Amid a decidedly sparse 2005 release list for the GameCube, Fire Emblem glows like the shining jewel from which this strategy role-playing series takes its name. Many players on this side of the earth got their first tastes of Fire Emblem from the outstanding 2003 version for the Game Boy Advance, despite how the series has seen many more installments in its native country. And now it's finally gotten its predictable 3D makeover on the GameCube. We eagerly nabbed a copy of the Japanese version of the game, and we're here with hands-on impressions, as well as new screens and movies, to give you a sense of what you can expect. In short, while we haven't fought too deeply into this fantasy-themed adventure just yet, we can safely say it's going to offer a familiar experience to Fire Emblem fans.
The Fire Emblem games tend to interweave noninteractive story sequences with turn-based strategic combat missions featuring a persistent cast of characters that lives or dies based on your decisions on the battlefield. From a gameplay standpoint, Fire Emblem offers up a fun and simple take on turn-based combat that lets you weigh strategic decisions while also providing the satisfaction of seeing your characters grow much stronger from gaining experience. Additionally, the sheer variety of different character types, including swordsmen, archers, cavalry, priests, mages, knights, thieves, and more, certainly helps make things interesting. All these elements seem to be well intact on the GameCube, so if you've played a previous Fire Emblem game before, you should be able to dive right in.
Certainly, this version of the game takes some advantage of the GameCube's relatively great processing power. Not only are all the battlefield graphics depicted in full 3D, but also the game features some anime-style cutscenes with full voice-over, which represent the sorts of frills you couldn't get on the Game Boy Advance. Honestly, though, our reaction to the 3D graphics is pretty mixed. This seems like an example of a game that's gone 3D purely for the sake of going 3D. Whereas the Game Boy Advance game featured beautifully animated 2D sprites, the GameCube game replaces them with fairly nondescript 3D models. Battles play out just like in previous Fire Emblem entries, so you'll see a close-up of two combatants smacking each other whenever damage is done. But these sequences just don't seem as impressive on the GameCube as they did on the Game Boy Advance, just because the 3D artwork here isn't as striking as the 2D artwork. Still, the overall look and feel of Fire Emblem for the GameCube is still pretty slick, and it definitely makes for a familiar experience for fans of strategy RPGs. Even if you don't know much Japanese, you should still be able to quickly get a feel for the controls and gameplay. For newcomers, the game offers numerous contextual tutorial sequences (which can safely be skipped by Fire Emblem vets).
The story focuses on a young warrior named Ike. As in previous Fire Emblem entries, the relatively inexperienced hero is joined by some seasoned warriors who'll be there to make sure you make it through the early battles in one piece. In this case, Ike's early battles are made much easier thanks to a red-haired female cavalier named Tiamat, as well as a burly knight named Gatrie. One of the interesting strategic challenges of Fire Emblem is deciding which of your units to use in battle. It can be tempting to make Tiamat inflict all the damage to the sorts of thugs and pirates you'll be fighting early on in the game, but she'll gain little experience from it. Meanwhile, Ike could learn much from trading blows with his assailants.
Fire Emblem for the GameCube also makes you consider different types of weapons before engaging your enemies. Most weapons fall into three classes: swords, axes, and spears. These have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, so swords are swifter than axes, spears can poke past swords, and axes can chop through spears. In practice, this relationship simply means that characters equipped with one type of weapon will have a relative advantage or disadvantage against characters equipped with other types of weapons. However, since Fire Emblem is an RPG as much as it's a strategy game, your character's level ultimately has a lot to do with how well he or she will fight. Even the lowliest weapon can be deadly in the hands of a master, right?
We haven't yet had a chance to face off against the new demihuman character class, but it was good to get that familiar Fire Emblem experience from the game. We skipped through most of the story to get straight in to the gameplay, so we can't comment on how it stacks up, except to say that there's clearly lots of story here, and it's all skippable. The story and the complex relationships between the characters definitely represented some of the best parts of Fire Emblem for the GBA, so we hope that developer Intelligent Systems followed suit here. However, it's worth noting that the way the story's presented isn't much improved from the GBA iteration. It's just mostly static 2D portraits of characters, along with plenty of onscreen text for you to read. The nondescript 2D artwork actually gives Fire Emblem sort of a generic feel, but fans of this series know there's a really rich backstory underneath it all.
Our impression is that the developer really played it safely with Fire Emblem for the GameCube. And since we loved the last entry in the series, that seems like good news. The transition to 3D doesn't necessarily seem like it's going to make for a better experience, but as far as we're concerned, the choice between more Fire Emblem and no Fire Emblem is really no choice at all. Stay tuned for additional coverage of the game as we delve further.