Sunday, September 30, 2012

GOT 'IM - Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi

This entry is a game that I *technically* finished several years ago, but without unlocking enough secrets to see the real ending.  That simply wouldn't do, so 6 years later I decided to remedy that.  Today's review: Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi.

"Fuuin no Tsurugi" translates as "Sword of Seals" and it's the sixth game in the Fire Emblem series. Thus, I'll refer to the game as FE6 or SoS from now on.  Got it?  Great. Well, I hate to do this, but I gotta give a personal Fire Emblem history, because I was damn-near obsessed with FE for a period of around two years (neighborhood of mid 2005 to mid 2007).  I played the first official English-language Fire Emblem (Rekka no Ken aka FE7 aka "Fire Emblem") when I was looking for a new GBA game, and it blew me away.  Fueled by my newfound fandom, I played and (mostly) beat FE4, FE6, and FE8 in that time period in addition to more FE7.  I ended up replaying that bitch something like five or six times.I ended up *trying* to play every FE game from 1 to 9, but was derailed by bad translations (2,3), high difficulty (1,5), and college (9).

Fire Emblem had zero presence in the United States until Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube.   Melee featured two FE characters (Marth from FE1 and its remakes plus Roy from the upcoming FE6) who ended up being well-liked among worldwide fans, despite being from Japan-only titles.  With this exposure, Nintendo decided to take a chance and release FE7 worldwide, and since then have put out every Fire Emblem game from 7 through 11 in the United States, but they'll be skipping 12 and releasing 13 early next year.  FE7 is a prequel to FE6, so a large number of plot references and cameo characters in FE7 were lost to American audiences (including me at first). 

When I heard that I could play FE6 on an emulator six years ago, I did so and beat it.  Well, I did and didn't.  FE6 has a "bad ending" and "true ending", but I wasn't aware the first time I played it.  To unlock the "true ending" you have to play through all six secret chapters, which are unlocked by fulfilling certain conditions in regular chapters (either beating the chapter in X number of turns or having a certain character survive the chapter) and have all of the secret chapter rewards intact at the final mission.  I ended up missing out on two or three of those secret chapters, so when I finished FE6 all those years ago, it was an abrupt, uninformative ending that left me disappointed.  When I learned of the multiple endings, I got frustrated and didn't feel like devoting even more time to re-conquering a game that was a pretty significant time investment to begin with.  I decided to rectify that earlier this month when some Fire Emblem news renewed my interest in the series.

So let's talk about SoS, and I guess Fire Emblem's gameplay in general.  Fire Emblem is an extremely traditional series that has adhered strictly to its basic gameplay, storytelling, and aesthetic over the years - it's the Dragon Quest of strategy RPGs.  What's true about FE6 is also true for nearly every Fire Emblem game.  So anyhow, FE6 is a strategy RPG that takes place on maps divided by squares in a grid.  Each square contains a terrain type and can be occupied by a single unit at a time.  You maneuver a team of units over terrain, defeating enemy armies and completing objectives using 8 to 20 units at a time (the typical number is around 12 or 13 by the midgame).  Over the course of the game, you recruit dozens of units in a variety of ways (not always obvious ways), each of whom belongs to a particular class. These classes haven't really changed much since the original Fire Emblem for the NES. 

Every FE game has at least 30 units and at least 15 classes.  Again, since FE is steeped in tradition, every main character is of the Lord class (Roy in FE6), and certain character archetypes appear in just about every FE game (my favorite is the Navarre archetype, which is occupied by the characters of Rutger and Fir in FE6).  Which characters you recruit and ultimately use is extremely important in designing your team and ultimately succeeding in any FE game, as there is usually limited experience points and levels to go around - you can't use every unit, and if you waste time working on units that ultimately suck, then you're in trouble.  Fire Emblem is not a freewheeling, customization-heavy strategy RPG in the same class as Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics.

The gameplay of FE6 can be frustrating at times, but it's heavily strategy and ultimately rewarding.  FE6 uses a basic rock-paper-scissors approach to unit effectiveness (swords > axes, axes > lances, lances > swords, plus a similar system in place for magic), with everything governed by seven unit stats that gain with each level (plus a few stats that don't increase with level, like movement and constitution).  Every time a unit levels up (by gaining 100 exp), each of their stats has a chance to increase.  Sure, each unit has inherent "growth rates," but nothing is absolute.

For example, a hard-hitting but slow-moving armor knight unit might have an 80% chance of gaining HP at a given level, 50% for STR, and 50% for DEF (these are high numbers, trust me), but only 25% for SPD and SKL.  Since players are at the mercy of FE6's random number generator, that tank unit could hit a rush of bad luck and have crappy STR, DEF, and SPD for the endgame, or the opposite could be true and that tank could have a high SPD rating that defies his typical build.  For the record, SPD is the speed stat, which gets my vote for most important stat in the game - if one of my units gets underwhelming SPD, chances are I'm dropping him/her. 

So FE6 is a chess-like strategy game with lots of units whose potential are determined by randomly-generated numbers.  Sound frustrating?  Sure is!  Fire Emblem is rewarding in that it rewards careful planning and strategy, but it can also be unfair to an extreme.  When I was planning out what units to use, I had originally planned to make Rutger one of my main sword units, but his lack of STR (strength, i.e. damage) was pitiful after several levels - I ended up making Dieck (a mercenary with balanced stats) and Fir (a swordfighter like Rutger with high SPD) my major swords instead, though I hadn't planned on using either of them for the endgame originally.  Add in a tendency to have enemy reinforcements come in at the wrong times and the permanent death of characters (!), and I had to restart chapters and use save-states for major battles a couple of times.

Oh, right, perma-death.  When a Fire Emblem unit dies, they're gone.  Permanently.  If a major story unit dies (pretty much only Roy), then it's game over.  You can normally save your game only between chapters, but sometimes if I was worried a unit might not survive, I would use a save-state in my emulator to make it through.  I don't normally need to use save states for emulated games, but I feel that it's warranted this time.  I never heavily abused them (like saving before every level-up or something), but if I was worried about the death of one of my favorites, I would save-state so as not to permanently screw up. 

It's funny - these stat changes make every playthrough of most FE games different each time.  I've played through FE7 several times, and each time certain units have stood out or underwhelmed or what have you, but I never use the exact same combination of units twice.  Sure, Hector, Lyn, and Oswin are always great, but I think I've used different mounted units with each FE7 run.  But back to FE6 - my Roy turned out pretty good, thank goodness, but my surprise MVP was Miledy (a dragon knight).  Miledy ended up maxing her limits for STR, SKL, SPD, and DEF while nearly doing so for HP.  She was my best lance user, my best physical tank, and a flying unit with high movement and decent constitution to boot!  If you couldn't already tell, that is pretty good.  The RNG gods were extremely kind to my Miledy, but absolutely weren't to my Rutger (mentioned him earlier) or my Geese (an axe-wielding pirate who ended up below-average in every stat other than HP).

My team ended up pretty good, being about half-infantry and half-cavalry with a good diversity of every weapon type EXCEPT magic.  I had two very good mages (elemental magic), but zero useful monks or shamans (light and dark magic, respectively).  Not many good options for light or dark in FE6. For the record, my team for the final mission was Roy, Lilina, Gonzales, Dieck, Thany, Fir, Shin, Lugh, Miledy, and Fae.  If you eventually decide to play this game, those characters range from good but with unstable stat growths (Lilina, Thany, Gonzales) to really good in general (Lugh, Dieck, Miledy).  Other characters I liked to use but didn't make the final cut were Lance, Alan, Tate, and Percival.  Rutger and Geese are decent, but I had bad luck with them.  The one character I wanted to try out but ultimately decided against training was Zeiss, who simply joins too late. 

So that's a lot of FE jargon piled into a few paragraphs.  To recap: grid-based strategy RPG, lots of characters, randomly-increasing stats, unforgiving, above-average difficulty, Japan-only GBA game with an English fan-translation patch. The story to FE6 concerns six nations that had been living in peace for some time, until the aggressive king Zephidel mobilizes Bern's army and begins taking over territory in four of the five other nations.  This eventually gets to the young lord Roy, the heir to a vassal state in the kingdom of Lycia, gathering warriors from all six nations plus a seventh hidden tribe to stop Bern from conquering the world.  Eventually dragons and seven mystical dragon-slaying weapons feature prominently, but basically this is a normal RPG story with a large cast.

The cast, while large, doesn't get a lot of personality unless you put in some hard time.  Each playable character has a nice, large dialog sprite and has some nice dialog when they join, but chances are only Roy and a few other characters will have persistent dialog in story scenes. You can, however, unlock extra dialog by pairing compatible characters next to each other often in battle, which provides stat bonuses to both characters and additional insight into the characters themselves.  These dialog chunks are  called "supports" and are another recurring element of the Fire Emblem formula.

Fire Emblem's audio and visuals are pretty simplistic and colorful, but not unattractive.  Sprites are smallish and pixelated on maps, but when two units fight one another you get larger, better-animated scenes.  FE6's visuals don't look as good as those in FE7 or FE8 (which are also on the GBA, but more refined than FE6), but they're decent.  Audio is fair for a GBA game, but a few recurring tunes could get annoying.  Nothing really stands out.

OK, time to cut the crap and draw some conclusions.  Fire Emblem games are pretty challenging in general, and FE6 is a benchmark among them. More challenging than FE4, 7, 8, 9.  Easier than FE1, 3, 5, 10.  I haven't played 2 or 11 so I won't judge.  Fire Emblem games in general are unforgiving strategy games will solid RPG mechanics in place, but ultimately a random number generator plays a major role.  I thought Sword of Seals was entertaining overall, with a large cast of appealing characters, but I feel that it's unbalanced compared to its prequel and a little dated visually (remember, it's a 2002 GBA game).  I don't think FE6 is a good Fire Emblem game for newcomers, but if you know what you're getting into and want to dive in, then Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi is a solid strategy RPG.  

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi

Targets: 7/12


 You readers (you guys really do exist, right?) are probably used to hearing this, but I'm behind on my gaming goals as per usual.  Right now Torchlight II is dominating my game time, but I plan to start up Rogue Galaxy very soon.  Like, October.  

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