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August 14, 2017

So How Good is Fire Emblem, Really?

You know, sometimes it seems like whenever I do these “So How Good is [X], Really?” posts, the title implies that I’m questioning the quality of X.  And technically, I guess I am.  But don’t worry about it.  I don’t mean any ill will, or to make it sound like X is worse than you think it is.

That’s definitely the case with Fire Emblem, at least for me.  I think that it’s pretty good.  Sooooooooooooooooooo…I guess I just summed up this post in a couple of paragraphs?  That’s a new record.  Okay, time to pack it up and go home.  See you guys later.  Go watch some EVO footage or whatever.  It’s got Tekken 7.  And I know how much you love being on the receiving end of Paul’s death fist.

…Okay, let’s talk about Fire Emblem.

Remember back in the good old days [citation needed] when nobody knew who Marth and Roy were when they popped up in Super Smash Bros. Melee?  It must have been mind-blowing for some people, especially since it’s not as if A) the franchise was that popular in the west, and B) internet usage was widespread enough to put the answers we needed at our fingertips.  Then you look at Smash Bros. 4 and suddenly you’re drowning in Fire Emblem characters.  Marth, Ike, Robin, Lucina -- hell, they not only dropped in Corrin for some cross-promotional goodness, but actually managed to drag our boy Roy out of retirement for one last (?) job.  How times change.

But I guess that’s to be expected.  In the time between Melee and 4, FE has become vastly more popular and well-recognized in the west.  Back in the GBA days we got the creatively-named Fire Emblem, and after that came the rain.  The Sacred Stones, Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn, Shadow Dragon, Awakening, Fates, Echoes; that’s a lot of handsome and/or beautiful fighters in a single franchise.  I doubt anyone’s complaining about that, though.  It just means there’s more to love.  If there wasn’t, then we probably never would have gotten a sort-of-but-not-quite crossover between FE and the Shin Megami Tensei series.  Speaking of, I should probably finish that game at some point.  The battle theme’s rad.

I’m not even going to pretend like I’m an expert on FE, because compared to others my experience with it is limited.  I’ve only played three of them so far, and of those three I’ve only beaten one.  To be fair, though, one of those games is Fates, and I’m making some pretty steady progress in that…long past its point of relevance, but whatever.  Since it’s occupying a pretty big mindshare right now, though, I might as well use that as a guide for the rest of this post.  For the record?  I’m playing the Birthright version, and apparently I’m about to -- SPOILERS -- fight Camilla again, presumably for the last time.  We’re probably not going to go out for tea and crumpets after the battle, if you catch my drift.

Playing Fates has been a refresher course for me; even if I’m basically a FE greenhorn, I still enjoy it to a pretty high degree.  I think I owe that respect to the gameplay, if not one of the most infamous core mechanics: under normal circumstances, a unit whose HP drops to zero is permanently removed from all future battles.  That’s a pretty keen way to keep the stakes high from start to finish.  It’s one thing to clear out the enemies that dot a map, but another thing entirely to do so while keeping as many of your soldiers alive as possible.  It’s not impossible, of course, but the mere prospect of failure -- of losing one of the units that forms a key part of your strategy -- means that you have to consider every single aspect of battle.  You have to transform into Sun Tzu: Anime Arrange, more or less.

Granted, it’s not as if FE is impenetrable in terms of gameplay.  It’s important to think about terrain, attack ranges, the weapon triangles, and the like.  It wouldn’t be a strategy came if you could just do your best Leeroy Jenkins impression (sans humiliating death) from map to map.  Still, the basic goal is usually to rout the enemy or boss and, as long as you can judiciously push toward that goal, you’ll be fine.  Also?  This is a turn-based strategy franchise we’re talking about.  Last I checked, it wasn’t as execution-heavy as the average fighting game.  If you can work a TV remote, you can succeed.

And it feels good to succeed.  There’s something about playing Fates that tickles my brain in a way a lot of games don’t -- except, maybe, for the other FE titles.  It’s delightful to see the fruits of my labors -- the preparations beforehand, materialized on the battlefield by letting me march with a phalanx of dreadnought-class warriors.   Indeed, FE has given me some great moments as an afro-headed tactician.  I remember giving Ike the Brave Blade for one battle to see how it went, only to break out into laughter when he insta-killed the boss by slashing it four times in one go.  And maybe one of my most brilliant gaming moments was using several units’ movement and attack range abilities to create an infinite loop of magic-slinging and healing, all so I could safely whittle a dragon’s life to zero. 

So yeah, the gameplay’s pretty good.  But how about the story?

It’s hard for me to judge the series as a whole, so I won’t.  But again, since I’m focused on Fates right now, I might as well give some thoughts on that.  And…yeah, it’s all right.  Nothing too mind-blowing; there are some good scenes in there for sure, but right now nothing has really jumped out at me past the opening, pre-branch hours.  There’s always the possibility that I zoned out for most of the story -- or mashed through conversations to get to battles faster -- but I doubt it.  The plot basically boils down to “this evil king is being evil, so let’s march up to his doorstep and kick his ass”; I would assume the full story is much more complex than that, whether it’s in Birthright’s later hours or the Revelation edition, but for now?  I’m lukewarm on the narrative.

And to be clear, I’m lukewarm on Fates’ narrative, not the others’.  I feel like other entries had more going on, or at least created the illusion of stuff going on.  Ike may be the guy famous for “fighting for his friends”, but he also had to step out of his father’s shadow to command the Greil Mercenaries, take on a lordship, bridge the gap between humans and beastfolk, confront his black-garbed father’s killer, safeguard a princess, and more.  There’s more to digest in that game, even before its big climax.  Maybe the fault lies with the central characters; Corrin has to play the role of avatar, but still comes off as a basic stand-in most of the time.  Ike may have come off as too straight-laced for his own good, but he still had some pizzazz to his name.

So it’s possible that FE is the only franchise that might be able to skirt by with a weaker narrative.  Why?  Because it’s so incredibly character-focused and intensive -- for good or ill.

In its current state -- and well before that -- FE has put a huge amount of emphasis on the characters you’ll meet as you traverse treacherous battlefields.  It’s clever in a sadistic sort of way; how else are you going to shatter a player’s heart if you don’t inspire a relationship between player and character, only to have a tactical slip-up cause a one turn kill?  So yes, the key to the franchise’s enduring success is that it gives units faces and personalities.  Compare that to something like Advance Wars; as good as that franchise is, it’s fine if you lose a tank or APC along the way, and not just because you can build another one.  If you lose Guy, Boyd, or Oboro, they’re gone forever.  Their abilities are gone forever.  Their support conversations are gone forever.  And you can never get them back.

Well, unless you do the smart thing (read: cheat) and turn off the game or reset.  But then you’d have to do the whole map again, and who’s got time for that?

It’s a safe bet that the minds behind FE know that the new batch of heroes and heroines (and villains, if we’re being honest) are a primary draw.  I’m okay with that.  As I often say, characters create opportunities.  Pixels, sprites, and polygons can take on deeper meanings or gain sentimental value by becoming personas that players resonate with.  You’re not just playing to clear a map and go to the next stage.  You’re playing in such a way that you can avoid the worst possible Pyrrhic victory; you want to keep your friends alive so you can keep commanding and conversing with them as the days wear on.  That’s good.  That’s a smart way to do it.

But there’s always a limit.

As you can guess, I didn’t follow Fates too closely when it was making the rounds, which means I didn’t (and still don’t) have much of a stake in the controversies surrounding it.  But now that I’m deep in there…uh…boy does this game get under my skin.  I know it’s supposed to be heartwarming or whatever, but every time I invite a comrade to my room and they shower me with praise for no raisin -- with smiles and often-blushing faces, no less -- I feel like I need a shower.  Maybe it’s because, at the very least, I know there was some touching minigame tied into it that would necessitate a scrub so furious it would peel the flesh from my bones.

And then there’s the hot springs you can install in your base, the point of which I’m not too aware of off the top of my head.  Popping over to GameFAQs reveals that fully upgrading it gives you a secret unit, but it seems worthless unless you want to see Corrin and her pals in a state of undress.  I suspect that was a top priority for the devs for reasons that no one could ever begin to guess.  And then there’s an entire gameplay mechanic built around having your units marry each other to produce children who you can fight with via space-time shenanigans -- so yes, it’s literally a game of husbandos and waifus.  Also, as someone playing Birthright: should I be concerned over the fact that everybody in Team Hoshido is young and cute/beautiful/hot and good (and Japanese, but let’s not whack that hornet’s nest), while the main villains are consistently old and ugly?

Then again, Nohr’s not exactly innocent either.  As you know.

Is there such a thing as trying too hard with FE?  I mean, I’ll be frank here: back when the game was first announced, I was kinda-sorta willing to pledge undying loyalty to Camilla.  Nowadays?  Ehhhhhhhh…not so much.  Even though I know there’s more to her than her looks, the actual in-game character isn’t quite as cool as I would have hoped.  A lot of her dialogue and role thus far has been “Oh my dear little sister!” or “You’re so cute, little sister!” and so on.  It probably has something to do with me being with Hoshido right now, granted, but still.  It doesn’t change the fact that the devs didn’t give an eighth of a fuck with Camilla.  Zoom in on her ass!  Zoom in on her crotch!  Remind everyone that she doesn’t wear pants!  Now you’ve got a screen full of jiggle physics even though she’s wearing armor or whatever!  And look, she’s coming in to hug and kiss you!  Accept her!  Love her!  LOVE HER!

I’m not saying it’s too much…but I’m saying it’s too much.

It’s not just an issue of fanservice, either (at least not entirely).  Like, I would be more okay with Camilla if they just gave her a gentle nudge in my direction, not jammed into my face with a rocket-powered bulldozer.  But it seems like some of these characters, at a frequency that’s a little too often for comfort, are less than characters and more like appeals to the player.  Pandering.  Wish fulfillment.  It feels like some of these guys and ladies have lost their edge because they need to cater to audience tastes and expectations -- through tried-and-true anime tropes, of course.  Even someone as prickly as Rinkah doesn’t feel as forceful or commanding as I expect her to be.  That’s a problem.

But I’m sure it’s fine in the long run.  I mean, it’s not as if the whole franchise has been distorted to cater to gamers in the basest, most obvious way imagina-

*sigh* God is dead.

For the record, I still like Fates.  But even with my limited experience in the franchise, I feel like something’s amiss -- like the detractors of the modern-day games aren’t just crying out because it’s different now.  Even if you look past the bait-happy aspects of the cast and/or story, the gameplay in Birthright is easier than I’d prefer.  No weapon durability?  Slap on a Killer Axe and let it rip.  Customizable avatars?  Turn Corrin into a General and let your invincible juggernaut stomp her way from one end of the map to another.  Optional challenge missions?  Grind to your heart’s content so that the story missions are almost a trifle.  Also, it’s very easy to exploit the enemy AI; since they usually only move when you step into their attack range, you can slink up to the periphery undisturbed and bait them into attacking a unit that’s a HARD counter.  C’est la vie.

There have been times when I’ve pined for the days of Path of Radiance (or alternatively thought about investing in Conquest), because the core gameplay is good.  The ideas in it are good.  The characters on the whole are good.  There are a lot of things about FE -- old-school or new -- that are good.  Do I approve of every choice it’s made?  Not really, no.  But there’s a reason why I’m sticking with it despite some foibles here and there.  So bring on the next title, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems.  I’m ready for it.

But that’s all in my opinion.  What about you guys?  Got something to say about FE?  Then let’s hear it.  Ready?  Set…COMMENT!  And/or nuke Samus!

Or you could just, like, not comment.  And then you can do as I’m doing and clasp your hands in prayer, eager to gather the mental force needed to distort reality just enough for a new Advance Wars game.  If we all share our energy with Nintendo, maybe someday we’ll get more sick badasses like Brenner and dope tank battles.

Come on, Nintendo!  Do it, you cowards!

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