Fire Emblem Review

Fire Emblem couples a compelling, character-driven epic tale with strategic gameplay that is accessible and still manages to be challenging and satisfying.

The first exposure many English-speaking players got to the storied Fire Emblem series was via two unlockable characters--Marth and Roy--in Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube. Their presence in that game may have baffled those of us outside of Japan who had never played the NES and Super NES strategy RPGs, but the inclusion of the two swordsmen alongside other classic characters, like Samus and Mario, hinted at the series' great popularity. This installment of Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance is the latest work of Intelligent Systems, a development house primarily known on these shores for its highly acclaimed Advance Wars games, and it's both the first English-language release and the seventh game in the series. Maybe we'll never know why it's taken so long for us to see a Fire Emblem game, but it turns out to have been well worth the wait; this is a deep, story-rich strategy saga that shouldn't be missed by fans of the genre willing to give up some freedom or console role-playing fans interested in trying something new.

Your persona in Fire Emblem is that of an apprentice tactician, which is just a simple vehicle for giving you a reason to control the action. While the characters in the game will every so often speak to you directly, your role is simply to guide the allies in battle and sit to the side otherwise. The battle system is introduced via a tutorial system that's integrated into the gameplay of the first few chapters, with the characters aiding you and illustrating tactics as you go. In fact, the first 10 chapters of the game can be considered your training grounds, as the battles are typically very simple, and you're given lots of opportunity to practice strategies that become vital as you progress.

The battles are typical turn-based fare, with you directing an ally to an enemy and choosing a form of attack, though unlike in other strategy games, there's no tactical advantage to approaching enemies from the back or side. For melee attacks, there's a weapon triangle that's a rock-paper-scissors way of determining which weapon does more damage: Swords are best against axes, axes are best against lances, and lances are best against swords. There's also a trinity of magic that works the same way with anima, light, and dark magics. Those are the basics, but once you're out on the field, any rule is fair game to be broken, and once you select a foe to attack, you can see your chance to hit, the amount of damage, the probability of a counterattack, and the amount of counterdamage the enemy might do through a confirmation screen. You still won't necessarily want to put flying units like wyvern riders and pegasus knights in the way of archers or mages, but sufficiently leveled characters, particularly by the end of the game, will generally have no trouble wiping the floor with enemy units despite using a "weaker" weapon. Terrain can also be used to your advantage by placing your allies in forests or mountains where they're harder to hit; while there aren't many weather effects in the game, rain and snow do sometimes fall and restrict movement for all units, making it important to move swiftly when you are able. Your objectives for victory are varied and range from defeating the strongest enemy unit and seizing a fortress, to wiping out all enemies, to protecting a single character, to just trying to survive for a set number of turns. While things start out easy enough, the difficulty slowly but surely ramps itself up, and there's plenty of challenge waiting.

There are lots of character classes in the game, but you won't be spending any time creating units; each character is an individual who joins your cause for his or her own reasons. Some units come already as loyal protectors, some you will meet fighting a common foe, and some characters can be convinced to join the fight by having a certain someone walk up and talk to them. All of this generally happens on the battlefield, but no matter what else is going on, it's to your advantage to check out any villages or houses that might dot the landscape. You'll need as many friends as you can muster, and there are a variety of knights, assassins, swordsmen, mages, thieves, healers, pirates, archers, and others walking around or waiting to be found. All are useful, and most are necessary to complete your quest. In addition, characters in the basic character classes can--upon reaching level 10 and with a specific item--upgrade to a more powerful profession, which changes their physical appearance and also often gives them the ability to use new weapons and magic. More power is a good thing, because you don't want to lose any of your units; if characters fall on the battlefield, they're gone, permanently. Only the fall of a main character will cause the end of your game, but if you lose an ally, your pool of available fighters decreases, and you lose a friend.

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