Thursday, January 24, 2013

Awakening the potential with Fire Emblem

at 5:10 PM

The collective Fire Emblem is a great experience. I've said it before - it made my top 10 SRPGs of all time. The problem is that it's composed of something like a dozen individual games spanning 20+ years. That's a whole hell of a lot to simplify into just one generalized playthrough memory, but it does so with no problem. They're all the exact same. And I'm not talking like "all [insert-genre]s are the same!", I'm talking like exact same characters, exact same classes, exact same combat rules, exact same environments, exact same subject matter, exact same story, exact same graphics, exact same music, exact same everything. Okay, maybe they change the main character's hair color from time to time. Seriously. It's not even like iterations of a fighting game where they at least throw in a handful of new characters and arenas. I would honesty say, mean, and fight to the death over the claim that there is more variety in the Street Fighter II subseries (i.e. Turbo, Super, Champ. Ed., etc.) than there is in Fire Emblem's entire discography.

Then there's that "trademark" element, permanent character death. I'm going to move my diatribe against perma-death* to the end of the post, because it's going to be lost on anyone who isn't a series fan.

Fire Emblem: Awakening wants to finally take a step forward with the series. It'll blow classicists minds right off the bat by providing the option to turn off perma-death. While I'm a bit insulted by the fact that this mode is called "Casual" - fuck you Nintendo, I'm playing a goddamn Fire Emblem game - it's an addition that totally opens up the strategic playing field to a degree never available before. Think of how your tactics will change, now that units are disposable. If all you can see is an easier, "casualer" game, you aren't being creative enough. 

Allowing units to perma-live is a natural decision considering the focus of the game's evolution: role-playing. Where warriors' growth was once rigidly predestined (except in Sacred Stones where you could choose-your-evolution), Awakening introduces that role-playingist of role-playing elements: customization. As a matter of fact, someone might argue that a game cannot be an RPG without character/world customixation. The degree to which that's true can be sidelined for this discussion, because directly compared, Awakening is much more an RPG than its predecessors. The first thing the game has you do is create an avatar - his (or her!) appearance, name, and statistical preference. The demo suggests that this may be an Ishmael character - one of my preferred tacks to video game storytelling. Other characters promise to have flexible classes and skill sets, deepening their individual roles and allowing the player to create a personalized army.

The game's newborn visual style emphasizes this further. Equipment is displayed in true paper-doll fashion and battles are viewed from an (optional) first-person perspective. Synergizing teammates are shown entering battle side-by-side, rather than as a hidden statistical bonus. The game wants to draw you deeper into the emotional level of the combat.

Boringer players might object and lament that "hey, you got your micro-managing Tactics in my pure chess-like board-game strategy", but, who gives a fuck. For better or worse, it is indeed time for a change, and Awakening seems to bring a bit of that spirit. Maybe it's not the utter revolution the series needs, but it's the minor uprising it deserves (TM (Batman (TM))). 

I am gonna call bullshit on the hero being called Crom though. I mean, fuck that. Or I guess I should say "then the hell with you!"

*Perma-death, as it's so fondly called by fans, is fucking stupid. The idea of perma-death is that if a unit dies, you now need to fill that gap with a weaker unit that is going to need to catch up. Since Fire Emblem rigidly dictates what back-up units you have (and provides them in finite supply), it's easy to get into a situation where there is no replacement. Also consider that letting even a single unit die permanently weakens your entire army, as there is no training/practice/grinding to make up for the lost experience. This means that losing units is not only a temporary inconvenience, but a permanent difficulty spike. Considering the difficulty already increases over the course of the game, and the added consequence that a lost unit may have been the key to unlocking further allies or items (thus making one death equal to multiple lost units), it becomes apparent to even the most casual player that letting a character perish is simply not an option. So instead of a system where mistakes have game-changing consequences, you have a system where the player must win without mistakes every time. Which just makes for a lot of restarting missions.


  1. Can you explain how ending perma-death doesn't just make the game easier? The only real change it makes (that I can see) is allowing you to sacrifice units without suffering long-term consequences for it. You can choose to use that style of play (where you sacrifice units for tactical advantage) now.

    The better argument seems to be that turning-off perma-death is a way to play the game without endless amounts of stress and rage. I mean, eventually you will beat the level without a single death, might as well do it without increasing your blood pressure.

    1. Disposable units change the strategic playing field by introducing a tide of battle, where you can trade blows with the opponent rather than slowly picking away at them. It changes the objective of each turn from "how do I make sure no one dies" to "how do I do the most damage at the lowest cost", allowing the player to weigh the significance of preserving a unit. It realistically punishes the player for taking risks - since you won't be attempting to perfect every mission, you'll now need to consider: how do I continue with only half of my force remaining? Sacrificing units is the most obvious new strategy available, but the aftermath thereof is an entirely new situation of its own. What if, for instance, all of your ranged units are eliminated and you have to face off against magic users? You can still back out and *retry* like in the old days, but you can also challenge yourself to push on and live with the consequences of your decisions.