FIRE EMBLEM 8 : THE SACRED STONES / Nintendo / Gameboy Advance
Fire Emblem : The Sacred Stones uses the exact same engine that its predecessor did, making it feel more like a sort of expansion pack than a sequel proper. That said, there are some very beneficial tweaks, and then there are some things that have been excised. All the changes are relatively minor, however, and the positives outweigh the negatives by a fair bit. So if you liked the previous one, odds are you'll like this just as much if not a bit more.
The plot involves yet another romp into Ye Olde High Fantaseye, seemingly unconnected to any of the previous games, with a bunch of impossibly pure and noble Lordlings fighting off the conveniently evil-for-evil's-sake demonic forces bent on mindless destruction and so on. The plot is riddled with cliche, the most egregious of which is the old "gather the crystals" warhorse indicated by the game's subtitle. To be frank I skipped a good chunk of the game's story and I found that to actually be a welcome feature. The nice painted still-frame art that occasionaly livened up the previous game's tedious plot progression is entirely gone from this one, leaving only the interminable "talking heads" spewing dialogue on the level of the writings of a high school aged Ren Fester (which, to be fair, is still a cut above the usual console fantasy RPG standard, which is that of an elementary school kid all hopped up on Dragon Ball Z).
What's new in this one consists mostly of touches taken from Final Fantasy Tactics and other Strategy RPGs that this series directly competes with. There's now an overworld map in which you can truck back and forth freely to and from previous locations, though there's really not much to do once you've cleared them - but you can revisit any shop at any time, making resupply of weaponry tremendously less of a chore. The game also periodically tosses out packs of monsters into the map that you can fight for extra EXP, if you care to. There's also two bonus dungeons that exist only for the purposes of level building and/or an extra challenge - the Tower of Valni, which becomes available a few maps into the game, and the Lagdou Ruins which opens up towards the very end.
This game seems to be much more liberal with promotion items than the previous one was, and all but a small handful of my team was able to be raised to their maximum capacity. Characters are now given a choice upon promotion - the classes they promoted to in the previous game are still available, but a new choice has also been added. As seen in the screenshot above, a Thief can still become an Assassin on promotion, or they can choose to be a Rogue (a class that can open any door or treasure chest without lockpicks or keys). Every other class has been given a similar new promotion option. You also get some new characters called Recruits, that are basically near-worthless Level 1 stumblebums upon arrival, but with care and attention can be raised into some of the most powerful characters in the game, having the overall capacity to gain 50 levels as opposed to everyone else's 40.
This game also features a whole suite of monsters as recurring enemies, as opposed to the entirely hominid cast of the previous. These are mostly undead creatures - zombies, skeletons, necro dragons and so on - with the occasional ogre, spider and wolf tossed in there for fun. While these are the prime enemies on a few of the maps, you'll mostly encounter them in the optional level-building battles and the bonus dungeons.
The Merlinus tent/caravan from the previous game has disappeared - it now presumably accompanies your main character, who is able to access your full inventory at any time and trade with everyone else among their regular commands.
I'd say the difficulty is about on par with the previous game, perhaps a bit easier due to being allowed to essentially level as much as you want (the only restriction, at least early on, being money for replacement weapons). There's a point where the plot branches for about six maps, and if you choose the male lead Ephraim for this section, things are a touch more difficult than they are if you pick the female lead Eirika. After putting in nearly thirty hours of play, I did not complete the game, because the final boss was too ridiculously hard (killing everyone on his counterattacks) and I did not feel up to another 5+ hours of level grinding just to get into shape to take him out. This was a problem with the previous game as well, and it required (for me at least) a cheesy and time-consuming technique to defeat him. Perhaps something similar could be arranged here but I didn't feel like bothering.
I described the music of the previous game as "serviceable". I feel it's a small step up this time out - there are some memorable tunes, maybe even worth listening to outside of the game. It's the same composer and I'm not sure exactly what the difference is, but the overall tone and mood just seems different, a bit darker and more fitting to the game's atmosphere.
I thought the graphics were a touch better too. Much of it is recycled, but some of the later monster enemies (which are new to this game) looked genuinely menacing and had some sweet animations.
Overall - the plot's boring and it's perhaps a little too easy, but it pulls through as an entertaining game nonetheless thanks mostly to smooth presentation and the well done strategy/army management gameplay. Despite not completing it I still felt it was a pretty decent little down-time activity for when I wanted the brain in Recharge mode but not completely off. Out of what I've seen so far of the Fire Emblem series, I'm thinking this one might actually be the best entry point (given it's laxer difficulty and ability to level-build) for newcomers.