Format: Game Boy Advance Genre: Tactical RPG Released: 2004 Developer: Intelligent Systems
Fire Emblem makes it onto the list not just because it’s an excellent game – it’s easily one of the best ever GBA games – but also because it’s one of the few games I’ve played that really makes you care about what happens to the characters. And considering that for most of the game the protagonists appear as barely animated cardboard cut-outs with reams of text scrolling beneath their alternately grinning/puzzled/frowning faces, this just goes to show you don’t need fancy graphics to make you invest your emotions in game characters.
Having said all that, I found it a little difficult to warm to the characters at first – the dialogue has a habit of being either very twee or wilfully contrived (see the screen below to get an idea of what I mean). Still, I eventually got used to it, and after a while I just came to accept the fact that everyone in the Fire Emblem universe just happens to say everything very earnestly. (I’d like to see a sequel set in England where everyone automatically assumes you’re being sarcastic no matter what you’re saying – it would be a bit like The Inbetweeners but with more knights on horseback, and every conversation would be interspersed with comments about the sexual prowess of someone’s mother.)
In terms of the story, there’s nothing particularly original. It starts off as the usual Japanese RPG fare – young girl leaves home village to defeat great evil, meets various companions along the way (who all happen to have differing but complementary special skills), discovers that – SHOCK HORROR – she’s actually a long lost princess, a larger plot is revealed involving an evil wizard and dragons, you’re tasked with finding an ancient…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
So far, so dull, but despite what I said about the twee dialogue, it actually does a pretty good job of conveying the various personality traits and flaws of the many (many) characters (around 40 characters become available in total). And this is where it gets interesting. Every single character has his or her own plot arc, and their story changes according to what happens over the course of the game, resulting in multiple endings. Each character has around three other characters that have a strong relationship with them (for example, perhaps they have a love interest, a father and an old friend within the group), and each level is bookended with little cut scenes showing how the various relationships that character has are developing.
BUT – and this is the clever part – when a character dies, they stay dead for the rest of the game. So if your favourite character’s love interest perishes on the battlefield, you’ll never get to find out what would have happened between them, and instead the survivor will go on to pine for their lost love.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you turning off the game and loading up a previous save point in a bid to prevent the death of this particular character, but sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to save them. If you’ve made a bad tactical decision in terms of the characters you’ve brought along on a particular mission, or if you’ve left yourself in position where you can be easily surrounded, the only option might be to restart the level. But restarting is incredibly time-consuming – some levels can take about an hour to get through – so you’re left with a dilemma: do I try to save this character, or should I push on without them?
The first time a character died, I instantly restarted the mission – there was no way I was going to lose someone, obviously. I mean, what kind of person leaves a man behind on the battlefield? And anyway, I was determined to get through the whole game with all of my characters intact. The second and third times too, I restarted the level to avoid leaving someone behind – but after that things changed.
The game’s difficulty level quickly begins to rise, and often you’ll be ambushed by hidden enemies, giving you little chance to protect your weaker characters. On one such occasion, my thief, Matthew, got caught in the crossfire when several enemies popped up in a room I thought was clear. I tried reverting to an earlier save point, but it was impossible to save him, and I was left with the unappetising prospect of restarting the entire level, which had taken me nearly an hour. Shamefully, I started to think I could probably do without a thief – I mean, he was pretty useless in battle, and I had plenty of keys for opening locked doors. But what about Leila? Surely I couldn’t sacrifice Matthew, her soul mate?
And this is where the game really starts to get you – when you’re holding the lives of these characters in your hands, suddenly they seem more than mere cardboard cut-outs.
Eventually, with a twinge of guilt, I decided to continue on without Matthew.
And then, a couple of levels later, Rebecca died. Again, I had to decide whether to save her, and again I decided that it just wasn’t worth playing through the whole level again – but the decision was easier this time. And so it continued: more and more characters started dying as the levels got harder and harder, and sometimes I’d attempt to save them, but other times I’d leave them behind. I realised that the stronger characters could actually do most of the fighting and, if anything, these weaker characters were more of a hindrance. As time wore on, I reached the stage where I barely felt anything when a character died, and instead I’d just focus on securing victory at whatever cost.
And it’s at that point that it hits you: when did I turn into this heartless bastard?
Don’t be fooled by its cute good looks, Fire Emblem is a masterclass in emotional trauma. The game does its utmost to make you really care about the fates of each and every character, then makes it almost impossible to win without sacrificing some of them, leaving you with no option but to blunt your feelings towards these doe-eyed innocents and adopt a sort of ruthless Machiavellian-general persona. I swear by the end I was developing a thousand-yard stare as I sent yet another pink-haired teenager to the slaughter… Sort of puts me in mind of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon:
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.
Yes, GBA Fire Emblem certainly made for some sober but compelling bus journeys.
(Screenshots from http://uk.gamespot.com)