July 16th, 2011
Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones is the second GameBoy Advance title in the long-running strategy RPG series as well as, incidentally enough, only the second game to be released to the Western market. Fire Emblem is in essence the Advance Wars template with assembly line tanks, artillery and foot soldiers replaced with fully featured characters with their own stats, class, inventory and role in the grand narrative. The hybridisation results in deep tactical play with a lean towards party management and class-based tactics.
For an interactive video overview of basic Fire Emblem gameplay, try here. This site is for the latest DS game, Shadow Dragon, but the basic rules are identical to Sacred Stones.
There are two core components to the Fire Emblem games which you could call the strategy and the RPG aspects. The strategy portion of the game is the movement of units along the battle field, which parts of the terrain to take advantage of, how to coordinate your squad, how to deal with the problem at hand, combat, the weapons triangle and the class system. The RPG portion of the game is the character/party management, forming a well-rounded party, choosing when to upgrade to the next class, what weapons and inventory to give each character.
This all sounds pretty complicated and while the series has been criticised for just appealing to its small niche, Sacred Stones does a great job at layering advanced play so that both new and veteran players can be engaged on different levels. The following are a series of examples that demonstrate how the game supports new players while at the same time appealing offering hidden challenge to veteran players.
When starting a new save file the player can choose one of three difficulty modes: easy mode; offers hints and tutorial as you play, normal mode; no game hints or tutorial and hand mode; a harder difficulty. On top of doing what most games already do in regards to difficulty settings, that is, modifying a few variables like enemy strength, Fire Emblem scales the amount of tutorial as well.
Raising from the Lowest Class
In the Fire Emblem games each character has a class that determines their movement, abilities and statistical profile such as knight, mage and archer. Each class has a (lower) base class and an (upper) promoted class. For example, a knight is a base rank, while a general is a promoted class. The layout of the class evolution tree here may be helpful.
While new players may rely on the handful of promoted class characters present to guide them through the game early on, expert players know that these units will eventually hit a brick wall. Every unit in the game is capped at level 20. Once a unit reaches this level they can no longer level up and increase their stats. The only way to break out of this is to advance from a base class to a promoted class by using a special evolution item which, in turn, ranks up the unit, increases their stats a bit and puts them back at level one. Players can use the class-specific evolution item only once when they’re level 10 or above.
Units that enter the game already ranked up to the promoted class generally have middling stats which suggest that they weren’t maxed out at level 20 in their prior class before they changed rank. Therefore a unit which begins at a low rank, levels up to level 20, ranks up to the next class and levels up 20 levels again ends up a far stronger unit than the higher class unit with average stats which levels up only 20 levels.
Expert players are quite aware of this situation and therefore only use base class characters at the start of the game and only then rank up their units once they hit level 20 in order to end up with the strongest characters come the end of the game. New players on the other hand can rely on the promoted class characters like Seth (Paladin). The end result is that new players have an easier start to the experience, but the further they progress the less of a competitive edge their characters will have. For veteran players its quite the opposite. Using lower ranked classes early on makes missions more difficult, but the result is a stronger party in the long run. This system presents a trade off between short term pain for long term gain.
Furthermore, Sacred Stones introduces new trainee ranks: journeyman, recruit and pupil. These ranks are even lower than base classes and are about as uncommon as fully ranked character units. Unlike the other classes, a journeyman, recruit or pupil will automatically evolve to their respective base class on reaching level 10. Trainee ranks thereby allow players to squeeze another 10 levels out of their unit.
So, a unit that begins at a promoted rank can only level up 20 times, while a unit that begins at a trainee class can level up a total of 50 times. Trainee class characters obviously aren’t as strong as promoted class characters initially and its not as though trainee class characters are neatly handed to the player from the onset either, on the contrary they enter the game at various different chapters. These conditions ensure that players looking to max out a character potentially up to 50 levels need to endure 1) the slow build up of these units in their weaker stages 2) the duration of time it takes for these characters to become available. On the latter point, players that want to wait it out for trainee rank characters need to rework their entire party composition around the eventual arrival of a trainee character, filling that hole in the meantime. For these players it’d be pretty useful to know exactly what trainee class characters are available and when, so either playing the game through first or referring to a FAQ would be needed. As we can see, the effort required to form a highly effective team is a significant burden, but also an optional one. New players can choose to overlook these details completely and just rely on the stronger promoted class characters that can get them through battles.
Maintaining Level Balance/Squeezing for Experience
When managing your party you really want all characters to be pretty well balanced since it’s not all that helpful to have an inconsistent mix of strong and weak characters. There are however aspects of the game that upset this balance. For example, the changing state of the battle field (new units moving in, fog of war, terrain, class attributes) and the class system which gives different units different strengths and weaknesses.
On that latter point, for example, calivers, myrmidon and fighters are all easy to level up because they have a long movement range and strong attack/defence. This means that it’s easier for them to get into the thick of combat and survive. A priest, on the other hand, can only heal. They have weak defence, can’t attack and limited mobility. Healing only grants them a small burst of experience and the limited mobility means that even when they could go to heal another unit, they may not be able to reach their desired target. Similarly, archers can also be difficult to level up as they always need to hang back and avoid direct confrontation.
In order to ensure that all party members get a fair distribution of experience and no one gets left behind, the player needs to design their strategy around the dynamics of the class system and the arrangement of terrain.
For example, when I play Fire Emblem Sacred Stones I place strong units at the front of the pack and put them in range of enemy units, while just behind them are mages, archers and healers with pegasus knights hanging in on the side. When the enemy front attacks, the strong units automatically counterattack the enemy, taking a big chunk out of their health. After the enemy’s turn, I then get one of my mages or archers to finish off one of the enemies, breaking their line of defence. After this I push the healers up to heal the strong units and then send the strong units to hold the next front. Lastly, I let the mages, archers etc. to come in and clear off the weakened front and rack up most of the experience. This strategy works particularly well in confined linear map layouts to strengthen up weaker units.
These types of tactics are useful for balancing out experience, but you can also take it a step above this as well. I tend to think of each enemy unit as offering a set amount of exploitable experience points. If I attack an enemy and kill it in one go, one character gains all the experience. If I let other units attack in multiple turns then I share the experience. If I let the enemy attack my units, particularly the ones which can’t respond (attacking an archer at close range, for instance) then I get a wee bit extra experience out of an enemy unit and also have the option of getting my healers to heal the damage taking. Notice how with a little bit of extra planning I can get exploit the enemy to spread and/or increase the potential amount of experience I can get from a single enemy unit?
Support conversations are a mystical part of the Fire Emblem games that I’ve never quite been able get much use out of. The basic idea is this, you recruit quite a large squad and in that squad there are pre-existing relationships or new relationships bloom from the ravages of battle. When two people with a relationship stand next to each other in battle for a set number of turns, they’ll encourage each other and their stats will increase. The conversations that occur are called support conversations and they can happen 3 times between 2 characters, each time upping a support rank from C to A. Each character has a fixed set of other characters that they can have these conversations with.
Support conversations give another dimension to the levelling up system. Those players who are willing to exploit this system need to choose their party based on friend relations and then organise their strategies around friend partnering.
Personally, I like how support conversations add in another layer of optional depth. Considering, however, that it can take 20-30 turns of two characters standing next to each other to rise one rank, the system has minimal precedence. It would be better if the number of turns were reduced, particularly for the initial C to B ranks so as to encourage more players to use the system. As it stands it seems severely under-utilised.
Gaining New Recruits
The player gains new recruits to their party in two main ways. The first is new characters finding their way into the main narrative and automatically joining your ranks. Since these characters are important to the standard narrative that all players experience, they are usually mandatory units in your party for their debut battle.
The second is talking to people of interest on the battlefield and convincing them to join your army. There are two types of people that you can self-recruit to join your ranks: civilians and enemies. Civilians are people who wind up unintentionally caught in the conflict. You can find them in houses or walking about on the battlefield identified by their green colour. Civilians don’t attack the player and take their turns like regular units in the “Other Phase”. Enemies are, as you’d expect, on the other team and trying to kill you.
Converting civilians and enemies over to your party can be thought of as an optional side objective to each battle. You don’t need actually these additional characters to advance the core narrative, but their fate (if they are converted, aren’t converted or die) does end up having an impact on the story in some form. Whether it be them dying and having no impact, joining your party and forming relationships or continuing on to assist the enemy in forwarding their dastardly scheme.
The process of recruitment has two parts 1) identify which of your characters may be able to talk to the potential “convertee” (ie. what similarities do they have with your current squad members based on the clues dropped in dialogue) 2) physically move said unit next to potential “convertee” and talk to them. What makes recruiting challenging is actually trying to talk to the unit without killing them or letting them be killed. Civilian units can be attacked by enemy units, so you really need to reach them first. Enemy units though, are even more difficult to convert. They’ll attack you and as a result you will automatically attack back which may or may not permanently put them out of commission. So you need to corner the enemy in a spot where you can’t accidentally kill them (or they can’t reach you), but can move in and talk. Of course, if you make it this far only to send in a unit that has actually no relationship with the potential new recruit then you’ve foiled the plan and need to start all over again. Like most of these examples, recruiting these optional characters is just that, optional; it’s an offer for players to increase the difficulty if they so wish.
Personal Goals: Unit Numbers
Once the player builds up a significant party of units the game gives the option of selecting units, choosing their placements, observing the map and trading inventory in preparation before the battle begins. Under the unit selection part of the menu, the player can choose which units they wish to use in battle from a maximum allotment. While the player can’t exceed that upper limit, they can put as little as a single unit into battle. For players who want to only level up set units exclusively and aren’t worried about the challenge, they can send out just the number of units they need into battle. On the other hand, some players may wish send out fewer units just for the challenge of it.
Personal Goals: Number of Turns
Fire Emblem operates on a turn-based system. Once the player has used each unit once or chooses to end their turn, it’s the enemy’s turn and so on. While only a few levels require the player to actually finish the game in a number of turns, players can scale the difficulty by trying to complete missions in as few turns as possible. Considering that perma-death (see next article) will likely cause more than a few hard resets, players will likely warm to this idea in completing each battle as quickly as possible due to the length of time they can drag out for.
Tower and Monster Encounters
New in Fire Emblem Sacred Stones are the Tower of Valni and Lagdou Ruins. These two areas (I haven’t yet reached the latter so I’m making assumptions about it for now) can be accessed via the world map and offer additional battles that can be played between chapters. These battles are against monsters and don’t have any narrative to them. Once the player is granted access to these areas, the game suggests using them to level up units for battle. For newer players these areas can be used to quickly grind characters up to par, while veteran players can try and conquer the higher, more difficult levels.
In addition to these two areas, monsters will spawn on the overworld map ala Final Fantasy Tactics. New players can also seize these opportunities to level up characters and practice their strategies.
These examples demonstrate two things about the character of Fire Emblem Sacred Stones and the series at large. The first is that the series is openly willing to welcome new players and provide the type of customised game experience so that they can slide right in (selectable difficulty, tower and monster encounters, promoted classes early on as crutches). Equally, we can see that Fire Emblem‘s system of strategy on its own is also flexible enough to support varied, advanced play (experience sharing/exploiting, class exploiting, support conversations and new recruit sub goals) for those who want it without impeding play for those who just wish to play at a normal level.