It seems the Fire Emblem series really is the strongest indicator I can think of to confirm my long held belief that a single playthrough of a game is not always enough to base a fair and accurate judgement on. So it has proven once again with this 2004 Game Boy Advance title, the first released in the English language. The game’s Japanese subtitle roughly translates as The Sword of Flame but the western world’s first introduction to the franchise drops it for the simple title of Fire Emblem. If you saw my Top 100 Games 2012 post you might recall the game was listed with a score of 9.2 but after replaying it for the first time my opinion has altered.
The game’s status as the first in the series to go west has affected the way it is presented. Early chapters in which you must guide a young woman of the plains, the lovely Lyndis, feature very clear, helpful tutorials designed to break newcomers to the series into its complexities. As such this is the ideal place for Fire Emblem virgins to pop their strategic cherries.
If you’ve read the blog before you should really know the drill by now, Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy RPG in which you nurture a group of extremely likeable characters in combat against hordes of enemies in a linear succession of maps. To win you move units around the map to engage foes exploiting your strengths and directing your army tactically. If a unit falls in battle they are permanently dead and to get them back you must reload your last save. Good players must micromanage their army and outfit them with appropriate weapons while cautiously progressing careful not to leave weaker characters open to attack.
The story features three lords, Lyndis being the first you meet. Like Radiant Dawn the structure is a little more broken up than usual, the first ten chapters featuring the sword-wielding beauty in her campaign to claim her birthright as ruler of Caelin after learning of her identity as a lost princess from a pair of questing knights. With her story completed focus shifts to your choice of either the chivalrous Eliwood or Hector the axe-wielder both young nobles in both name and character. At this point you have a choice of which lord to follow although the story will actually involve both, Lyndis as well, with subtle differences in the plot, maps and difficulty level depending on your choice. The narrative involves a struggle against the mysterious Black Fang, a shadowy order lead by the villainous Nergal whose dark designs require the use of Nils and Ninian, a pair of wandering performers who are more than they seem. The story is nowhere near is involving, deep or cleverly constructed as the brilliant Radiant Dawn but the extended dialogue sequences are far from dull, featuring intelligent writing and, of course, very engaging characters.
The gameplay itself is classic Fire Emblem with little to really distinguish itself from other games in the series. Fans of the Radiant games will find leveling up is a slower process and changing class is governed by the availability of certain special items that allow units of level ten or above to promote from, for example, cavalier to paladin. These items are scarce and can easily be missed entirely meaning only a fairly select few units can ever reach their full potential so it’s more critical than ever to look after your best troops. As usual the stress factor and irritation associated with suddenly seeing a beloved character killed, necessitating reloading a save and losing up to an hour’s work, can be maddening but it’s a constant risk that discourages careless play and has a highly stimulating effect on strategic thought.
And as always the satisfaction in gradually wiping out enemy armies and seeing your boys and girls flourish is enormous. The game carries that addictive one-more-chapter factor that could have you playing long into the night. With a quest that can easily last thirty hours and multiple punishing difficulty levels strategy masochists will find the kind of value few other Game Boy Advance titles can claim and it comes wrapped in a pleasing package featuring the usual colourful visuals. Character design and particularly the adorable and amusing battle sprites make for pleasing eye-candy and story sequence backdrops achieve a surprising level of scenic realism. Likewise the musical score ranges from the upbeat to the grimly serious as the story demands and serves as a stoic, hummable companion to your careful thoughts.
The level of ambition in this title cannot match that of its home console brothers but the degree of deep, involving gameplay far exceeds 98% of other handheld games. Fire Emblem is as rich and rewarding an experience as the rest of the series offering the kind of satisfaction few games can match.
Design – 8
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 8
Sound – 8
Longevity – 9
A brilliant, shining introduction to a wonderful series for western gamers. There are not a lot of games available for the Game Boy Advance that can match this level of richness or content value, in fact the only other game that comes close is probably Fire Emblem – The Sacred Stones.