Another epic, memorable adventure awaits in Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, the follow-up to 2003's similarly excellent strategy RPG, Fire Emblem. The previous game was actually the seventh in a series that had long since established itself in Japan, and at last made it to these shores. That makes The Sacred Stones the eighth Fire Emblem title, though it features an original, completely self-contained story and is equally well suited to new players as well as returning fans. Those fortunate to have played previous Fire Emblem games will find a comfortably familiar experience in The Sacred Stones, which features its own huge cast of unique characters and some noteworthy twists to the formula. However, most of the play mechanics, animations, and sound effects are the same as before, and therefore maybe not quite as impressive as they used to be. The game itself is outstanding overall, though, for all the reasons its predecessor remains one of the best Game Boy Advance games available--it, too, offers a lengthy, rewarding, thought-provoking experience that truly makes you feel as though the decisions you make, waging one exciting battle after the next, carry serious consequences.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones consists of a series of strategic turn-based battles that are tied together by an elaborate, carefully crafted story featuring dozens of different characters...characters who live and die by your actions. The story touches on many of the same themes as the previous Fire Emblem game, but it's otherwise completely different, right down to the new setting of the land of Magvel. Central to the tale is a new pair of protagonists, the chivalrous royal siblings Ephraim and Eirika. When the kingdom of Grado suddenly and ruthlessly lays siege on its former allies in the kingdom of Renais, Ephraim and Eirika emerge as some of the sole survivors. Forced to go their separate ways, the two of them embark on a quest to muster an army and discover the source of Grado's treachery. You'll get to experience the story from both characters' perspectives, and parts of it even branch off, giving you a different angle on the storyline depending on whose journey you choose to follow.
Much like the previous Fire Emblem, this is a well-written, surprisingly sophisticated narrative featuring plenty of endearing heroes and villains, and no shortage of provocative, morally complex situations. The content isn't so severe that it isn't suitable for younger players, but the point is, Fire Emblem takes itself and audience seriously, though it's not without its occasional moments of comic relief, either. The storyline mostly just unfolds through lightly animated character portraits and accompanying onscreen text, yet this seemingly simple technique works surprisingly well to get the point across. The story is noninteractive and at times quite wordy, so you could skip right past it if and when you really want to. But, much like the previous game, the entertaining turn-based combat and the rich story of The Sacred Stones combine to form something much greater than the sum of these two parts.
The turn-based battles that form the basis of the gameplay in Fire Emblem have more in common with strategy games like Advance Wars than with other strategy RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. In any given battle, you'll control a limited number of units--usually about a dozen--as you attempt to solve your mission's objective. That objective generally involves strategically battling against superior numbers of enemy forces. During your turn, you get to move all your units in any order, and if you wish to make them attack their foes, you're given an estimate of the results of that exchange before having to commit to the fight. When one unit attacks another, the game cuts to a little animated sequence showing the combatants exchange blows. If one unit runs out of health points, it's gone and out of the fight, and can usually be presumed dead. Don't think outsmarting your foes will be easy--the artificial intelligence in Fire Emblem is quite good, so you can look forward to your enemies exploiting any weaknesses in your defenses, such as by focusing their attack on your weakest forces. To make things really interesting, the game features tons of different character classes, each with their own distinct specialties. You've got knights, archers, cavaliers, priests, thieves, fighters, mercenaries, shamans, and many more to work with, including some exotic classes like pegasus knights and wyvern lords.
Fans of Fire Emblem should immediately recognize almost all of these, though a number of new high-level classes and enemy units have been added since the last game. As in the previous title, you must actively use your different characters in battle to make them earn experience points, and as they increase in levels, they noticeably begin to grow more powerful. Later, you'll also be able to upgrade them to a more prestigious character class that's much more effective. Actually, one of the significant changes in The Sacred Stones is that it gives you a choice when you upgrade most of your characters. In the previous Fire Emblem, your cavaliers could become paladins. Here, they can become paladins or great knights, the latter of which is one of the game's new classes.
Each class has certain strengths and weaknesses, and as in Fire Emblem, combat revolves around a few different, fairly intuitive rock-paper-scissors-style systems. There are three weapon types: swords, spears, and axes. There are three types of magic as well, and generally, one is strong against one of the others. But it's not that cut-and-dried, since a highly experienced warrior could still crush a relatively inexperienced opponent armed with a much stronger weapon, and your character's different statistics may cause him or her to attack more than once, be more likely to dodge incoming attacks, and so on. Terrain also plays a factor in a battle's outcome. Furthermore, some of the game's initially weakest characters eventually grow to become your mightiest warriors if you give them a chance (and keep them alive), while those of your warriors who start out very strong won't necessarily advance as quickly--an interesting dynamic that challenges you to take a chance on your fledgling fighters rather than go the obvious route. The game seems to give you just the right amount of information to consider as you plan your strategy--there's plenty of depth to the combat, but not so much that it's difficult to get into or keep track of. It certainly helps that all the different mission maps are tightly laid out and packed with action.
One of Fire Emblem's best, most controversial features is that, despite the fantasy trappings, death in the game is permanent. So if one of your characters is vanquished, your options are to press on, knowing you'll never be able to depend on that character in battle again, or restart the mission from scratch and hope you fare better the next time. An auto-save system prevents you from cheating these rules, too. This design decision may seem a little too hardcore for some, but it ultimately helps make you feel that much more attached to the proceedings and committed to making good decisions during combat. It's also a uniquely interesting and surprisingly personal experience to have to decide which, if any, casualties are acceptable. Some missions can be quite tough--if you lose a trusted comrade on your way to victory, do you move on, content that the sacrifice was not in vain? Or do you try again, certain that there must have been a way to prevent any losses? For what it's worth, you can meet new companions in almost every mission, so there's definitely room to suffer some losses along the way.
Apart from the new character classes, the differences between the previous Fire Emblem and The Sacred Stones are pretty subtle. In the previous game, you actually played as a tactician character who traveled with the story's protagonists, and who enabled a second-person narrative structure--the characters would address you directly at times. That's no longer the case here, which is a change that has no gameplay consequence whatsoever but does alter the style of the storytelling a little. Also, in the previous game, your stash of supplies was handled by a traveling merchant character, whom you needed to protect in battle just like any other character. That's gone, too, and instead, the system is abstracted such that your main characters now have direct access to your army's supplies. There's also a new overworld map that you can travel around. Usually you'll use it just to move from one mission to the next, but it helps make the geography of the game feel a little more alive, and does invite you to visit a few locations off the beaten path. You can even get into random encounters with monsters here, which is actually one of the reasons why this Fire Emblem is a little easier than the last one. When in doubt, you can always get yourself into some more fights and level up a bit before diving into the next mission.
Like its predecessor, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones offers a ton of content and lasting value. The main story mode will take you as long to finish as any good-sized RPG, but on top of that, there's plenty of reason to go back through it multiple times. The nature of the gameplay is such that you'll want to focus on building up a core group of characters during the course of the campaign, so you could easily play through a second or third time while adopting significantly different tactics than you did the first time. Also, as in Fire Emblem, certain characters have affinities for each other and it can be interesting to watch their own little side stories unfold as you make them fight alongside each other in battle after battle. Multiple difficulty settings (available right from the get-go), the branching storyline, and extra options including a link battle mode allowing up to four players to pit their armies against each other further help make this a game that could last you for many dozens of hours.
The only real knock against the game's presentation is that it's so similar to the previous game's. The little cutscenes showing the different units battling each other still look fantastic, featuring impressive, meticulously animated attacks and imaginative character designs. When a unit scores a critical hit, the attack tends to look so powerful as to make you wince. These cutscenes are quick and exciting, but you can opt to strip them out if you're pressed for time or have grown tired of seeing them after many hours of play. The overhead maps remain clear and easy to read, and the game's dozens of different characters each has his or her own animated portrait, which really helps give the cast a lot of personality. At a glance, the game's anime-style artwork may not look particularly special, but the consistency of the art style and the subtle expressions on all the different characters' faces do a lot to create a believable, memorable world. Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones also features a brand new musical score that does a great job of emulating an orchestral sound while also driving the tone of the storyline, and the sound effects of battle remain just as good as the visuals.
Fans of the first Fire Emblem need to track this game down without delay if they haven't already done so. For that matter, pretty much anyone else suffering the drought of new Game Boy Advance releases would be wise to pick this one up. This is a first-rate strategy game combined with a first-rate role-playing game that fans of either style of gaming ought to really appreciate. One could easily assume that a portable game such as this couldn't live up to the depth and quality of a full-blown strategy or role-playing experience on consoles or the PC, but in that case, one would simply be mistaken.