Glimpsing Fire Emblem’s History Through Genealogy of the Holy War

A genealogy is a family history, a record of where a person comes from and the many ways in which their family tree branches. Without context they are deeply exhausting to read – I say this with confidence as a ex-Christian who has suffered through reading Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy at multiple points in my life growing up. “Say begot one more time, I dare you!” That said, looking through a genealogy with a purpose or with context as to where that geneology is leading can be deeply interesting. I hated Old Testament genealogies as a kid but I found the one for Jesus in the book of Matthew to be fascinating. There were characters I recognized from the other Bible stories I had read, and it was compelling to see how all of those little bits of pieces of “history” led to a figure that was recognizable and important to me.

Genealogy of the Holy War is similar to a more traditional genealogy in that way. If you’re not a Fire Emblem fan and have no context as to where the series has landed in recent years, it is an experience that is likely to be inscrutable, archaic, and uninteresting. But played with the knowledge that this game is a stepping stone to what exists now, games like Awakening and Three Houses, Genealogy of the Holy War becomes interesting in its context as a historical record. You can see the bits and pieces you recognize in an older form, reflecting on how those elements have changed and improved over time. Playing Genealogy can be like reading Leviticus or it can be like reading Matthew – but that will depend a lot on how much you care about understanding where Fire Emblem today came from.

So what is Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War? It is the fourth game in the series and was originally released in Japan on the SNES. Genealogy, at the time of writing, has never made its way west. It is only playable in English thanks to the hard work of dedicated fans who have created a patch for the game’s ROM. In this way, folks like me who don’t know Japanese can still have an opportunity to experience this piece of Fire Emblem history. From a mechanical perspective, Genealogy is a turn-based strategy game in which you move units along a grid, do battle with enemies, and attempt to capture their fortifications while protecting your own castles as well as important units in your battle party.

At the time of writing, I have played only the prologue and through some of the introductory elements of the first chapter. But that’s more than enough for a solid set of first impressions as it has allowed me to see a lot of how the series originally implemented elements like skills, the weapon triangle, and supports, as well as changes to other mechanics such as occupying castles, trading and purchasing items, and the general structure and scale of the maps. So let’s touch on each topic to see how the series has grown and changed over time.

Map Structure

In every Fire Emblem game I have played prior to this, the maps focused on a relatively small area in terms of space. On the small side this could be the interior of one fort or a single clearing out in the woods. On the larger side it might be a whole city, or a mountain path between two villages. Genealogy’s battles take place across large swaths of countryside between castles, with multiple villages in between. There are a lot of tiles to cover and the individual chapters are longer because you may have to capture multiple locations in order to resolve a single scenario. I’m playing on an emulator so I have the advantage of save states to walk back any mishaps, but the game’s native saving feature only offers five files to manage your battles with. It would be important to pick saving spots where you are confident you won’t have to walk back any of your actions.

The size of the maps also influences the value of unit mobility. Traditionally in more modern Fire Emblem games, units on horseback sacrifice having the best stat caps in exchange for how far they can go. However, because many of the maps can be relatively small in scale, it’s easier to prioritize stats over huge movement unless you’re doing a challenge run. In Genealogy, being on foot feels like a much more significant drawback, with the few units who don’t have horses easily trailing behind and often falling into protector roles at the castles you capture. I can see this actually increasing the value of cavaliers somewhat compared to their significance in more recent titles, where I tend not to prioritize them at all.

Occupying Castles

Castles are major points of significance on the battlefield. Castles under your control are points of respite but also key vulnerabilities to protect. Castle under enemy control are points where you need to strike in order to progress the game. In addition to any units outside of castles who may move around the protect it, a single unit stands atop the castle as its guard and must be defeated to gain entry. Fighting a guard can be a bit more challenging than dealing with the boss character in more modern FE titles because unless you are using cavaliers and taking advantage of their canto ability or making ranged attacks, only one unit can really fight the boss at a time. This means you can’t really have your whole crew swarm the bad guy – of course, it also means they can’t really leave their position without exposing the castle, so you at least have some control of whether or not you suffer retribution on the enemy turn.

When a castle is under your control, you can send one or more units inside to interact with the many facilities there. You can buy, sell, or repair equipment as well as storing it if you are worried about carrying too much. Shops have limited supplies so you have to carefully choose which units in your army are going to purchase which weapons. You can also have units fight in the arena inside the castle in order to gain XP and gold, but the arena battles get harder as you complete them and there’s no returning to a previous level. This limits the amount of grinding you can realistically do, encouraging you to manage the arena carefully.

Weapons and Gold

One of the most difficult changes for me to adjust to has been the way in which limitations on your gear work. The party does not have a shared convoy, nor does it have a shared pool of gold to spend. Every character has their own unique pool of money for purchasing weapons and spending at chapels in order to heal (5 gold per point of health restored if starting your turn on the chapel). Additionally, every character has a unique inventory and there is no trade mechanic, so you have to be intentional about managing which unit gets what weapon. You can share weapons between party members by selling them at the pawn shop and then buying them with the appropriate character, but this costs you money overall and should be utilized sparingly if at all possible.

This game introduces the weapon triangle which would become such a big part of the FE series mechanics in the future. It works much as you might expect: swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. It primarily seems to effect accuracy rather than damage, with axe characters very often missing attacks against sword users but sword users not necessarily dealing big damage back, for example. I’ve had times where I’ve leaned on a disadvantageous weapon because of its increased power over an advantageous weapon, so you are still challenged to think about which tool is best for a given situation and make adjustments accordingly.

Skills and Supports

Finally let’s talk about some of the differences in terms of the elements which set units apart from one another. Most units have one or two personal skills which give them advantages in battle. As a series veteran, I was really surprised to see certain core elements of combat now reduced to skills that only certain characters had. For example, being able to double attack is tied to the pursuit skill. Being able to critical hit is also tied to a skill. Some familiar skills from future games still exist here in their expected form, such as adept giving a small chance to attack twice or vantage allowing the unit to attack first one the opponent initiates the battle while you are at low HP. Because the skills are tied to mechanics which to me seem foundational (particularly the ability to double attack), I’ve found them influencing which characters I prefer as well as how I use them quite significantly.

Support conversations are another major mechanic in modern Fire Emblem and to my understanding they got their start here with Genealogy. They look different than what you might expect, though, with no measurable support levels and no obvious passive benefit to having characters near each other on the battlefield. Instead, the benefit of a support conversation is often some kind of one off bonus. As early in as I am, I’ve had one support gift a character a new weapon while another gave the recipient a +1 bonus to three of their stats. So in exchange for the supports being less frequent and a little harder to find, they have a more tangible mechanical effect when you make the effort to pursue them.

So far my time with Genealogy has been a fascinating look back at an early entry in one of my favorite series. Seeing how things as obvious as skills and supports have changed but also the more subtle shifts like map shape and the way the economy works gives me a deeper appreciation for how much the series has grown. I’m hoping to move forward with the game and get a better feeling for the characters and story as I go, particularly as this title has been said to be a big influence on Three Houses. In the end while I won’t recommend Genealogy to just anybody, for those with a passion for Fire Emblem looking for context and history there are definitely interesting elements to see here.

One thought on “Glimpsing Fire Emblem’s History Through Genealogy of the Holy War

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  1. I really enjoy this game a lot. It’s brutally difficult at times, but the key story moments are really compelling and interesting. It really dives into the political intrigue and alliances, and the relationships play into it in an interesting way. I always hoped this game would get a proper remake. Maybe one day it will happen. Can’t wait to see your thoughts on later moments! It’a great stuff. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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