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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones; the perfect preview for Fire Emblem 3DS

We have a Fire Emblem game coming to the 3DS next year to continue one of Nintendo’s smaller franchises into the new generation of handheld gaming. It’s a franchise that we’ve only had limited exposure to in the West, and we have Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, the free game for 3DS ambassadors, to be thankful for for any exposure whatsoever.

The Sacred Stones, and the Game Boy Advance game called “Fire Emblem” before it (though it wasn’t actually the first Fire Emblem at all, it was the first to get a English translation) were both commercially successful enough to see GameCube and Wii Fire Emblem titles also translated into English, as well as a remake of the original NES game for the DS. Given how similar the games are to one another, we can expect that the 3DS title won’t rock the boat too much, so ambassadors are in effect getting a free preview of what to expect next year, if they haven’t played a Fire Emblem title before.

So what defines this series? It’s quite simple: it’s difficult. The games play out a little like other turn-based strategy RPGs (such as Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics): There’s a map split into grid paper-like squares. By moving your units around and attacking enemies, you set about achieving a major objective in each mission (usually killing a leader or capturing a castle), with your units earning experience and leveling up in the process.

Each unit has his/ her own special ability, and Fire Emblem has representation from just about every fantasy type you can imagine. From the standard horsemen, archers and axe warriors through to the more exotic magicians, wyvern riders and Pegasus knights, they’re all available to build a dream team out of.

The catch is that units can die. Run out of hit points and a unit (all uniquely named characters) dies and is removed from the game permanently. On top of that, you’re limited in the number of units you can take into each battle. So, if you’re not careful in making sure the right units get the lion’s share of experience, and protecting your units, then it’s very possible to get yourself into a situation where the game becomes impossible.

That challenge is lessened somewhat in The Sacred Stones, which is unique amongst Fire Emblem games in that it features random encounters and replayable maps. Other Fire Emblem games offered no way to grind up a few levels for your units. And while this feature does make The Sacred Stones more accessible for people (we assume that’s why Nintendo selected this game as the Ambassador game and not the previous, far more hardcore, GBA game), it must be said that Fire Emblem purists will find this game a little to soft in approach.

It’s still compelling, though. Characters have real personality in Fire Emblem games, and while the story is generic and usually clichéd, the story writing is a cut above. This franchise is easily Nintendo’s most story heavy, and it’s so refined that it makes me wish Nintendo would invest in developing a “true” RPG series to complement it. Perhaps Monolith will fulfill that role in the future, as it’s off to a good start with Xenoblade Chronicles.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a new Fire Emblem game to play with. The Wii title, Radiant Dawn, was a while ago now, so giving us the opportunity to replay a Fire Emblem for free was a masterstroke by Nintendo for reminding us just how great this series is, just in time for what should be one of the best 3DS games to date when it hits next year. 
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones; the perfect preview for Fire Emblem 3DS
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