Is the Game Boy Advance dead? It may be easy to think so with all the post-E3 talk of next-generation systems, let alone the current struggle between Nintendo's new kid on the block, the DS, and Sony's eye-candy PSP. However, there are still a few GBA nuggets worth looking at trickling onto retail shelves. The second of Nintendo's long-running strategy series to be released stateside, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, is one of them.
A mix of grid-based tactics and medieval drama, the game tells an extremely dry and boring tale of ancient evil waiting to be released and the beautiful and heroic people that struggle to save the blah blah blah. The story and characters are probably the least exciting part of the entire game, and I found myself barely able to get through the tedious dialogue scenes. The people writing this stuff need to wake up and realize that taking fantasy clichés and smooshing them together doesn't make a satisfactory RPG plot anymore. However, I doubt that anyone is playing this game for the plot in the first place, so the point is fairly moot.
The main attraction here is the strategic action. Based on a rock-paper-scissors system, the knights, cavaliers, wizards, heroes, assassins, rogues, and other assorted medieval fantasy archetypes of the game battle for the forces of light in turn-based action extremely similar to that found in Nintendo's military superstar, Advance Wars. (I guess the similarities make sense, since both games are from the same developers.)
The actual gameplay itself is very satisfying and enjoyable, featuring a great deal of depth without ever becoming overwhelming. By making sure that my attackers were using the correct weapon or magic type against the opposition, it was often possible to waltz through battles practically untouched. It doesn't take long to learn the system, and there were enough informational prompts to make sure that I never accidentally committed atrocious blunders unless I wasn't paying attention at all. Intelligent Systems does an excellent job of making sure that the game's guts are on full display, a move which I very much appreciated. It takes all the guesswork out of attacking, and as any strategy fan knows, knowledge is power.
Still, each battle was a challenge and there were many times that I replayed the same level three, four, or even five times to make sure that I completed them to my satisfaction. One of the defining characteristics of Fire Emblem is that when you lose a character during battle, they're gone for the rest of the game. Naturally, this means that keeping your soldiers alive is a top priority and I can't count the number of times that I redid an entire battle to prevent losing even one character. I admit that frustration sometimes got the better of me, but it says a lot for the game that I was able to stay interested and willing to try and try again.
However, while I don't have any complaints about the actual gameplay, I wasn't exactly happy to see that The Sacred Stones is practically indistinguishable from the first Fire Emblem game that preceded it. Graphically, it's impossible to tell the two apart, and there are only very minor tweaks to the recipe of gameplay. For example, players now have a choice when upgrading their characters. One of the heavy Knights can advance into an armored form analogous to being a walking tank, or choose to become a slightly lighter model mounted on horseback. Characters can also access their inventories in a roundabout way during battle, and probably the biggest change is the ability to go back and replay certain areas for experience apart from the main quest. It was necessary (but not included) before due to the first game's steep difficulty, and I do appreciate it now, but these are very minor things that really don't change or improve the experience significantly.
Other areas of disappointment included the fact that managing inventory is still a tedious process and a real drag on gameplay, an unavoidable chore since weapons wear out and need to be replaced often. Also, the mission objectives are quite dull, and lack variety. Most are of the "kill all enemies" or "seize the throne" type, with "survive X rounds" here and there, but that's about it. It's a shame that for a game so solid in most respects, it falters in creativity when it comes to the cookie-cutter mission designs. Needless to say, for a game that can easily take twenty to thirty hours to finish, repetition set in rather quickly. Fans of Strat-RPG mission diversity should look to the recent Metal Gear Acid on PSP, or to the king of them all, the PS1's Vandal Hearts. (By the way, the final mission's final boss has a huge spike in difficulty. Don't say you haven't been warned.)
Technically sound but leaving me feeling hollow and unsatisfied, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones reminds me quite a bit of the series I mentioned earlier, Advance Wars. Both games hooked me immediately and sucked me in the first time around, and both sequels left me hungry by staying too close to the original formula and coming off like add-ons or extended missions instead of being true sequels. I guess I can't complain since quality GBA games are getting harder and harder to come by, but while first-timers should check it out, those who had their fill of Fire Emblem the first time around will find little reason to come back for seconds.