Recently I decided to pick up one of my old favorites and play it again: Fire Emblem Path of Radiance. This was my first Fire Emblem game, the one that led me to fall in love with the series. I can still remember my first moments experiencing the game, my joy at the strategy mechanics and my love for the great fantasy storytelling. I can also remember the moment when I first realized that the death of a character meant a permanent loss for my army. Path of Radiance inspired me to pick up other games in the series, and it wasn’t long before Fire Emblem had jumped many other series to rank among my very favorites.
It’s been quite a few years since my first foray onto a grid-shaped battlefield full of swords, axes, and lances. In those years a number of Fire Emblem games have come out; most recently fans got to experience the three storylines of Fire Emblem Fates. Fates used its predecessor Awakening as a springboard of sorts, taking the dynamic changes made by that game and expanding upon them further. A lot of things have changed since the early days of Fire Emblem, a fact that is even clearer when you take the time to replay old titles.
Replaying Path of Radiance has me thinking ahead – not just to Fates, but all the way forward to what comes next for the series. So today I thought I would talk about the past Fire Emblem titles that I have played, and what positive aspects I think could be taken from those titles to use in a future Fire Emblem game.
While this was the first Fire Emblem title to hit the US, I ended up playing it pretty late. I didn’t get this title until after I’d already played both Radiance games, Sacred Stones, and even Shadow Dragon. As such, it definitely felt like a step backwards when I first tried it out, and to this day the self-titled Fire Emblem is the one Fire Emblem game I never finished. Still, this game introduced a mechanic that in my mind was incredibly important to the modern direction of Fire Emblem games: the player character.
While the concept of a player character in Fire Emblem might have been done in earlier Japanese titles, the first ever American Fire Emblem was unique in this for a really long time. Each Fire Emblem game features a lovely lord or lady to play as, but in the self-titled Fire Emblem there was a little something extra – a tactician character that served as your avatar in the game world. While this character wouldn’t play a huge role in the story or game mechanics of Fire Emblem, fans really latched on to this idea and it would later reappear as a really important element of the modern Fire Emblem titles.
FIRE EMBLEM: THE SACRED STONES
This game tells the story of two sibling royals, Eirika and Ephraim, after their kingdom is violently invaded by a nation that they once called their ally. One feature that really made this game stand out to me was the ability to choose which character you traveled with throughout the game. Eirika and Ephraim have two different paths: Eirika takes a diplomatic journey trying to seek aid from other allied nations, while Ephraim charges right to the heart of enemy territory to buy his sister time on her journey. Both paths ultimately lead to the same ending, but you get to experience a different perspective of much of the game. And when you’re playing as one sibling, you hear tell of the other’s exploits all along the way.
In my view, Fates really could have taken a page from Sacred Stones’s book. While Birthright and Conquest do tell different stories, those stories are pretty shallow and you really have to play Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation to get everything. Whereas with Sacred Stones, you still get the full story with one playthrough – you just get a whole new perspective when you choose to play as the other sibling. Plus, with Sacred Stones you get two paths through the game for one price. Fates on the other hand…
FIRE EMBLEM: PATH OF RADIANCE
Path of Radiance was my first Fire Emblem game and to this day is still one of my favorite games of all time. I love the story and characters, the music and the lore. And I love that Path of Radiance still has a unique place in the Fire Emblem universe. While one could argue that Micaiah of Radiant Dawn is technically not a “lord” in the traditional sense (SPOILER ALERT: by bloodline she’s an empress), Ike is the one player character in the American Fire Emblem line that has no royal blood. He’s just a regular guy, and that aspect of his character gives him an appeal that I think a lot of the series main characters lack. Additionally, the themes of racism that echo throughout Path of Radiance resonate a lot more with our world’s politics and social dynamics than than the whole “foreign nation invades our totally innocent country and ruins everything” schtick.
Path of Radiance has a few different things that I believe are really positive for the series both mechanically and from a plot perspective. The plot and characters are relatable in a way that many of the other Fire Emblem titles fail to achieve. The game focuses on themes that were important to players at the time (and still resonate pretty strong with our society right now), and introduced a main character whose intolerance of ridiculous royal customs feels quite familiar to players who are fed up with bureaucracy and government corruption. Mechanically, the vastly expanded list of skills really made the characters feel unique, and gave players a great way to power characters up beyond just leveling. And while this mechanic has been lost in the more modern Fire Emblem titles, I loved that you could promote classes without having to have any Master Seals. You could use a Master Seal to expedite the process, but if you didn’t have any all you had to do was level up past 20 and BAM, promoted class. I’d love it if that mechanic came back.
FIRE EMBLEM: RADIANT DAWN
Remember how Path of Radiance is one of my favorite all-time games? Yeah, I was crazy excited when I learned that this sequel was on the way. Ultimately, I ended up being somewhat disappointed. This was mainly due to a mechanical choice by Intelligent Systems to have the game jump back and forth between different parties. The difficulty scaling of the game didn’t work well because of the constant jumping back and forth – some groups (notably the Greil Mercenaries) would grow significantly faster than others, making it feel like a huge step backward whenever you had to play as, say, the Dawn Brigade.
The game definitely took some positive steps, though. The weapon variety (particularly for lances and axes) was really expanded so that all weapons had an equal variety of options for characters to wield. The skills were expanded so that they could be removed from characters and swapped around, allowing for even more unit customization and so the skills on unused characters didn’t go to waste. One rather divisive decision was the choice to make it so that every character could support with every other character. Why divisive? Well, while it is tactically useful for any unit to be able to support each other, the deep character development that the support conversations were known for disappeared entirely. Additionally, characters could only have one support, as opposed to the typical five conversation system used in other Fire Emblem titles.
FIRE EMBLEM: SHADOW DRAGON
Shadow Dragon is probably my least favorite Fire Emblem game, but I have to give credit where it’s due – Shadow Dragon is not necessarily bad. It’s just old. When the game was remade Intelligent Systems did a lot to update the game, but ultimately a lot of game mechanics that felt somewhat archaic were left in. Combine that with the lack of modern innovations such as support conversations and you have a game that simply lacks a lot of the elements that makes Fire Emblem enjoyable for many of its fans.
Despite this, Shadow Dragon made a very important introduction to the series, one that would definitely impact the games to follow: the ability to change classes. Class-changing was always present in Fire Emblem in the sense of promoting classes. A cavalier becomes a Paladin, a Mage becomes a Sage, and so on. However, Shadow Dragon introduced the ability to change characters into another class based on their starting class and gender. This allowed you to make your mercenary into a fighter, or to change your cleric into a mage. I definitely utilized this mechanic in Shadow Dragon, particularly when I felt that I needed a certain class or the one character I had that represented that class wasn’t really doing the job for me. So while Shadow Dragon definitely had a whole lot of old, the bit of new it introduced was really important for the series, and this became most evident in the next installment: Awakening.
FIRE EMBLEM: AWAKENING
Awakening kind of represents a paradigm shift in the Fire Emblem franchise. Quite a few of you reading this were probably introduced to the series by Awakening. This game basically brought in a whole new “generation” of Fire Emblem players by making the game more accessible to folks who were previously turned off by the series. That accessibility came from the addition of a Casual mode, where the infamous Fire Emblem permadeath feature was turned off and characters could return to the party after battle.
Of course, Awakening brought a lot more to the table than just that. A number of the features introduced in past Fire Emblem titles converged in Awakening, combining in exciting new ways or improving upon the original variations in some way. The expanded skill lists of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn combined with the class changing of Shadow Dragon to create a whole new method of character optimization. By gaining skills through leveling up as different classes, characters could combine a number of unique skills in great combinations that made those characters more powerful. The ability to support every character introduced in Radiant Dawn was combined with the character development that the series is known for, enabling virtually every character to support each other and revealing more about those characters in the process. The player character concept was expanded upon, making the playER character a playABLE character complete with a unique class and access to almost every other class in the game.
Finally, the game one new feature in addition to Casual play that really changed the dynamic of battles in Fire Emblem: the pair up system. This allows two characters to fight side-by-side, giving each other bonuses and ultimately changing the whole strategy of the game. Need to carry someone across the field? Pair up! Need to train that squishy new unit? Pair up! Want to get married and have kids even faster? Pair up! This new mechanic really freshened up the formula, particularly when combined with all of the updated forms of mechanics from throughout the series.
One thing I want to mention positively about Awakening: this game did DLC right. There is a ton of free DLC for Fates, including something like six additional levels each with a “secret” character that can join the party. The full story of the game happens in the base game, but there is DLC that tells the stories of the children in their ruined timeline, allowing you to learn more about the game lore if you want to but not making DLC a requirement to fully understand the base game. There is also DLC that offers more skills, XP, weapons, and opportunities for support conversations, giving a mechanical advantage to those who want to pay for it but not penalizing those who choose not to. If future titles handled DLC like Awakening I’d be quite pleased.
FIRE EMBLEM FATES
The most recent entry into the Fire Emblem main series. Fates took the split-path concept from games like the self-titled Fire Emblem and Sacred Stones and went a step further, creating three separate versions of the game: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. These games claim to tell three separate stories, but in my opinion the story is where Fates really crashes and burns. Each game feels incomplete without the others, and in my opinion even the revelations of Revelations weren’t enough; only after paying for the Hidden Truths DLC did I feel I had a complete understanding of the storyline. One complete story for almost $90 is NOT getting bang for your buck.
Where Fates failed in the story, it excelled in mechanics. It continued on the path of Awakening, refining the Pair Up system to make it more mechanically balanced and reliable. It also removed weapon usage as a factor, instead focusing on the limitations of each weapon type to create a balance between the different weapons. This included adding magic and bows to the traditional weapon triangle, along with introducing a whole new weapon type: hidden weapons. These amazing tools lower enemy stats and really change the strategy of Fire Emblem, allowing you to chip enemies down by weakening their stats to make them easier to fight. Of course, the bad guys can do this to you too, and adding new chip damage mechanics through abilities such as Poison Strike creates a whole new way to wear down and defeat big units like generals and berserkers. The ability of enemies to use the Pair Up ability is the final touch, and thanks to all of these changes there are a ton of new viable strategies to try out in Fates and it really expands the game from a mechanical perspective.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
It’s going to be quite some time before a new Fire Emblem title comes out. After all, Fates hasn’t even been out a full year yet here in the states. But still, it’s good to think about where the series could go next. And I’d like to think that someone at Intelligent Systems is a dedicated follower of Adventure Rules that will totally take these suggestions into consideration for the next game. A guy can dream, right?
Here’s the ultimate point of this whole article: if Fire Emblem wants to take a positive step forward, they need to look backwards. While overall (particularly from a game mechanics perspective) Fire Emblem has improved since the early days, there are a lot of things they did right in the past that could really have a positive impact in future games. Some of the changes I’m going to suggest are personal preferences as well, just for the sake of variety.
1.) DO AWAY WITH KIDS FOR ONE INSTALLMENT. I loved the addition of marriage and kids. It’s a mechanic that had seen use in Japan but not really in the States until Awakening. But now fans have had two games in a row with the incorporation of marriage and kids into the storyline. And I use the word “incorporation” very loosely. In Fates the addition of child characters was rather tacked-on, and I think it’d be good to have a Fire Emblem title where they didn’t have to force the whole kids thing in there as an afterthought. This is just a personal opinion, an opinion I know some folks will heartily disagree with. But I think we could use a break from trying so hard to have babies in these games.
2.) EVERYONE CAN SUPPORT – BUT NOT EVERYONE CAN GET MARRIED. I think Intelligent Systems is still searching for the sweet spot when it comes to support conversations. Mechanically, it’s important for everyone to be able to support each other because of the Pair Up bonuses that result from the support system. From a story perspective, having every character able to get married to every character of the opposite gender is rather far-fetched. Many of the conversations feel forced and it makes the interactions between those characters mean less. In earlier Fire Emblem titles, you couldn’t marry just anybody, but that made the possible marriages that much more significant. So maybe introduce a system where every character can reach an A level support with every other character – but only S with characters that the writers really feel can have a well-crafted relationship. This will make S-rank relationships more valuable and also expand the application of A+ relationships. This is also, in my mind, a good solution for the incorporation of LGBT characters into the series – instead of making every single character bisexual like some folks have suggested, incorporate this idea of only certain characters being able to get married. Some characters might be totally gay, some totally straight, some bisexual – it’ll be more like real world people.
3.) CONTAIN THE WHOLE STORY IN ONE GAME. While the whole three version thing might have been a really good marketing ploy, as a fan I do NOT appreciate it. Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation are one game altogether. Individually, they do not stand alone and don’t need to charge full price. The “special edition” sold when the game first came out proves that the hardware could handle all three story paths. The extra versions were simply a thinly-veiled cash grab, and the fact that part of the story of the game was also hidden behind DLC chapters really grinds my gears. I would rather the next game do away with DLC entirely than have another fiasco where players have to pay additional money in order to actually understand what the heck happened.
4.) MAKE THE STORY RELEVANT TO A MODERN AUDIENCE. I get that from its earliest days Fire Emblem has been about a small country getting overrun by a big scary country and the poor little prince or princess left behind has to rally together some rebels to get their home back. But these pampered royals aren’t particularly relatable characters and it makes the storylines of multiple Fire Emblem games all kind of blend together. Path of Radiance showed that Fire Emblem can deliver a solid storyline that resonates with a modern audience, dealing with themes like racism and the corruption of government and religious institutions. I’m not saying that Fire Emblem has to step away from political turmoil entirely – modern players can absolutely identify with living in a country in political turmoil. But it might be more interesting if that turmoil came from inside rather than coming from a big scary foreign country and its ridiculous caricature of an evil dictator.
5.) LESS OVERLAP IN CLASS ROLES. Overall, Fates was a really solid game when it came to mechanics and strategy. That’s why most of my hopes for a future Fire Emblem deal with story and not gameplay. But I think this one is pretty important. Due to the split versions of Fates and having the game focus around two different cultures, a number of new classes were created and some old classes were reskinned to fit the vibe of the latest game. Because each side had to have its own version of particular classes – such as the Outlaw and the Ninja both splitting up the Thief role – certain classes can step on each other’s toes when it comes to fulfilling certain roles within the game. I’d like to see the next Fire Emblem title unify the class system under one banner again so that classes that “duplicate” each other are either eliminated, or given a role that’s more unique. For example, maybe take the Locktouch ability off of the Ninja class and instead focus more on the chipping/weakening strategy that they so skillfully employ.
6.) ELIMINATE SITUATIONAL PERSONAL SKILLS. One of my favorite new mechanics in Fates was the introduction of personal skills. Each character has a skill that is totally unique to him or her. But for some characters, their personal skill slot is spent up on a skill that is very situational. Dwyer’s skill is a good example, as it only works in the multiplayer Castle Battle system. Or there are the skills of characters Niles and Oboro, which are only useful to those who enjoy capturing enemy units to use in battle. These skills are more appropriate potentially as class skills or as another type of mechanic; personal skills can really set characters apart and change how you utilize them, so let every character have a chance to shine with a unique and useful personal skill.
These ideas are just my opinion, but hey, isn’t that what you’re reading for anyway? While my hope is that the next Fire Emblem title takes a lot of these ideas and incorporates them, at the end of the day I’m probably going to buy it no matter what because I love the series so much. What are your thoughts on the direction of the series? What would you like to see in a future Fire Emblem title? Let me know in the comments and be sure to stick around for future opinion pieces about Fire Emblem and other Nintendo titles!