Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War feels like the first step toward Fire Emblem becoming the anthology series it is today. While Fire Emblem: Gaiden took us away from Archanea, that felt like more of a detour before returning for Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem. The fourth entry in the series, Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, kicks off a new tale in a brand-new world (powered by fan translation).
While many people think of romance and children as Fire Emblem: Awakening’s contribution to the series, it was actually done first in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War. The first half of Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is a tale of political intrigue where you have the opportunity to play matchmaker and pair up your units. In the second half of the game, you play as an almost entirely new cast of characters, the children of your units in the first half (or replacement characters for any parents that die or aren’t paired up).
Each half of the game is six chapters long, for a total of 12 maps. While this may sound short compared to a typical Fire Emblem game’s 25-30 chapters, maps in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War are massive, country-spanning affairs. Each map is easily three times the size of your average Fire Emblem map.
Chapters have several objectives, which usually involve seizing a castle. While I expected such huge maps to be frustrating in a game with permadeath (I reset when a unit dies), Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War mitigates this by allowing players to save at the beginning of each turn. Saving during chapters is essential, as maps often throw in new objectives or spawn enemies that will catch new players off guard. Having previous saves allows you to experiment and make mistakes without having to replay a map that might take over an hour to complete.
Capturing a castle has a few benefits besides allowing you to progress through each chapter. Castles contain all of Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War’s shops, weapon repair smiths, and the arena. The first time you enter a shop, you will notice one of the game’s more unique features: money and inventory management.
Unlike most Fire Emblem games, you cannot freely swap items between your party members. Instead, if you want to get an item from one party member to another, you must sell the item to the pawnshop, then buy it on the other unit for twice the price. This seems simple at first, but there is no shared gold among your army. Instead, characters have personal supplies of gold that they will not share. If you want an expensive item on one of your soldiers, you need to make sure they have enough money to afford it.
From a verisimilitude standpoint, it is silly that your army is entirely unwilling to cooperate regarding gold and items. From a gameplay perspective, though, these mechanics create the most interesting inventory management system in the series. There will be many occasions where you want to move items around, but limited currency ensures that you think carefully about who gets what. You will also have to keep your favored units stocked with an ample supply of gold to spend on all the goodies you want to give them.
For many units, acquiring gold is easy. In each chapter, characters can fight in the arena several times, facing progressively stronger foes and earning more money. Staff users or weaker combat units require a little more planning. These units can earn money by visiting villages before bandits destroy them or by selling valuable items. Alternatively, thieves can give gold to other members of your army, so they can hook your weaker soldiers up with some gold as long as you can protect them while they steal from enemies.
This strange inventory system does a great job of making you plan ahead and commit to your decisions. You need to think carefully about who gets powerful items because if you change your mind, it will cost thousands of gold to get an item onto a different unit. Additionally, characters pass down whatever they are carrying to their children, which further impacts who you decide to give useful items to. This may seem like a lot of time talking about an inventory system, but it influences your decision-making constantly, particularly during the first half of the game.
Another new mechanic to Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is the romance system. Each unit has a hidden love score with other units, which is raised by using them next to each other. Once the love score peaks, the pair will wed, giving them combat bonuses when near each other and allowing them to share gold. Perhaps most importantly, which units are married determines the stats and starting items of the child units in the game’s second half.
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War also introduces a few concepts destined to become series staples. The weapon triangle, a rock-paper-scissors-like system that gives units bonuses for using certain weapons against their opposite, makes its first appearance here. Additionally, many units have access to skills. Skills are unique abilities that range from occasional protection from damage in combat to sometimes attacking five times in a row. Both allied and enemy units can have skills, so you want to pay close attention to what each enemy can do.
Unfortunately, while Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War includes several interesting mechanics, its map and enemy design are inconsistent. Oftentimes, chapters will spawn large groups of the same unit, which generally fails to be strategically interesting. Some annoying encounters, combined with massive maps, can make the gameplay feel like a slog. One moment that jumps to mind is a late-game chapter where several generals appear, all with the pavise skill, which gives them about a 30% chance to receive no damage from an attack. Luck determined how quickly and safely an army could handle the generals.
A similar issue occurs in a much earlier chapter where you need to kill a boss with pavise quickly to save a village. Whether or not you can rescue the village and get the precious loot within heavily depends on the boss not activating pavise too many times. Fortunately, there are only a few moments where you have to rely on random chance. In almost all cases, a good strategy can address the challenges the game throws at you without relying on randomness.
In addition to the main objectives of each map, each chapter includes hidden events. These events can be triggered when units talk to each other or by placing a unit on a specific space. These events provide an opportunity for side characters to get a little more screen time. If you get all the events, you will see a lot of dialogue from your army members. I felt like I knew my soldiers well by the end of the game, which was a considerable improvement from previous entries in the series.
The only problem with Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War’s events is that some of them can be esoteric. For example, there’s an event in Chapter 2 that requires you to bring a specific knight to an out-of-the-way beach. Once there, if he hasn’t been married yet, he gets a pursuit ring, one of the most coveted items in the game. There are a lot of events like this that you won’t want to miss but likely won’t find without a guide.
This isn’t the only esoteric element in the game. Things like child stat and item inheritance, item management, and road tiles are explained only briefly, if at all. Many of the game’s features can be worked out through trial and error, but others will remain confusing for most of your first playthrough. With that in mind, I highly recommend a guide if you want to avoid some frustration. Once you understand how the game works, there’s a lot of depth on offer here.
Beyond the gameplay, Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War has one of the series’ better stories — at least for the first half. The first half of the game heavily focuses on political intrigue as your army goes from fighting off rival armies to attempting to prove their innocence in a national conspiracy. This portion of the story also includes one of the series’ more compelling antagonists, who feels like a mastermind pulling the strings as he aims to achieve his ideal world. He is a major step up from the more simplistic villains in previous Fire Emblem games.
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is also one of the first Fire Emblem stories to challenge the actions of the protagonist. As the main character Sigurd engages in war across the continent, you get to see how this affects people in the conquered lands and the strain it puts on Sigurd’s relationships. A spirited debate on the morality of Sigurd’s actions continues to this day, and it’s because the first half of the game is so interesting.
All of the political drama and warfare in the first half of the game culminates in perhaps the best emotional climax in the series. It’s worth playing Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War just to experience the last chapter of the first half of the game. The second half of the game tells more of a traditional Fire Emblem story where you build an army to take down a supernatural threat to the world. This half of the story is still serviceable, but it doesn’t match up to the more engaging and fresher first half of the game. It also largely sidelines the antagonist from the first half of the game for a far less interesting alternative.
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is a highly experimental entry in the series that introduced many series mainstays. The map and enemy designs aren’t always perfect, and the game doesn’t always explain mechanics well, but Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is still one of the most interesting Fire Emblem games to sink your teeth into. The game rewards long-term planning, allows for lots of experimentation, and challenges you to make the best of each unit. Mix in a lovable cast of characters and a top-tier Fire Emblem story, and you’ve got a game that fans of the series should make the time to play.