When it comes to certain video games, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing. This is generally the case with Fire Emblem, a series that sticks fairly faithfully to its well-balanced and addictive formula. But while the strong core gameplay has remained sensibly unchanged for years the structure is open to embellishments and new concepts that give each new release a different flavour, an extra layer of complexity to make it stand out from its brothers, something to add a little variety to the familiar. Perhaps the boldest and most controversial example can be found in The Sacred Stones, the third entry in the series for the Game Boy Advance (second to see release in Europe). With the title available to 3DS Ambassadors how does it stack up next to The Sword of Flame?
The continent of Magvel has enjoyed a lasting peace since the defeat of the Demon King centuries earlier, each of the land’s five nations protected by its own Sacred Stone, but the tranquility is shattered when the Grado Empire suddenly invades neighbouring Renais, its long time ally. Princess Eirika of Renais flees her home to seek sanctuary in Frelia with her brother Ephraim’s whereabouts unknown. Their paths will lead them into war.
Since this is the fifth Fire Emblem game I’ve reviewed I’ll assume you know the drill by now. The Sacred Stones carries on the look and feel of the previous GBA titles, borrowing the graphics, sprites and sound effects wholesale and the gameplay mechanics and many of the same little idiosyncrasies return unaltered. The game differs in a few notable aspects, such as the inclusion of a handful of new minus level classes ranked lower than existing basic classes. The first example is Ross who comes to your party as a Journeyman, an unpromoted Fighter who fights with an axe. Amelia the Recruit and Ewan the Pupil later join as lower level Knights and Mages respectively. These units come with very low stats but gain experience quickly and automatically change classes after reaching level ten with no need to use an item. Having these weaker classes might not sound exciting but as Fire Emblem fans know it is often the lower level units that are most worthwhile training up as their stats will have more scope to increase than other higher level units of the same class type you might already have. Plus there are few things in these games more rewarding than seeing your hard work training an initially weak unit paying dividends and giving rise to a powerhouse. The only possible flaw in this plan is the finite amount of experience the structure of the games offers. This is where The Sacred Stones’ biggest departure from tradition comes in.
Most Fire Emblem games progress as a linear succession of maps with a fixed number of enemies in each and, barring the odd arena, offer little opportunity for mindless grinding but all that changes in The Sacred Stones which offers, shock, horror, a freely navigable map screen. The chapter order still unfolds in linear fashion but between chapters you are free to move around and revisit locations and even return to shops and armouries. You can also get into skirmishes with monsters occupying certain maps but the biggest departure is the addition of two dungeons, the Tower of Valni and the Lagdou Ruins.
These two dungeons can be entered at any time between maps once discovered and presents a series of increasingly challenging maps. You can retreat at any time but you cannot save your progress between levels although you can interrupt play by suspending in the usual way. What this means is that if you lose a unit and want to do what all good Fire Emblem players do and reset to get them back you will lose all the progress and experience you gained since starting at level one. This can make the tension in the later maps pretty intense and beating Lagdou ruins can take something in the region of a monster seven hours – that’s a terrifying amount of experience to lose if you make a late mistake. If you do decide to chicken out before beating the dungeon you can have as many tries as you want. This means that the limited experience offered by most games in the series goes out of the window and given how easy it is to grind in Lagdou Ruins it is possible, nay easy, to train up a perfect team of units.
A lot of Fire Emblem purists don’t rate The Sacred Stones for this reason and I can definitely understand their complaint. Not being able to grind necessitates extremely careful play and makes for a highly stimulating experience so removing that gives power back to those prepared to put in the hours but not the strategy. However, and this is an important point I always make in games that feature difficulty-breaking features such as Super Guide, these dungeons and the benefits they offer are optional. If you want the pure Fire Emblem experience you can still have it if you forego the two dungeons, it isn’t forced on you and the game is still a satisfying challenge if you choose to do this. Some games known for their enticing difficulty have been criticised for releasing easier sequels but this isn’t that kind of dumbing down. It’s just that if you don’t want to deal with the stress of meticulously organizing your troops and prefer to power through everything, you can, and if that helps win the series new fans I can’t count it as a bad thing.
It’s a shame that this debate can sometimes obscure the quality of The Sacred Stones because the fact is it is every bit as addictive and involving as The Sword of Flame. The story doesn’t quite have the same epic scope to it, although there are a couple of branching paths that change the experience quite significantly, but the plot and the writing both offer a genuine reason not to mash Start to skip the story sequences. At the heart of the main drive of the narrative is some very pleasing shades of grey that confirm that when Intelligent Systems are at their storytelling best they offer much more than the copy paste simple evil that plagues so many stories of this type. In addition to this the soundtrack is one of the best in the series and the characters are widely appealing, among them a number of Fire Emblem’s hottest babes (more on this subject in a future post).
But the main reason we play this series is for the turn-based strategy and there is no getting away from the fact that The Sacred Stones is phenomenally addictive and immensely satisfying despite not doing a whole lot with the core gameplay that hasn’t been done before. One interesting aspect of playing the game on 3DS is that the handheld’s Activity Log reveals just how much wasted progress you rack up. My newly completed file logs my play time at 31 hours and 51 minutes but my Activity Log shows the game has been active for 39 hours and 48 minutes. That’s approaching ten hours of gameplay erased by resetting to regain fallen allies, greater than the length of the single player campaigns of many modern AAA games released on the HD consoles. Seeing so much work go to waste can be a big turn-off for many but to me it is simply indicative of the compulsive nature of the gameplay and speaks volumes of the stimulating pressure associated with playing a Fire Emblem game.
Design – 8
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 7
Sound – 8
Longevity – 9
Predictably displaying the kind of quality Intelligent Systems is famed for, Fire Emblem – The Sacred Stones is another handheld classic from the Japanese masters. Its unique features make it inviting for newcomers and the inherent qualities of the series shine through very strongly indeed.