Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones - Staff Review  

Double Dragon, This is Not
by Tyler Willis

cheaply difficult
20 to 30 hours


Rating definitions 

Billy: "We must find the sacred stones, dear brother Jimmy!"
Jimmy: "But…"
Billy: "No buts about it, Jimmy! We are the double dragons, and we will have the stones!"
Jimmy: "Billy…"
Billy: "Yes, Jimmy?"
Jimmy: "They don't make our games anymore."
Billy: "WHAT YOU SAY!?!"
Jimmy: "I don't know what happened, Billy. But we don't do games anymore."
Billy: "But, but, this is about the sacred stones. The sacred stones are our thing."
Jimmy: "No, dear brother. We don't even have a cameo in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones."
Billy: <gasp>

The Fire Emblem series has a long history, albeit one that is centered on Japan. It is only recently, with the 2003 release of Fire Emblem, that North American gamers have come to know this strategy RPG series. The Sacred Stones is the second installment to hit the Game Boy Advance. Veterans of the previous title will find that both iterations share much in common.

A shining example of dialog. A shining example of dialog.

The Sacred Stones primarily concerns a royal brother and sister who are caught up in a whirlwind war, being tossed about with no real understanding of what's going on - until it's too late to do anything but fight back. The heart of the backstory is standard RPG fare: someone is attempting to free a demon king sealed long ago by a number of sacred stones, and it's up to the forces of good and great justice to right this most terrible of wrongs. The stones had been entrusted to the royal families of five kingdoms, and Eirika and Ephraim will end up traveling all over the continent in hopes of enlisting aid in their struggle.

The story is told exclusively through the use of storyboard scenes, which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. However, the archetypal characters combined with extremely stilted dialog leaves the player in frustration at being told the story rather than experiencing it through creativity and plausible suspension-of-belief. To add insult, the storyboards are completely still, save for one animation: the eyes - which may be looking at the other characters, the fourth wall, or searching for aliens - blink. And blink. And blink again. Such is the stuff of RPGamer nightmares.

As with the Growlanser series, exploration is made from a pre-defined series of points on a map; the player can backtrack, but free-roaming is not possible. Occasionally, monsters will visibly appear on the world map, allowing the player to level up, but also blocking the path back to a needed armory or shop. Battle maps are sufficiently large, perhaps even overly so due to the limited movement of many of the character classes.

Battles are composed of individual fights between two characters; no simultaneous or splash damage. Individual fights play out as a giant game of rock-paper-scissors, with each of the three types of weapons/magics being strong and weak against another. The number of characters deployable varies according to the map, with some characters being required for different battles. Since the battle commands are generally rather limited (attack, use an item, or wait), strategy mostly consists of making sure that strong units are attacking weaker ones and keeping weak units out of harm's way. Characters will automatically attack once or twice, depending on their speed, and the enemy will have a chance to counterattack if its in range. Characters will automatically counterattack the enemy if attacked during the enemy's turn - a good thing in many cases, but the lack of a defend option presents a problem in formulating a deep strategy for trying to recruit characters while on the battlefield.

Inadvertently, Natasha makes Lute the new bubble-boy. Inadvertently, Natasha makes Lute the new bubble-boy.

The two royal siblings can gather several dozen characters to their cause during the course of the game. Some are added automatically, and some must be recruited by specific characters or by certain actions. Each character has its own class, and very few characters have overlapping classes. Characters level up, gaining stat bonuses in a completely frustrating random manner. Many characters can also undergo a class change after level ten, but this requires the usage of specific, rare items. Since the experience gains are capped at level twenty, it becomes a bit of a scramble to make sure that every character is going to be able to class change at an appropriate time and not be stuck wasting experience.

The Fire Emblem series has a reputation for difficulty, much of which is founded on the fact that resurrection is an impossibility: if a character falls in battle, s/he is gone for the rest of the game. The game won't actually end unless it's one of the primary protagonists that commit involuntary seppuku, but perfectionists will likely end up restarting a fair number of battles. This is more due to the cheapness of some bosses who can one-hit kill beefed up characters than any actual difficulty in the strategic arena. Of course, the AI almost always attacks the weakest characters en masse, limiting the usefulness of inexperienced units.

Graphically, The Sacred Stones does a great job showing that sprite-based games can still be beautiful. Storyboards are rendered in an anime-style, with much detail placed on individual character portraits. In-game battle sequences are also well animated, but the battle maps themselves begin to get a little repetitive by the end of the game. Aurally, the game provides a good soundtrack, though some of it seems not to fit the mood of the game that well.

The game does offer some replayability. A built-in arena for linking two games together allows players to customize a team to take on someone else's top contenders. The game does also feature a hard mode that can be accessed before completing the game on easy. A story decision in the middle of the game leads to two very different paths; completionists will want to hit both of these. Finally, each character has support levels based on the amount of time they spend with another character; in addition to battle bonuses and added dialog, these support levels can affect the endings for each character.

Overall, The Sacred Stones is a mixed bag. It's difficult, but that stems most from cheap shots. It has a fair amount of strategic planning when it comes to figuring out which characters to upgrade to which classes, but the limited in-battle sequences of rock-paper-scissors become old rather quickly. Recommended for fans of the series and of the genre, but it's not for most RPGamers.

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