It’s time for another round of my early teen nostalgia as we take a dive into where I started with Fire Emblem, Nintendo’s venerable series of tactical anime warfare simulators!
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (GBA)
Released Oct 2004 | Developed: Intelligent Systems | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Strategy RPG | HLTB: 25 hours
Let’s begin with a brief comment on history. Fire Emblem was an exclusively Japanese series until Nintendo’s little handheld that could, the Game Boy Advance. The first GBA Fire Emblem, Fuin no Tsurugi (typically translated as The Binding Blade) was a Japan-only game but the next one would see the series finally get an English language release. Known only as Fire Emblem outside of Japan (until recently where it now is referred to with the subtitle The Blazing Blade), it was definitely a popular title for Nintendo’s handheld. It was received well enough not just to spawn a third title for the GBA but also to see that game get released outside of Japan as well, which leads us into today’s subject.
The Sacred Stones is the 8th game in the franchise but only the 2nd released in English, which puts the game into an interesting context with regards to how it was received at the time by different audiences around the world, and now it stands out as an entry with some slight differences to the typical Fire Emblem formula. This makes The Sacred Stones a somewhat controversial entry in the franchise. For me, while I played The Blazing Blade back as a youngster, of the two games it was The Sacred Stones that I spent by far the most time with. In fact, as a kid I was so enamoured with this game over its predecessor that I utterly demolished every challenge it had, and replayed it over and over again incessantly; it was definitely a staple of long car journeys, that’s for sure.
I confess that I’m not terribly familiar with strategy RPGs like Fire Emblem, as a general rule. I’m aware of a few games and I’ve tried a handful; titles like Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyrie Profile and Advance Wars are all vaguely familiar to me, but Fire Emblem is the only one of its kind that I’ve ever sunk any real hours into. For the uninitiated, Fire Emblem and its ilk are a hybrid of turn-based strategy and JRPG, meaning that you take turns in commanding your forces and as you win fights and battles you and your units accrue exp and eventually level up Fire Emblem however has its own notoriety due to some specific quirks that have come to define the series, and it is The Sacred Stone’s adherence to, or rather its lack of adherence to, these quirks that have contributed to its occasionally mixed reception.
The majority of your time is spent orchestrating pitched battles as your forces clash against your enemies. In each map you’ll get a set number of characters to deploy and once battle begins you select each unit in turn and can maneuver them using a grid system. It’s made abundantly clear when you select a unit how far they can move and what their maximum attack range is, and making good use of this is key to surviving the game’s challenges. This also holds true for your foes, and remembering to select them and see how far they can move and attack is a vital aspect of managing your turns. Each different unit and class comes with their own unique qualities, strengths, and weaknesses, from the weapons they can wield to the units they simply have to avoid. These are expressed in terms of elemental triangles, which defines how a given unit interacts with another in combat. For example, a key rule to remember is that swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords, in what’s termed by the game as the Weapon Triangle. This is one of the basic tenets that players have to keep in mind when moving units around as pitting a character against an enemy with the wrong weapon can greatly affect the damage you do, the chance to even land a hit, and the damage they can take back, and of course if you move a unit and know it’s within enemy range, taking into account what weapons they might bring to bear against your units and equipping them accordingly is a vital thought to remember.
Another marvellous series staple feature of Fire Emblem is the presence of Support conversations. These occur when two characters who have a particular affinity for one another are placed next to each other on the battlefield over the course of multiple turns. Eventually the Support option can appear and selecting it initiates a little conversation between the pair. These chats are home to some of the game’s most endearing pieces of writing as they’re a chance to see more sweet interactions between characters that we otherwise would never see during the main plot. Engaging in Supports has a tangible gameplay benefit as well as Supporting units can gain stat bonuses when hanging out next to each other. However, each Unit can only support a maximum of 5 times in The Sacred Stones, so selecting who you want your units to fraternize with is yet another fun consideration to take into account, and a huge source of replayability as you can play about with different choices on subsequent playthroughs.
In grand Fire Emblem tradition, The Sacred Stones has a massive cast of playable characters. In general, you need it when you play these games because screwing up comes at a major cost: permanent character death. Permadeath is one of the franchise’s most enduring and beloved mechanics, and it’s a large part of why the franchise is so well-regarded among fans of the genre. In many other SRPGs, a character’s health hitting 0 forces them to retire from that battle, but in Fire Emblem that character simply gets a heart-wrenching final line and bites it for good. This encourages a very deliberate and careful approach to gameplay, characterised by a fastidious attention to details like enemy range and weapon type. At its best it’s wildly addictive as you meticulously plan out your turns, trying to balance the need to preserve your characters against your objectives. At its worst, Fire Emblem probably comes across as needlessly harsh and difficult. I’ve been known to restart entire maps just because a unit died or I didn’t get to recruit a certain character because I got my moves wrong or I didn’t make good enough time getting to them, and while that drive for a perfect run holds plenty of appeal to me personally, I can understand anyone who balks at that or finds it tedious.
What normally goes hand-in-hand with the permadeath is a limited chance for experience gain. Most Fire Emblem games advance in a strictly linear fashion, moving from encounter to encounter. This doesn’t so much encourage as it does require you to decide pretty quickly what units you want to prioritise and which ones you’re going to let sit and gather dust because only the units who you bring to battle will have any opportunities to earn experience and level up. This in turn means that if a character does die and you opt to let your choices have consequences and forge on instead of furiously resetting your game (guilty as charged), you’ll need to replace them with someone from your bench, so to speak, and the odds are they’ll be underlevelled for the task at hand since your enemies won’t be getting weaker to compensate for your mistakes. For many lovers of the series this killer combination of permadeath and limited grinding makes for a highly addictive and exciting gameplay loop that rewards methodical thinking and a healthy respect for the RNG gods, as well as creating a game series that has a grand reputation for replayability as players try and beat games with different party organisations or with their own self-imposed challenges in place.
The Sacred Stones however upsets this balance because this game is all about letting you grind levels. Instead of simply moving from fight to fight, this game lets you move about an overworld in-between encounters, which gives ample opportunity to visit previous towns in order to stock up on weapons and items at their shops, and it also spawns random combat instances that pop up in previous levels, letting you head back and take on extra fights for more experience points. It even features not one but two multi-floor dungeons that you can take on as many times as you want and that let you freely retreat from battle without penalty if you feel like things aren’t going well. This all adds up to a ton of opportunities to gather exp for your entire roster of characters. Now, The Sacred Stones is by no means an easy game, but it certainly helps to alleviate a great deal of the franchise’s usual difficulty curve if you can easily buff up all of your units, and although it’s obviously a big time sink to do so, it does mean that if you engage in it you have even more choice and flexibility available to you in battles since you’re no longer worrying about a weaker unit having to step up should a first-choice unit take a mortal wound. Personally, I’m all for any efforts to make a game more accessible, and I know that’s exactly what The Sacred Stones tries to do for the Fire Emblem formula. I generally think any grumbles about it not being right or wanted amounts to little more than gatekeeping. I’m not saying one can’t have a problem with the changes The Sacred Stones chose to introduce, but they are optional, and frankly it’s always better if more people can join in and enjoy a game. This is, I think, the only real change to the usual Fire Emblem setup, and indeed everything else one might expect from a game in this franchise is here.
If there’s one area where I doubt The Sacred Stones will be winning any awards it’s in the narrative writing. In my (admittedly reasonably limited) experience, Fire Emblem tends not to push the boat too far out when it comes to setting and progressing their stories, and most of them sit in a comfortable and familiar fantasy niche. This game is no exception to this. It takes place on the continent of Magvel, a land split into distinct nations but when the Grado Empire start suddenly invading (they are named the Empire guys, you just can’t get away with letting yourself assume the Empire will be good, that’s a rookie error if I ever saw one) things start taking a turn for the worse. As the game opens we’re introduced to the royal prince and princess of the kingdom of Renais, Ephraim and Eirika. Their kingdom is sacked and their father is murdered by the people they once considered friends in the Grado Empire, and the pair scatter off in different directions to try and survive. The game begins by following Eirika as she escapes to a neighbouring kingdom in the north, and tries to rally troops around her as she mounts an effort to fight back against Grado and find out why her old friends have suddenly become evil.
I’ve been playing a lot of visual novels recently as I tackle the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton games so I’m no stranger to wordy games, but as I always say when I’m confronted by games with an excess of flowery prose, if you’re not a strong reader or you’re not into massive amounts of dialogue, then you might find The Sacred Stones a bit wearing after a while. The downtown between fights is punctuated by a surprisingly large amount of chatter as Eirika attempts to coordinate her resistance, and the moments immediately before and after an encounter begins are usually used by the game as an excuse for huge and lengthy conversations about whatever’s happening and regrettably I wouldn’t call it especially well-written with regards to its dialogue. It’s perfectly fine, and characters have quite well-defined personalities (itself no mean feat for a game with a cast this vast) but a large part of the engaging writing happens in the optional Support moments and this means that the main plot is left swinging from serviceable plot point to serviceable plot point. Suffice it to say, once the game starts getting going and it appears that the evil empire has access to some dark magicks, you’re probably not going to be surprised by any movement the narrative makes unless this is your first introduction to fantasy writing.
If you’d asked 12-year old me to rate The Sacred Stones I’d have slapped it with full marks before you’d finished the question; after all, one doesn’t spend such an inordinate amount of time mastering a game if there’s not some pretty significant enjoyment happening, right? However, I’m an older and wiser (ish) human and I like to think I’m a little more aware of when things aren’t quite right, and whether they are or aren’t good, I try and put a little more thought into why that might be. Perhaps I’d just never noticed the somewhat tepid and arduous plot writing the first time around, or more likely I simply didn’t care to think about it, but it felt unavoidable while replaying it this time. I almost felt more disinclined to keep rebooting the game and trying for perfect runs because I knew I’d have sit through some pretty lengthy dialogue over and over again, or at least have to keep jamming the start button to skip it all as quick as humanly possible, and that doesn’t exactly feel like high praise for that aspect of The Sacred Stones.
That said, the game retained one important aspect from when I played it as a youth, and that was the sheer addictive joy that comes from playing Fire Emblem well. That core loop of planning a turn and then seeing it play out just as planned and predicted creates a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to match in gaming, I think, and regardless of whether you think it fundamentally breaks the customary Fire Emblem difficulty because it offers unlimited grinding, I think on the whole The Sacred Stones stands the test of time rather well.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.