Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade – GBA

 

FE - Stab

Quit poking me.

Oh god, when does the Fire Emblem madness end?

FE - Big Bird

What the hell, dude? I just asked if you could tell me how to get to Sesame Street!

Now. It ends now. I have Path of Radiance sitting on my shelf, ready to go, but like for firearms, it might be a good idea to impose a mandatory cool-down period, lest I totally flip my lid, fling the disc in the air, shoot it like skeet, then use its shards on a murderous rampage. But knowing Fire Emblem rules for weapon degradation, it’ll probably do enough damage to leave an unbleeding flap of skin on my first victim’s thumb before the disc completely disintegrates, leaving me defenseless against the inevitable counter-pummeling I’d then receive. Damn, I know Fire Emblem games have a reputation for being hard, but I’ve played six of them now, and the Binding Blade is easily the worst of them all. This game is more punishing than growing up with an ex-military hockey coach dad and a rampaging tiger mom (And trust me; growing up with just a hockey coach dad, we had our own gulag set up in the basement for bringing home any grade lower than a B.).

FE - Handsome

And I am conceited.

So first, some background on the Binding Blade—or “Fuin no Tsurugi,” or “The Sword of Seals” or “The Sealed Sword”–was never released in the U.S. Naturally, Fire Emblem was only released in the U.S. at all on account of Marth and Roy appearing in Smash Bros., so why Nintendo’s refusal to release Roy’s game is akin to a drug dealer lacing a joint with crack, and then selling you nothing but Xanax and Advil when you come back for more. So the Binding Blade is only available as a fan translation. Now, I’ve played some great fan translations before, but back when I was listing off the different titles, you may have noticed that “The Sealed Sword” doesn’t quite mean the same thing as “The Sword of Seals” and “The Binding Blade.” Personally, translators who can’t tell the difference between the genetive and a participle (which, for non-grammarians out there is like not knowing the difference between a 4th-grade Valentine card and a restraining order) probably should be kept far, far away from a Fire Emblem story. Even the well-translated games read like someone chucked Game of Thrones fan fiction through a wood chipper. The Binding Blade feels like after they did that, they threw it in a hot bath with a Risk board and some discount Anime figurines named after T.H. White characters.

FE - Kage Bunshin

Kage bunshin no jutsu!

Aside from writing that flows naturally as a story arc for Wheel of Fortune, the gameplay hits one of my battered, raw RPG nerve endings—low accuracy rate. Missing needs to be an option for video game combat. It adds a random bit of chance into battles, a little flavor on top of mathematically predictable fight scenes. So if missing is the spice to add flavor to battle, the accuracy rate in The Binding Blade is a full-on turmeric overdose. Rather than trading blows in a nice, even manner to progress the game, characters stand on opposite sides of a tornado and chuck Nerf darts at each other. Using save states, I actually began to manipulate the RNG just to get through the game, and it seems like some weapons are glitched to hit far less often than their accuracy rate, and there is little that can make a game more tedious than rushing into battle with Ray Charles, Helen Keller, and the entire pre-op ward of a cataract surgeon’s clinic.

FE - No Arms

Murdock has overcome great adversity, not having any arms sprouting from his giant shoulders.

Low cash flow, breakable weapons, and few chances for experience are staples of Fire Emblem games, but again, the Binding Blade expands this to the absurd. There are inner-city school districts with more funding than Roy’s army. So even though the game quite regularly springs for an extra hoard or two of enemies halfway through each battle, units have to lie on their resumes for experience. This is becoming a constant theme on my blog, but if I wanted to live surrounded by shoddy items, less financially solvent than most crows, fighting a futile battle to get more experience to change all that, I’d just shut off the goddamn game and write a few cover letters.

FE - Animal House

These are getting a little lazy. Rutger…filed his income tax. Marcus…had cake for breakfast. Roy…I don’t know. Went to bed early or something.

I feel at this point, it’s still not clear just what kind of a blinding rage this game threw me into, so let me make this point: in order to finish the game on a reasonable timeline—which still took probably more than 50 hours—I had to use over 280 save states. That’s right, the sheer number of save states I used to get through this Fire Emblem game would have caused binary overflow on an NES. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier I had to learn how to manipulate the RNG. If I have to go into full research mode, read what people have written about the game mechanics, delve through the game’s coding, run controlled experiments with each unit on each turn and (optional) publish a dissertation on my findings, chances are this will be a difficult game to enjoy, to say the least.

FE - Report Card

I haven’t been this pissed off over a report card since I got a C in 8th Grade English.

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Fire Emblem Awakening – 3DS

FEA Marth

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Ishmael.” On the other hand, Moby Dick never inspired me to read anything Melville wrote, let alone play an entire series of games.

Oh god…this is what happens when you play too many games from the same franchise. Fire Emblem Awakening plays so much like a rough draft of Fire Emblem Fates, that I seriously considered just posting a draft for my article on Fates and calling it a day. Fortunately for you, I’m so lazy when it comes to blogging that I never revise, and therefore already posted my draft a few weeks back. Even more fortunately, I’m lazy enough to have written two paragraphs, put it aside for several months, and then just gave up when it came time to schedule the post. So here’s a mini-review, more to add a notch in my belt of games on this blog than to actually inform you of anything.

FEA Squares

It’s a good thing the natural world created so many zones of colored tiles for them to work with.

Awakening follows the exploits of the player’s avatar, defautly named Robin, and his/her own personal Batman, Chrom (possibly named after the personal god of Conan. The barbarian, that is, not O’Brien.). Chrom first encounters Robin passed out in a field, having blacked out most of his own personal history, save for his name, the ability to speak English, and a Ph.D.-level education in fantasy medieval tactics. Shortly afterward, an army of zombies from the future shows up. Even in a fantasy world, this is about as commonplace as, say, sentient carrots from outer space slaughtering our millionaire class for the purpose of overhauling our methods for packaging retail items, so their appearance coincidentally creates a job opening for a tactician in Chrom’s armies. Personally, I immediately felt a connection with Robin, not only because I personalized him as my avatar, but also because he set up realistic expectations of what has to happen before someone will fucking give me a job. The first battle with these future zombies, though, proves to be too much to handle even for Robin, and Chrom’s forces have to be bailed out by fucking Trunks from Dragonball Z. What follows is a wacky, zany tale filled with convoluted political intrigue, Dragonball time-travel rules, and an entire army fornicating on the job that doesn’t somehow turn out with more sexual harassment scandals than the American political/entertainment world.

FEA Harassment

That’s sexual harassment, and I don’t have to take it.

Later seen in Fates, Fire Emblem Awakening introduced the series to the philosophy that the family that slays together, stays together. Upon realizing just how many extra battles are available should I choose to play the game less like a military campaign and more like medieval Tinder (which, from experience, is no less brutal than feudal warfare), I decided to play matchmaker and pair up as many characters as possible. Also like Fates, each marriage between characters produces a child for you to press into service like your own personal Khmer Rouge. Still, even without the genocide, to say that marching into combat with an army of adolescents is a morally gray area is like saying we might want to consider the ramifications of exposing food to raw uranium before installing nuclear kitchens in every elementary school in the country. (And yes, I know that in the middle ages, the age of adulthood was 12 and that the leper king of Jerusalem had reached the pinnacle of his military career by 15.) Awakening solves this dilemma (…three years before Fates introduced it) by sending all your children back from the future as fully grown adults. Honestly, the only disappointing thing about this is that while Fates gave you the Lannister/Targaryen incest option to marry your siblings, Awakening passed up a perfectly good Back to the Future vibe by denying moms the chance to woo their sons.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – 3DS

FE Cover

The reason you don’t see more reviews on Mega Man games on this site is not because I don’t ever play the games. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Mega Man, especially in those earlier Marvel vs Capcom games. For all the complex combos that characters in fighting games can pull off, I often found it was better just to slide-kick opponents with Mega Man, thus ensuring they never stand long enough to pull off their own complex super-moves (and that my friends give me less social contact than your average plague victim). It’s a well-known (and rarely implemented) concept among game design that you have to make those difficult moves worth it, otherwise players will just do the simplest and easiest moves. On that note, it takes a certain masochistic spirit to keep writing completely new entries when the “find and replace” feature would work perfectly well. Writing new jokes is hard, and in the time I usually spend staring blankly at my computer screen, I could easily learn a new language, clean my house, conduct an extensive and painstaking research project to develop cold fusion and advance humanity to the next era, or—more likely—play another video game. But then I’d have to write about it. That all being said, here’s an entry on Fire Emblem, a game just like every other installment in the series!

FE Celica

There’s a dirty joke in here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I’m too smitten to find it.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Fire Emblem: Echoes: Shadows of Valentia differs from its peers in that it has a title that sounds like someone pulled it from a flow chart. Aside from that, its pretty standard fare: a turn-based tactical strategy game that makes me feel just a little bit better for not being able to beat 6th-graders at chess. Play alternates between two characters: Alm and Celica, who are close childhood friends and totally not secret heirs to the thrones of Valentia’s two kingdoms, Rigel and Zofia. Alm’s story starts when Lucas comes to his village looking for recruits for “The Deliverance,” a band of rugged, backwater warriors who totally want to make their enemies squeal like a pig, even if not a damn one of them plays banjo. Alm and his friends sign up, free Zofia on their way to training, and discover that the Deliverance consists of pretty much just three guys, one of whom tenders his resignation after their leader’s decision to turn control of their entire forces over to this random kid who shows up claiming to be the main character. Celica, on the other hand, has a bad dream and decides to follow up on it in the morning, which serves as the impetus for eventually taking down a cult of religious fanatics hell-bent on spreading chaos. The last time I followed up on a bad dream, Anne grunted incoherently, then told me to go back to sleep.

FE Tiles

Even the USMC is taught to distinguish blue tiles from red.

Also unique for a tactical game, players can explore three-dimensional dungeons, complete with RPG tropes like money falling out of grass, characters who feel its easier to obliterate boxes than to simply open the lids, and lots and lots of random enemy encounters. In games where single battles can run upwards of forty minutes, the idea of placing a string of fights between save points sounds about as enjoyable as masturbation with a box of sandpaper instead of tissues. But the game solves this potential tedium grind by nerfing the fuck out of all the enemies. While story battles retain some semblance of the challenge the series is known for, monsters in dungeon battles go down like termite-infested Jenga towers. I got through most battles within two rounds, and regularly finished without enemies having a chance to act at all. I’ve gotten more resistance from targets at archery ranges.

FE Celica 2

When on fire, wave your hands wildly in front of you like sparklers.

Combat does have some interesting mechanics, such as mages casting spells with HP instead of MP. It only makes sense, after all, that someone blasting a lightning bolt from the palm of their hand might inadvertently complete a circuit. This changes strategy more than you’d think. One nice by-product is that you don’t have to slaughter enemy mages—just whittle them down to less HP than it takes to cast their most basic spell. At that point, they’ll just stand on the field and put up less of a fuss than your average soccer fan. Of course, it often feels like enemies exploit this mechanic, supporting a few high-level magic users with a small fleet of high-level healers. But still, you’ll want to stock up on your own spell casters because finally the nerds are busting out of their lockers and coming for the jocks.

FE Dragon

Always be sure to clean out your fire breathing dragon after every use, or this may happen.

But if the mages are overpowered, it’s because they get to memorize a book of spells, while all characters in the game are limited to carrying one item. Oh, they’ll get a default weapon if they don’t have one equipped, but these basic armaments pack all the punch of that broken rock-em-sock-em robot that can’t quite knock the other one’s head off. So if they’ll have to chose between their high-level, blacksmith-modded lightning sword (if they want to stay alive in battle) or a hunk of stale, leftover bread (if they want to stay alive in general). And I’m not actually making that up—leftover bread is an item in the game, and it takes so much effort to carry that your seasoned warrior just doesn’t have the strength to strap on a sword to his belt.

FE Mycen

Sir Mycen. Last name, Men. Tactical genius, though his plans often go awry.

While a good game overall, one major frustration made its presence known from start to finish: extremely low accuracy and extremely high evasion rates. It was as if I recruited my soldiers, warriors or mages, right out of the post-op ward for cataract surgery, shoved them into the dark and had them all start swinging at enemy ninjas with whiffle bats. Personally, I’d rather an attack connect, but deal no damage, than to feel that all my actions are literally wasted…but that’s perhaps my own quirk from having sent out one too many job applications.

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – GBA

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Fantasy Video Game Trope 10023

Ah, yes…the tropes are strong with this one.

Although Fire Emblem is quickly becoming a new favorite series for me, my efforts to charm and amuse you by saying something witty and unique about each game are stymied by the ever-present reality that reviewing individual games in a series is often as productive as reviewing individual chocolates in a bag of M&Ms. That does speak to the strengths of the industry. After all, no one wants to dig into a bag of M&Ms and find twenty chocolates, five skittles, two pennies and a clump of cat litter. Likewise, if Nintendo has established a medieval-fantasy strategy series, it does not behoove them to give players “Fire Emblem: Banjo Simulator.” That’s good for players, but for those of us who write about games, the “if it ain’t broke” approach makes reviews a little difficult to write.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones - scooby doo

Zoinks! Scoob, what say you and I check out the kitchen instead?

It’s a fairly simplistic strategy game that reminds me either of Shining Force on the Sega Genesis or a game of chess played on the back of a speeding jet ski. Characters have classes such as knight, archer, paladin, mage, dancer, or insurance claims adjuster, and march into battle with nothing but their unique stats, a few class-specific characteristics (pegasus knights can fly over mountains, for example), and an assortment of weapons crafted from high-quality candy glass so that they’ll shatter after a handful of uses. Victory goes to whichever army can successfully bludgeon the gate keeper, enemy general, or living daylights out of everyone on the other team.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Dragonlance

Laurana, Tasslehoff and Flint will come by to pick it up later.

The story opens on a continent comprised of several kingdoms, one republic, one empire, and zero confusion about who the evil invading power will be based on the Star Wars rule of fantasy clichés. The Empire of Grado starts conquering neighboring kingdoms for no purpose other than to smash their family jewels (literally) in order to set free a long imprisoned demon king. I could make a joke about those motives being so cartoonishly villainous that its like congressmen pitching poor people into piles of burning coal just to speed up global warming, but honestly our current government daily bemoans the lack of trains in this day and age because it reduces the efficiency of tying girls to railroad tracks. Donald Trump is just a handlebar moustache away from being a cartoon villain himself. As for Fire Emblem’s primary antagonist, we get a young prince who can’t decide whether or not he’s possessed by the demon king, controlled by the demon king, or just envious of the hero, so we spend the entire second act of the game chasing around a kid more indecisive than a college student with identity issues who’s on the verge of changing his major for the third time.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Lyon Bad-touches Ephraim

Ephraim experiences “bad touch” with his childhood friend.

The Sacred Stones ramps up the difficulty compared to Shadow Dragon by limiting funding and weapons and replacing them with enough enemies to make the Battle of Pelennor Fields look like a fair fight. Unfortunately, the game seems to have made one offset too many. In spite of names like “Steel lance” and “silver sword,” enemy weapons seem to be forged entirely from noodles of varying degree of wetness. From the beginning, I had a character who wouldn’t take damage if he played a round of golf wearing full plate armor in a lightning storm, and he found himself in good company by the end of the game. While it had its moments, especially near the end of the game, several battles felt much like the Battle of Pelennor Fields if Gandalf had arrived at Minas Tirith with a truck full of AK-47s instead of a socially awkward hobbit. At times even it felt as though the true challenge of the game was leveling up. Unlike Shadow Dragon, Sacred Stones did offer chances to fight outside of of the main story campaign, but the game’s algorithm for assigning experience points didn’t seem to follow any pattern of current level, enemy’s level, or effectiveness of actions, but rather seemed more in line with the effects of locking a chimpanzee in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a dart board.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Animal House Ending

Sacred Stones retains the series’ traditional Animal House style endings. The good-natured thief is the one who steals a horse…and puts it in the dean’s office.

Death, in real life, is almost as unforgiving as the girls I dated in high school and college. In video games, though, it’s about as debilitating as the check engine light on my car; it’s there, it worries me, but if I can usually go a little farther without completely bursting into flames, it’ll probably go away on its own at some point. Video game death naturally applies to all characters equally, with the exception of Fire Emblem, one character in any given Final Fantasy game, and that thirtieth guy in Contra. It is a rather unique mechanic, I have to say, because the concern for a character you’ve invested time and energy into can really change the game when he suddenly goes the way of your schnauzer who died when you were in fourth grade. The biggest difference, of course, being that you wear out your reset button about as much as you’d normally wear out your B button. Okay, maybe that’s considered cheating by some…in the way that offering to motorboat your female coworkers’ enormous racks might be considered sexual harassment by some…but I prefer to think of it as forcing me to learn the absolute best strategy for the situation. Resetting the game when a character dies. Not the motorboating things.

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Fire Emblem: Fates – 3DS

Fates

Enemies on opposing sides of a bitter conflict take a moment to squeeze everyone in to the photo.

Chess is a great game for those of us who like strategy and medieval combat, simple and elegant like an inbred European princess, and as timeless as the practice of marrying cousins to keep the bloodlines pure. But as the Lannisters and the Targaryens have shown us, that kind of simplicity sometimes results in abstractions that, well, make the game kind of weird. And to those of you who resent me comparing chess to inbreeding…how else do you get bishops so cross-eyed that they can only see things at diagonal angles? Personally, I can think of few things more obtuse than chess strategy, and I am literally subbing for a high school geometry teacher as I write this. So chess is great, but do you know what would make it better? Arming your pieces and making them fight to the death, rather than just grabbing and capturing each other like a bunch of child molesters in the ball pit at McDonald’s.

Fortunately, there’s an entire genre of video games that did just that. Among that genre is Fire Emblem, my newfound favorite series. And if you’ve ever thought, “Chess is great, but I wish we could turn it into more realistic medieval combat while keeping the creepy Harvey Weinstein sex offender aspects,” you’re not alone. You’re a goddamn pervert, but fortunately for you, there’s Fire Emblem: Fates, best described as a combination tactical strategy game and dating simulator.

Fates 2

When your sister really wants a wedding ring…

So up front, Fire Emblem Fates is actually available as three separate games, two available as physical games for the 3DS with the third as DLC for either of them, or for the low-low price of at least $110 on eBay, you can buy the special edition that contains all three on the same game cartridge. Despite the fact that Fire Emblem has always produced high-quality-yet-low-quantity games, thus ensuring prices never drop, it almost feels like Nintendo is taking their business philosophy directly from Luigi’s Mansion, and their entire marketing department is now issued cash-sucking vacuum cleaners.

But that being said…the game just might be worth the price. You play as Generic Faceless Protagonist, or GFP for short, who due to character customization never appears in pre-rendered cutscenes or is mentioned by name in the voice acting, though this is not as conspicuous as in Final Fantasy X and X-2 where the protagonist is so off-puttingly jock-ish that the entire cast goes two full games without caring to ask for his name. Quite the contrary, actually, GFP begins the story on a battlefield surrounded by more people calling him “brother” than if he had joined a 13th-century English monastery populated by African American monks. (Or, if you choose to play as a female, let’s go with lesbian nuns at a women-only burning man festival.) It turns out that your character was abducted from one royal family into another, and is early on presented with the choice of which family to side with in the middle of a war between them (or the third scenario being to side with neither).

Fates 4

The smug satisfaction one only gets from knowing that the privilege of your birth gives you the funds, the training, and the equipment it takes to eviscerate peasants like you’re carving a pumpkin.

This is where the game splits off into some deep, Rick-and-Morty style discussion of alternate time lines based on a single split decision, albeit with not as many fart jokes. Without intending to, Fates follows in the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, that one episode of the X-Files where Mulder has to prevent a bank robbery from going sour, and one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where they make self-aware references to the previous two. Next to a literary cannon like that, it’s not likely we’ll be studying Fire Emblem Fates along side William Shakespeare anytime soon, but the three alternate realities all provide GFP with key aspects of characters and elements of plot that raise intriguing questions on their own, but viewed alongside each other, the three plots create one uniquely told story as a collection of alternate moments, and that’s some hardcore, Kurt Vonengut Slaughterhouse V stuff right there, and if a novel about toilet plunger aliens putting a PTSD soldier in a zoo with a porn star can make it into the ranks of fine literature, then…wait…forget Fire Emblem. Let’s talk about the porn star zoo in English class!

Fates 5

…is that a euphemism?

Okay okay…I’ll get back to the game so as not to sound like I have the attention span of a brain damaged goldfish. Fire Emblem Fates does very little to change the traditional grid-based tactical/strategy genre. Bam. Game described. Well, they did remove the concept of weapon degradation for non-healing equipment, but charging into battle with a sword made from candy glass and a lance stamped “Made in China” never seemed like a brilliant military tactic for anyone who wanted to win anything other than a battle with gangrene. But basically, you can expect almost the same game play as with any other Fire Emblem, Shining Force, or Age of Empires. Of course, in the world of video game criticism, statements like, “Didn’t change a thing” or “Completely different from its predecessors” tend to come off as ambiguous, and not even funny ambiguous like the websites for “Pen Island” and “Therapist Finder,” but frustratingly ambiguous like a politician who condemns an opponent’s marital infidelities while dodging questions about the dead hookers in their car.Think of it in terms of Mega Man: a series of awesome games each with the unique individuality of a box of 1040-EZ tax forms. Except they’re not really identical, are they? Mega Man can only really pull off using bubbles as a weapon once or twice before he starts to look like a tomboyish six-year-old at a birthday party. Fire Emblem knows how to pull it off. Gameplay is perfect. Hell, if we hadn’t perfected Medieval warfare by the battle of Agincourt, there weren’t a lot of knew ways to hit people with sharpened bits of metal left to discover. It’s the scenarios, the maps, and the individual quirks of each campaign that make the game interesting.

Fates 3

I did…but I have to say you’re doing a lot to…ahem…raise my accuracy.

Well, that and the added feature that allows you to invite your units to your tree fort for a booty call. Honestly, I’m not sure if I should suggest that’s a surprisingly lax policy that makes used-panty vending machines look like relics from a conservative past long dead (like segregation, cotton plantations and Pat Robertson), a likely attempt to recruit soldiers turned off by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or a symptom of the new wave of authoritarian sexual harassment culture. The game warned me that I’d be able to marry one of my units (hehe…units), but it didn’t quite prepare me for how to do that. Just be prepared guys, if a girl asks you if you want to “proceed to S rank” with her, apparently that’s the new slang for getting hitched. Fortunately, all three of my wives seemed to be fine with me continuing my booty call habit, and even seemed to like it when I’d invite others back to the tree fort for what I assume were tree-ways.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Nintendo DS

Fire Emblem Box

I have never played a Fire Emblem game before, which surprises me, considering how much I enjoy games that let me order people to run around a field while enemy soldiers patiently stand there to get slaughtered as they await their turn. As a guy who gets about as much exercise as it takes to find a charger for my DS and then subsequently lifting the DS, I often like to pretend that I could take charge of Medieval combat and not immediately find myself impaled on the tusk of an any elephant in lederhosen, and what better way to learn strategy than by moving units one at a time across a perfectly ordered grid while everyone else on the field waits patiently for you to calculate risks that you can easily erase by loading your last save file?

Fire 4Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of Marth, a young prince forced from his kingdom when an evil sorcerer, known as the Shadow Dragon, murders his father to steal his throne and his magical sword, Falchion. Fortunately, his pursuers allow him to bring one thing with him into exile: a well-equipped army of highly trained soldiers willing to stop at nothing to restore him to the throne. So Marth launches his campaign which consists of a series of macguffins and convoluted excuses for tactical medieval combat. After a handful of victories, Marth is awarded the titular Fire Emblem, which I assumed must have been pretty important to lend its name to the series. What could this be? Is it a supreme magical macguffin like the Triforce? Perhaps it grants Marth hero powers, such as in Age of Empires? Nope. It lets our hero open up treasure chests, thus allowing a single unit on the battlefield the ability to do what any standard RPG protagonist can do automatically and free of consequence in any dragon’s cave, king’s castle or stranger’s living room.

Fire 3Bearing a strong Shining Force vibe, Fire Emblem presents a simple, no-frills strategy game with everything you’d expect to find and very little else. Noteworthy features include an insane difficulty and a perma-death system rivaled only by the real world. It is a video game, so it does include some healing magic after all, but there’s only one resurrection item. In the penultimate level. That can only be used by a single character. Once. (Which by the time this entry posts is likely to be the Republican healthcare policy) This is, I gather, supposed to make me more considerate of my actions, more mindful of the risks and more hesitant to throw away lives on crazy maneuvers like I was shooting craps with someone else’s money. However, in practice it only makes me frustrated that there’s no option to re-load save files from the battle menu. At least they had the consideration to give me two opportunities per battle to save progress, lest the dozen or so hours I wasted on resets blossom into two dozen.

The series is known for its difficulty, and Shadow Dragon sticks to that reputation like a tube of epoxy impaled on a porcupine. But the game is organically difficult. It doesn’t take cheap shots. Fire Emblem’s challenge level is being a frustrated parent trying to resolve a fight between toddlers, while other games I’ve played are more like being a bathroom attendant trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Often times the challenge stems from trying to hold yourself back rather than charging in, mages a-blazing. Knights, which have the same offensive and defensive stats as a refrigerator, make good bait, luring enemies into your attack zone, then sweeping forward with all your characters in a slow, methodical, buffet-line style of combat.

Fire 2The problem with this, though, is that much like a buffet line, some characters tend to pull more weight than others, and they tend to get rather large, while your other combatants whither away by comparison. Early on, the units who dealt more damage began to gather more experience than the defensive units, and the gap between them grew until the endgame when I waged war with one seasoned soldier, a dozen accountants, and three nuclear bear robots with Ginsu claws and laser eyes. Later stages often became a handful of heroes pushing their way through a crowd of people milling about in the middle of a freeway. It got rather tiresome trying to stash characters in safe places, but the mages generally had the firepower of a toaster cranked up to 3, and as far as I could tell the archers were just lobbing plates of wet spaghetti at the enemies.

Fire 1While mostly just a serving of vanilla strategy game, Fire Emblem has an interesting sugar cone underneath. All chests must be opened during battle, and of course those who are easily distracted by shiny objects while under assault will necessarily need to change their strategy. Furthermore, most characters must be obtained by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as rescuing them from death, schmoozing with villagers, or simply not killing key enemies. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, approaching people for conversation tends to be far more difficult than setting them on fire from a safe distance and hoping they die before expecting you to make small talk, so my ranks tended to grow slowly. Of course, there were also the moments when the game took pity on me as I stood shoulder deep in the corpses of my loyal followers, when it conveniently sent a ragtag group of scrappy fighters to help fill out my ranks without the least bit of concern for why Marth never bothered to learn their names.

In all, I arrived at the end of the game with literally nothing that could harm one of the primary antagonists, and the wise old sage just stared at me like I should probably wear a safety helmet with my cape instead of a crown. Fortunately, my complete incompetence didn’t forever kill any hope of progress like every date I went on in high school. It just changed how I fought the last few battles. Considering, I think I’d have a lot to gain and a completely different experience if I played the game a second time, which I think is a mark of a good game. I’m still not going to play it again, but the point stands that I could if I wanted to.

Age of Empires: Age of Kings – NDS

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If you’ve kept up with me for even a few months, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. I play a game, like it, and jump immediately to another game in the series. Or, perhaps, I hate the game and want to play something better. Either way, you can expect another Onimusha entry soon. Maybe another Castlevania, too. But not this week. This week I’ll jump back into the past and re-create historical battles without the need to tolerate people who truly believe the South will rise again. You may recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about Age of Empires: Age of Kings. I felt that between juggling the tasks of deforestation, trading resources like a gambling addict at the New York Stock Exchange, whipping lazy peasants like a plantation overseer, and constantly buffing out the hoof dents in and removing arrows from the skulls of my soldiers, I didn’t feel like I had any time to enjoy the game.  So when I finished–yes, and I also read all the way through Moby Dick. I abuse myself that way–I did what I could to rectify my frustration; I played through the turn-based Age of Kings on the Nintendo DS.

Yes, “turn-based.” The words reviewers always spit out like an angry dilophosaurus, meant to imply something infantile, unrealistic and boring, while still gives them an opening for lavishing praises on Mario, which really does play as infantile, unrealistic and boring.  Reviewers use the term “turn-based” to justify abandoning a Final Fantasy game after playing for thirty minutes and not getting a Call-of-Duty-esque rush of testosterone and a story premise they can sum up into ten words or less. If you haven’t yet picked up on the tone here, I don’t necessarily think games where the enemy patiently waits for you to bash in their teeth before they do unto you actually suffer directly because of that feature. Consider this retribution for panning Assassin’s Creed; now I have to defend something no one else likes. For starters, people who play chess and go take turns, and we commonly believe that geniuses play those games. Now think back to some of the real-time games you’ve played. Kingdom Hearts–do you ever use any strategy other than mashing the X button and occasionally healing? How about Smash Brothers or other fighting games. Do you actually know how to pull off the special moves, or do you just hit buttons and hope to get lucky?

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

See, players will usually do the simplest, easiest thing that accomplishes their goals. Real-time games usually give you a swift, basic attack that you can execute in a pinch. Think about it this way; a spider falls on you while taking a shower. Do you rationally think out a plan to improve the situation, or do you freak the hell out? Real-time games make players freak out. I don’t like that. I constantly have to explain to friends that button-mashing never works better than actually knowing how to play the game, and they never believe me, and then they play as Gannondorf and I play as Jigglypuff and I beat them into submission within moments. The PC version of Age of Kings employed the freak-out strategy, where building a proper economy, scoping out the terrain and developing a strategy often took a back seat to giving a sword to any man, woman, child, horse or hedgehog within sight and pushing them out one at a time to get slaughtered by the hoards of enemy Rohirrim Riding into my village, smashing and hacking and destroying everything in their path.

Wait...doesn't my advisor's name mean "Toilet" in Japanese?

Wait…doesn’t my advisor’s name mean “Toilet” in Japanese?

The DS game, however (to actually discuss today’s topic), gives you both the time to plan out a strategy and the need to do so. In addition to campaigns where you build towns and mine resources to support your army, this game gives you missions with a set number of non-renewable troops and tells you, “Go get ‘em, tiger!” And of course, attacking your enemy directly inevitably results in a wall of bodies–and not the useful kind, like in “300“–and a serious reflection as to your career choice of famous historical warlord. Different missions offer different objectives–destroy a town center, defeat an enemy hero, capture relics, build a tent for Genghis Kahn and make sure no one sets it on fire–and a number of ways to accomplish those tasks.

Hero units make the game. While in the PC version, you only ever took control of Joan of Arc, every mission in the DS game gives you control of a hero, and gives those heroes a number of special powers that effect game play. Joan of Arc can heal, Richard the Lionhearted can make his archers shoot farther, and Saladin will occasionally chip in a few coins to help you save up for that camel you’ve always wanted. Regular units, while only the monks and villagers have special commands, each have their own characteristics or abilities that tailor their uses to specific strategies. Archers can attack from a distance, preventing a counterattack, but if attacked at close range they have very low defense. Pikemen have less attack power than swordsmen, but deal more damage to cavalry. Cavalry deals a lot of damage to most things, but loses strength against buildings. This keeps the gameplay variable, and the bonuses and handicaps mostly feel intuitive, but sometimes come off a little weird. While I appreciate the challenges in ripping down a castle with your bare hands from the back of a camel, I find it difficult to understand how a rock hurled from a trebuchet can rip through that castle like tin foil, but an infantry unit can take the same blow and walk it off with only minor bleeding.

The game, of course, retains its titular feature, “Aging Up.” In campaigns that require economy building, your production lines turn out shabby, brand X fighters, and only by sinking money–and for some reason, food–into research each day can you expect to give them better weapons, stronger armor, or more efficient training. With enough research, a player can advance to the next “age,” beginning in the dark age, then progressing through the feudal, castle, and into the imperial age. With each new age, new buildings become available and new research opportunities along with them. In the feudal age, for example, you can build a blacksmith, which doesn’t create any units, but can improve weapons and armor for your existing soldiers. Likewise, by the time you reach the castle age, you can found–and underfund–your very own university, just like a real national governor.

Uhh...yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don't often see much action.

Uhh…yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don’t often see much action.

Age of Kings follows a historical path–sort of–for the five main heroes; Saladin, Minamoto Yoshitsune, Genghis Kahn, Joan of Arc, and Richard the Lionhearted. Occasionally it has to include a note here and there stating that Minamoto never actually fought the Mongols, that Richard never took Jerusalem, or that Joan of Arc didn’t really win all that many battles. I understand that not a lot of people out there nerd out over Medieval history, but I do, and as much as I appreciate science fiction and fantasy, game developers rarely realize that their products don’t have to fall into one of the two default categories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all that many historical re-creations, and the post-game falls short of expectations so hard I think I heard all its bones shatter. By accomplishing challenge goals in the main game, you can unlock extra maps and a few scenario battles to set up hypothetical and partially randomized campaigns to play through. However, all the heroes must have suffered a few too many blows to the head in the main game because even on the hardest settings, enemies often forget to build, research, age up, or attack. Not so much battles anymore, these campaigns have all the difficulty of erasing low-quality chalk off a chalkboard (you young ‘uns should think “dried up ink on a white board.” But then go find some chalk.) These additional campaigns serve only to wean me off the game while simultaneously looking toward Age of Empires: Mythologies, but in the interest of getting through this stack of games I bought by never played, you don’t have to worry for a while.