Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
As gamers throughout the US welcomed the Fire Emblem franchise finally entering the domestic market, gamers in Japan were eagerly awaiting the release of Fire Emblem: Souen no Kiseki. As the first FE game to be released on a system more powerful than a SNES/GBA, fans everywhere were interested in knowing how the hardware would be used to create a better, more involved gaming experience that will be talked about for years to come.
So…does the game deliver? Well…let’s start from the top, shall we?
“You idiots! Why are you helping the invaders!?”
The world of FE:SoK is a world of turmoil. An uneasy alliance has been set between the kingdoms of the Beoakes (Mankind) and the Ragus (Half-beasts), but this is shattered when the Kingdom of Dein attacks the Kingdom of Crimea for its pro-Ragus foreign policies.
The player takes on the role of Ike, a young mercenary hired by the princess of Crimea to escort on her quest to gain military support from the Ragus ruled Kingdom of Galia to drive the Dein army back and setting off a chain of events that may very well lead the entire continent to war…
One thing that will strike a long time player of FE games when playing FE:SoK the first time will be the quality of the story. Unlike the recent FE games where the story felt tacked on as an afterthought, FE:SoK boasts a well thought out world with a storyline that rises above the standard RPG fare. This isn’t to say that the story will blow any player’s minds and there will be very few points in the game where you’ll be yawning and thinking “This would’ve been a good story…back in 1984.” This owes partially in part due to the cross-species strife that the world is full of in this game; and while some of the parallels that the game tries to draw with the practice of slavery in our world are painfully obvious at times, this doesn’t detract too much from the story overall.
Unfortunately, the characters themselves are a totally different matter. With another return of the support system that was seen in the previous two FE games, too much of the character interactions are hidden behind an artificial limit (which I’ll touch on later) and thus only handful of characters who drive the storyline are fleshed out to any extent. This fact doesn’t detract too much from the story at large, but is very noticeable.
“You’re still rough around the edges, but you have the makings of a fine general.”
The real meat of any game, of course, is in the gameplay and it is here that FE:SoK shines. For those unfamiliar with how FE games play, imagine a turn based battlefield with seemingly straight forward gameplay: Move -> Attack -> End Turn.
There is no ‘active time,’ no ‘MP,’ no ‘directional damage,’ none of the complex battle systems that many games in the genre, such as Final Fantasy Tactics have. Instead, the core of the game is based around a Rock-Scissors-Paper system with various weapons and spells. It is all very straightforward to the point that good players can plan out their entire turn in advance with some degree of confidence (ignoring critical hit % rates and hit/miss % rates) and for good reason too… all characters killed in battle stay dead. No exceptions. In fact, you can’t even save mid-battle! While you’ll recruit new characters into your army throughout the game to compensate for this, the fact remains that all of these things combined can create a VERY frustrating experience to the unprepared.
Fortunately, FE:SoK features both a selectable difficultly level as well as an extensive tutorial system that can you bring up at any time to refresh on any aspect of the game. One thing to note is the default diffculty level is significantly easier than any of other FE game out there (even more so than the GBA releases), while Hard is about the same difficultly as your typical FE game. I played the game through on the Maniac difficultly setting and found the game to be very challenging, but not impossible to beat.
I was surprised to learn that playing the game through on different difficultly levels doesn’t reward the player in anyway though, so there is very little incentive for players to play through the game again unless they want to experiment with different army make-ups… which meant that playing through the game on Manic didn’t really net me anything extra except for a huge migrane every 10 hours or so.
That is not to say that FE:SoK offers nothing new to the mix to the FE veteran. In fact, it is quite the opposite. FE:SoK finally brings variety to the kind of missions you have complete and also offers a number of additions to its basic battle system. But before we get to the major additions to FE:SoK, let’s touch on the systems that, while not new, did receive an update.
One thing that always bugged me about the previous FE games was that class changes were always triggered by a certain item for each class; which meant that I’d always have at least one maxed out lower class character that couldn’t get stronger until I found that item. Fortunately, FE:SoK makes changing classes much easier by having all units that reach level 21 as a lower class automatically change classes, eliminating the need to rely on items. There are still items that will change the class of any unit that’s at least level 10, but instead of making multiple items divided into classes, there is just one item that will get the job done.
The rescue system makes a return in FE:SoK. In addition to being able to pick up lighter units and carry them around to a safe location, your heavier units can now push adjacent units one space whether they be friend or foe. These two systems combined allows for some pretty interesting strategies, on maps, that weren’t present in many of the previous games.
The other change is how the support system works. The support system refers to a game mechanic where certain characters will form a closer bond between each other over the course of the game, granting each other stat bonuses whenever they are within a certain radius from each other. FE:SoK’s criteria for raising each others’ support level relies exclusively on how many maps both characters in question have been used in at the same time, instead of forcing the player to keep the two units together for the course of the entire battle, which greatly helps to speed up the entire process.
“We can’t alert the guards to our position. Stay out of sight at all times!”
Perhaps the most significant change is the addition of different map types. While the goal of each map falls under either the “capture the enemy fort” or “kill the enemy general” kind of missions, you are also given incentive to clear the maps in other ways. There are missions where you’re encouraged to avoid detection by the enemy or maps where you have to avoid killing a neutral faction that is temporarily hostile to your army. While it’s possible to clear the maps by simply wiping all of the enemies off the map, players who keep to the “spirit of the story” will be rewarded by additional treasures and EX Points.
The EX Point system is deceptively simple. Basically, the more you keep ‘in tune’ to the battle plan that’s been laid out by the general before hand, the more EX Points you get, and the more EX Points you get, the happier you are. Why? Because EX Points translates to a free pool of experience points that you can allocate to your characters in any way you please in between maps. Since you’ll most likely lose out in experience points by NOT killing all the enemies you can during battle, the EX Point system is there to make up for that difference… and even more.
The most obvious advantage of trying to maximize EX Points links directly to the way weapons and spells work in Fire Emblem: All Spell books and Weapons are designed to ‘break’ after a set number of uses. By going for EX Points instead of killing enemies, you can actually save a large sum of money since you won’t have to keep buying weapons to keep your army well equipped.
Secondly comes the ability to beef up your weak characters without risking their deaths in battle. This is especially useful since there are more than a few characters who join up your army vastly underpowered.
Third, and most importantly, comes the level of control that you have in leveling your characters. Level ups in the world of FE rely very greatly on chance. Each character stat from Max HP to Movement Speed has a certain probability of increasing depending on the class of the character, with certain biases added in to account for each classes specialty. For example, a thief may have a 70% chance to have its speed and accuracy increase by 1 while this stat may only be 35% to a heavily armored unit. However, the heavily armored unit will have an easier time increasing its defense and max HP than a thief will.
This means that it’s possible for a character to level up and see all of its stats increase, and also possible for a character to go from one level to another without seeing ANY changes in its stats. Since you can’t reset a battle mid-way in progress in FE, you’ll most likely be forced to stomach any sub-par level ups that your characters go through, unless you level them up via EX Points. Since EX Points are allocated in between maps, it is a very trivial matter to reset the game whenever the character’s stats haven’t increased to the point that satisfies you; a fact that any FE player going through the game on Maniac difficulty (ie. me) has to rely on extensively to make sure that his/her army is strong enough to take on the enemy.
“General, you take the lead. My army shall support you during this battle.”
Another much touted addition to FE:SoK was the addition of NPC controlled units that will support you throughout the map. While I highly anticipated this addition in hopes that this will help make the battles seem even grander in scale than in any previous game, the results are a bit disappointing.
The NPC AI is retarded at best and the player will only be able to control its movements in a series of VERY general commands that will make it seem like the NPC allies are more of a hindrance than an asset. You’ll cry in anguish whenever your NPC units move and allow enemy units to break through your line. You’ll look in utter disbelief as your NPC units ignore the weak units and continuously attack enemies that they can’t even damage. You’ll curse as the NPC units kill units that are holding valuable items and deny you treasures that you’ve been trying to get for hours. The list goes on and on.
In fact, the only real use for these units seem to be as cannon fodder to tie up the enemies for a few turns while you concentrate on a different target; a result that is far from what I was hoping for.
“I cannot fight, but my skills will support you.”
Finally comes the skill system that is now in place. Throughout the course of the game you’ll be able to find skillbooks that will greatly strengthen each character, ranging from ultimate attacks that will make Ike a walking killing machine to utility skills like ‘taunt,’ that will force enemy units to concentrate on your character instead of the squishy healers that you also have with you.
Each of these skills requires a certain number of skill points to equip and each character has a set number of skill points so you won’t be able to trick out one character with all the skills you find.
“Our lord has abandoned his kingdom!? That just doesn’t make sense!”
Unfortunately, while the gameplay aspects of the game are well recognized there are quite a number of areas in which FE:SoK doesn’t deliver; the biggest one of them being the lifeblood of any game: Its GRAPHICS.
Although the FMV sequences that are scattered throughout the game are of very high quality, the same can not be said for the actual graphics that are used in-game. The maps feel bland and lacking in variation, there is a decided unevenness in the level of detail that exists from character to character, and even the most detailed characters fail to match the level of quality we’ve come to expect from a game that’s released in 2005. Even the animation sequences feel uninspired, with the only real variation coming from the ultimate attacks that each character might obtain. It is quite mind-boggling as to why Intelligent Systems didn’t go with a fully cel shaded approach to detailing its characters.
As for the music… well, it is quite serviceable but nothing exactly mind-blowing. The sound effects themselves pretty much sound exactly like the ones used in the GBA games; a major disappointment considering how much more powerful the GC console is.
Then again, most of this is a moot point considering how many game-stopping bugs FE:SoK has.
While I usually don’t complain about a few bugs found in a console game, FE:SoK has an unusually high number of show-stopping bugs that pretty much force all players to play with battle animations off. Not doing so will cause a lock-up in the game about 1/3 of the time in about 20% of the maps in the game- not a pretty sight in a game where saving is a luxury that you have once every 2 hours or so.
Some of you might think that I am having these problems because of hardware problems but a quick glance at any Japanese BBS or gaming site will confirm all the fears that FE:SoK is one of the buggiest FE games by far.
There are also other ‘fun’ bugs for you experience as well, such as: deselecting certain units from the battle line up will decrease the total of units you can deploy at a given map, scrolling through the battle map too fast will cause massive slow down and sometimes lock up the game, having certain characters talk to the bosses will lock up the game, and the list goes on and on.
To make a long story short, FE:SoK is a game of extremes: its gameplay is well balanced and lots of fun to play, yet the sheer number of bugs may cause players to give up in frustration. The story is one of the strongest in an FE game, yet the graphics don’t seem all that much better than something from the PS1 era. The music itself is pretty good, yet the low quality effects will annoy anyone who pays attention.
Then again, since all of the areas in which FE:SoK stumbles are areas that are considered to be excesses in the strategy RPG genre, perhaps none of this is all that big of a deal? After all, I enjoyed the game immensely despite its flaws and I’m sure any strategy RPG fan will feel the same once they give the game a try.
Just uh… stay away from Maniac the first time around. You’ll thank me later.