Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon

Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon
SRPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Save
1 player

Funny as it may be, I never played a Fire Emblem game. I missed the entire GBA boat, because I didn't like the fact that only the 2nd and 3rd games were available to an English audience. And I never played the GC/Wii games, because I don't own either system. Luckily, Intelligent Systems thought it was a good idea to remake the very first Fire Emblem, originally on the Famicom. Perfect for someone like me wanting to try out the series.

Intelligent Systems is also very well known for their other strategy series, ____ Wars. I played and enjoyed Advance Wars quite a bit. Although FE could easily be a "RPG" version of Advance Wars, there's quite a few things that make Fire Emblem unique. For one, there is an element of exploration on the grid-based maps. It's not the same type of exploration found in regular RPGs, but there is that sense of mystery. On many of the maps, you'll find shops, towns, and cities. If any of your units enter a town, you'll get some information from the villagers there. Sometimes the information is trivial, and other times, they'll reveal some big hints. If the main character, Marth, enters a city, most of the time, you either acquire an item, or you'll recruit a new character to your party. The only problem is... thieves are able to enter and destroy cities, robbing you of that opportunity. So often times, Marth is racing against the enemy thieves to reach the city first. This definitely adds a new dimension to the standard "destroy the enemy" goals in most RPGs. I see now that FE inspired Yggdra Union in this regard.

Another nicety is the amount of recruiting available. While some games let you go to a tavern and hire/recruit party members for extra help, Fire Emblem integrates the recruiting within the plot. If you're fighting a particular battle, you may be able to acquire new party members by visiting a town with a certain character. There are also times where you're able to recruit an enemy commander if you talk to them with a specific character! There's a logic to it, and it generally involves a relationship with one of the characters. For instance, when you visit a town, the townsperson will say, "I wonder how my brother so-and-so is doing." And if you end up visiting that town with that person, you'll definitely get something out of it. Of course the slight downside to this is that if you don't have a particular character in your present party, you won't be able to gain those benefits. It doesn't bother me, as I consider these interactions a bonus. But there are some anal folk out there that want to be able to do 100% of a game on their playthrough.

As far as the actual tactical gameplay, it's pretty standard stuff. You've got characters in a lot of various classes. FE employs a rock-paper-scissors weapon system with lances > swords > axes > lances. Archers are great against flying creatures. And there are specific weapons that do extra damage against typed units (armored, riders, dragons). Basically there's enough options out there to consider pitting specific units vs opposing units. The weapons in the game have a limited number of uses, which may bother some people. But between the ability to shop for base weapons before battle, being able to find shops on maps with stronger weapons, and acquiring the best weapons through defeating of enemies, the limited nature of weapons never was a problem for me. Plus even with the weaker weapons, you're able to forge bonuses at the armory. I never really utilized forging very much in my playthrough, just because it can be extremely pricey. But if you've got the money, it is a very effective way of obtaining weapon superiority.

One of the things that Fire Emblem is (in?)famous for is perma-death. If any of your characters die, then they don't come back. Ever. I personally kind of like perma-death, because it forces you to be wise in your decision-making. I find that most SRPGs are too easy because it doesn't really matter if a party member dies or not. Them being strict on that helps me to be more careful with how I play. Most players, however, find it to be a frustrating exercise, playing for an hour and then losing a character due to some silly mistake. Don't get me wrong... I get frustrated too. Fire Emblem DS adds several save points within a level to help alleviate the tediousness. I think it's a great feature. I can generally tolerate replaying an hour long level if I made a mistake, but if I keep dying on my replay, things get old really quick. Having the save points reduces the penalty to maybe 15-20 mins of lost time, which is pretty reasonable.

From what I understand, the rock-paper-scissors system and the ability to forge weapons are more recent additions to the Fire Emblem series. So the remake adds these features to the structure of the original game. The remake also sports some slick additions to interface that makes the game easy to work with. For one thing, the game proceeds at a relatively brisk pace. There's no lag time between inputting commands, traversing menus, and executing movement and attacks. You can skip attack animations by hitting the Start button. And you can skip through an entire enemy's turn by hitting Start on the map screen. Another nifty addition is the ability to check an enemy's movement range. You can do that in most SRPGs just by clicking on an enemy unit. But FE DS allows you to select on multiple units to display their combined range, and also the ability to display the range of the entire enemy squad at the press of a button. The game just gives you all the possible options you could want, so you can concentrate on building your strategy.

Thing is... despite all of these positives, I realize that I don't enjoy Fire Emblem. Although I like perma-death, I find that the game is ruined because of the way the game is structured. The only other perma-death game I played is Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together. That one is frustrating, but respectably so. I find that when I lose a unit in that game, I deserved it. But here's the key difference. In TO:LUCT, not only does each unit on the map have their turn based on their speed/agility (WT), but because of the WT system, you have some control over when they go. That is, if you move and attack, your next turn will be later than if you simply Defended. In Fire Emblem, it has the "Your entire party moves during your turn. Then the entire enemy party moves during their turn." structure, which I find really stupid in a SRPG. I find that it actually diminishes strategy, because it makes it that much easier to flank and concentrate-fire on an opponent. And it makes it that much easier for them to do the same.

I feel like when I die in FE, it's not really my fault. Here's a good example: I was in a situation where I was within range of a fastly-approaching enemy. I knew my healer would be a sitting duck, so I formed a wall in front of my healer with my buffest units. A wall should be the best line of defense because it only allows a single point of entry for the opponent (vs an open unit, where it can be surrounded by four enemy units). It should have been the best possible strategy. After I positioned all my units carefully, it was "the enemy turn". The first enemy calvary unit attacked my hero. Did a small amount of damage, and then my hero counterattacked. The counterattack was so strong that the enemy died. Then the 2nd calvary unit attacked the same hero. Counterattack, died. By the time the fourth calvary unit got to that same unit, my hero was at 5hp. So of course, I died. Because my unit was TOO GOOD of a counterattacker. This is precisely what I meant by feeling that when I die it's not even my fault. Most would agree that my choice of a wall was the best defense possible. But because FE has this "your entire group goes, then entire enemy group goes" structure, my unit was better off MISSING the counterattack. I don't know what Intelligent Systems was thinking when they designed FE like that. It's ok when you have disposable units like in Advance Wars. Sacrifice is part of the strategy. But when you have characters that are sometimes important to the plot that can be killed off by such a system, then it ceases to be amusing. I'm not complaining about the difficulty at all. TO:LUCT is arguably more difficult, but I love it. I'm complaining about the inability to control your circumstances, and that's the problem with FE.

Another problem with FE DS in particular is that you're able to acquire too many characters. It's an issue for me personally because if I have a cast of characters to choose a party from, I will try to balance their levels out. Since you have like 30 characters in the game, I try to use my weakest members in the fights, and sometimes that's not feasible. The level difference between my units and the opponent's is too large. And because I divide the possible experience points between all 30 of my units, it means my units are not scaling up to the additional difficulty added by later levels. You can argue that I shouldn't balance my characters, but I've been burned by games in the past that forced you to use specific characters in your party as part of the plot OR make you create several teams at the very end. I could not finish Shining Force III because I -didn't- balance out my exp among all members. Finally, another stupid design decision is to have stats go up at random. That means, when you level up with a character, you could end up upgrading 6 of the 8 available stats. Or if you're unlucky, zero. Yes. Zero. You can level up and not have any changes to your character at all. It is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in an RPG.

Ultimately, Fire Emblem represents a game that I can appreciate only for historical significance. I can see how it introduced a form of exploration to SRPGs and a cool way of adding party members to your roster. I also enjoy some of the modern improvements, especially to user-interface, that came with this Nintendo DS remake. But I have major misgivings about the core combat engine. From what I've been told, modern FE isn't all that much different. Shadow Dragon is my first, and last, Fire Emblem.