Fantasy strategy-RPGs have traditionally done pretty well over here in the West. The Shining Force games were popular, as were the various entries in the Tactics (Final Fantasy, Ogre) series among other examples. It seems a bit of a mystery then why Nintendo never made much of an effort to translate its long-running Fire Emblem series until recently. If Fire Emblem 4 is any indication as to how the rest of these games were, then I think the mystery is solved - it's too damn hard, and the plot is almost ridiculously complex (yet neither very well written or very compelling).
Being an in-house Nintendo title it's got that vaunted Nintendo Polish, which is evident from the get-go in the colorful introductory graphics and the string-heavy musical score. The game dumps you into this large world composed of various warring nations, each in turn comprised of various kingdoms with their own roster of personnel and their own ambitions and political manueverings. This is my first Fire Emblem game outside of the one that Nintendo translated and released on the Gameboy Advance a few years back, so I'll cut the game some slack and assume that since it's the fourth in a series you are perhaps expected to have been following along with some sort of ongoing story up to this point. For a newcomer, it's an overwhelming amount of characters and backstory and whatnot dumped on you in too short a time - and the game proper hasn't even started yet!
When we finally get into the game, we find ourselves in control of some dude named Sigurd. We know next to nothing about Sigurd's kingdom, what life is like there or how they treat their people, but some neighboring princess has been kidnapped by scruffity bandits for the purposes of raping and we're hot in pursuit of them, so I guess we're generally supposed to be good guys at least by contrast. Subsequent subjugation of the barbarian nation to the south of Sigurd's lands sets in motion a whole series of Dark Machinations that lead into the usual plot by some cult of evil assholes to revive some dark god and rule the world or whatever. As you progress through the game new characters and plot threads keep popping in and out with lightning speed. The game's overly epic scope and cast of thousands means that very few characters and plot elements actually get significant time to develop, and therefore you spend a lot of time bored and somewhat confused by a myriad of events you are given little reason to care about.
The game is mostly about its tactics, which are pretty complex and make Shining Force look like baby stuff. This is mostly due to the fact that you are perpetually vastly outnumbered, and nearly always in a position where you have to assault some enemy fortification at which they can wait forever without penalty. The game is broken up into ten or so chapters, each chapter with huge maps that can take three to four hours to complete. You cannot egress from a battle once it's started, and dead characters for the most part cannot be revived - the only exception to this that I know of being a one-time-use item that can revive one character, not acquired until late in the game. Characters that are needed for the plot later will not die but suffer a "grievous wound" and exit the battlefield - if they happen to have a spouse or another character closely tied to them, that might cost you two-for-one. What's really funny about the game is that the enemy troops don't move in any particularly brilliant way - they just tend to appear and travel together in giant packs, they're programmed to gang up on the weakest character that they can reach, and they have those good old suicidal tendencies of the video game enemy that allow them to throw themselves into deadly situations with no concern for their own well being. Nearly every map has at least one sequence where you have to find some clever way to keep a horde of fifteen or so mounted knights from flooding behind your lines and raping the hell out of your near-defenseless healers. At it's best moments there's a chess-like grace to it, but there's also a lot of points where it's just cheap as hell and you have to rely on dumb luck to carry you through without anyone getting removed from your roster.
Having characters die permanently wouldn't be such a big deal if the game didn't give you so few of them. Fire Emblem 4 was designed for the person who reads the whole FAQ before actually playing the game; there's a lot of hidden stuff, but finding it becomes virtually mandatory because of the difficulty and resource scarcity, and the game is so unfair about how it's hidden that you'd never come across half of it on your own. You don't often get new characters handed to you; you've usually got to pluck them off the battlefield from the enemy ranks. Usually this involves sending the right character to talk to them. While it's frequently obvious who needs to talk to whom, actually doing it is a much dicier proposition because the characters you are trying to recruit are more powerful in their enemy form and capable of killing all but your strongest guys in one attack. Furthermore, they also are usually surrounded by some sort of army. When a weak, slow character is the one that is needed to get through the enemy ranks to talk someone into joining you, they often cannot make it without getting killed. While you try to delay things so that the needed character can get closer, the enemy is gleefully running around using it's super strength to kill more of your men. Quite often you'll find yourself getting pissed and bumping off characters that you know can become allies, simply because you'd have to give up too many guys to get in a position where you can get them.
With the computer enemy's ruthlessness, it's easy to make some simple dumb mistake that gets an important character killed, and then you have to start over. Frankly, I was playing this game with save states and I cannot imagine playing it without. If I got two hours into a map only to have one of my characters killed because I didn't notice that they were just one square too far over, I'd have quit the game in the second or third map. The only map in the game that can concievably be called "easy" is the very first one, and that's only if you have a solid background in strategy-RPGs and perhaps a little experience with one of the Gameboy Advance Fire Emblem games. After that, the difficulty level jumps to punishing and never goes back down. After the third chapter or so it ramps up to "How the fuck do you expect me to possibly do this?".
The gameplay interface is all right, but there are some weird and frustrating design choices. Characters move around the map in normal turn-based style, once a battle starts there's no exiting it unless you win or you're dead. You start out with a home base castle that you have to protect from invasion, because if it's taken the game ends. You can stuff as many guys in it as you want, but only one person can be guarding it at a time - when they die you lose, none of the other guys sitting around in the castle are allowed to come out and fight. And the game doesn't let you station someone at the front door to provide an extra layer of guard, though you can ring three people around the sides of the door (but you'll never be able to spare that many unless your back is really to the wall). You've got three basic troop types available - people on foot, people on horseback and people on flying giant bird things. These are further divided into fighters, magic users, healers, archers and minor combinations thereof. Most can be promoted to a more advanced class when they hit level 20. Everyone's got their particular weapons/magic that they're good with, and these take the form of consumable items. Each one starts out with a limited number of uses (usually 40), and once it's used up the item breaks and is gone. Before that happens you can bring it to a weapon shop at any castle that you control, which repairs it for a fee based on how worn out it is and how strong it is (this goes for magic spells and healing staffs as well as traditional weapons). Castles also have a pawn shop where characters can sell unwanted stuff, an arena where they can fight battles for EXP and gold, and a Fortune Teller who tells you how many battles you've won and who you're in love with. First, the love thing - certain male and female characters are predisposed to like each other, and this can be reinforced by having them end their turns next to each other and the occasional battlefield conversation on certain maps that crops up when they happen to park next to each other. While nearly any unattached character can fall in love with nearly any other unattached character with enough work, the game pushes you more towards certain pairings. Characters who are attached or in love can give each other money, but these are the only folks who can directly give each other anything in this game. The characters are apparently all rugged Rayndian individualists or something, and refuse to trade items or ever help each other out with money (each has their own individual stockpile of GP). This leads to a big problem, where a character picks up some cool item on the battlefield but they can't use it, and the only way to get it to someone who can is for them to pawn it at the pawnshop, then the character you want to have it has to pay some huge fee to buy it. The Arena is utterly useless for some characters, because they're never strong enough to be able to get past the first or second opponents - it only really benefits guys that are already kind of overbuff anyway.
There's little towns dotting the various maps, but almost every town comes with some pirate thrashing it up from the beginning of the map, and they're usually buried behind enemy lines and near-impossible to reach. The character who reaches a town before a pirate rapes it into the ground gets a certain amount of GP (depending on how much of the place is left standing) as well as usually some bonus weapon or stat boost. For some bizarre reason, if no one has visited a town the pirates will rape it with glee, but once you've stopped in for a visit it's somehow off limits to them.
As I mentioned before this game apparently was really meant for people who sit there with a FAQ/strategy guide and consult it every step of the way. The game basically requires you to know what is coming to be able to survive. First of all, nearly every map has some "surprise" force pop out near your castle after you've reached a certain point. That'd be OK if you could split your forces to leave some people back to guard it, but you're always so damn weak and outnumbered you really can't afford to do that. So you have to hustle your army back and forth across the map continually, unless you know what's going to happen ahead of time and prepare accordingly. There's the issue with recruiting new characters. Thanks to the obtuse item trading system, you either have to know what weapon/item an enemy commander is going to drop in advance to get the right person in there to kill them for it, or you pay penalties later trading items through the pawn shop. Characters that you've spent a lot of time building up suddenly just disappear due to the demands of the story, and about halfway through the game (just as you're starting to get comfortable with your army and beginning to promote people and stuff) the story jumps ahead about twenty years and suddenly you're starting from scratch with a whole new batch of characters. The stats of the characters you get in this second half are determined by the love relationships forged in the first half of the game, and if you didn't draw the right people together you end up with a bunch of weak ass cheese to use during the hardest part of the game.
The gameplay and interface are nice, graphics are good, sound is OK ... but the "meh" story and leagues of frustrating qualities really weigh it down. Fire Emblem never made it big over here because it was designed for a very culturally unique Japanese gamer, the kind that mix self-punishment and pleasure in an obsessive trip and get some sort of sadistic fulfillment out of arbitrary and ridiculous challenges. This game is for dudes who strap on a headband before sitting down at the Nintendo, yelling something like "TAKAHASHI FUMIKAWARA IS GONNA BE NUMBER ONE!" and maybe waving a clenched fist towards the heavens before launching into a 70 hour marathon session of play. This is really not for people who just want to kick back and have a good time, and most certainly not for people who want something they can just pick up and put down at will. It actually has a pleasantly addictive quality at first, but that's negated when you hit the wall and find you just can't seem to get anywhere and you're gonna have to start the map over for the fiftieth time.
Fire Emblem 4 is currently only available for the Wii in Japan and it's likely to stay that way. English speaking gamers can find a fine (but partial) translation patch for the Super NES ROM at http://darktwilkitri.thegreatbeyond.net/dtntd_fireemblem4.php