Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (2005)

Though recognisably crafted in the Fire Emblem mould, Sacred Stones its slapdash approach to story-telling, tactical combat and AI programming combine to make it one of the series' weaker entries.

All the best RPGs play their storyline cards close to their chest, going to great lengths to craft and sustain a visceral sense of mystery and wonder while you attempt to discover your identity, your purpose, and the inevitable obstacles that will stand in your way. Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones, on the other hand, dispenses with any and all stage-setting intrigue to instead make the collectivity of its introductions in a great hurry. Upon hitting the START-button, Sacred Stones spits out an intricate world history that reads like a two-sheet synopsis of a 600-page Game of Thrones novel, and crosses its fingers that you’ll be enthralled by the overwhelming wealth of up-front exposition that, I guarantee, you’ll struggle to remember. I wasn’t, and sadly, things never really got better.

I spy with my outlandishly-sized eye…

What I gathered from Atlas Shrugged Sacred Stones is this. On an island – why is it always an island? – are found a bunch of small-ish independent states, each reigned by a brawny-looking, neatly-groomed fellow for a king. For reasons unknown one of these rulers has recently gone stark raving mad and launched a surprise attack upon his unwitting neighbours. Thus on the back foot, it is your job to reclaim lost lands and dethrone the loony emperor, who just so happens to derive his strength from the darkest of dark pacts with an unnamed netherwordly figure. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese production-line RPG if the supernatural were shunned, and by mission 5, the map is inundated with giant floaty eyeballs.

(As a side note, who you are is never explained. Quite unlike the ‘Tactician’ persona in recent Fire Emblem instalments, your guiding hand has no explicit physical presence. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; it just shows how Fire Emblem has evolved over many iterations.)

The story’s setting, then, is hardly earth-shatteringly novel, but neither a stock premise nor an unimpressive start to a tale’s delivery predispose it to failure. After all, the world of penmanship is filled with examples of slow-off-the-block writing that, once the hooks are in, never lets go (I cite Firefly). Yet Sacred Stones at best muddles through, following up its false start with difficulty in establishing a compelling cast fuelled by credible motivations, resulting in an overarching story that feels both disjointed and immaterial. This is rather unfortunate, because without superb writing to sustain Sacred Stones, it devolves into simply a loose collection of tactical combat maps that, I’m sorry to say, aren’t very good either (more on this later).

Sounds pretty serious.

For one thing, I was left scratching my head about the main characters’ seemingly inadequate response to the grim situation on the island as outlined in Sacred Stones’ textbook-length opening. Faced with a world overrun by fiends from the shadow realm, a mad king who’s subjugated half the island, and the fate of the continent’s royalty in the balance, the leading cast responds with surprisingly whimsical, impulsive, spur-of-the-moment optimism, dare I say naïveté. Fine, I thought – perhaps this is a deliberate narrative device to underline the protagonists’ ill-preparedness to face the rising evil, their immaturity of judgment gradually transforming into life-preserving, sensible decision-making. But no, the same uncompromising youthful over-exuberance prevails throughout.

Perhaps this is reflective of a favoured Japanese theme – the purity of youth, unwaveringly righteous, sanguine and bearer of the divine will, prevailing over the corruption of ancient evil. But to a European audience unacquainted with this tradition, the distance separating light and dark in Sacred Stones is so vast and absolute that it becomes challenging to perceive rationality in either. And I’m not just talking the broad strokes of Sacred Stones’ over-engineered plotline – no, this dichotomy also trickles down into support conversations where a good 50% of the cast emerges as infallible epitomes of innocence. Thus collectively imbibed with the personality of Skies of Arcadia‘s Fina, these characters are simply not relatable, drifting closer to demigods than the complex, mortal human beings we all are.

Punching above her weight.

Anyway, this credibility gap resulting from the disharmony between an evidently dire premise and naive response by a sacrosanct cast isn’t helped by the fact that new allies are introduced at breakneck speed on flimsy pretexts. The gameplay rationale behind this new-ally deluge is obvious: each has their own combat class with strengths, weaknesses, and sometimes special abilities, and their rapid addition to the roster presents you with welcome strategic choice a handful of missions in. However, the narrative cost that rides in on the coattails of this motley assembly of random individuals is a sense of inchoateness. Few, as mentioned before, have particularly profound motivations for joining protagonist orphaned lordling Eirika in her crusade, let alone for sticking by her when things get hairy – that is, beyond the solidarity of sheer camaraderie.

Musing on this, I began to wonder if in the development of Sacred Stones, dev-concerns with tactical gameplay prevailed over narrative design. Essentially, I get the impression that each character in Sacred Stones was initially conceived as an empty shell to accommodate a particular collection of combat properties rather than for narrative purpose. (The logic being “we – the dev-team in charge of combat – need an X number of swordsmen, X brawlers, X archers, X wizards, and X healers to craft balanced combat, so make sure you – the narrative team – have written ’em all into the story by mission six.”) Should this observation prove true, which I’m of course not in a position to verify, that would make for highly unusual, inverted design priorities. The classic workflow in the biz is to first shape an interesting story filled with characters of instrinsic value, and only then, once the story-side is locked down, to begin the process of assigning particular battlefield talents to available character moulds. 1 But Sacred Stones very, very much plays as though a character’s battlefield purpose was the driving force in the creation of this particular cast, not narrative necessity.

I say this, firstly, because individuals drift absurdly loosely into the story in the cast-forming opening half of the game, even by Fire Emblem’s notorious standards of entry. Team-up speeches are hasty and low-effort; as a representative example, the line “Let us join you for a while – we have nowhere else to go” certainly captures this spirit. Successive “remember when”-anecdotes that are meant to glue backstory to character portraits aren’t particularly convincing either and do little to assuage the initial unease. 2 The cumulative result of repeated mystifying allegiance-swearing is that the wider narrative, too, feels like a jumbled-together, incoherent, post-rationalised tale.

Who are you, exactly?

In fairness, some of this clumsiness vanishes after the roster stabilises. Even so, the makeshift crew never quite gels to the extent appropriate for a Fire Emblem title and typical interactions designed to flesh out individual character and build true esprit de corps feel uninspired and never quite hit their stride as they do in, say, AwakeningThis is regrettable; after all, it is quintessentially Fire Emblem to pad adventures with recognisable backstory-rich “support conversations” that make the corners of one’s mouth twitch and that drip-feed just enough goofiness, suspense and occasional innuendo to spark a desire for the next chapter. Two decades into the series, the mastered art of personable nested narratives are an undisputed driving factor in the runaway success of recent instalments Awakening, Fates and Heroes. How unfortunate that it should be this very factor, then, where Sacred Stones so misses the mark. Quite literally so, in fact: the encamped-caravan setting where such interactions usually take place is an innovation that post-dates Sacred Stones, and its absence hangs like raincloud over the experience. But more on that later, too.

If I’m right and narrative cohesion was short-changed in favour of battlefield design, then at a minimum we would expect this latter component to be pitch-perfect. But here, too, Sacred Stones could frankly use a dash of polish. Its turn-based strategy mechanics feel rough around the edges at times, flirting with novelty of concept over balanced execution and lending a sense of quaint experimentality to the game seldom seen in modern triple A titles – perhaps nothing but appropriate, then, considering Sacred Stones its age.

But this is not to say that Sacred Stones plays poorly or sacrifices its roots. All of Fire Emblem’s familiar fundamentals are present: the sword-axe-lance weapon trinity at the core, the terrain interactions, and the usual 20-some feudal characters designed to support multiple direct combat classes with various strengths and weaknesses, supplemented by a dollop of wizardry and bow-sniping. Maps are peppered with strategically placed chests to unlock for loot, villages to liberate for helpful gifts awarded in gratitude, and enemy soldiers to be mugged for bounty. These core tenets of the Fire Emblem series are as robust in Sacred Stones as ever, and that the game is still an entertaining romp fifteen years post-release is testimony to the timelessness of Intelligent System’s formula.

However… For the seamlessly integrated package comprised of Fire Emblem combat fundamentals, the experimental cream on top sometimes feels poorly applied.

One sizeable beef I have with Sacred Stones involves the ‘Arena’ structures present on certain tactical maps. In the midst of battle, the player can choose to direct a unit onto an Arena to conduct a prize fight against a randomly generated unit. Winning this battle yields lavish earnings that multiply with each successive foe defeated. It’s an attractive proposition; however, the game neglects to mention that failing to abort an unfavourable exchange results in the irreversible death of the unit involved, and not a simple Gold loss as I had naively assumed. This made for an extremely nasty and entirely unsignposted first-time surprise. (Rest in peace, Vanessa.).

Newbie trap.

Apart from immediate ‘what the frick’ disbelief, this Arena-mechanic also bugs me on a philosophical level. I find the promotion of life-or-death risk-taking for an altogether inconsequential monetary reward (funds are never a problem throughout Sacred Stones) to be thematically at odds with the careful, character-preserving playstyle that the game otherwise encourages you to adopt. Arenas feel like a superfluous attempt at combat embellishment that has been clumsily bolted onto – not integrated into – Fire Emblem’s established mechanics. Arenas would have been ideally suited to a non-lethal, optional game mode accessible via a menu screen, similar to the challenge maps from Knight of Lodis or Advance Wars’ Battle Room. Exclusive equipment could have been gated behind it, new characters made recruitable, and additional maps unlocked. But as it stands, Colosseum-style jousting is out of place on a bloodied battlefield.

With one possible exception. You could always abuse the wrecking ball that is pre-promoted Paladin Seth, in which case you’re free to entirely disregard my risk-reward grievances and milk the Arenas for all they’re worth – disjointedness be damned. (Oh and congratulations: you just beat the game!) Prefab OP tank Seth ably seduces waves of enemies to gleefully commit suicide by spear as nobody, including random Arena fighters, can lay a finger on him. Have Doombringer Seth soak up EXP like a sponge, and he can easily solo the game. Frankly, even if you consciously under-utilise Seth in favour of raising up squishy EXP-sinks like the aforementioned Pegasus Knight Vanessa and Pirate-in-the-Making Ross, he will still beat the snot out of anyone by game’s end. Fire Emblem veterans oft consider vanilla Sacred Stones a straight-up cakewalk, and much of this criticism traces back to Seth.

I don’t find that entirely accurate, though. Pre-promoted Knight-like characters are a staple of Fire Emblem (Path of Radiance had Oscar, Awakening had Frederick, and so on), and none of these games were pushovers like Sacred Stones. So what gives?

Seth just wants to have fun.

This brings me to the second major mechanical beef I have with this game: AI. Seth wouldn’t be cast in the role of one-man meat grinder if the AI weren’t as dumb as a bag of hammers, to paraphrase The Walking Dead’s Kenny. You’d expect higher difficulty levels to up the strategic challenge, but even on Hard, Sacred Stones is a breeze compared to, say, Awakening.

The problem stems from the way enemy troops act on their unit-specific movement ranges. As a general rule, each unit will remain transfixed in place until you, the player, actively stray into their “aggro zone”, which consists of their single-turn reach plus an extra tile (or two) they can attack into. Like in Advance Wars, consulting the R-button will provide you this information. However, quite unlike in Advance Wars, the majority of AI forces will never strategically reposition to afford themselves better fighting chances on the next turn. Instead, they’re perfectly content to watch their comrades get picked off one by one until it’s time for their own heads to go on the block. (And should you move one unit – say, Seth – into a full group’s range, they will all invariably swoop down on him like pack of vultures even though can realistically barely put a dent in his armour, meaning Seth can stoically clean them all up with few swift strikes of his spear.)

The practical implication is that Sacred Stones’ tactical combat is equal parts uninteresting and undynamic. Each set of enemies is effectively a “pod”, like in XCOM 2, comprising a small puzzle that can be tackled in isolation without worrying about the larger enemy force on the map. But unlike in XCOM, you’re not on a turn timer, and you invariably have an overwhelming numerical advantage in each mini-encounter. This, plus sledgehammer Seth, makes the game childishly easy, despite the ever-present worry of permadeath.

Come at me, bro! (No, he ain’t coming.)

The game’s attempted solution to shaky AI programming is to throw frequent curveballs at you. Sudden reinforcements popping up to your rear are Sacred Stones’ go-to solution. Even if these seldom tilt the overall scale of battle, they may still frustratingly catch out a lone or laggard unit – that is, until you develop a sixth sense for unannounced visitors or simply learn the battlefield triggers to hardcoded sudden arrivals through trial and error. One of Sacred Stones’ better solutions to prevent stale combat is to sprinkle points of interest around the mission map that are, in contrast to the overall objective, time-sensitive. This can be a village on the cusp of ransack that promises, if protected, to offer a tantalising reward, or a besieged neutral (green) character open to recruitment should they survive an enemy onslaught. Such incentives work reasonably well at forcing out riskier play if, like me, you’re determined to see the a game’s full cast and fill up your equipment racks. Obviously, should you not care for either, these side-missions are easily ignored in favour of the unlosable, calculating playstyle described above.

Sacred Stones’ final hurrah is to descend a curtain of unit-obscuring fog-of-war over the battlefield on certain missions, which is a technique that was used to great effect in the Advance Wars series with its ever-motile hostile forces. Knowing, however, that units in Sacred Stones are stationary until approached, it is here easily unmasked as a gimmick to feign dynamism where there is none.

At best, then, Sacred Stones’ fog-of-war imparts caution, compelling the player to edge his units forward a tile or two at a time to avoid over-aggro. Not harder, just more tedious. But at worst, the mist fails even in this limited objective, becoming an entirely redundant mechanic by virtue of inexpensive consumables and staves that flat-out illuminate the darkness up to several tiles away and thus effectively annul both the psychological and mechanical effects of the fog. In the final analysis, fog of war in Sacred Stones is but a lacklustre attempt to create the illusion of dynamism, i.e. the suggestion that stuff happening beneath the veil, which there in fact isn’t, because all troops are rooted to the spot. (Remember how in Advance Wars you could detect enemy units moving beneath the fog from the sound they made? Synchronised footfalls for infantry, the mechanical whirring of caterpillar track for tanks… Yeah… None of that here.)

Not quite impenetrable.

With that little critique of Sacred Stones’ combat mechanics out of the way, I would like to come full circle and revisit the game’s support mechanics. Fire Emblem has rightly witnessed a huge surge in popularity in recent years and I attribute this largely to more polished intra-character interactions where players arbitrate not just death by the sword, but take major life decisions in general (who should X marry?). Intelligent Systems has thereby ceded an enormous amount of auxiliary narrative control to the player, who can indulge their whims to make each playthrough narratively unique. In comparison Sacred Stones its support system seems hopelessly primitive and it is evident that the iterative process of releasing fifteen-odd games in a single IP over the course of 27 years has led valuable lessons to be learned and implemented.

Confusingly, in Sacred Stones, support conversations take place on battle maps and not, as one might expect, in a campsite setting. This is weird – much like Arenas, light-hearted gossip is decidedly out of tune in active combat, not to mention occasionally irritating when character X drones on about his pet parrot while you’re in a tactical combat mindset trying to save your wizard-in-training from a pair of archers that showed up out of nowhere. More so, character dialogues are – like the wider narrative – often a little vapid, consisting of drawn-out chatter saying very little of importance or interest.

Can you reach?

Second, friendship mechanics differ markedly from newer Fire Emblem entries. In lieu of establishing rapport by completing missions together (such as in Awakening), support score is premised on the number of turns that two units spent adjacent to each other. When a certain threshold is reached, a support conversation unlocks. Whether this is an odd, inorganic way to build rapport is up for debate, but regardless, it doesn’t require great force of thought to realise that – in absence of a mission timer – this system can be gamed mercilessly. Since enemies sit idle unless you seek them out, and there is no turn limit, it is possible to design a support circle-jerk in a quiet corner of the map and totally exploit this mechanic. Hit end-turn mindlessly for a hundred-ish times and presto, each duo hits A-rank familiarity. This stacks up to some wicked permanent stat and combat bonuses provided both moieties enter a mission together.

Given the obvious collective imperfections inherent in Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, the game evokes mixed feelings in me. I enjoyed my time with this oddball retro strategy title, yet could never escape the sentiment that Sacred Stones is a stripped-down pale imitation of the game it could – nay, should – have been had it received the sensible developer attention it deserved. And not just in comparison to the highly-polished juggernaut Fire Emblem has these days become, but also in the expectations Sacred Stones had for itself.

Word is that that Intelligent Systems rushed out the game on GameBoy Advance to predate the imminent release of the Nintendo DS, and having gone through most of the content, I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The cornerstone of all Fire Emblem titles is outstanding writing that manifests in a relatable, intriguing story with at least passably compelling personages – and Sacred Stones unfortunately has neither. Layer on top decidedly middling tactical combat and the resulting product is painfully mediocre by the series’ lofty standards. Even so, I struggle to firmly rule against it. For all its flaws, Sacred Stones is – by virtue of the rock-solid Fire Emblem fundamentals – still fun to play. If you have a few bucks to drop, one could do worse than take Sacred Stones for a spin on Wii U’s Virtual Console, or whatever emulation platform the Switch may eventually harbour. Just don’t expect much of a challenge.

  1. Crudely simplified, of course. In practice this process is often a two-way street, though narrative design will nearly always come first, and game design follow and adapt to the material it is presented.
  2. Dialogues in Sacred Stones are not at all aided by a translation that reads like it was completed over a long weekend. It may well have been – historically half of all Fire Emblem games never made it outside of Japan and NA/EU releases used to be numerically modest, perhaps afterthoughts.

Posted by ChronoCritic