Loving Fire Emblem: A Retrospective

In light of last week’s announcement about the newest Fire Emblem game coming Spring 2019, I couldn’t help but follow up my reaction post to the news last week with a bit more of a self-indulgent post about this series as a whole.

I’ve loved Fire Emblem since my best friend Madison gave me a copy of Awakening for my 16th birthday in 2014. She was already a huge fan of the game, having played the 3DS demo to death until actually receiving the game for Christmas months before.

Through osmosis, I understood that it was a game where you got to date and marry the characters, and I had the lightest of understandings of the plot. I knew she loved Chrom from the moment she accidentally married him, and that the characters had kids you could also play.

It was one of those moves on her part where you’re so desperately obsessed with something you’ll do anything to get your friend into it too just so you’ll have someone to talk to about it, and I’m grateful she did that to this day. Fire Emblem has been a huge part of my life ever since.

For a series that can sometimes come off as controversial to some, I want to share what keeps me coming back to it again and again regardless. And I also want to speak on the specific strengths of the two main series games I’ve played, Awakening and Fates.

(And yes, I know I’m exactly the type of fan that ‘hardcore’ Fire Emblem fans hate, the kind that has only played the newer games. But I’m not really interested in getting into that conversation at this very moment, to be honest.)

The Best Thing About Fire Emblem (To Me)

If you were to ask me what the single best aspect of Fire Emblem as a series is, I would tell you it’s the gameplay. However, I would be lying. Well… sorta. I do love the gameplay, and I’ll talk about it a bit more in a second, but truly the best part of this series to me is the characters.

I really love characters. I know this about myself because it’s both my biggest strength and my biggest weakness when it comes to fiction-writing. I love to create characters, to dive deep into their mentalities and explore every aspect of what makes them tick, from the big, philosophical stuff to, like, their favorite colors and foods. And I focus so much on characters in my writing that it makes me really unable to construct plots… so… that’s a thing I need to work on.

But commentary on my own personal skills or not, this love of mine translates to the media I consume as well. I find myself naturally drawn to media with a heavy focus on characters. Fire Emblem is one of those pieces of media.

This is partly a result of how the game is structured. For an “army simulation” to work, you have to have soldiers. And that leads to huge casts of characters and mechanics that strongly encourage the player to engage with them, learn about them, and strengthen them.

The (Actual) Best Thing About Fire Emblem

Thus, the real best thing about Fire Emblem, without my biases, is the gameplay. But it’s the intersection of that focus on characters and the gameplay that truly is the series’ greatest strength.

Sure, the strategic turn-based combat is fun and unique to the series, and the amount of control the player is given lends to all sorts of fun battle tactics if you’re into that sort of thing, but for me it’s the way the game encourages you to care about its characters that is so great.

As I mentioned, Fire Emblem games often have huge casts of soldiers, and because they’re so huge, every character tends to have a shtick that makes them easily memorable and instantly understandable. You would think that would lead to a cast of shallow characters which is… sometimes true.

But what is brilliant about the gameplay of Fire Emblem is it rewards using these characters by unlocking supports between them and others. So, if you’re drawn into using a character by their surface shtick, you’re automatically more likely to unlock more dialogue between them and other characters, which often also unlocks more depth and information about them, alongside a general strength boost, making them easier to use more in combat, which leads to more unlocked supports…. and so on and so forth.

I’m sure some people might disagree with this assessment, and say that the supports system is just a novelty to get weeaboos into the game, but I think that’s overly simplistic. Besides, it makes sense that this game would want you to get invested in every character – the gameplay of classic mode involves putting their lives at risk. Why would that game mode be challenging if you don’t care about the characters? It’s way harder to put the lives of characters you actually enjoy and care about on the line than random generic soldiers.

It’s in that way, I think, that the gameplay of this series just keeps me coming back. Because while yes, the gameplay is fun and unique, it also goes hand-in-hand with my favorite part of any piece of media. And it’s just good, clean fun to get invested in so many different characters every time I pick up a new game.

Speaking of that, though, let’s talk about each game I’ve played in a bit more detail, shall we?

Awakening

I cannot fathom a better introduction to this series than Awakening. There’s just something very approachable about this game… be it the flexible level of difficulty, the obvious comparisons to older games without being too referential, the simplicity of the story and setting… Awakening is just so good at gently guiding you into the world of Fire Emblem, then sucking you in with surprisingly emotional moments.

Awakening’s approach to the core gameplay of Fire Emblem is very simplistic as well, no bells and whistles, just pure strategic combat. This game has come under fire for being too easy, a common point of contention for fandom elitists, but with the choice of classic mode and different difficulties, I think these people are more mad that an easy option exists at all, not that they aren’t challenged enough by the harder options.

I experienced Awakening first through the lens of my best friend who loved it, so when I finally got it for myself, I already knew a lot of the big major plot points. So it’s a testament to the emotional weight of many of these moments that they still affected me, even when I knew they were coming.

While I won’t say the cast of Awakening is the strongest I’ve seen in this game franchise (that honor goes to Fates) I still love many of the characters, especially the kid characters. I actually think it’s a shame that the story doesn’t focus more on the kids, because I think their stories are incredibly intriguing. Still, they serve an excellent purpose of developing their parents as characters as well as standing as a physical example of the stakes of the current conflict.

I do wish this game had more of an element of choice, however. Many of the choices you make in this game masquerade as huge deciding moments, when really none of them have much bearing on the plot except for the final one.

Still, I can’t be too critical of this game, because it holds such a special place in my heart as my first window into a world that had intrigued me for years now.

Fates

I know this game is controversial, yet I still think it’s my favorite Fire Emblem game so far. It takes a lot of what Awakening did so well and expands upon it, focusing harder on character drama and dipping its toes into the idea that choice matters. In fact, the entire theme of this game relies on player choice and how it affects plot outcomes.

Also, more layers are added into the combat, and the difficulty is really varied. I struggled a lot with Conquest (especially that final boss battle, phew), while Birthright was a breeze and a half. Again, I like how that gives both new and returning players an option.

I do agree that the choice of splitting this game into three versions you have to buy separately is slimy. I don’t think it was completely unwarranted as a creative decision, but it’s still annoying and is a huge barrier for entry to anyone who might want to experience the series for the first time through this game.

Still, I have a lot of praise for the game itself. I adore the setting of Nohr and Hoshido and I think the game did a great job of subtly characterizing both main kingdoms through not only little details of the world, but also through character interactions and the way characters express themselves differently in each kingdom. I also adore how Nohr, the big evil-looking kingdom, is not actually that evil when you’re playing their side, and how even the bright, peace-loving facade of Hoshido crumbles when exposed to scrutiny. Both kingdoms defy their stereotypes, making them more believable locations in the long run.

I also love the characters. The setting opened itself up to a lot of interesting angles that many of the characters, main or not, explore. The royals especially are intriguing and deeply flawed characters that reflect their kingdoms well.

And… yes, the way they integrate the kids into this game is more than a little weird. But I also love the kids for many of the same reasons I loved the kids in Awakening – they develop their parents and are just delightful and well-earned additions to the cast in their own right. The benefits they bring to the game both through story and gameplay far outweigh the weird baby realm thing.

Fates is the game I most often return to, and I think that’s a testament to just how dense it is. It gripped me hard from the moment I first picked it up, and it’s still something I’d like to return to in future posts.

Well, that’s about enough rambling from me. If you’re interested in hearing me talk about other, more specific aspects of this series, check out my post on Camilla from Fates, on Owain/Odin, on fanservice in the series, on Warriors, and my initial reactions to the Fire Emblem direct that was our first announcement of the new game. (Phew, I talk about this game a lot, huh?)

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