Thursday, July 14, 2016

Turn Based Brilliance: An Appreciation for Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem has entered into the public spotlight with its recent surge in popularity with Awakening, Fates, and the large cast of Fire Emblem characters in Smash Bros. I'm appalled that we almost never got to see this series in the west. If it weren't for Marth and Roy in Smash Bros. Melee, I doubt we ever would have. Thankfully, Nintendo went against the decision to remove them from the American version of the game. Yes, that almost happened!

Fire Emblem Theme

I recently replayed through Fire Emblem (7: Rekka no Ken/Blazing Sword) on the Wii U Virtual Console, and it holds up extremely well. Awakening was one of the best games to come in 2013 amidst a slew of other amazing "Year of the 3DS" games, and is probably still one of the best games on the system.

The older entries in the series, the ones that were never translated, are challenging, but very fun games: FE4 with its trademark generational system is great, and FE5, one of the hardest games I've ever played, both stand out as some of the best strategy RPGs in the genre due to their unique mechanics and crushing but rewarding difficulty, respectively. Fire Emblem 4 and 5 also take a seldom seen approach in that Fire Emblem 5 is a midquel to Fire Emblem 4, taking place in between chapters five and six of that game. The story is full of political intrigue - it's certainly the most politically oriented set of games in the series - and takes place over the span of two generations, so you're able to watch the children of the heroes take over at a certain point. It's an ambitious concept that the games pulled off very nicely.

The Japanese box art for Fire Emblem 4. Its subtitle is "Seisen no Keifu," or Genealogy of the Holy War. Pictured are Sigurd, the hero of the first generation, and Celice, his son who takes over in the second half of the game. Sigurd, who can be seen here riding his trademark white horse, has the distinction of being one of the only lords in the series to be an adult, rather than a teenager.
My first experience with Fire Emblem was, like most Americans, with Marth and Roy. Reading their trophy entries in Melee revealed that they came from Japan only titles, which added a certain sense of mystique to their character, making them feel somewhat exotic when compared to the cast of otherwise familiar characters. When Fire Emblem was announced for the west, I played the series for the first time, and fell in love instantly. I love how every unit has a name, a class, and a face. (I hate how reclassing took away the individuality that came with chaining certain characters to certain classes, but that's another story). Not one unit is a generic nobody, and every single one has a personality and a history.

The story is almost always cliche, but I don't think there's been one FE with a plot I did not enjoy. Most of the stories revolve around a sacred item known as the Fire Emblem, whose history, purpose and appearance changes from game to game, and a bid to save your kingdom from an evil invader. As I mentioned above, some of the games do step outside of the series' comfort zone of "little lordling saves the world and rescues his kingdom," such as the Tellius duology - Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn - where the main character, Ike, is not a lord, but rather a mercenary leader. Even in this case, the game is still very much grounded in high fantasy tropes, but again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Without spoiling too much, the Tellius games even manage to make ye olde Black Knight trope interesting again.

Hero Ike faces off against The Black Knight. The knight's identity is unknown for most of the two games that he stars in, and he has a rather personal connection to Ike and his father that is also shrouded in  mystery. His story, while certainly cliche in many ways, is one of the best told and most gripping story arcs in the series.
I am playing through Fire Emblem 6: Sword of Seals right now, and perhaps the most stand-out feature of this game is in how difficult it is compared to Blazing Sword. Roy also pales in comparison compared to most lords, being relatively weak and uninteresting even by cliche Fire Emblem standards, which is disappointing after being introduced to him through his much superior Smash Bros. incarnation. Playing it as a sequel to Blazing Sword is neat, however - it picks up very nicely from FE7's epilogue and "cliffhanger" ending. Seeing returning faces is great, too - I never realized that the map in Laus was shared between games, or that Eric was the map's boss in both of them. FE7 is clearly a more polished game, and rightfully so, as it came out afterward, but I'm really liking FE6's colorful character design and larger scope in regards to its plot. The extra challenge can be nice, too. Despite Roy's lackluster lordliness, it's nice to finally see him in his own game after years of him being "that guy from Smash Bros."

As long as I'm on the subject, I might as well parrot some love for my favorite class in the series. Mine has to be Swordmaster and its variants, although it pains me not pick other amazing classes like Hero or Paladin. From the Fire Emblem Wiki:
The Swordmaster (ソードマスター, Swordmaster; 剣聖 Kensei, Sword Saint, in the Japanese version) is the promotion of the Myrmidon. These lightly armored foot soldiers are capable and have an increased chance to deal critical attacks. The Swordmaster has a high amount of speed when compared to many of the other classes, giving them high accuracy and evasion, making them a very deadly class. The Swordmaster class was officially introduced in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (where Ayra and her daughter Larcei defined the class, including its signature skill, Astra). The Blade Lord Lyndis from Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken and the Great Lord Eirika from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones are considered to be a variations of Swordmasters, having the same stat caps. The average HP stat of Swordmasters varies greatly regardless of gender, it can be high or low.
My introduction to this class, like many others, was with Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword, commonly known as Fire Emblem in the west. Lyndis is a lordly variant of the Myrmidon and Swordmaster classes, but the character that really sold me on them was Karel, the Sword Demon.

A pre-promoted unit in any given Fire Emblem has an 80% chance of being not as good as a unit that you raise yourself, but Karel tears up the battlefield with the best of them. He looks extremely cool and returns in the next chronological entry as an older, wiser, and redeemed man, now known as the Sword Saint.

An older Karel finds redemption. As his story is told in reverse, this is the first incarnation of the character you see, provided that you play the games in their order of release.
The animations for Myrmidons and Swordmasters are also among the best in the series, with a very flashy flair to the way that they move and an extremely intense critical hit. Even their regular attack has them spinning through the air. Lyn's Blade Lord variants are quite possibly the most stylish critical animations in her game. You can always count on the Myrmidon line to add an extra bit of cool to their attacks.

Karel's critical animation from Fire Emblem 7.

Lyn, the Blade Lord, with her own unique critical animation.
Lyn uses her divine weapon to up the ante. The Game Boy Advance sprites were, as you can see, extremely stylized, and are largely regarded to be the best style of presentation that the series has had.
Even when the series moved onto awkward 3D models in Path of Radiance and beyond, the Swordmaster class always managed to convey a sense of immense speed and skill with its animations, with its units sheathing and unsheathing their swords extremely quickly and making very precise strikes with their blades. 

The most recent Fire Emblem, Fates, has quite possibly the most brokenly overpowered character in any of the games in Ryoma, and his class is... you guessed it, Swordmaster! Ryoma takes the class to an entirely new level with his sacred sword, Raijinto, which essentially functions as a Silver Sword with a ranged attack. His terrifyingly strong offense combined with his high dodge makes him nigh unstoppable, and represents the best of what the class has to offer.

Overall, I'm very glad that the series is finding so much recent popularity. Hopefully it continues for years to come. Cheers to an amazing series!

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