Review: Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Game Boy Advance)

Review: Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (GBA)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Distributor: Nintendo
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 5/23/05

This is only my second review for Inside Pulse, but I managed to sweep in and snag a tactical RPG right out from under Lucard’s nose! And it was no small feat indeed. For days we were locked in a duel to the death over who would get to review Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones in this most coveted of genres, but finally I arose victorious from our titanic struggle!

Ok, so not really… It turned out that Fire Emblem and Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana were being released in the same week, and he took the latter. So yeah…

Anyway, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is the newest tactical RPG to hit the shelves, and something of a sequel to the GBA game Fire Emblem (technically this is something like the seventh game in the Fire Emblem series, although most of them have never made it stateside), although other than the combat system the two games have almost nothing in common. The story, setting, and characters are all completely different.

At first glance, one might think that Fire Emblem is nothing more than a Shining Force clone. And to a certain extent, you’d be right. Both Shining Force and Fire Emblem have their roots back in the days of the old Nintendo and Genesis systems. But for all their similarities, Fire Emblem manages to stand out on its own.

1. Story

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Damnit, still can’t get Star Wars out of my head. Let’s try this again…

A long time ago on the continent of Magvel, demons and other evil creatures terrorized the populace, until eventually five stones were brought forth with the power to rid the land of these monsters. Ever after these stones acted as seals, preventing the demons from returning to Magvel, and one stone was given to each of the five kingdoms as a symbol of peace. And as the centuries passed by, the story of the stones eventually faded into myth and legend, and the evil beings they guarded against became little more than fairy tales.

One day, without notice, the kingdom of Grado brakes the long standing peace and attacks the kingdom of Renais, catching the lands defenders completely off guard. Before long, Grado’s armies are at the doorstep of Renais castle and defeat is imminent. As the city falls, the King gives his daughter a bracelet and orders her to escape while there is still time. It is here where the main story begins, as you take control of the fleeing Princess Eirika and her guardian.

As the tale progresses, Eirika is joined by quite a few companions as she attempts to discover the fate of her brother Prince Ephraim (who was last heard to be hounding Grado’s soldiers from behind enemy lines), the method behind the madness of the King of Grado, and the reason for the sudden appearance of legendary monsters in the land. Additionally, the story will switch between Eirika and Ephraim as you play, which effectively makes for two plotlines that eventually converge into one.

It’s something of a cookie cutter storyline, but there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. In addition, each of the characters that join Eirika or Ephraim have their own back storys. These can be discovered through interactions on the battlefields as you play and help to add to the games depth. So while the story isn’t necessarily anything new, it is done well, and the added character interactions help to keep things original.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

It’s strange, but sometimes I find myself almost preferring the sprite based graphics found on the Game Boy to a lot of the newer 3D graphics on other systems. I guess I’m just an old school gamer at heart.

Fire Emblem is easily one of the most vibrant and colorful games I’ve seen on the GBA in recent memory. Each unit has a unique look and feel, and it’s easy to distinguish one character from another on the battlefield, as well as what kind of weapon they are currently wielding. In addition, each unit has its own little animation that displays when you place the cursor over them. The battlefields themselves are very well done, and are filled with fields, forests, rivers, hills, mountains, villages, forts, and castles.

Upon engaging an enemy unit the screen will change to an animated view of the fight where each of the participants is shown in wonderful detail along with the terrain type that they are currently fighting on. Additionally, each unit has several attack animations depending on what weapon they are wielding, spells they can cast, and whether or not they successfully score a critical strike. The same knight may charge with a lance, sweep in for a quick strike with a sword, or twirl a javelin with a flourish before throwing it at the enemy. Spell effects are all very pretty to watch without taking up too much animation time. As you progress through the game and learn more potent spells the graphics begin to get more and more complex, but I never experienced any slow down in the animations.

Cut scenes are a little bland, but well done, showing simple but beautiful cut outs of each character as they talk with each other. Sadly these are not animated in any fashion, nor do they change based on the text, so Eirika will be shown smiling while the story has her crying over her fathers death. It’s nitpicky of me, I know, but it would have been nice none the less.

Lastly, for those of you who might get tired of seeing all the battle animations and such, there is a setting in the Options menu where you can turn these off and just get a quick read out on the results of the fight. None of the animations ever took so long that I wanted to get rid of them, but for those of you who want to just focus on the tactical aspects of the battles, you have that choice.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

Obviously since this is a GBA game, nothing here is going to demand a home theater system, but what is here is fairly good, if limited.

Most of the sounds that you hear will be during the battle sequences, where you will get a little clash or clang to match the action on the screen. These fit the combat animations perfectly, and there is enough variety here to keep things from getting monotonous. You will also hear the clomp of a horses hooves, or the flap of a pegasus’ wings, which helps to add to the overall environment.

The music for the game is pretty good overall, but there is nothing that will really get stuck in your head. The battle music is suitably aggressive, while the music that plays when you are near victory is pretty upbeat. There are also a few quieter melodies that play during some of the more somber parts of the game, as well as a few “evil” tunes for when the bad guys are plotting. The music suits the game well, but don’t look for the London Symphony Orchestra to come in and do a rendition of it.

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Fire Emblem has an incredibly easy set of controls while still managing to offer enough complexity to satisfy those who love having some real depth in their games. At its most basic, you pick a unit, move it, and attack, cast a spell, use an item, or just wait for the next turn. But if that’s all you end up doing, you are definitely going to miss out on what this game really has to offer. Not to mention you’ll probably get your ass handed to you.

For starters, one of the first things you will learn is that the combat follows a rock/paper/scissors-like pattern. Swords are strong against axes, which in turn are strong against lances, which in turn are strong against swords. Schools of magic also follow this pattern; Anima is strong against Light which is strong against Dark which is strong against Anima. Certainly not as complex as having 80 gazillion different types of Pokemon, but it still adds a nice degree of strategy to the gameplay.

Once you’ve got that down, you’ll be able to pit units against one another so as to take into account their strengths. At least until you run into the “reaver” weapons. Reaver weapons basically reverse the formula, so if you have a sword that is designated as a reaver, it will be strong against lances, but weak against axes. Again, not an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, but still one that requires paying attention to what your units are using.

You’ll also want to keep in mind that certain units are naturally weak against various types of attacks. For example, a Pegasus Knight has a pretty good chance of avoiding a ground based attack, but is very susceptible to being shot down by a bow. Very, very suceptible for that matter… damn archers…

Adding to the strategic element of the game is the terrain on the battleground. If you have a unit standing in a forest, their defense will be higher and an enemy will be more likely to miss. Other areas, such as mountains or forts, will further add to your defense. On top of that, units standing in a town or city entrance will automatically heal a few hit points at the end of each turn; a nice little benefit that can save you having to use a vulnerary.

And believe me… you’ll want to keep plenty of vulneraries on hand, as when a character’s hit points reach 0, they’re dead… permanently. That’s right, no resurrections allowed in this game. Thus, if you lose a unit in battle, you either have to trudge on without them, or start the whole battle over again. It’s an interesting concept that I haven’t seen done very often and brings another layer of strategy to the overall gameplay.

As if that wasn’t enough, the game also introduces the concept of Support Units. During a fight, various characters will have the option of interacting with each other on the battlefield, which in turn raises their support level. The higher the support level, the better the stat bonus for the characters when they fight near each other (within roughly three squares). These bonuses can range from higher defense to a higher chance of scoring a critical hit, and add even more depth to the gameplay.

Units themselves can upgrade their classes as they progress in levels similar to the promotion system in Shining Force. Upon reaching level 10 units can branch out and expand upon their base class. A basic Knight may be allowed to become either a Paladin or a Heavy Knight, while a Pegasus Knight can potentially become a Wyvern Knight or a FalcoKnight. Higher classes give your units access to more abilities, weapon proficiencies, and spells. There are somewhere along the lines of 40 possible character classes ranging from basic Knights and fighters to pirates and snipers. Fortunately there is a progression tree included with the game’s manual that will allow you to figure out what characters you want to upgrade ahead of time.

Finally, you’ll be forced to keep an eye on your characters weapons and skills, because over time these will break. Each weapon and item has a durability score, which basically goes down with each attack or use. Because of this, you will want to make sure to have a stash of extra weapons in your supply, as you might find yourself breaking a weapon in the middle of a fight.

I’m sure that I’m missing a few of the finer nuances of gameplay, but suffice it to say there is much more here than at first glance. Newcomers to the tactical RPG genre will have no problem jumping right in, while old pros will have plenty to play with.

Control and Gameplay Score: 10/10

5. Replayability

This game is a classic case of being replayable simply because of the number of characters and progression options that you have. You can easily go through the game using only a handful of characters, or mix it up and experiment with various combinations. Add this to the 12-15 hour playtime, and you’ve got quite a bit of replayability right off the bat.

For those of you who like to power up your characters as high as they can get, you can go out and take part in a number of optional missions and areas that can be replayed as many times as you like. You also have the option of fighting in the Arena, which will allow you to level up your characters and win gold. Once you’ve beaten the game you will have the opportunity to play in a Free Map mode, where you can wander around, advance your characters, complete any optional quests you may have passed, and even complete various tasks to earn secret characters.

This Fire Emblem also sees the return of the Link Arena which allows you to fight in an arena style battle against up to three opponents. Each player selects the troops they want to use, and then goes head to head in a battle royale. Depending on the settings, the winner is either the last man standing or the one who has gained the most points.

I think that most people will play the game once, beat it, and then probably not pick it back up again for a while. Fortunately, there is still enough replayability here to keep tactical RPG fans happy for quite a while.

Replayability Score: 8/10

6. Balance

By its very nature, this game is either going to be incredibly difficult or incredibly easy based on your previous experience with tactical RPG’s and how well you can micromanage your units. However, in an effort not to completely shut out the average gamer, Fire Emblem comes with an incredibly detailed tutorial system that keeps giving you hints and tips for quite a few battles. There were still new tips popping up eight battles into the game, which is pretty impressive.

To help with the balance, the game comes with three difficulty settings. Well, sort of… It’s more like two difficulty settings and one tutorial mode. Easy and Normal are more or less identical, except that in Easy mode you get the full tutorial while in Normal mode you are pretty much on your own. And then there is Hard mode, which is mostly for those who are all ready very familiar with Fire Emblem or are masochists.

The difficulty of the game itself as you play is scaled pretty nicely. Early enemies are fairly weak and steadily get more difficult, and more numerous, as you progress. They will also get smarter as you go along. In earlier stages, enemies seem to attack at random, but later on they will start to actively pick on weaker units, or ones that can’t fight back at close/long range. Some battlefields will also include a “fog of war”, hiding the numbers and types of units your enemy has until you move in closer.

As with most games of this type, you will always seem to end up with three or four characters that are incredibly overpowered. For that matter, from the very beginning of the game you have a Paladin with you (basically a level 10 Knight), thereby making the first few battles almost ridiculously easy until the enemies difficulty scales up a bit more. Unfortunately by the time that happens, you will likely have an imbalance of characters, with some being able to fight effectively and others barely able to take a single hit.

As mentioned earlier, adding to the difficulty is the fact that when a character dies, they stay dead. Fortunately you tend to get a new unit or two with every fight, so losing one isn’t too bad. But if you’re like me, you’ll quickly find that you have a few favorite units that you just can’t stand to lose, and would rather replay the battle than go on without them. This adds a whole new dimension to the game, as those who choose to continue on after losing units will have to develop new strategies or find replacement characters.

The only exception to this is if a main character dies, in which case you will be forced to repeat the battle from the last action (which more often than not just means watching your unit die from the exact same attack) or starting the battle over from scratch. Eirika and Ephraim are always the main characters, but occasionally another unit will be flagged as pivotal to a particular battle as well, so you’ll have to take care not to let them die either.

Overall the game is fairly well balanced, although not without a few flaws, and will offer a challenge to both new and experienced gamers.

Balance Score: 8/10

7. Originality

Well, it’s a sequel. But it does have its own storyline and characters that are separate from the previous entry, even if the story isn’t the most original in the world. Bringing back the Link Arena may not be anything new, but it’s a welcome addition.

It’s also fairly similar to a number of other tactical RPG’s, most notably Shining Force. But it still manages to include enough new combat options and strategies to create its own little niche, thanks to the combat triangle and the addition of support units.

In the end, it borrows quite a bit from other games in the genre, but adds to them to create a game that stands well on its own merits.

Originality Score: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

Fire Emblem is one of those games that comes along and is fairly hard to put down. Many times I would be playing and get a sudden case of “just one more battle” syndrome. Of course, farther into the game that “one more battle” would easily last 30 minutes or so. The game is easy to play while still being fairly intricate, with a good story, and tons of character development if you take the time to delve into the support units.

If you take full advantage of everything this game has to offer, it can become fairly addictive. But if you just find yourself going through each battle without slowing down a little bit to examine its intricacies, you probably won’t get as much out of it as others will.

Addictiveness: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

It seems that these days tactical RPG’s are starting to fall to the wayside. Games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and others are garnering more and more attention, while little gems like this barely even get a blurb in the gaming magazines. Fortunately, the first game did very well, so the publicity for this one is better than it otherwise might have been, and the game itself is getting very positive reviews across the board.

What’s even better is this game is rated “E” for Everyone. And it really is a game that can be enjoyed by everyone. It has a solid story, great gameplay, fairly good replay value, and nothing that is going to cause parents to write the ESRB in a huff. Heck, I bet even Pokemon addicts would have a blast with this, as it’s something different while still containing similar elements to the games they are used to.

Now if only the average video store rented GBA games…

Appeal Factor Score: 8/10

10. Miscellaneous

Several secret characters to discover, multiplayer arena battles, optional side quests, support unit interactions, free map mode when you beat the game… there are just so many wonderful little additions that make this worth playing. And from the start you can even peruse through a Sound Room, which will allow you to listen to any of the sounds or music from the game. While I didn’t find the music to be overly catchy, it’s a nice touch for those who enjoy it.

In the end, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is well worth picking up, and one of the best tactical RPG’s to hit the GameBoy.

Miscellaneous Score: 9/10

The Scores:

Story: 7
Graphics: 8
Sound: 7
Gameplay/Control: 10
Replayability: 8
Balance: 8
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 7
Appeal Factor: 8
Miscellaneous: 9
Overall: 78
Final Score: 8.0 (Great)