Some games you love to hate. Others you hate to love. For me, [i]Fire Emblem[/i] is the first and only game in my many years of gaming I’ve actually hated to hate.
This is a good game. I know it is. But something about it turns my mind away from it, to the point of requiring extreme willpower for me to turn on my GBA. But I’ll get to that later. First the good stuff.
If you’ve played either of the [i]Advance Wars[/i] games, then you’re already halfway home to knowing [i]Fire Emblem[/i]. The same team made both series, but where [i]Advance Wars[/i] put you in charge of a bunch of faceless, nameless, and essentially disposable (as long as you weren’t worried about your ranking) units, [i]Fire Emblem[/i] throws in some RPG qualities into the mix that make the battle much more personal, both literally and figuratively. By literally, I mean that you units have names; they’re not just units, they’re characters. The figurative part comes through your units’ growth and the progression of the story, with you (as the “tactical advisor” who is never actually on the battlefield) along for the ride. Another twist is the old rock-paper-scissors deal with both melee weapons and magical attacks; none of this is anything earth-shattering, obviously, but it does make the game fairly unique.
Like most tactical games, everything you do revolves around battles (I mean… duh). But [i]Fire Emblem[/i] takes that to an extreme: unlike just about every other tactical RPG I’ve played (which, admittedly, is only two: [i]FFTA[/i] and [i]Gladius[/i]; the [i]Advance Wars[/i] games aren’t technically RPGs), you at least have some down time in-between conflicts for shopping, chatting with the locals, and what-have-you. Not so in [i]Fire Emblem[/i]. Other than being able to outfit your troops with whatever items you might have handy, everything productive is done during battle. I thought this would be obnoxious — and it was — but only for the first few chapters; once you find Merlinus (the merchant) it becomes much less of an issue.
Everything that isn’t a battle or the pre-battle phase is a series of cut-scenes, the majority using large, blinking (meaning the eyes open and close, not as in “flickering”) cartoons of the characters and scrolling text boxes; the occasional sketch-like frame is thrown in for certain dramatic moments. There aren’t a lot of expressions, but it’s a nice change of pace from the usual thumbnail sprites we usually get from console RPG conversations. As an added bonus, the writing is well above average and the story is an interesting ride as it unfolds over the 30+ chapters you first have access to. The first 10 are the tutorial starring Lyn, and the next 21 are the meat of the story, starring Eliwood; beating Eliwood’s chapters unlocks Hector’s chapters, many of which run concurrent with Eliwood’s, as well as “hard” versions of all three. Several chapters also feature optional side-quests if you accomplish certain goals, so there’s a lot of content packed in this cartridge.
Graphically, the game has three main divisions: the aforementioned “cut scenes”, the spritely field map, and the actual battle graphics. The map graphics aren’t anything much, but they get the job done. The battle graphics, however, are spectacular (especially the criticals!); you have the option of turning some or all of them off, but unless you’re restarting the entire game to correct some haunting mistakes (it could happen…), I have no idea why anyone would want to do so.
The sounds are nothing special. The background music is nice, but as with most GBA games I tend to play with the sound off (or very low) so I can’t remember much of it. I do, however, remember the effects. The hits are solid, the magic effects grand, and the critcals have a little extra “oomph” that makes you feel it (when playing on the Game Boy Player, I could have sworn the rumble feture kicked in, but that may have just been my imagination).
Gameplay is every bit as simple as [i]Advance Wars[/i]: move your unit, select “attack”, and watch the result. Repeat until dead or objective reached. There are a few variations, like trading items and upgrading classes, but by and large nothing complicated. The other side to that coin is that the actual tactics are basically limited to the weapon/magic triangle and some defensive terrain effects; no facing, no elevation, no ganging up, and really no special abilities to speak of. Considering that these battles are literally the whole show, they probably could have been a little deeper. In later chapters it’s actually a better tactical move to not attack bosses on your own turns and instead rely on counterattacks following your opponent’s strikes to do your damage, on the basis that they get to counter attack each and every one of your swings, but they can only move once on their turn, freeing your turn up to heal the damage they inflicted to your one character. It may seem cheap, but there’s simply no other way to deal with them if you haven’t leveled up to near-godlike ability along the way and delayed your class changes as long as possible. However, while the tactics aren’t as tactical as I’d like them to be, they’re still a nice change of pace from the static turn-based combat of more traditional RPGs (which have other elements, like puzzle-filled dungeons, that [i]Fire Emblem[/i] does not); the gameplay itself, in theory, isn’t my main problem with the game.
Here’s my problem: once you pass Lyn’s tutorial chapters, any characters who fall in battle are dead. Gone. Indefinitely put on the sidelines. Unavailable. All that work you put into leveling them up? Pfft! Out the window. (Of course, this isn’t all that different from the series’s [i]Advance Wars[/i] bretheren, but then again… it is, since there’s no leveling in [i]AW[/i] at all.) And if Eliwood, Lyn, or Hector die, your game is over. In a world filled with pegasi, wyverns, and three or four different kinds of magic, apparently no one was able to discover any sort of revive spell. When you consider the fact that the story spans the clichA