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   Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones - Staff Review  

A Worthy Followup
by Bryan Boulette

BATTLE SYSTEM
INTERACTION
ORIGINALITY
STORY
MUSIC & SOUND
VISUALS
CHALLENGE
Somewhat Difficult
COMPLETION TIME
30 Hours
OVERALL

4.0/5

Rating definitions 

   Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones tells of a world where the various kingdoms have long been in a state of peaceful cooperation and friendship. All of that changes suddenly and unexpectedly when the Grado Empire invades its northeastern neighbor, the Kingdom of Renais. Renais responds by mounting a strong defense, led by Crown Prince Ephraim, who leads a small party of the kingdom's most elite knights on a sortie into Imperial territory while the king defends the homeland. Renais is heartened by the trickle of news from the Empire about Prince Ephraim's successes.

   However, as the war drags on, the Imperial forces prove too strong to hold back, and Renais' defenses crumble, while news of Ephraim stops coming. The castle falls, and the king orders his top general, Seth, to flee the castle with Princess Eirika to seek reinforcements from Renais' allies. So begins Eirika's quest, with the princess guided by her determination to save her kingdom and her desire to uncover the mystery behind the Empire's sudden attack. All the while, she wonders about her missing brother, lost within the lands of their enemy.

Now with Added Monsters Now with Added Monsters

   Fire Emblem: TSS is the follow-up to the very successful Gameboy Advance strategy RPG, Fire Emblem. It's only the second game bearing the name to reach American shores, but it's actually the eighth entry in the long-running series which began on the NES. With eight titles and counting, Japanese gamers have clearly come to know and love the difficult series, but how does it fare in its second American appearance? Quite well, actually, even if it lacks the landmark impact of the first game's release.

   The Sacred Stones plays out very similarly to Fire Emblem -- this is a series, like Dragon Quest, that sticks to what has worked for it time and again, with developer Intelligent Systems eschewing dramatic changes in style or gameplay in favor of only slight refinements between installments. Therefore, any fan of the original who is expecting radically new gameplay will likely be disappointed. Those who liked the first should expect more of the same charming characters and challenging strategic gameplay in the second, because the core gameplay and style is identical. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; it can be very enjoyable seeing the same gameplay revisited with a new story and characters.

   For those unfamiliar with the gameplay, it will play out in a formulaic and linear manner throughout the game. Each chapter of the game opens with a cutscene involving further unfolding of the story, and possibly involving the introduction of new characters. Following that, a battle engages, after which another cutscene will occur to resolve the previous one, thus closing out the chapter. One new addition, though, is that of a world map, breaking the linearity up to some degree. This map, though a nice addition, rarely adds real choices to the player: its primary purpose is to allow for additional enemy encounters, the revisiting of shops, and two optional side dungeons.

The Light of DOOM The Light of DOOM

   The battles take up the most part of Fire Emblem: TSS, and they are a large affair -- battle maps are big, and about thirteen heroes can be deployed on average, often with upwards of twenty-five enemies. Before battle, the player will have the chance to manage his or her inventory, review the upcoming battle's map, choose which characters to deploy, and arrange them on the field of battle. Once this management section is done, the battles will take place in two phases, the player and enemy phase. During the player phase, characters can move across the map, using items and attacking enemies. Once all allied units have moved, the enemy gets its turn. It's very traditional SRPG fare, but it's excellently handled, nonetheless thanks to the fast speed, smooth menu interface, and heavy strategic elements.

   These battles are difficult, which it's worth stating up front. The game's enemy AI is among the best, both brutal and unforgiving, as enemy units will always go for the weakest link in a player army -- a critically weakened or poorly defended unit, for instance, will make for the perfect target and it's very easy for such a character to be killed by a single strike if the enemy has the proper weapon or stats. The game auto-saves at the start of each character's turn, so there's no way to make periodic saves in the middle of a battle and return to those if things go badly.

   The most important aspect of this difficulty, though, is the lack of resurrection spells or items: when a character dies in Fire Emblem, he or she is removed from the game entirely. While in a poorer game this would serve only as a severe frustration, in Fire Emblem: TSS it comes across merely as a challenge; while the player may be inclined to get annoyed when a character dies, almost always due to a strategic error on the player's par, the pick-up-and-play, approachable nature of the game instead encourages him or her to start right back over again, determined to get it right on the second try. It's a fine line to walk, being challenging without overly frustrating, but Fire Emblem manages to walk it adeptly. The difficulty, however, will not appeal to everyone, so bear it in mind.

   But that leads to one of Fire Emblem: TSS' flaws: it's much easier than its predecessor. The addition of optional dungeons and the ability to go back to old maps and fight new battles both result in a marked decrease in difficulty as they allow the player to level-build above most challenges. Still, the game is a step above most SRPGs in difficulty due to the fact that characters can be permanently lost.

   Class is very important here. Each character has an assigned class, including all of the old favorites like knight, cavalier, mage, and cleric with rarer choices such as pegasus knight, wyvern knight, and shaman. The class determines a character's mode of attack and stat growth. Upon reaching a given level, the character can be promoted to a higher, better, and more flexible class. Here is where Fire Emblem: TSS introduces one of the better changes from Fire Emblem, allowing each character to promote to one of two classes. This means a whole host of new classes have been added that weren't in the previous game. The promotional choices also allow the player a greater degree of control over the shape his army will take, which makes things even more fun.

   The game offers a bare-bones, character-driven story, similar to its predecessor. None of the truly shocking plot twists, novel-like depth, or philosophical, religious, and political intrigue, all of which have become modern-day staples of most SRPGs, features into this game. Fire Emblem instead provides a simplistic but engaging standard fantasy tale. The twists aren't suspenseful and the intrigue isn't deep, and there are more than a few clichés present.

   Nevertheless, the story manages to be fun and charming due to its emphasis on character; Fire Emblem never went the route of Quest-styled SRPGs in assigning an army full of generic characters. Instead, every joinable character in the game, with over thirty in total, has their own appearance, personality, and history. Character interaction is also a plus, here. Certain characters can, in they repeatedly fight side-by-side throughout the game, further their relationships with one another by unlocking support conversations.

   These support conversations lead to more background on a given character, reveal more of his or her personality, and it can even see two characters falling in love. These conversations go a long way toward developing the characterization and story sub-plots in the game, while helping the player form a bond with his or her decidedly non-generic army. It also adds further incentive to keep all characters alive -- it's a non-event if some generic character dies, but put a name, face, and entertaining personality in place, and it becomes much more serious. The support conversations are also a nice reason to replay the game, since it's impossible to unlock all of them in one playthrough.

   Another replayability factor is the ability to play through the game as one of either of the two main characters, Princess Eirika or Prince Ephraim. The previous Fire Emblem did this to great effect, and it takes on an even greater role this time. Vast chunks of the game's story will be changed depending on the main character, as the two embark on very different quests -- different enemies will be fought, different locales explored, and different plots evolved. Eirika and Ephraim also have entirely distinctive playing styles, with the prince functioning as a speedy walking cavalier, while the princess emphasizes agility and critical hits.

   Graphically, Fire Emblem: TSS is a mixed bag. Cutscenes are very well done, with illustrated backgrounds and character portraits. These are artistic and pretty, depicted well graphically. But the battles are the most important part, since they take up the bulk of the game. The overhead maps look good, and it's always easy to pick out the different terrain types. The sprites moved across the map, however, look poor: they're indistinct, not animated very well, and they're much smaller than they probably could be.

   The in-battle cutscenes fare better. Whenever any action is taken in battle, such as a character attacking, using an item, or casting a magic spell, the game switches to a close up view showing the action play out. These cutscenes are very well illustrated, looking much better than the overhead map action. Further, the sprites' battle animations are top notch. The player will see horses snorting, swords swinging, and lightning striking, all depicted in beautiful 2D. Critical hits and certain spell effects, in particular, look simply outstanding, and there's a high level of detail all around. It makes the player wish the developers took more care with the overhead part of the battles.

   The music of Fire Emblem: TSS is composed by mainstay Yuka Tsujiyoko, who's been with the series since its inception, with assists from a team of protege composers. Because of that, it has a similar feel to the music from Fire Emblem, with many themes being reused in sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle ways. Most of the songs are meant to be rousing, militaristic marches. It's exactly the sort of music ideal for long, epic battles, and the songs are catchy and fun. They're rarely moving and emotional, though, and they're not songs likely to prompt someone to rush out and buy a soundtrack. They have a job -- background to get the player excited during battles -- and they do that job well, without aspiring to more.

   In the end, everything comes together well, with even the game's weakest elements being only average, and the better elements being much more than that. Intelligent Systems has had a long time to get this series right, and by focusing on refinements rather than big changes, they ensure that each entry is a solid and worthwhile experience with fun, tried-and-true gameplay. Consider this a very worthwhile game to play.

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