Very much wanting to be a part of the zeitgeist surrounding the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening, I had the urge to play a Fire Emblem game around the game’s February 2013 release. This is despite having written off the tactical role-playing genre previously and already owning a few Fire Emblem titles that I never got more than halfway through. You see, it’s a genre I like in concept, but in practice I don’t have the patience for; I usually haphazardly rush into battles which only get me so far. At least, that used to be the case. When I decided to play Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones alongside a friend (as he was having the same urges as I), I approached it with more maturity and was able to adapt to its gameplay style. In short, I came, I saw, I conquered.
The Sacred Stones was only the second Fire Emblem game to see release in the United States when it hit the Game Boy Advance in 2005. Intelligent Systems had been pumping out the Fire Emblem jams since 1990, but I guess Nintendo didn’t think highly enough of its western audience to localize any of these games until the 2003 release of Fire Emblem, also on the GBA. Which is strange, as this series is one of the forerunners of the genre, especially on home consoles and handhelds.
As is tradition with Fire Emblem games, The Sacred Stones is set in a fantasy setting where magic and demonic creatures are prevalent. Taking place on the continent of Magvel, this game focuses on Eirika and Ephraim, the princess and prince of Renais. Their country has recently been invaded by Grado, a former ally and in their quest to uncover why, they discover the well-intentioned actions of the prince of Grado has brought about the potential resurrection of the Demon King. Their efforts to prevent such a catastrophe lead them to every nation in Magvel in search of the Sacred Stones – wards of such evil.
Players control Eirika for the first third of the game, about the time she reunites with Ephraim. At this point, players have the option of playing through the next third as either character. Eirika’s path takes her to western nations in search of support while Ephraim chooses to confront Grado head-on. My friend and I each chose different routes and we can say with certainty that Ephraim’s path is a little tougher. We had fun discussing the story beats in these chapters, but like most of the game, it was shallow.
My only major gripe with The Sacred Stones is the thin story. There was a lot of exposition before and after battles, but the script was cliché-ridden, in regards to both plot points and characterization. It wasn’t a very exciting story all in all. The plot focused on a handful of major characters, but to get any details on the other twenty or so (besides the most basic information) support conversations were needed. These were lengthy conversations mid-battle between two characters that parlayed back-story, and sometimes a faint amount of character growth.
Had I not had another person playing alongside me, I imagine the predictable story and flat characterization wouldn’t have been enough to entice me to complete the game. However, the meat and potatoes of the game if you will, is the gameplay. As a commander of a small military squad, players had to scout out the battlefield, figure out a suitable composition of unit classes, and ultimately outperform the opposition.
I think the biggest reason I was successful playing the game this time around, was thoroughness. I took everything into consideration. Before battles, I’d carefully plan out who I wanted to fight, aiming to keep everyone about the same level. In battles, I’d keep everyone together for the most part, having a squad with a strong perimeter. Some weapons and magic were more effective against others so I’d check the equipment of enemy units to make sure I was sending in someone who could handle the enemy and hopefully have an offensive or defensive advantage. I’d also pay very close attention to the enemies’ movement range, hoping to not push my units too far into enemy territory too quickly. Without this thoroughness, I wouldn’t have beaten the game.
There’s a lot of diversity in the battlegrounds and the enemy forces meaning that players can’t milk a strategy for too long – they have to continue adapting. Although we spoke about the game weekly and were going through mostly the same content, our squads were made up of different characters. Our different “all-stars” led to slightly different strategies for battles. This was especially true later in the game since we had spent a lot of effort leveling and classing up different characters. It provided us a great deal to talk about and opened my eyes to how the game could be tackled in a multitude of ways. My disdain for the genre was partially born of my opinion that these games were meant to be tackled in a very specific manner, with little room for variation or improvisation.
Thanks to the zeitgeist surrounding Fire Emblem: Awakening, I wanted to give the TRPG genre another chance. I’m glad I did as playing Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones alongside a friend was enjoyable. I found little to compel me forward with its narrative and characterization, but its gameplay was both challenging and rewarding. I can think of little else in a video game that is as rewarding as winning a 2½ hour battle, adapting to every gameplay system, mechanic, and enemy unit thrown at me, and to do so without losing a single character. I’m not necessarily brimming to jump into another TRPG, but I’m happy to look at the genre with new eyes.