Some of its traits reveal a roughness that was neatly smoothed out as the saga developed; however, at the same time, a portion of these old-school values make The Blazing Blade be one interesting transitory bridge between the brutal past of Fire Emblem and its more accessible future
Although originally carrying the full title of Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, the seventh installment of Nintendo’s popular strategy franchise made its way to the pockets of western audiences under the much simpler name of Fire Emblem. The reason behind that decision was, of course, the fact that even though the series had been a considerable part of the company’s canon since the late days of the NES era, with its debut taking place in 1990, players outside of the Japanese borders had never gotten a localized version of any of the saga’s multiple chapters until then. Therefore, released for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade marked the beginning of a relationship that started filled with doubts and eventually flourished into high sales and critical acclaim.
During the thirteen years that separated the series’ 8-bit beginnings from the worldwide publishing of The Blazing Blade, Nintendo seemed convinced the Fire Emblem property would not translate well if brought to those away from its home country. As they saw it, both the franchise’s difficulty and its gameplay style would be unable to draw enough players in Europe and in North America to justify a localization effort. However, upon seeing the success achieved in those regions by Advance Wars (a game that shares many core mechanics with Fire Emblem) as well as noticing the widespread curiosity generated by the participation, in Super Smash Bros. Melee, of Marth and Roy (two important characters of the saga who were virtually unknown outside Japan until then), the company opted to gamble and see what the result would be. As it turns out, it was far from shabby.
A portion of the success of The Blazing Blade can, surely, be attributed to a glaring misjudgment on the part of Nintendo, which was unable to realize the strategy genre – which had already seen success in the West through the hands of the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics – truly clicked far from Japan. A big slice of it, though, has to be conceded to the simple fact that The Blazing Blade is a very good entry in the saga, safely ranking among the upper echelon of its installments.
Originally planned and developed side by side with Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, which would end up preceding it to the market by one year and being – thereby – the first game of the series to be released for the Game Boy Advance, The Blazing Blade actually works as a pretty tight prequel to that Japan-exclusive adventure. A few events portrayed in the quest have ramifications that extend to a future that is only visible in The Binding Blade; furthermore, the journey’s closing chapter neatly sets the table for what is to come, as rumors of what will be a dangerous future start emerging and the stars of the game’s chronological successor appear as children, including Roy himself. However, other than making one feel like they wish they could play an effort that is only available in another language, that somewhat unique relationship is in no way detrimental to the experience.
The enjoyable tale depicted in The Blazing Blade concerns a trio of lords that live in Lycia, one of the many nations found in the continent of Elibe. The paths of the three main characters cross thanks to a conspiracy that threatens to break the peace of the entire land, as nobles from around the region begin being manipulated towards rebellion by a sinister sect operating from the shadows. Determined to not only get to the bottom of the mystery, but also stop brutal war from exploding, the protagonists slowly travel through the continent, progressively amass a considerable army, and steadily chase the trail of their foes. It is, in general terms, a very traditional mold for a Fire Emblem plot. The Blazing Blade, however, smartly plays around with that structure.
Perhaps aware that it would be the first Fire Emblem journey of many players, it separates ten of its whopping thirty-five chapters to what constitutes a prologue arch. In it, one of the three main characters, a sword-fighter who lives a lonely nomadic life in the Sacean Plains, discovers her true identity. Following the death of her parents, who perish in the hands of a group of bandits, Lyn finds out she is the granddaughter of a powerful marquess. Compelled to meet the only remaining member of her family, she embarks on a series of missions that, while introducing gamers to the franchise’s basic mechanics, make the hero bump into signs of the major conflict that is to come.
After reaching a prematurely happy ending, the title skips forward one year to show the troubles faced by two other young nobles. Eliwood, who briefly appears in Lyn’s quest, sets out alongside his friend, Hector, to find his missing father, who – as told by conflicting reports – has either been killed or kidnapped. As Lyn deals with problems of her own, with her grandfather’s castle under sudden attack, the paths of the three converge: she joins forces with the two men and, as they advance in their search for Eliwood’s father, the characters that aided her on the introductory quest slowly reappear to offer their services once more. As such, and much to the benefit of its grand scope, The Blazing Blade successfully merges a pair of distinct treads into a script that is both cohesive and uniform, giving birth to a pleasantly unified plot.
Its structure, though, does lead to a notable shortcoming. If on one hand the extended tutorial is absolutely justified when one considers The Blazing Blade’s position as the first Fire Emblem title to be released in both Europe and North America, anyone playing it with previous knowledge of what the franchise is about may find its length exaggerated.
Lyn’s quest is certainly satisfying: its ten chapters rise nicely in complexity as they go along; moreover, they are far from being all about teaching gamers the basics, as instructions are reserved for tidbits of dialogue and the first turn of the combats. Nevertheless, it undeniably carries more hand-holding than Fire Emblem veterans would like to see and also holds back essential features (such as the screen for battle preparations) for the sake of introducing them little by little. And the fact that many of the lessons on these basics are unavoidable will certainly annoy some.
Save for that structural quirk, The Blazing Blade is Fire Emblem as the world knows it. Its gameplay is centered around players and their AI-controlled opponent taking turns moving units on a grid-based map, with the distance each character is able to advance being determined by a combination of their stats and the terrain that surrounds them. If a unit is close enough to a foe, an attack sequence can be triggered, as the game presents players with a small menu that allows them to preview the possible outcomes of the skirmish in order for them to evaluate if going for it is a good idea or not. Ultimately, the goal of each map varies between eliminating all bad guys; surviving an onslaught for a number of turns whilst protecting a certain position; seizing a major location; or downing a specific enemy.
Over that framework, naturally, there is the signature Fire Emblem strategic layer. The units, which come in almost four dozens and can be recruited either as a natural consequence of the storyline or with the achieving of optional objectives, are divided into multiple classes, each with its own specialties and weaknesses, such as lords, thieves, archers, knights, pegasus riders, warriors, mages, and more. As they battle, they accumulate experience points and level up, which makes their stats grow, gives them the skill to yield more formidable weapons, and eventually allows them to be promoted to a more powerful class.
The game’s melee weapons – the lance, the sword, and the ax – are tangled in a rock-paper-scissors triangle that demands that players plan their next move carefully; and the three available types of magic follow suit. Different kinds of terrain – like forests, mountains, rivers, walls, bridges, and fortresses – have to be managed smartly, as they can be used to one’s advantage by acting as defensive barriers. Flying units, despite great mobility, are very vulnerable against archers. Armored folks, in spire of boasting excellent defense, are weak to spells. Support classes, like healers and dancers (which allow a character to move twice in the same turn) can be the difference between victory and defeat. Characters that have strong relationships gain temporary stat boosts when battling side by side. And much more.
It is a lot to keep in mind, but save from a couple of tougher chapters located towards the end of the adventure, finishing each challenge posed by The Blazing Blade is not too hard, which means the title welcomes newcomers quite effectively. However, as those familiar with the saga ought to know, there is more to Fire Emblem than coming out on top during battles, since most of the time the real hardship is in keeping everyone alive.
Differently from many of the installments of the series that would follow it, The Blazing Blade does not offer the option to disable permanent death. As such, if a unit falls in combat, it is gone for good, a problem that can rapidly snowball to an insurmountable obstacle if a player loses a bunch of their most powerful fighters. Consequently, gamers are more likely to sweat over protecting everyone than winning, and The Blazing Blade is quite kind in giving them the power to restart the chapter from scratch whenever they feel like it, a feature that goes a long way towards erasing frustration. Similarly, it is also possible to suspend battles in any turn and go back to them later, which is just about perfect for the title’s portable nature.
Another portion of the game’s difficulty stems from the fact The Blazing Blade does not hold abundant resources. Following a Fire Emblem tradition, all weapons break after a specific number of uses, which means that besides buying mightier ones once their units are able to hold them, gamers also have to keep some in store at all times. In that particular sense, the challenge rises from two fronts.
The first is that money is not easy to come by, as gamers will usually have to find a way to open chests (by using either keys or a thief) in order to acquire some valuable pieces of treasure whose sole purpose is being sold. The second is that the shops themselves are equally scarce, only appearing in certain maps. The combination of these two factors can lead the army to some very tight spots as far as resources go and force players to do some heavy management (whether regarding the weapons themselves or the units they put on the battlefield), as it is not uncommon for one to have numerous weapons about to break whilst they hope for the appearance of cash and of a store.
The battles, though, are just one half of the charm embedded into any Fire Emblem game. The other is the plot that envelops them. All chapters of the quest are preceded and followed by dialogues and plot developments that are a significant part of the whole experience. The introductory bits that come before combats nicely set up what is to come; meanwhile, the developments that take place after the action on the battlefield bring some resolution to what unfolded while presenting a hook (be it a cliffhanger or some new mystery) that feeds into the next chapter.
It is a clever setup that works on many levels. It creates an endless loop that can keep players going for hours. It moves the script forward constantly, never letting the storyline stagnate for even a second. Even though most of what goes on is centered on the three starring lords, it gives room to dialogues that transform all units that are deployed in battles into far more than sprites on a map, which in turn puts a much heavier load on the task of keeping them alive. Finally, it allows the game to show how one epic tale can be built on a handheld.
The Blazing Blade feels grand not just because of the scope of its plot, which holds an enormous pile of (entirely skippable) dialogue and numerous noteworthy characters. It also comes off as significant because its overall production value is very good. The maps look colorful and the sprites that populate them are wonderful pixel art, striking a nice balance between medieval realism and cartoonish charm. The animations that are activated when attacks happen are smooth, even if they do grow repetitive in the long run. The exchanges between characters, though happening on a simple screen with almost static models, hold up on account of the generally good writing. And the soundtrack, brimming with iconic reproductions of Fire Emblem classics and a few new tunes, translates well to the more restrictive hardware.
To those coming into The Blazing Blade with the baggage of having played some of the many Fire Emblem titles that followed it, a few of its traits may feel somewhat faulty. The extended tutorial, in spite of not being overwhelming in its hand-holding, might come off as unnecessary; and the same applies to the locking of the screen of battle preparations behind a bunch of chapters. Meanwhile, the fact stores and support conversations between units, which improve their relationship, can only be accessed during combats, and not from a specific menu that is available between chapters, is certainly neither ideal nor practical. However, The Blazing Blade is a marvelous experience, one that holds a meaty main campaign; a handful of sidequests; unlockable hard modes; and even an arena that can be used to face either the AI or a friend.
In the end, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade was undoubtedly a very good choice for being the franchise’s first entry to be released outside of its home country. And even after the further establishment of the saga all around the world with a sequence of equally strong titles that certainly built on it, revisiting this Game Boy Advance chapter is still more than worth it for aficionados and casual fans alike. Surely, some of its traits will reveal a roughness that was neatly smoothed out as the saga developed; but, at the same time, a portion of these old-school values actually make The Blazing Blade be one interesting transitory bridge between the brutal past of Fire Emblem and the more accessible future that would lead it to universal success. And in that sense, it is a kind of adventure that cannot be tackled in many other places.