the battle view. The accompanying fanfare is different depending on whether it is an attack or a support move, and also different whether the player character or enemy character is attacking.
Fire Emblem is an engaging, detailed tactical RPG. It may not have the name recognition of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but it is of equal quality. The well-concieved world and deep strategy make it a joy to play. Many thanks to Nintendo for finally bringing this venerable series to English-speaking audiences.
This writeup is copyright 2004 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .