Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones review
Multiple promotion paths
Lots of tactical planning needed
Many options available
Dull cast of characters
Shopping has bee diluted from before
Multiplayer is still terrible
Fire Emblem is one long running series of SRPGs that has spanned generations. Sacred Stones sits as the third entry to appear on the Gameboy Advance, and the eigth entry in the series overall. Of course, this applies only to Japan. As far as the majority of the Western audience is concerned this is the second game both to appear on this system and in the series released outside of Japan.
Blazing Sword (a translation of the Japanese subtitle for the previous game) set quite a standard for the SRPG genre and won itself many fans the world over. Sacred Stones aims to build upon that success and find its way into many game collections.
Hoping for a visual treat that surpassed Blazing Sword? You may be a little disappointed then. Sacred Stones is hardly any different visually than Blazing Sword. Oh sure, there are a couple of new animations and slightly better use of colour, but the changes are pretty minimal.
Battles are quite impressive, although this isn't due tot the character sprites themselves. Unfortunately, the various sprites tend to lack the detail one would expect, especially given how late in the GBA's life this game actually appeared. Some of the monsters actually do look pretty decent but many of the human sprites could use with being fleshed out.
However, that's not the real issue here. There is another problem that has been carried over from the previous game, which is a distinct lack of individuality in battle sprites. Some characters will have unique appearances, like the two lord characters and the characters termed as trainees. Unfortunately, most characters do not have such uniqueness to their appearance. The only thing separating your mage from a generic enemy mage is a colour palette swap.
This is rather disappointing, because your army is meant to be filled with a deep cast, but this isn't represented in battle. Enemy bosses suffer the same flaw. Only a couple of them are distinct, and the rest may as well be buffed-up generics for all the visual impact they have.
Where battles really shine is in the animations used. This was a strong point in Blazing Sword, and it continues to be a strong point here. There are many attack animations with various weapons and spells, and all of them are exaggerated in a good way. Watch in awe as the warrior spins around before slamming the axe in the enemy's head or witness the sage forming a casting rune to fire off a powerful spell.
The variety of animations on offer this time is higher due to new spells and classes, making it an even better treat than before.
The map view is probably the most common view you'll be looking at, as it is where you will be directing your troops and forming plans. All onfield characters are represented by icons based on their class. These are less detailed and smaller than the battle sprites (to prevent bloating the map screen) but have their own charm as well. The fact that they are animated (and even go a little hyper when highlighted with the cursor) is great.
The tiles used for the various pieces of the area, like grass and forts, have a similar level of detail, although possessing better colour variation than the unit icons. It's good considering the smallness needed. What is better is the variation according to the weather. A pity that the weather doesn't change all that often.
Weather itself is fairly disappointing, as it's unchanged from Blazing Sword, which didn't have good weather effects to begin with. They are kept to a rather basic level, so it's still a letdown.
Sacred Stones conveys much of the story through cutscenes, and again all this is unchanged. Conversations occur with character portraits that aren't fully animated. They blink, their moves move and the portraits may slide about. That's pretty much it. It falls short, no doubt, but it is trying. Backgrounds are static images that look nice, if a little repetitive.
There is a pretty big collection of tracks in this game, and fortunately IS thought it best to change up the selection. They may have a familiar ring to them, but these are new tracks all the same, so no recycling here.
All of them work well to compliment the fantasy medieval theme present throughout the game, and the tone often matches the situation. Fast-paced high-tempo music plays out during battles. Slower melancholy music plays during emotionally painful scenes. It works quite well.
Sound effects also work well doing their job. You have things like lightning bolts or crashing axes that are timed well and sound good.
The kingdom of Renais is suddenly invaded by the neighbouring nation Grado. The two were on good terms so Renais is ill-prepared to mount a fightback. In an act of desperation the king orders Seth, a paladin in service to Renais, to flee with his daughter Eirika. Reluctantly the pair flee, although they have a close call when a man called Valter attempts to kill them.
I guess this won't take long.
Eirika and Seth flee to Frelia, hoping to seek aid from her king. Eirika wishes to reclaim her homeland so her people will not suffer. Also, her brother is reported missing within Grado territory, so she naturally wishes to rush to his aid too.
Soon, Grado's goals become clear, if not their motives. Their targets are the sacred stone - divine jewels that have long acted as a seal on a terrible monster known as the Demon King. Grado's acts have also stirred the monsters in the land. The goal of Eirika soon changes from reclaiming Renais to stopping this plan from reaching fruition. Bu what could her friend, prince Lyon of Grado, be thinking?
It's a little more cliche than previously, but it's a solid fantasy tale all the same. The game also does progress the story quite nicely, with some emotion and interaction between the main characters.
The problem, though, stems from the supporting cast. The main characters get plenty of development, but the supporting cast seems to be all but forgotten. Each one has barely any screentime when recruited and then promptly vanish into the background. For all intents and purposes it is like commanding an army of generics.
Supports can help build some character, but even these just aren't as impressive as they should be. Some of the conversations are just dull, so many of the characters come across as flat; lacking in depth in general. It's somewhat hard to care about them like you would about the Blazing Sword cast.
Inserting itself into the already flooded SRPG genre, play in Sacred Stones is done in a turn based fashion. Players issue orders to all their units on the map, then the enemy takes its turn. If NPC units exist they take their turn, then play returns to the player.
All the blue units are under your command, and at the beginning of every turn can be given an order. All units can be ordered to move, which can be done in addition to any other action. Other actions that will end a unit's turn include attack, item and wait.
Item options include using an item or trading one away. Trading doesn't actually end that unit's turn, although unless mounted they can't move after doing it until their next turn. They can trade any number of items with a single unit in one turn. Only one item can be used per turn and ends the turn. Such items include healing items that become rather ineffective later on and keys for opening locks. Chances are that later on you will use items very little as those usable that aren't weapons just aren't particularly good.
The convoy system has changed from before. In this game the main lord acts as the convoy, able to remove and deposit items directly as well as adjacent units doing the same. Otherwise the limitations are the same. The convoy can only hold so many items and units can only use items they are holding.
Items don't have unlimited uses though. Even weapons break after so many uses. This is where shops come into play. Items can be purchased from shops, although gold itself isn't easy to come by at first. Later on gold becomes less of an issue. Also, the experience isn't as great here since you can access shops both at the preparations screen at the beginning of every chapter and from the free map mode.
The attack options depend on the unit in question and the weapons in their inventory. Each unit has weapon levels that determine what weapons they can use. A warrior has weapon levels in axes and bows. A warrior therefore cannot use a sword or lance even if he is holding one. Usable weapons are further dictated by the actual weapon levels. Silver weapons require an A rank in the relevant weapon level. If our warrior only has a C bow rank then he cannot use silver bows.
Different weapons will also have different attributes. Attack might is the obvious one, but weapons can also affect hit rate, critical rate, range and determine any speed loss. Weapons may also have special effects, like brave weapons will double the number of attacks a unit delivers or Luna ignores resistance when calculating damage.
Units can miss in Fire Emblem, which is where hit rates are important. Most of a unit's hit rate comes from their chosen weapon, although they also receive boosts from their skill and luck stats, as well as other bonuses like supports. A hit rate is then reduced by the opponent's avoid rate (typically affected by speed and luck stats plus bonuses). Obviously, an attack that misses is pointless regardless of how damaging it would have been, so it affects decisions in what weapons to use.
This is further affected by the weapon triangle system. Swords, lances and axes are part of a triangle, where each weapon is better against one of the others but worse against the other one. Kind of like a rock-paper-scissors system. The winning weapon gives boosts to attack and hit to the unit using it, while the losing unit loses attack and hit. The changes can be quite significant, so taking advantage of the system is important.
That lance is bigger than she is...
Magic has a similar system with its dark-anima-light setup, but it's less effective as it is often more efficient to plough through most spellcasters using physical attacks anyway.
Weapon's also possess a weight stat. If a weapon's weight is higher than a unit's Con stat then the difference is subtracted from a unit's speed during battles. This often means that the stronger weapons aren't necessarily better, as they can cause speed losses that can negatively impact battle performance.
Battles are done in a turn based format too. The unit that started the attack strikes first, then the defending unit gets to produce a counterattack if their equipped weapon allows it (for example, a bow user can't counterattack from range 1 attacks). If either unit has the ability to double attack (if a unit has 4+ more speed than their opponent then a double attack occurs) then their extra attack happens here.
A RNG (random number generator) is used to determine various things, like if an attack hits, so battles rely on the various stats in play. This system also determines if an attack is a critical. Each unit has a critical rate determined by their skill stat halved and their weapon critical, as well as bonus boosts. If an attack is a critical then it does 3x damage. Powerful but it is difficult to rely on them.
Bonus damage can be gained against certain units by using effective might weapons. For example, all bows are effective against flying units, or the armorslayer is effective against armoured foes. Effective might doubles the might of a weapon after weapon triangle bonuses are factored in, and can help wipe out difficult foes, as well as give your own units some problems.
Death in many RPG games normally means you just use some revive technique to bring them back. Not so in Fire Emblem. In this series if a unit is lost they are gone forever. Well, unless you decided to restart the entire chapter again. This can be seen as a little frustrating, especially in the longer chapters, but it also encourages you to consider strategy a lot more as there is no regaining a unit if you decide to press on.
There are a wide variety of classes in the game, moreso than the previous game, and unlike Blazing Sword you have some limited control over this aspect. Every unit starts in a preset class. Those in the lower classes have the chance to promote to a higher class once they have reached at least level 10 and you have the relevant promotion item (different classes require different promotion items).
The new thing here is that most units will have multiple promotion choices to pick from. A mage can become a mage knight or a sage. A cavalier can become a paladin or a great knight. The differences come down to promotion stat gains, weapon choices, stat caps and abilities. It's a nice trait, although in some cases pretty wasted as there is little reason to pick a certain class (why pick Valkyrie when Mage Knight is easily superior in every way?) . I would have liked to see these choices also affect growth rates, but it's still nice as it is.
Lord, one of the few playable classes that doesn't have multiple promotion paths.
Trainee classes take this to a bigger extreme. Three units start in class that are inferior to the normal base classes but offer more level up chances than other classes do. These are typically designed as units that start bad but surpass other units if allowed to catch up. From a strategic standpoint it's a bit pointless as the time lost to allow them to catch up could be used to progress through the game, but they provide nice alternatives and give more promotion choices than others.
Many of the classes are designed specifically for combat, but there are other skills that aren't directly combat skills. Healing is often the most sought after non-combat skill. These units can use staves to restore HP of other units, which works a lot better than trying to sit on forts or using items. There are also other staves too, like raising resistance or inducing sleep, but these aren't common and so not often used.
Summon is an ability new to SS, unique to the Summoner class. These guys can call forth a generic warrior unit to fight with them. Unfortunately, these warrior ghosts are rather ineffective. They have a tendency to miss and are killed in one hit.
SS has also seen fit to implement some skills that activate during battles, but they are a complete waste of time. Some have useful effects, like Pierce negating defence, but many are pointless. Like Snipers need to have attacks guaranteed to hit when their hit rates are always very high? However, the worse thing about these abilities is that are chance activated. It's impossible to know when they will kick in, and the chances of activation tend to be rather low as well.
When in battle or using special skills units can experience points. 100 experience points causes a unit to level up and gain some stat points. Unlike most games though the stat gains aren't static. Instead, every unit has a set of growth rates for each stat. When a level up occurs that RNG is kicked into action to determine what stats go up. It is possible to be blessed and have every stat go up, but it is also possible to be screwed and have no stats at all increase. This does mean that no playthrough will be the exact same as another, as units will grow differently.
Sacred Stones includes the same support system found in Blazing Sword. Supporting units benefit from boosts to various areas, like hit rates, critical rates and attack power, as long as said supporting units are within 3 tiles of each other. However, building supports can be rather difficult, as you need to have certain units end their turns next to each other for a certain number of turns, then activate the support conversation on the map.
Supports are further limited by number. Each unit can only have a total of 5 levels of supports, while each support can be up to three levels (C, B and A). You could have a A and B support setup or 5 C supports, but you can't pass that 5 limit. It's easier to build them in this game due to the free map system, but it is still awkward and leads to wasted turns at times.
The main game of Sacred Stones feels shorter than its predecessor, mainly due to a split path. When Eirika and Ephraim are reunited they then decide to split up again to tackle different goals. The player gets to choose which lord to follow, and all recruited units also follow the chosen lord. The pair then reunite later on, but the chapters before then are different depending on who you followed. You still end up with all the same units, although recruitment methods differ.
Recruitment? Ah, yes, a defining trait of the series. Some units join you automatically, but many units must be spoken to during play to recruit them. Some are difficult to manage this because some start off as enemies who would sooner cut you up until you speak to them. Chances are if an enemy has a portrait and isn't a boss then you may be able to recruit them. However, only certain characters can speak to certain other characters, so figuring that out is important too.
Away from the main game progress is the free map option. Whereas Blazing Sword took players to each mission automatically Sacred Stones puts players on a map, whereby the player moves to the next destination themselves. But there is more to it than that. This map serves as a place to sort through items and access certain shops.
Wait, we actually have to walk ourselves to the next chapter?
This map is also home to the tower, ruins and skirmishes. Skirmishes occur when you run across a monster icon on the map. You are pitted in a battle against a group of monsters, often in a fog of war situation where your vision is limited by the vision ranges of your units. You can actually flee from these battles and the gains are very little so these feel like a waste of time.
Tower and ruins are more promising. The tower opens fairly early on and the ruins much later. Both are designed as training grounds, which allows for actual level grinding to build up your units. It does feel rather cheap though, as it is too easy to build a powerful army through this that worries less about dangers. It does make building supports less frustrating though. Both areas can also offers prizes for working your way through.
Some people may be disappointed with the difficulty too. Sacred Stones is easier than the previous game even without level grinding, and the lack of a ranking system further worsens things. Despite that this can still be rather challenging to those unaccustomed to SRPGs.
Sacred Stones offers two extra game modes in addition. Creature Campaign requires a completed game save to play through, and is a bit disappointed. It is effectively just the tower, ruins and skirmishes from the main game. There are some extra bonus units to unlock here, but by the time you unlock them all there really isn't anything left.
Link Arena is the multiplayer aspect of the game and, like Blazing Sword, manages to disappoint spectacularly. Seriously, why can't IS give us a proper multiplayer mode?
The core mechanics are still here. Battles play out in much the same way. Supports are still active. The difference here is that maps are tossed out, and much of the fun is tossed out with them. Instead you are crammed into an arena that accommodates two to four teams of five units. Each player gets to act once per phase, by commanding one of their units to attack another.
The problem is that much of the strategy is lost. There is no luring units forward. No making use of special skills. No taking advantage of terrain. Too much is stripped out that it is difficult to enjoy this. Come on IS, you can do better than this.
Sacred Stones is a step back from its predecessor. It brings across all the flaws of that game and adds some of its own. However, it is still a very good SRPG that does add in some of its own elements that work quite nicely. A worthy addition to your collection.
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