Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is the eighth game in the Fire Emblem franchise, and the second released outside of Japan. If the games were all considered a family, this would be the family member that was well-liked and pretty, but also kind of easy.
That’s to say that it’s not a hard game, especially given the addition of the Tower of Valni, a series of maps full of re-spawning monsters where experience points flow like champagne at a hip-hop party and leveling up all of your characters is a hilariously simple thing to accomplish. Still, it’s purely optional, so die-hard fans can completely ignore it without missing out on anything particularly important. Despite most of the game being a cakewalk, there are brief moments of difficulty toward the end of the game for those who haven’t leveled all of their units into unstoppable killing machines, and that makes this a perfect candidate for a “first Fire Emblem game” for anyone interested in the series.
Veterans of the series will likely find plenty to love, as well. Gone is the awkward “you the player are a character in the story” element from the last game, and the story and gameplay hit enough familiar notes to feel like a Fire Emblem game through and through. Everyone is a prince and princess in Fire Emblem games, and if they’re not, they’re probably the second-best thing—a secret prince or princess. It’s hilarious at times to watch how many members of royal families you end up recruiting without even knowing it.
The story in general is relatively uncomplicated compared to the complexities found in a game like Fire Emblem 4 (seriously, look up the plot to that game), but it still manages to be engaging and, at times, genuinely compelling. For the most part, however, it’s just fluff designed to set up a number of maps where you have to kill/survive against an onslaught of enemies. As in most Fire Emblem games, the story plays out through conversations characters have between maps, which, while a negative point in the eyes of some who would prefer something new, is where the personalities of the main characters are primarily developed. Ancillary characters are developed mostly through the support system, where several characters, if used next to one another for long enough, will engage in a conversation and gain some combat benefits when they’re within a few spaces of one another. This can be leveled up, starting at C and going to A, and some characters will have their endings somewhat changed depending on who they have supports with.
Gameplay is the same Fire Emblem RPG-strategy goodness that you can expect from the series, though how you get to that actual familiar gameplay is somewhat different than what you’re probably used to. Rather than each chapter leading to the next in a linear way, you’re given a world map and the freedom to move around that overworld map, though only to places where you’ve already been. This allows you purchase weapons and, once you’ve reached a certain point, use the Tower of Valni. It’s not always as simple as simply moving around, however, because monsters pop up on the map and, though rare, can occasionally block your progress and necessitate fighting them. Those fights play out much like ordinary levels, only much easier and free from story elements. Other than the overworld map, everything is as you remember it: There are mid-level arenas where you can die if you’re careless, permanent character deaths, the rock/paper/scissors element where certain weapons/spells have an advantage/disadvantage over enemies wielding others, and even the triangle attack where Pegasus Knights/Falcon Knights get a guaranteed critical hit if they surround an enemy on three sides.
Graphics are what you’d expect from a Fire Emblem game, especially one on Game Boy Advance. There are the character portraits in menus that are vaguely anime-like (but only vaguely—no exaggerated facial expressions), little sprites that represent your characters on the map, and depictions of your characters in battle, complete with special animations for critical hits, that change when you level up. Everything is colorful and visually interesting, though you’ll likely be so caught up in developing your characters that you quickly tune all of it out entirely.
Music, though not the Game Boy Advance’s strong suit, is pretty good. You won’t hook up a speaker and blast some of its “sick tunes” at a party or anything, but the writing is consistently appropriate, something that’s really been true of all Fire Emblem games. Each song fits what’s happening at the moment, and even small things like a dancer giving a character another turn or a healer healing someone near death have their own distinct themes.
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