Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones


Review by · June 13, 2005

Over half a year after its Japanese debut, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (FESS) arrives on domestic shores, ready to try and ply us with more of the good old Fire Emblem charm in a lovably handheld format. A somewhat curious decision on Nintendo’s part, FESS is not a direct sequel to the previous Fire Emblem game but instead a new, completely distinct story that takes place on the continent of Magi Val, populated by five royal families and a whole host of enemy soldiers and strange undead things out to suck your blood. But is the gameplay as exciting and new as the story, or does it quickly join the ranks of the unliving?

In FESS you initially take the part of Princess Eirika, a noble of Lunes, one of the five kingdoms of the continent and naturally the one that is under siege the moment the game begins. Escaping from the near-ruins of the castle, Eirika and her noble protector (and tutorial-giver) Seth flee into the countryside and traipse around the world map for a while, gathering companions and looking to take back their family home before a series of revelations throws them and their unwitting army into even deeper trouble – er, plot. Along the way they’ll meet up with some familiar-seeming faces and bad guy archetypes, a youngster or three, and more guys in color-coded uniforms than you can shake a pointy stick at. Later the plot will branch for a while, allowing you to either continue to control the Princess or switch to her brother, Prince Ephraim, both of whom pursue different objectives towards the same goal before the whole group come together to take on the final stages of the game.

Hang on, I hear you say, ‘world map’? Why yes. Additions to the game this time around include a brand spanking new world map, some trainee recruits that start off extremely weak, new classes, greater shop options and more, along with the full complement of misfits and support conversations that veteran players of the series will have come to expect.

In fact, veteran players will recognize a whole lot about the game. The tried-and-true triangle system is back in force to provide the foundation for laying any plan of attack in the game. For new players, this is essentially a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy that determines which weapons or types of magic gain
bonuses over which other types- swords beat axes, polearms beat swords, axes beat polearms– requiring players to examine their enemies and determine which units to send where. If a unit attacks an enemy, the enemy generally gets a hit back, and vice versa; some characters can be speedy enough to get two attacks or slow enough that they incur two. Each mission as a whole is done in a series of turns; first players get to move all of their units, then the enemy has their turn, moving their units in sequence. It’s all familiar, easy-to-understand stuff that lets you get into the game quickly and enjoy it right from the get go, and if you can’t grasp it immediately there’s always a tutorial to ease you into things; but anyone who’s played even a single Fire Emblem game before– especially the first domestic Fire Emblem game on the Game Boy Advance– will recognize the system on the spot.

So, what new features have been added?

Let’s go down the list and start at the new classes, which are arguably the thing that any fan will be looking at first. In previous games, you could promote a character at any point after level 10 by using a certain item, a seal, upon them, at which point they’d change to a predetermined class and gain a big whack of stat points and the chance to level up all over again. Effectively the same system is used once again, but the difference is that upon using the seal on a unit you are given a choice of two classes to choose from; new classes include such things as the Great Knight- a mounted high-defense character who can use any weapon, the Wyvern Knight- a flying unit that can potentially ignore defense, or the Rogue- a speedy utility class who can completely ignore having to use lockpicks to open doors and chests.

Astute readers will notice that these units seem to get some major benefits. The reason for that is that the skill system, used in a number of Fire Emblem games, has made a partial return. Certain classes, both new and old, have skills with a random chance of going off; and these skills help their effectiveness in battle in a variety of ways. Besides those mentioned above, others include the Sniper’s newfound ability to ensure an attack hits or the General’s ability to reduce any hit’s damage to zero. The interesting things about these skills is that, aside from truly major ones such as the Wyvern Knight’s piercing attack or the Rogue’s lockpick ability, they actually become mostly useless. For example, any General worth his salt will take extremely low or no damage anyway, any decent Sniper is assured a hit and any decent Swordmaster is going to perform critical hits like crazy whether he gets an increase to his skill or not.

The game also features ‘Recruits,’ who are young, untrained kids who join your army with aspirations of becoming mighty warriors. Some background for those who don’t know the Fire Emblem system: because experience is limited and statistical growth is somewhat random, characters only get a maximum of two classes to run through in an attempt to grab as many stat points as possible. Recruits, however, start off extremely weak in a ‘sub-class’ entitled Trainee. Upon reaching level 10 in that class, they automatically switch to a basic class and start all over again, giving them the chance to earn more statistic points and become valuable enemy-crushers. Once again, there’s a slight problem here. While the added growth these characters receive gives a greater sense of pride in their abilities, at least one trainee is gained so late in the game that getting him to actually kill enemies and earn any experience is a tall order, especially when you could just slot a high level character into the line-up.

Some significant changes have been made to the between-mission gameplay. Where previous installments would throw you directly into the next mission, FESS allows you to walk around a world map done in the nodular style, allowing you to revisit old towns and shops and visit optional dungeons to plunder for resources. This is a strange move, and while it’s appreciably an attempt to add more to the game it actually serves to remove a major facet of the strategy and difficulty of the first game; namely managing your items to ensure they don’t break at critical junctures. Even when you don’t get the opportunity to revisit the world map between locations, as sometimes occurs, you are still saved the task of item management by having unlimited access to a shop that sells basic-level items. By a similar token, access to these extra dungeons takes away the problems of having to build up a stash of money and carefully manage the experience of your party.

There’s a pattern here. While the Fire Emblem system is, at heart, an extremely solid system able to remain both fun and sufficiently complex, one of the core problems with FESS is that all of the touted new features are little more than things tacked on to a game that is, for those who have stuck with the series, little more than a twenty-something level expansion pack. Worse yet, some of the major features have detracted from the game, or at least not added sufficiently to it to make a difference. It gets to the point where many of the later levels, which are filled to overflowing with enemies, can become either long drawn-out slogfests or else easily solved by taking in the most overpowered character you have and beating down the enemy through counterattacks.

Oh, yes. It’s hard to tell due to the random statistic development, but the fighting portion of the game, even without the associated new bits and bobs, seems easier as a whole, too. Certainly, the same methods to make the game easier are back in force– speed ruling above practically all else, the enemy’s insistance on attacking if it can, even if that puts them at a disadvantage, and the wholesale slaughter of insanely armoured bosses by mages. Additionally, the arenas that so many liked to make use of throughout the previous game, are also back in numbers, appearing as early as Chapter 6 for your power levelling pleasure.

The core problem is that either the system is the same old system it has always been, or something has been changed to… well, to water it down, if we’re being perfectly honest. Whereas previous games required at least a little thought with regards to levelling and equipping your characters, those problems can now basically be brute-forced through.

I could be accused of being too harsh here. I honestly don’t mean to malign the game so much; as I’ve stated, the Fire Emblem system is a solid, fun system that has given a lot of people a lot of very good playtime. Replay value is simply through the roof as you explore the different major plot threads, followed by all of the hundreds of support conversations available in the game; conversations between two characters that increase their comraderie, giving boosts to stats and potentially changing endings. I’m absolutely certain there are many fans out there that will eat up the game with (excuse the pun) relish, coming back for more time and time again.

The plot is light and fairly easy-going, and there’s a score of overly goofy or amusing characters to ease your way through; though this sometimes dents emotional moments it does serve to elicit a chuckle or few as you continue through the game. The graphics follow the easy-going tone, remaining bright and vibrant with some very satisfying hit animations, especially on the new classes. The musical score is very reminiscent of the first game with a collection of standard fantasy style themes presented in a light easy-listening style. All the staples are there such as your rallying march, your sad moment, your humorous interlude, etc.

Put succinctly, if you’re a rabid Fire Emblem fan, you’ll love this game. It’s more of the same style with a new plot with new characters for you to match up, and the added bonus of extra dungeons to try to complete as fast as possible. If you’re a casual fan of the series you may find yourself longing for more lasting changes or wondering why you’re suddenly having an easy time of things, especially since you are likely to be most prone to noticing the problems above. At the same time, it will remain more of the same stuff that you liked before. New gamers will find it a light, fun strategy RPG that makes for some fine time-wasting.

Overall Score 82
For information on our scoring systems, see our scoring systems overview. Learn more about our general policies on our ethics & policies page.
Alan Knight

Alan Knight

Alan was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 2000-2007, following a short stint as a reader reviewer before joining the staff in an official capacity. During his tenure, Alan bolstered our review offerings by lending his unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs.