It's tempting to say that Fire Emblem is in the tradition of games like Shining Force, but us roundeye gamers have to remember that Fire Emblem actually began that tradition in Japan, predating all similar sorts of hybrid strategy-RPG games. Though the series had been going strong over there since the days of the NES, this title (the seventh in the series) is the first translated and released anywhere else in the world. This one was designed specifically to bring in a new audience, so no previous knowledge of the plots of the other games or the gameplay mechanics are necessary to jump right into this one.
The game is a series of about thirty-five battles (including some optional hidden side maps) in which you manage a small army against usually larger forces. Fire Emblem is tilted a bit more towards the strategy than the RPG aspect - there's no overworld map, towns, and so forth, it's just a straight series of battles comparable to Advance Wars (which was created by the same design team at Nintendo). The first ten battles are a sort of introductory mode, as you follow the story of an appealing young nomad woman named Lyn who discovers she is heir to a throne (and also discovers various bandits and assassins have been paid to keep her from reaching it). Each battle in Lyn's quest introduces you gently to new play mechanics and provides a means for those not accustomed to strategy-RPGs to get to grips with the gameplay. The final twenty-five maps of the game are played with the less interesting tandem of two new main characters, Eliwood and Hector (though Lyn and her companions gradually rejoin your army as you go).
The story leans heavily on some old fantasy RPG cliches (particularly towards the end of the game), but the dialouge and quality of the translation are a marked notch above most games of this sort. Despite being focused on tactical battles, the game is very text-heavy. The story is advanced in between fights with a series of "talking head" cutscenes which can get a bit tedious at times, but they can nearly all be skipped by hitting the start button.
The gameplay will be very familiar to anyone previously experienced with turn-based strategy, but there are some unique qualities. The most notable is that when characters are killed in battle, they're gone for good. Those killed in Lyn's campaign will return for Eliwood/Hector's, but anyone killed beyond the first ten maps is dead for reals. Some of the other Fire Emblem games had at least some limited means of reviving maybe one or two dead guys; this one has absolutely nothing at all, it's cold as ice. If you lose Lyn, Eliwood or Hector the game is over. Each map lets you field between ten to fifteen characters, and over time you can expand your overall roster to around forty. Some characters are given to you automatically between maps, some are earned by meeting certain requirements on a map, and some must be plucked from the enemy ranks by having the right person from your team go up and talk to them. There's very little dead weight amongst the characters, very few that are just abjectly useless, though some are definetly far stronger than others and can make the game a romp if you abuse them. Each map has only a finite amount of enemies (with only one exception at the very end of the game), so it's impossible to build every character in your army up - you more or less have to pick a core team and develop them to have them in shape for the final fights. Additionaly, characters can level up to 20 maximum, and after level 10 they can be promoted to a more advanced class (which drops them back to level 1 again), but promotions require a special item and there are not enough items in the game to promote everyone.
There's quite a bit more depth to be found here than in many other strategy-RPGs. The core gameplay is fundamentally the same - you have melee units that attack with swords, axes and lances, magic users, healers and archers. In the world of Fire Emblem, swords get an advantage when attacking axes, axes get a bonus against lances, and lances trump swords. Archers get a major bonus against flying units, but are usually low in physical defense and cannot counterattack a melee unit. Flying units have no terrain restrictions and are resistant to magic but are usually low defense and can often be killed in one shot by an archer. Magic users have their own little triangle of effectiveness with Light, Dark and Anima magic. Characters have an element assigned to them, but damned if I ever noticed it doing anything (you choose an element for yourself at the beginning, I think characters of the same element might get a little bonus, otherwise I don't know what the effect is). There's quite a range of character classes with a mix of abilities and weaknesses - horsemen, swordsmen, barbarians, pirates, thieves, assassins, archers, mounted archers, clerics, mages, bards, dancers, pegasus knights, wyvern riders and that's not even mentioning the promoted classes. A character with high speed and using a lightweight weapon might get two or even four hits to an enemy's one, and the stronger burlier characters can "rescue" the weaker ones (pick them up and protect them from damage). Certain characters may develop relationships over time if they end their turns next to each other often enough, and develop a "support level" which grants them bonuses when adjacent on the field.
As mentioned there are no towns or such in this one. There are weapon and item shops, which are accessed on the fly in certain maps. Gold just sort of comes into your hands, I guess for killing enemy units or completing maps, also there are treasure chests on many maps that hold large sums and gems that you can sell. There's also an Arena in about three of the maps, in which you make a bet of around 600-800 gold and then fight a random battle. Sometimes you encounter houses and such, the occupants of which also may give you gold or treasures if you get to them before some pirate trashes their house.
The map graphics are very basic, but the character portraits are nice and you get some rather good still-frame art here and there during the between-mission cutscenes. The battle scenes have a lot of style and there's some impressive special effects by GBA standards. Overall the game looks very nice and it's colorful, clean visuals are a big part of it's appeal. I would describe the music as "serviceable". There's nothing in here that I found memorable or wanted to rip to my mp3 player. However, it isn't bad. An Ogre Battle-caliber score would have been a nice touch, but as it stands it takes nothing away from the game and is frequently fairly pleasant.
In spite of a cheesy final battle and possibly the most dull and long-winded ending I've encountered since Actraiser, the game on the whole is pretty satisfying. Once you've finished it, a Hard Mode opens up, as well as a sort of retelling of the main quest called Hector Mode that makes Hector the main character, adds some new maps and characters, and changes up some of the dialouge a bit. Between the hidden characters, promotions and support conversations there's quite a bit to replay for - this strikes me as being a decent choice for being stuck on the proverbial desert island. The game's smooth presentation and gameplay make it accessible to mainstream gamers, but there's plenty enough depth for the more hardcore. And unlike it's cousin Advance Wars, you've got freedom to develop your own strategies rather than trying to deduce what narrow series of moves you need to make to get through. Pretty good one Nintendo, thanks for finally translating one of these.
Fire Emblem vs Materazzi