Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: May 23, 2005
Buy 'FIRE EMBLEM: The Sacred Stones': GBA
For those of you who played the first Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance — it's actually the sixth or seventh game in the series, but hey, who's counting? – this is nothing new. They've added in random encounters for easy powerleveling, there's actually an overland map now so you can visit shops outside of combat, and there's a bit more variety when you're promoting characters. Other than that, this is more of the same.
If you skipped the last game, then you're in for a treat, kind of. Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is an addictive turn-based strategy game, initially set in the kingdom of Renais. For no readily apparent reason, the nearby kingdom of Grado has broken both tradition and treaty to launch a surprise attack on an unprepared Renais.
When the game begins, the capital city of Renais is about to fall to Grado's forces. Renais' king sends his daughter, Eirika, to safety in the kingdom of Frelia, accompanied by his best general, Seth. Eirika's goal is to find her brother, Prince Ephraim, and to somehow launch a counterattack against Grado. At the same time, Grado sends its best men into the countryside after Eirika, to recover a treasure that she doesn't know she has.
Initially, your crew consists of Eirika, Seth, and a few token soldiers. The further you get into the game, the more people you can recruit, either as part of the story or as a hidden feature in a given map. Each character has specific abilities that they bring to the table, from wielding certain weapons to providing movement advantages. Past that, if you've ever so much as seen someone play a turn-based strategy game, you'll find it easy to get used to this.
Like the last Fire Emblem, Sacred Stones isn't difficult so much as it has a very narrow margin for error. Anyone who gets attacked automatically receives at least one counterattack, and it's a rare character that has the hit points and defense to survive more than a couple of hits.
Most importantly, a character who dies in Fire Emblem stays dead for the duration. If you screw up and let a swordsman near one of your mages, or accidentally put a pegasus rider within reach of an archer, the character's out of action for the remainder of the game. This isn't like Disgaea, where a character will be fine after a bit of healing, or Advance Wars, where you can just churn out another unit. Fire Emblem plays for higher stakes than that.
This adds a certain element of risk and reward to Fire Emblem that not many games have. Even a minor skirmish has a decent chance of crippling your army, if the enemy soldiers manage to take out one of your better characters. You have to gauge every action you take, weighing the odds of success against the very real chance of someone dying or being crippled by an enemy's counterattack.
You get more than enough characters over the course of the game to allow you to eat a few losses, but at the same time, you can lose a character you've been building up for several hours to one lousy decision, or one bit of bad luck. It can be frustrating, but it's part of what gives the game its appeal; it plays for high stakes, so it requires far more tactical planning than most other strategy games.
It's not without its unfortunate side, though. As a side effect of Fire Emblem's lethal tendencies, one of the new features in Sacred Stones is practically worthless. You can find three characters over the course of the game who're raw, untested newbies. If you can keep them alive long enough, you can choose new jobs for them and develop them into some of the most powerful characters in your army.
That, however, is a big "if." Their low HP and defense means most of your enemies will make a beeline straight for them, since the enemy AI is apparently programmed to go for fatalities whenever possible. If you actually bring one of the newbies along for a fight, you're probably going to get him killed, and you're using up a character slot that could've gone to someone competent.
That kind of ties into my one real problem with Sacred Stones: its poor character balance. Some of your soldiers are dead men walking, like the aforementioned newbies, and must pick their fights carefully if they intend to survive a battle, while others are practically forces of nature. A single paladin with the right weapon could successfully solo an entire enemy force without much of a problem, while warriors or myrimidons tend to get their heads caved in at every turn, mages don't quite have the range they need to be truly effective, healers gain levels at a snail's pace, and pegasus riders live in fear of archers. It's great that you have such badasses on tap, but it cuts down on the fun factor a bit when an entire map's winning strategy boils down to using the paladin as a bug zapper.
This may seem like a really negative review so far, but you have to know what you're getting into. The Fire Emblem games aren't for everyone; only manic fans of strategy games or those with the patience of saints need apply. If either description applies to you, then you'll love this game; if neither does, then this game will drive you slowly mad. I'm just masochistic enough that I like Fire Emblem, but I can't pretend it's for everyone.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a great strategy game by any stretch of the imagination – I've been so busy playing it that I've found it hard to stop long enough to write this review – but it doesn't improve on certain crucial problems the last game had. If you can handle a strategy game that'll ruthlessly punish you for making even minor mistakes, pick this up the next chance you get.