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The Fires of War, Rekindled!
There are many RPGs which are never, ever released out of Japan. While some of these surely are games we could manage well without, there's also quite a bunch which we would love to see translated. The Fire Emblem series is one of those. With the recent hype over Tactical RPG's in the US, Intelligent Systems decided that it was finally time for us to try our hands at Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken, the seventh part in the series. While it plays much like Advance Wars, and might be a bit repetitive, it is indeed one of the best RPGs for the Gameboy Advance today.
In Fire Emblem, we follow a bunch of different characters on a rather simplistic adventure. You exist as a tactician for your group of adventurers, but not much more than that. Some of the characters talk directly at you, but you rarely have the option to choose what you want to say back, and what you say is never displayed in text. Your character also never appears on the battle field. The story focuses on three different characters; Lyn, Eliwood and Hector, who fights to free their homeland from destruction. On their journey, they meet with several mysterious and interesting characters, many of which can be recruited into your army. Overall the plot is pretty mediocre and predictable, but I found it entertaining enough to keep me playing the game to the end. For those longing for some time away from the deep and advanced storylines that become more and more common nowadays, Fire Emblem's story will be much appreciated.
In all Tactical RPG's, the battle system is what most players will pay most attention to. A TRPG with a boring, poorly executed battle system won't last long since it's such a large part of the game itself. In Fire Emblem, the player controls a party ranging from 1 to over 10 units. Once it is your turn, you can move around each unit once, and (if possible) perform any kind of action. Once all your units are done moving, it's the enemy's turn. In battle, there are some facts that you must be aware of before taking on your enemies. The entire battle system is built around two things; the Weapon Triangle and the Trinity of Magic. In the Weapon Triangle, there are three different weapons; swords, axes and spears. Swords are mightier than axes, but weaker than spears. The axe is mightier than the spear, but weaker than the sword etc. If a character attacks an axe-wielding unit with a sword, he has a very high chance of winning the upcoming battle. The same goes for the Trinity of magic; Anima magic (fire, thunder wind, rain) is mightier than Light magic but weaker than Dark Magic. Light Magic is stronger than Dark Magic, but weaker against Anima magic and so forth. These rules are the basics of the entire battle system in Fire Emblem, and if the player does not pay attention to them, he or she will most likely die within the first few battles.
Dying is something you should fear more than anything in Fire Emblem. If a single unit of your party dies, he or she will be dead forever, and cannot be resurrected under any circumstances. If the unit who dies is a character who plays a big part in the plot (or just the current mission), the game will be over instead. To make it easier to survive though, each character has a "rescue" command. For example, if a character is unable to escape from the enemy, another unit can pick him/her up from the battle field and save him. Be aware though, that this ends the turn for both characters.
Outside of battle, the player won't have to do anything but listening to dialogue. Stuff like shopping, equipping your characters etc is all done while in battle (shops are scattered out on various spots around the battle field, and can be visited by one unit at a time). The characters can't be equipped with anything but a few of different weapons and healing items, which they can trade between each other just before or during battle (by standing next to each other and using the 'trade' command).
Enormous time-consuming battles alone doesn't make the game any fun though, the entire game has to be well executed and kind to its user in order to be a success. Fire Emblem does this quite well, with simple menus, very detailed tutorials, and a decent translation. The tutorials almost felt a bit too detailed at times though, and the conversations between the battles often felt a bit drawn out. Nevertheless, Fire Emblem has a very nice flow to it, and I can't really think of anything within its system that would make a player turn it off in disgust. The localization job is well done, with hardly any spelling errors or grammatical errors at all. The only flaw there would be the conversations feeling a bit drawn out, as previously mentioned. The characters endlessly repeating after each other in every other cut-scene reminded me much of the dialogue in the Golden Sun series.
Originality pretty much speaks for itself. If you've played any Tactical RPGs or Advance Wars before, you're not in for anything revolutionary with Fire Emblem. However, the series itself is new for all of us in the west. One could consider the Weapons triangle and the Trinity of Magic to be a bit original perhaps, but it really only is a version of things we've seen before. It may perhaps not count as originality, but I found the anime artwork in-game to be extremely well done in this game. I actually sat stunned for a while in a couple of the cut-scenes. Outside of battle though, the graphics are rather average. The actual encounters between two units are beautifully rendered, but the units and the battle field are kind of blurry.
One of the most important aspects in every RPG out there, is probably the music. Without music, cut-scenes and important battle sequences are rendered totally lifeless. Without music, games wouldn't have been half of what they are. Luckily, all developers are aware of this, and Intelligent Systems is certainly not an exception. The music in Fire Emblem is entertaining, and has a lot of variation to it. Much like in Kartia, the enemy side and your allies have one battle theme each, and there is a special tune played once two units engage in battle. All cut-scenes are accompanied by a limited number of well-composed tracks, which unfortunately becomes a bit repetitive at the end of the game. A few more tracks wouldn't have hurt.
Any RPGamer who had previously heard about the Fire Emblem series can easily tell that they nerfed its difficulty greatly when porting it to the USA. While it's easy to make mistakes, it's also way too easy to manipulate your enemies and win almost every battle without a single loss. Just think of the Weapons triangle and the Trinity of magic, and you won't be having any problems at all. Simply finishing off the main adventure will only take about 20-25 hours of your time, but there is more to come after that. After finishing the game, players can choose to follow another character on his journey. Unfortunately, it's very much the same as the first one.
In conclusion though, Fire Emblem is a very pleasant game for the Gameboy Advance. It offers good music, entertaining battles and beautiful art. It may not be the most original gaming experience this year, and it may not have the very best plot out there... but it's fun to play, all the way through. And really, isn't that what most people want?
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