As a kid fighting in the trenches during the Sega vs. Nintendo War, Shining Force was a potent weapon for the Sega legions. The only possible counter attack was mention Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, Japan’s first console strategy RPG. How I hated this series that I had never even seen. I took solace in knowing that only the most obsessed gamers knew of its existence; I did my best to block the name Fire Emblem from my mind.
Thank god that war is over. Having embraced all that video games have to offer, I can now play and love quality titles from all developers. Fire Emblem managed to come out with six entries before one was localized for the U.S. The particular one I’m reviewing now is number eight, Sacred Stones, but from what I have read little changes from game to game.
Sacred Stones, and I assume Fire Emblem as a whole, reminds me of Langrisser and Dark Wizard. The way battles look is Langrisser-esque, or even more accurately, Master of Monsters-esque, with the battle graphics being a 2D plane and the opponents exchanging blows one at a time. Something about Fire Emblem’s sterility reminds me of Dark Wizards massive grid battles, and the houses and towns that can be visited are similar in both games. Oddly enough, Sacred Stones doesn’t remind me very much of Shining Force. It does have charm and personality, but it doesn’t ooze with personality like a Shining title. Fire Emblem does strategy battles better though. A Shining game is an overall great experience while Sacred Stones is amazing combat minus nearly everything but some dialog.
And man can that amazing combat be difficult. I’ve read that Sacred Stones is possibly the easiest of all the Fire Emblems, but as someone who levels for hours then mows down enemies in most games, I found the difficulty quite taxing. Losing makes the game frustrating and can make you feel you’ve just lost an hour of your life. The game does not allow you to save in the traditional way. Anytime you continue it erases your save so unless you resort to a FAQ on how the rolls are determined (i.e.: cheating), saving and reloading after you’ve lost characters is useless.
But I didn’t mention why you’d want to reload after losing a character. Intelligent Systems decided that when a character dies, he dies. There is no inn, no church, and no phoenix down – just dead characters and a lot of swearing. Why not just level the hell out of your characters, then? Weapons in the series are all breakable and money isn’t always easy to come by. Most RPG’s will make an inn and whatever else you need to keep leveling cost a fragment of the income you make from the actual leveling. Fire Emblem is very stingy about the money it gives out. It’s usually about $0 a battle. This prevents you from leveling very much because of a fear you’ll break your weapons and then you’ll truly be fucked. A level 20 Lord does absolutely no damage to a zombie without a sword.
It’s a double edged coin, though. The difficulty also makes the game a lot of fun and very rewarding. Getting your ass handed to you if you don’t plan well forces you to play strategically. A lot of strategy RPG’s are light on the strategy, but not this one. There is a tension created that is both fun and nerve wracking by never feeling safe in a game. The original Phantasy Star did it as well as Saga Frontier (which sucked) and Sacred Stones does it. More games should do it but hard games just don’t sell as well.
The battles themselves stay lively because they are very dynamic. There are houses, stores, villages, and coliseums to visit whilst in battle. Waves of enemies come at you and new ones often spawn where you didn’t expect them, forcing you to stay defended from all angles lest a lanceman ride in and wreak havoc on your backline of archers and mages. Then there are characters who you can speak to and sometimes recruit mid battle, but only if you don’t accidentally kill them first. The battles can basically be reduced to Excel charts moving on a grid but they are never boring. I got a stronger sense of satisfaction from beating some of the more epic battles than I’ve gotten from most games in a long while.
Every weapon in the game, including spells in the forms of books, has a durability number that decreases every time it is used. This encourages you to maximize the damage you’ll do to enemies and minimize frivolous attacks. As mentioned, money is scarce in the game so the fragile weapons you have now may be the only ones you have for a few battles. Including durability is almost always a poor game design choice because most games use it only as a way to force the player to return to town constantly and spend money to keep gear in tip top shape. Because Fire Emblem implements durability universally and weapons cannot be repaired, it works. I didn’t get that nagging feeling that if I use this weapon now I’ll just need to travel 15 minutes away to a blacksmith to repair it. Instead, I just learned to accept that everything eventually breaks and the design was part of the game’s overall difficulty and stress on tactical play.
Sacred Stones is ultimately a game of probability. Your odds of hitting are extremely important, but your odds of dodging will dictate many of your moves as well. There are times you must attack with a character who will die if they are hit on the counter attack (which all characters and enemies get) but if you play the odds well you can make almost certain the retaliation will miss. Because each attack is followed by an immediate counter attack, you must be reserved and thoughtful. Arrogant and unplanned moves are severely punished in this game. Often a single false move will lead to a character’s permanent demise, which can lead to some frustration. You feel quite cheated when you thought you played the odds correctly but still get hit by an enemy with a 8% chance to land a blow.
The AI can be pretty vicious. They use units for suicide attacks quite often, as well. Killing an attacking enemy with a counterattack is often dangerous, yet you have no control over it. The AI will often send in an attacker that you manage to kill with one counter, and then send a second, then a third. The irony is that if your character sucked more and didn’t kill the enemy with a counter, then that space on the field would still be occupied. The persistent chipping away at your characters health by dying enemies who leave holes for others to fill is usually deadly.
When a character reaches high enough level and has a specific item, they can be promoted. Similar to a lot of RPGs, characters stop progressing and do not learn certain abilities if not promoted. Sacred Stones is different from past games in the Fire Emblem series because it adds class options to the promotion system. I’ve played enough of the Fire Emblems before Sacred Stones to know that this player choice adds a lot to the game.
The story line was decent but clichéd. If I recall, and I may not since I’m currently playing about five other RPG’s with clichéd story lines, you control both a brother and a sister of royal blood and must fight to save your kingdom and I assume the resurrection of some great evil (probably a dragon) that will be brought into the world by destroying the five (or so) seals (or emblems, orbs, crystals, etc). And I did actually finish this game. The story was told better than it deserved, perhaps. I enjoyed most of the dialog and sat through the long ending that explained what happens to all your characters even though my friend protested the whole time. (He argues that a plot in a strategy RPG is just completely unnecessary; he is an idiot.)
I find the character designs to be very pleasing. They are anime enough to be Japanese yet Western enough for a red-blooded, manly American like me. Most impressively, each character looks unique. Intelligent Systems has done a wonderful job with the few pixels they had to work with on a GBA cart and I actually think most 3D games character designs compare negatively to these. Notice, if you will, how nearly all characters in Japanese games have similar porcelain skin with no distinguishing features. Characters are told apart by one another by what they are wearing and if their breasts are enormous or disgustingly enormous. Not so in Fire Emblem, where faces are very distinguishable and actually have flaws and real features. Bravo.
The battle graphics and animations are pretty nice looking, but what the hell happened to the map graphics? I thought the GBA was basically a portable SNES, yet I can pull out my Nomad and see much better graphics. The newly released GameCube Fire Emblem also seems to be lacking in the visual department so we can assume Intelligent Systems just doesn’t put that much time/budget/effort into making their wonderful games look good.
The music was good overall but not up to par with the developers other strategy series Advance Wars, specifically Advance Wars 2. I’ve read some of the music has been recycled from previous Fire Emblem games, so if you’re a long time fan that may be a treat. My biggest complaint about the soundtrack is that it is so frequently interrupted. It doesn’t pay to really get into a tune because it will constantly be stopped with every enemy or player attack. I do like the battle music but then your character and the enemy exchange blows so quickly that you never hear more than 5 seconds into it, which is just where you can tell it starts rocking.
Besides having only around average production values, my other complaint about Sacred Stones is it feels too comfortable in its episodic nature. Some features and mechanics are so infrequently used you get the feeling Intelligent Systems designed them six games ago and just left them in ever since, whether or not you’ll really use them. Examples of this are the coliseum and the ability to carry other units. With only one or two coliseums in the entire game it feels like they only make sense if you zoom out and see it as ten or twenty coliseums in the Fire Emblem series. As for carrying other units, there are never any missions that make it mandatory so its inclusion in the mechanics is somewhat of a mystery. I can only theorize it was required to finish some mission three games ago or something and just hasn’t been removed.
Complaints aside, Sacred Stones is a completely awesome game. If you like strategy RPGs in the slightest you really should play this or one of the other Fire Emblem games. Since beating this one I have bought the first few of the series. Now I just need to buy a Famicom, learn Japanese, and I’ll be all set.
5 out of 5 Sacred Stones