Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones Review

I’ve never been one for real-time strategy games, and not just because I prefer to charge in singlehandedly and mow down hundreds of enemies like a game of Madworld.  While I can enjoy a session of Starcraft or Warcraft, I’m never able to devise a good strategy as fast as my opponent (including the AI) and micromanagement tends to get overwhelming (though game design has certainly improved on that aspect).

No, if I’m going to be commanding around little men armed with machine guns and tanks, I need to have time to consider my options, which is why I’ve always been more enamored with games that have players taking turns, like Project X Zone or Civilization.

This sums it up.

One of the turn-based strategy games that have stood out to me over the years came from Nintendo with Advance Wars: Dual Strike on the Nintendo DS.  While I hadn’t played the first two Advance Wars games on the GBA, I was still able to enjoy the strategy, the story, the outlandish units (mega tank!), the stylization and the slew of bonus content, including its varied characters with different abilities not unlike the variety seen in fighting games.

CO of choice.
Even though I got into Nintendo’s big strategy franchise for a time, I rarely paid mind to what may be their even bigger turn-based strategy game franchise, Fire Emblem.  I’m not entirely sure why I brushed Fire Emblem off for all these years.  Maybe the idea of units dying and never coming back made it sound too hard.  Maybe nobody sold me on the stories they told, or maybe copies of several of them are just way too hard to find (Radiant Dawn and Path of Radiance come to mind).

The time for me to play a Fire Emblem game came when Nintendo released its GBA Ambassador games for people who bought a 3DS before its original price drop (even though I actually bought it a day beforehand, where a store dropped the price early).  In addition to other classic GBA titles like Metroid Fusion and Zelda: The Minish Cap, I got a digital copy of Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, one of the only standalone Fire Emblem games.

I had some prior experience with the game before.  My friend had owned it way back when it originally came out.  I found it to be very interesting for a while, but I quickly moved on, probably because my young mind only had one-track strategies.  The Ambassador program gave me the perfect chance to see what I missed and, in the process, what I had been missing for as long as the franchise has been around.

As somewhat cliché as it is, The Sacred Stones’ story is well-told and action-packed, just the way I like it.  It takes place on a fantasy continent called Magvel, where the five nations that make it up have lived in peace for several years.

That peace ends when the nation of Grado attacks.  Its emperor, Vigarde, suddenly acts extremely out of character and has his army invade the other nations, hurt innocent civilians, and destroy the sacred stones each nation holds.  The importance of the sacred stones is explained later on, but needless to say, they need to be kept intact.
What’s more, Vigarde brings in three very questionable generals to fight alongside the virtuous and loyal ones he has had for years.  Said generals are a deserter of another one of the nations, a knight that was exiled from Grado for being unjustly cruel, and a sorcerer who looks like he was trained by the Sith.

They are not nice people.

After their kingdom of Renais is attacked by Vigarde and its king is killed, Princess Eirika and Prince Ephraim both travel the continent to rally allies across each nation and stop the Grado army.

The plot is mostly traditional with a few twists and added elements, but it’s the characters that make it work.  Each of the few dozen characters have their own personalities and backstories, which the game is able to convey very well by integrating it into the gameplay with moderate success.

It all starts with recruitment.  While some of the more plot-important characters will inevitably join you, most of them won’t join your alliance until a certain character talks to them (you can identify most recruitable people by their distinguished faces).  Sometimes that requires a strategy to let such a character get close without killing the one you want to recruit or getting one of your own units killed by the recruit (when they’re on the enemy’s side).

It’s crucial to recruit and protect as many characters as you can, because you only get one of each of them.  You might have the same unit class, but you only get one of each character, and if they die, it’s for good, which makes each one feel more individualized instead of faceless support like in Advance Wars.

Each time you recruit someone on the field, you get a special conversation depending on the character you choose to recruit them with, but there are also several more conversations to witness afterwards.  In addition to the main story detailed as you proceed through the game, where characters that are alive can have extra conversations, they can also start conversations with each other mid-battle after spending several turns next to each other.  With each support conversation, they also give one another a boost when next to each other.
Disappointingly, the number of turns they need to be standing next to each other is so large, and the characters that can have a conversation together are so specific, you practically have to go out of your way to do this.

It’s easy enough to have units stand next to each other while passing turns when the enemy doesn’t, or can’t, move, but I don’t think I should have to exploit a loophole to see something that should blend into the narrative.  It may not even be a loophole though, because the game puts a limit on how many support conversations each character can have, which I can see no reason for other than to stop people from exploiting the waiting game.  I haven’t played the other Fire Emblem games, but I hope they implement character interaction better.  If you take your time and focus on keeping the party members next to each other, it can make for a much better story, but I am not one for patience.

It’s best to describe The Sacred Stones, and the other Fire Emblem games, as a turn-based strategy RPG.  Each character has statistics, such as speed, strength, and luck.  Characters with speed can move farther in one turn, ones with more strength do more physical damage, those with luck have a better chance of dodging attacks, ect.

They also each have their own classes, which determine their statistics and what weapons they’re able to use.  For example, mages and clerics have low defense, but strong magic, and horse-riding units like paladins and cavaliers can move several squares in one turn on most terrain.  Clerics can use staves, and paladins can use lances and swords.

Most characters can change classes at least once after they reach level 10, usually through the use of very valuable items specifically made for doing so.  Characters are generally given a choice between two classes for them to change into, and once changed, they change their appearance and get a major stat boost.
It perfectly encapsulates what makes leveling up so meaningful.  Not only does it make characters more useful, but it can also give you new units to work with you can’t get any other way.

As you can see, there is quite a bit of depth to this game.
But as much as the character management is full of depth, the weapons each character uses is probably the biggest part of how the game plays, believe it or not.  Each weapon has its own range, power, accuracy, and limited number of uses.  Lances, swords, and axes are used when a unit is next to an enemy, unless they’re weaker ones made for throwing, in which case it can be used at close range or a distance.  For such axes, magic, javelins, bows and weapons like them, a character can attack diagonally and one space away vertically or horizontally.  But even that’s excluding certain tomes and longbows.

The weapons are given further depth with their rock paper scissors advantage system.  Spears work better against swords, swords work better against axes, and axes work better against lances.  Magic has a somewhat more complicated advantage system to consider too.

Then there are even more statistics entering a battle.  When you’re about to choose your target, the game tells you the chance you have of hitting them, the damage the attack will do if it does hit, and the chance of a triple-damage critical hit.  Those stats can get an even bigger boost if you use weapons specialized for fighting specific units or weapons, like armorslayers or lancereavers.

It might seem like a very complicated game, but once you get into the mentality of it, it’s only about as complicated as a JRPG like Final Fantasy, just in a different way.  The limited number of characters you’re allowed to take into each battle (usually 11 at the most) prevents annoying micromanaging.  All of The Sacred Stones’ variety and rules make for a very flexible game system that gives many different ways to approach a situation.

“Do I use the super powerful weapon on this relatively weak enemy even though the weapon has limited uses?  What if I let my powerful unit weaken the enemy and then have a weaker one finish it off for more experience?  Do I retreat this unit to save him or finish this annoying monster off now?”

Granted, a strategy that you can usually fall back on is to simply throw Seth at whatever the problem is.  Seriously, Seth, the paladin you start out with, is the single most powerful and invincible mega-unit in the entire game.  When an army of horseback knights headed in the direction of my units, Seth went back and killed them all.  When there was a boss that could one-shot a unit, Seth one-shot him first.  When my valuable units kept dying, I rethought my strategy and just sent Seth and a couple of other cavaliers so that Seth could take the brunt of the onslaught…. And live.  He’s like the Ralf Jones of Fire Emblem!  The only reason you’d ever not want to use Seth is so that you can let your weaker units kill enemies instead and level up.

I never did this.  Seth is my backup nuke.
But having an easy option to reduce frustration is always appreciated, especially in a game like Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones.  I’ve heard it’s one of the easier games in the Fire Emblem franchise, but if that’s the case, I’m now scared of the other games.  The Sacred Stones is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played.  It could be because I’m not a strategy buff, but I think it’s more because of the unbelievably spiteful AI!

Where did Grado get these brain-dead crack whores?  Every enemy unit only has one strategy somewhere along the lines of “fuck you player!”  They do not fight against the characters that are trying to stop them, they fight against you, whether itmakes any logical sense or not.

They will always attack your lord (Ephraim or Eirika) if they can.  If they can’t, they’ll attack your healer.  If there’s no healer within their range, then they’ll pick on your weakest unit and only your weakest unit on the off-chance they might be able to kill it in one turn.  They don’t care if they go around your front line and into the heart of your team where they’ll immediately be killed in the next turn!  They just want to at least damage your healer as much as they possibly can!  They don’t care if attacking your lord has a 3% chance of hitting!  They might get lucky and damage him/her by one point!  They go strictly out of their way just the piss the player off, which works when you have to restart the entire mission all over again just because they got one lucky shot on a valuable unit!

It’s practically inevitable that you’re going to lose units.  It’s almost impossible not to.  In fact, playing through Fire Emblem without losing a single unit was nominated for Nintendo Power’s “Harder Than College” award (it lost to The Pit of 100 Trials in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door).  There are enough recruitable units in the game to make losing a handful of them not too big a deal, but if you don’t have at least two characters that can use healing staves on hand, you’re screwed!

I understand that the game should be challenging, but in The Sacred Stones, if you make one wrong move, you’ve probably lost, and that comes off as punishing, which is never a good thing.  I would at least like a get-out-of-screw-up-free card that would let me go back in time a couple of turns at least once.

Regardless, the game was much easier my second time around, and it may not be the last.  There are several factors that will keep you coming back for more.  Most prominently is a fork in the game’s story, where Ephraim and Eirika go their separate ways and you have to choose which of the two to follow.  Not only are there plot points not shown in the other’s story, but the story afterwards also changes depending on which one you chose.

You can’t forget the strategic choices you’re given either.  There are many different ways the story can play out.  If you lost someone in your first playthrough, try to make it a point to keep them alive in the second, and if you upgraded someone to one class the first time, try the other class.
It’s also motivational to go back and try to see more support conversations.  Once you beat the game, you unlock a gallery of every support conversation between characters you’ve seen.  Since it’s impossible to get them all in one run due to the limit on them, playing through the game again gives you another goal to achieve on the side.

On top of that, there are more Easter eggs here and there you may miss initially, like conversations between characters right before they fight to give it more meaning.

That’s not even going into the other extra mode you unlock at completion, in which you can take on even greater challenges and recruit some of the bosses into your party.

And I will play through it again someday.  Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, while frustrating at times, was memorable and fresh change from the games I usually play.  I would love to experience more epic fantasy tales like this from the rest of the Fire Emblem games.  The first step though, is finding copies, and that may be even more difficult than the games themselves.

I give Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones a solid 7 out of 10.

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