Insanity Prevails' Fire Emblem Review
Strategy is intense
Great level up and class upgrade system
Exploration done during battles
Weapon and magic relationships
Multiplayer is disappointing
Supports can be hard to build
Fire Emblem, while the first released in the west, is the seventh installment of a long running SRPG series in Japan, subtitled The Blazing Sword. Time to see if this game can appeal to a western audience as well as the previous games appealed to the Japanese market.
Fire Emblem uses a combination of graphics for different areas of the game. When directing your troops you're looking at the map view. Small icons are used to represent units on the map, colour-coded to signify their alligence (blue for your troops, red for enemies and green for non player allies). Despite their small size and monotone colour schemes these icons still have sufficient detail and do a good job of representing their classes. When you see a paladin on the map there isn't any doubt of it being a paladin.
Environment tiles, such as grass or village, are also suitably detailed and possess actual colour variation. There's also good variety involved here. Even alternative versions based on weather conditions or general location.
The weather conditions tend to be a little basic though. Sandstorms and snowstorms tend to look like coloured pixels flicking around randomly. Rain almost doesn't get seen, and the game's idea of fog is to just make things a little grey. While not bad I feel more could have been done.
Map animations add an extra lively touch to proceedings, adding to a screen that is not only strategically informative but nice to look at too. Unit icons have their own animations, like marching or swinging their weapon, which becomes livelier when the cursor is on them.
When units engage in battle then the battle screen appears (unless turned off by the player). The sprites involved here have more detail than the map ones and more colour to them. While the sprites do the job most seem a little basic at times. It doesn't help that many units simply use generic sprites with a different colour palette. It's understandable having the generic enemies all use the same generic sprite, but it's a bit disappointing when your hard trained unit looks like generic enemy number 5.
What saves the battle scenes from being horribly generic is the animation used. There is a variety of different animations used for attacks, support and dodging. Many of these animations are quite impressive too. There's nothing quite like witnessing a hero throw an axe in the axe and then leap up and catch it on the way down to the enemy's skull. Some of the magic animations can be particularly awe-inspiring too. Watching an enemy be enveloped in darkness or fire rage around the enemy is impressive work.
Fire Emblem, like many games, has cutscenes to push the story along. However, the shortcuts taken by IS are a little too obvious here. Conversations are usually done by having the character portraits slide on screen to talk. While it falls short of properly animated sequences it does at least look nice. Characters blink and their mouths move. Speech bubbles appear and disappear and the character portraits do move around to give the impression of motion.
Fire Emblem has a wide range of music tracks in the game; over 90 in all. Despite being limited by the speaker of the GBA they all sound good quality, and while some sound too similar for their own good (the theme tunes for Lyn, Eliwood and Hector are perfect examples of this) the number of tunes should ensure that this is kept to a minimum.
The tracks in place are quite fitting to where they are used. Battles are accompanied by fast, high tempo music while bad news is met with slower moodier music. Meeting old friends presents a rather cheerful piece and healing with a calm tune.
Sound effects are also fitting to the game. Hear a lance bury itself in an enemy or an explosion of fire fry a target.
The plot is essentially divided into two pieces. The beginning of the game sees use join Lyndis (more commonly referred to as Lyn). A tactician (who is meant to be the player's character) is found unconscious in the fields and brought into Lyn's home to recover. After a brief conversation bandits attack, and with tactical support from you Lyn defeats them. Shortly after Lyn meets two knights of Caelin, who have been looking for family members of Caelin's marquess (marquess being a ruler of a region). It appears that Lyn is a granddaughter that they seek. However, the marquess' brother is a power hungry dictator, and takes measures to try and assure Lyn's demise so that he can claim the throne instead.
It's essentially comes down to an inheritance dispute with some rather fatal outcome for the loser. It's hardly approaching the level of epic, but it does serve as a suitable reason for Lyn to go travelling across multiple regions and gives her something other than bandits to be slashing at.
Lyn does eventually succeed at defeating Lundgren and remains at castle Caelin, along with several companions that aided her on her journey. Fast forward several years and we join Eliwood, a noble from Pheare. Players will have already met him before during Lyn's mode, and now we get to know more about him.
Eliwood's father, Elbert, has vanished, along with a battalion of knights that we with him. Naturally concerned for his father's well being Eliwood sets out to find him. Not wanting to leave his mother ill guarded Eliwood takes only two knights with him. Shortly after setting out they meet Hector (whom players may have seen in Lyn's mode if they visited a certain house), a long-time friend of Eliwood who doesn't hesitate to assist.
But there may be more to proceedings than meets the eye. Disturbing reports have been coming in all over the place. An assassin's guild called the Black Fang have been making worrying movements in Lycia, the actions of Bern's King Desmond has Ositia worried and even some of the Lycian territories seem to be preparing for war. Could all this be connected to Elbert's disappearance? Nevertheless, someone wants to see Eliwood disappear. The friends continue forward to uncover the truth.
This story is certainly on a grander scale than Lyn's tale was. The story develops into more than just a search for Elbert too, although discussing that would spoil things so it's best you found out by yourself. Needless to say it has connections to legendary stuff and creatures. Sounds pretty typically fantasy stuff but it works quite well and you can imagine the clever planning used by the villains. It's not just another "I want to rule the world" concept.
Hector's mode, unlocked by beating Eliwood's mode, expands on the existing story. Many of the conversations and events are the same, but there are some that differ. Some simply drag a conversation to Hector's side (therefore we get to see private talks that we missed in Eliwood's mode) and there are some entirely new events and conversations that occur. It's a nice incentive to play through the game a second time.
But while the main plot is good the character development in the game is even better. Many of the characters have such connections to the current events and tend to come with distinct personalities. There's only a few that you might consider forgettable (Karla and Fiora really don't stick in the mind very well) but overall excellent. You have characters like the mercenary with a complex past and bitter feelings towards another army member, a healer who seems very excitable and far from the demure appearance one would expect a cleric to have and an enemy rider who refuses to fight when he disagrees with his commander's orders.
Support conversations add a whole other level to this. These conversations often reveal hidden aspects or are intended to resolve conflicts or mysteries that exist. Renault is a perfect example of this. A seemingly mundane bishop has a very dark past only revealed through the support conversation system. It's a shame that such a system isn't easy to manage, so newer gamers will likely miss such things, and even then because the system is limited in how many conversations a unit can have per playthrough it can take some time for experienced players to see everything.
The first thing I thought when I saw this was that it looked scarily similar to Advance Wars. In some respects they are similar but playing through this game will dispel any concerns about that. Strategy is about as close as they get.
Fire Emblem is a SRPG. In that I mean it is played out like a turn based strategy game but involves elements more commonly found in a role playing game, such as levelling up and buying weapons.
At the beginning of each turn the player issues commands to the various blue units. The available actions depend on the unit itself and the circumstances. Move is a common action and can be linked to pretty much any other action (as long as move is done first). Movement range depends on the unit's move stat and the terrain. Forests and sand slow down many units, while mountains and seas are impassable to most units. You also can't sit on a tile occupied by another unit and cannot pass over tiles when enemies are. This makes strategic placement vital, as you don't want to block your own units off or give enemies wide openings in your defences.
Most units are capable of attacking, which is something you'll do a lot to defeat enemies. The specifics of the attack depends on the chosen weapon, which in turn is restricted by the unit's class. Range is another factor, as you can launch both direct and indirect attacks. Those used to Advance Wars may be surprised to note that a unit can both move and launch an indirect attack in the same turn, allowing for more offence chances. Weapons don't last forever though, so it is important to buy new weapons and keep a healthy supply of them.
Alls unit can use items, although they can only use items they are holding, with five slots available to each unit (this counts all items, including weapons). It's no use trying to use an elixir someone else has. Units can trade with another unit if that unit needs a specific item, but doing so uses up the turn of the unit that moves and initiated the trade, so good item management is key to limit the amount of trading that occurs in the field.
Some units have special skills that produce other commands. Units who can use staves can be commanded to use those staves, whether it is to heal other units, warp units or try to inflict bad statuses on the enemy units. Dancers or bards can refresh allies to give them an extra action that turn. All units can also be ordered to simply wait.
All these options give players an immense amount of options when taking on the enemy, and you'll need them because the game is difficult. You'll find yourself constructing human barriers and making extensive use of various abilities to defeat the advancing army. That said, I do wish the enemy units would demonstrate a little more intelligence. Aside from thieves who target chests and most bosses that don't move it seems most enemies are quite happy to simply charge your position, often resulting in reckless attacks that wouldn't have a chance of succeeding.
Tactical planning plays a large role in the game, and part of that is knowing just what your army is capable of. Unlike regular strategy games each unit in Fire Emblem is a unique individual, instead of generic disposable units. If a unit falls they're gone forever. You can't just build another Rebecca. Therefore, making sure units survive is of utmost importance and puts some welcome pressure on the player.
The performance of units is largely governed by their stats. Different characters have different base stats and growths, so just because two characters belong in the same class doesn't mean they'll perform the same. Take Hawkeye and Dart. Hawkeye is slow while Dart is inaccurate.
All characters have base stats that determine their initial usefulness. By gaining 100 exp from battles or using skills (like stealing) a unit can level up. This is generally where Fire Emblem differs a lot from the competition. Whereas other games would have fairly static and predictable stat gains, FE's are anything but predictable. Each character has stat growths that determine the chance of gaining a stat in each area on a level up. Characters with a high growth in a stat are more likely to gain a point than those with a low growth. While seemingly random this does add more strategy to proceedings, as players must judge when a unit is simply beyond saving and switch to another unit. Although I imagine some may not like their favourite characters turning out bad. This setup does allow for some varied playthroughs.
Most of the stats are used strictly for battles. Str or Mag helps determine the damage dealt. Def or Res helps reduce damage taken, while HP helps to. Skl contributes to the chance of a successful hit. Spd boosts the chances of dodging a hit and determines if a unit can strike twice in one battle. Lck affects several things, like hit and avoid.
One of the most important factors of battles in the weapon choice. Fire Emblem operates on a system similar to rock-paper-scissors. In FE, swords beat axes, axes beat lances and lances beat swords. Bows exist outside of this weapon triangle. So, what does beating a weapon mean? Units with the advantageous weapon gain boosts in attack and hit for that battle. It's not instant win (a unit with the disadvantageous weapon can still come out winning) but it does make things easier by picking the right weapon. Magic shares a similar triangle, but it doesn't have the same impact as it's hard to hurt magic users with spells and it is often more efficient to cleave through enemy spellcasters with melee fighters instead.
Battles are affected by other things as well. Units can gain a critical rate, affected by numerous factors like skill and their weapon. A critical hit causes three times the damage of a normal hit, but are hard to build up a decent reliable rate for. Effective might weapons deal extra damage to specific types of units, like bows deliver extra damage to flying units. Some weapons even have other special traits, like ignoring resistance or doubling the number of attacks. A unit's class can also affect combat. Classes affect available weapon types, stat caps (how high a stat can grow before it stops) and even give special abilities such as a critical boost. Terrain plays an important role too, helping to boost defences and avoid. It all builds up to battles that require a lot of thought. Charge forward recklessly and you'll be wiped out easily.
If your units need a further boost then look no further than the support system. Characters can support each other, which grants both units boosts in battle if both units are within 3 tile distance of each other. These boosts depend on the level of the support and the affinities of both units but tend to affect the areas of attack, defence, hit, avoid, critical and crit avoid. It's a great system for toughening up the group, but suffers from a distinct flaw. Building supports involves having units stand directly adjacent to one another for a number of turns before the option to have a conversation occurs. The problem with this is that it can screw up strategies when you're putting units out of position to build supports. This is especially evident when there is a mov gap between units. 3 tile spacing is a lot of room, but directly adjacent isn't. Some supports also take a lot of time to activate, which can be more frustrating.
Unit stats and abilities extend to outside of battles as well though. Mov and class type affects where a unit can move to. Class abilities like steal, heal and open door/chest aren't battle skills but can help you out. Unit's can even rescue other units based on the relevant rescue and con stats (the rescue stat of the rescuer must be equal or higher than the con stat of the unit being rescued). Unfortunately there isn't really much need to rescue anyone so the feature feels underused.
Traversing maps is sometimes made harder by the presence of fog or darkness. Under these conditions you can only see parts of the battlefield based on the vision ranges of your units. You can't attack a unit that you can't see, and it encourages players to move even more cautiously as you can no longer see every enemy's position. The enemy seems to have excellent sight though, as they never seem to unexpectedly run into you, which is slightly disappointing.
As seen, classes have an important effect on things, but many units won't stay the same class forever. Unpromoted units who reach Lv10 or higher can promote to a higher class using a promotion item. The exact item needed depends on the unit's existing class (bow using units need an Orion's Bolt while fliers make use of a Elyssian Whip) and some units promote in special ways (Merlinus autopromotes when he hits Lv20). Promoting gains notable stat gains and sometimes extra abilities, as well as resetting the level counter to 1, but players must judge when to promote a unit. Since units cannot go past level 20 then promoting at Lv10 would miss out on 10 levels of stat gains and promoted units gain less experience, but the instant stat gains and abilities may be worth having them sooner.
Of course, you need to recruit units first, and Fire Emblem isn't the type of game to just hand them to you. While some units join automatically many must be recruited by the player, which puts an interesting spin of things. The methods used to recruit them tend to differ but can be summed up in two ways. You either visit a house/village or you speak to them on the battlefield. The second option tends to be more interesting, especially if the potential ally starts as an enemy, as it tends to put you in more danger trying to get them. There are some units that join based on meeting certain conditions (like Dart has to survive 16x/17x to join 2 chapters later) but this is relatively rare.
Your units don't have infinite use weapons or supplies though, so it is important to keep supplies at a healthy level. It's not as easy as it sounds. For a start, money is limited. There are no random encounters or chances to revisit older levels. The only infinite source of income (and exp) is the arenas located in certain levels, but arenas are risky and could result in losing a unit if the opponent is too powerful. In addition to this, you can't just buy stuff whenever you want. Shops exist on the maps, and you have to find time inbetween wiping out enemy troops to do some shopping. Quite a challenge.
Managing items can also be rather troublesome, but if trading items around is becoming a problem then simply ask Merlinus for aid. Merlinus is a unit that joins shortly into Eliwood's/Hector's mode, and is unlike any other unit. Merlinus acts as a convoy, storing items for the army. If he's deployed on a map (which doesn't take a unit slot off anyone else) then any extra items gained your unit can't carry can be sent directly to the convoy, making item management much easier. However, Merlinus can't attack and can't move until promoted, so he needs guarding if you want him to stay on the map. Yet, that is something else unique about him. If Merlinus is defeated he doesn't die but retreats from the field and is still deployable in future levels. The only consequence to this is that he won't gain a level, as Merlinus gains a level for each level he is deployed and survives.
The campaign itself is quite lengthy too. Lyn's mode is about 11 chapters, while Eliwood and Hector modes give over 20 chapters as well. Most chapters in Eliwood's and Hector's modes are the same maps with slightly different unit positionings and enemy classes, although there are several unique maps not seen in Eliwood's mode. There are even multiple sidequest chapters, where to have to meet certain conditions in previous chapters to access them. Players get the choice to attempt them if they meet the conditions which is nice as you may not want to go through them even if you hit the criteria for them. Although typically harder these chapters also tend to give good rewards for completing them.
The game also contains a Link Arena, where players can build team out of their campaign armies and challenge the computer or friends over a linkup to battle. Unfortunately it is very unfulfilling. FE allows for 5 units teams and between two to four teams and puts them all in an arena. Players take turns by picking one of their units and an enemy unit can engaging.
Generally speaking many of the concepts from the main game are still here and work just as well. The problem is what was removed. Why an arena? Advance Wars has already shown us that multiplayer gaming on large scale maps is more than possible. IS really should file this under "missed opportunities", because with the arena system much of the strategy is lost. Units like healers and high movement units lose the advantages afforded to them in a map situation. There's no terrain to take advantage of. No flanking opportunities or anything of the sort.
By removing so much of what made the single player a success IS have done nothing more than shove in a average extra. There's still strategy involved, but when it's a mere shadow of what it should be you can't help but feel vastly disappointed.
Fire Emblem offers some nice extras too for those in for completing the game. Any artwork seen ingame can be viewed and music heard can be listened to again. Support conversations can also be read again, although you're stuck with the painfully slow text speed as, unlike in the main game, there's no option for speeding it up here.
If you're looking for an excellent single player SRPG then your search has ended. Fire Emblem combines many different aspects into a single package that you simply must play. It's multiplayer is severely lacking, but you'll enjoy the game regardless.
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