On Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

kouseki
got nothing witty to write here

April 2004. Fire Emblem: Souen no Kiseki, the Gamecube game now know as FE: Path of Radiance in the West, was announced. But, it wasn’t Ike and His Merry Mercenary Friends that was remembered by history as “Fire Emblem 8”. Between the first news about the game and its proper release, Intelligent Systems managed to crank out one more title. In October 2004, FE: Seima no Kouseki came out, the GBA game later (May 2005) published in the West under the subtitle The Sacred Stones. I guess that introduced some confusion in the numeration of the games. I remember seeing Japanese calling Seisen no Keifu “FE3”, claiming that FE Gaiden doesn’t count as “FE2”, cause it’s a “gaiden”, too. Anyway, I had followed the entire story of the game’s release together with my fellow FESSers centuries ago, in my busy middle school days. Beginning with that first scan from Shounen Jump. Then I played FE8 in Japanese upon release, with the help of my meager knowledge of most of kana, several kanji and amateur translations written by fellow FE nerds. Ah the nostalgia. Imagine that exhilaration of doing something nobody else was doing. And then The Sacred Stones came out in English and our little exciting boom in which a whole forum played one game at the same time… turned global. It wasn’t as fun anymore. But I still went through the game for the second time, of course.

And so it turned out that I spent Christmas 2019 playing another Fire Emblem game. Another replay of a game I’d spent a lot of time with in my Youth. Let’s see how it holds up, after over a decade.

Even after a short time spent with FE8, you might get this impression: The Sacred Stones is a synthesis of all games in the series before it. Which is understandable. Fire Emblem made its international debut not much earlier, so an introductory title like this one was an easy choice. When it comes to the story, we once again are presented with a tale of a fictional continent where noblemen armed with medieval weapons and all sorts of magic are battling an evil force pulled into this world by a dark magic-using dude who actually turns out to be sympathetic in the end. It wasn’t his fault. There be magical precious stones. And dragons who are also gods. War is bad. And let’s not forget incestual subtext. And gay tension rivalry between male characters – the sexy stuff was what had many FESSers glued to this game… I have to say though, while the thought I had while replaying FE7 recently was “wow, this game is absolutely eternal”, FE8 made me think the opposite. “This story is ass”, I thought. It feels like they were like “throw dem nerds some knights and dragons and let’s be done with it”. The story is very predictable and doesn’t even try to twist that ancient formula. I liked the plot of The Sacred Stones as a teen, but now I can’t help but see its lack of invention. Just like in FE7, the scenario was originally written by Maeda Kouhei while the crew responsible for localization is a mix of some familiar names and new ones. It’s a high-effort one, filled with archaisms, just like previously, but there is noticeable difference. It is a notch worse.

Before I get to the good stuff, I would like to note down one more thing. The character names. Normally, like in FE7, if a character’s name was ジョージ, after localization, you’d expect him to be named George, right? Well, not in FE8. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in other video games as well, it seems to be a larger trend. People’s names in the Japanese version get changed into something completely different on the other side of the Pacific. Why? Were they like “Surely, all the Georges of the world are gonna sue us if we name a fictional character George, so let’s do THIS instead”? Call it a pet peeve of mine, but… just why? Man, have I got a story for you. When FE8 hadn’t been out in English yet, there was a thread on FESS about speculating what they’d name the characters. Especially the heroine, whose name was originally エイリーク. A tough nut to crack, isn’t it. My vote was on “Ailique”. And then one person proposed “Eirika” and I was like please, they can’t just add an A to her name and say “there, I done it”. Well, guess what happened.

“It sure is Fire Emblem” – this impression extends to matters of gameplay. Instead of one blue-haired Lord, there are two. Then there’s the Jeigan. The fast cavalier. The strong cavalier. The Ogma. The Navarre. The Mamkute. All the must-haves from the FE checklist are there. At a glance, not much was done to make FE8 play or read differently than usual. The impression in my head that all Fire Emblems play the same is still there, untouched. Thankfully, the characters ooze personality, like they always do. At least that’s a positive constant in the series. However, although I’ve called The Sacred Stones a synthesis of all Fire Emblems, there is also plenty of new content in the game, and that’s where it shines brightest.

The Sacred Stones is the game that separates old and new Fire Emblems. And that’s because it makes a bold leap forward and throws out the defining feature of old Fire Emblems, about which I’ve written in my previous post. It’s not a strategy of limited resources anymore. In FE8, between chapters, you land on the board game-like world map upon which you can go the the next flag and push the plot forward, or you can do other stuff like visiting a shop from the level of the world map – you don’t need to do it only during a mission anymore. Or like… going to a repeatable map. You can finally do it! Then again, I have to admit I played the usual way during my recent playthrough. But you don’t need to. Enough with the desperate wild goose chase after EXP. You won’t need to restart your entire playthrough after making a mistake unawares. One unit lags behind when it comes to gaining levels? Not a problem. Hell, you can even max out every single unit in your army if you want to, it’s physically possible. The moment when repeatable maps become available is truly glorious. Some FE nerds will tell you this and other new additions to the game are “Fire Emblem Gaiden influences”, but they’re not. They’re rational, positive changes the series should have undergone ages ago. They allowed Fire Emblem to graduate from the age of ancient clunky-ass shitgames that you mandatorily need a walkthrough for. And yes, I guess I just insulted FE7.

New big feature number two is slightly less significant than the first one, but still makes me want to applaud whoever came up with it. It’s about class change. What sense did class changing make until now? Next to none. It was an annoying roadblock, not much a trial of the player’s skill. A unit reaches level 20. You need to have a specific item to upgrade it. You use the item and your knight turns into a general. You can make twenty more levels with him now. Note that it involves no choice. I’d like my knight to develop without any roadblocks in the way. What if my knight was gradually changing appearance as it levels up? What if he was automatically getting more cool-looking with every five levels or something? This problem was addressed, but in a different, better way. Through introduction of a choice. Now your unit can be upgraded into one of two higher classes – some neat new classes were added too. That’s a further addition to the already impressive list of reasons to play FE8 multiple times. Finally, the name “class change” started to sound adequate. If only you didn’t need any pesky items to do it. What’s more, I remembered something wrong and thought that’s exactly the case in FE8. Boy, was I in for a surprise. My wish for this game to be better was too strong.

Some people will tell you the world map, and the removal of the games closed structure, wasn’t a good idea, however. Big feature number three probably isn’t an argument for this game’s excellence. You see, this game is easy. Even towards the end of the game, enemy stats are laughable. And it’s more convenient for the player than any other Fire Emblem before it – you can gather a perfectly serviceable army in a matter of five chapters. During my recent playthrough, I decided I’d be doing a minimal amount of grinding, to make that run as short as possible. And still, I had no problem beating it. The last boss croaked after I hit him with three units. All the available units are powerful enough to deserve a slot in your army. Even the Jeigan in decent. There are no duds, present in the game only for you to avoid. Which is understandable, considering how compact the unit list (and the entire game) is. It’ll take about 20 hours of your time. That’s considerably shorter than the time you’d need to beat FE7, but mind that you can extend that duration as you like – depends if you only want to kill the last boss or if you want to screw around a little and, say, max out ten units. Anyway, don’t believe anyone telling you the rationalization in game design was a bad idea. FE8 is too easy, but that’s not what made it an easy game. It could have been smartly designed AND harder. But that’s just not what happened, sadly.

What remains is the audiovisual execution. I guess I should mention the music. This time, Tsujiyoko Yuka is credited only as the “sound supervisor”. Sound composition was shouldered by Haruyama Saki, Hirano Yoshito and Kitamura Yoshihiko. This time they didn’t employ a whole storehouse of instruments like in FE7 so the soundtrack feels more compact and focused. But, maybe because it’s a new generation of composers that took care of the music, it sounds a bit amateurish and sloppy at times. Still, FE8 has a great soundtrack with plenty of memorable tunes.

And that’s it for Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. Should you play it? Definitely. It might have its flaws but it’s still a milestone in the history of one of my favorite video game series ever. So yeah, quit chasing whatever game is popular at the moment and play something evergreen. Who cares if it came out in 2004?

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