The greatness of The Sacred Stones does not originate solely from the addition of accessibility to a framework that had repeatedly proven it worked well; it also comes from the joining of exciting strategic battles with an engaging plot that moves through sweetness, sadness, and darkness
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, simply titled – upon its American release – as Fire Emblem, was the second game of the strategy franchise to be released for the Game Boy Advance. However, outside of the Japanese borders, it received that basic moniker for a very straightforward motive: the fact that it was the first installment of the saga to be published away from its home country. For that reason, the effort by Intelligent Systems put a strong focus on introducing the property to players; a move also partially caused by how Nintendo felt the gameplay style of the series was distant from the experiences western audiences were used to. Consequently, one of the defining characteristics of that title was the splitting of its arch into two distinct sections: one extended tutorial that lasted for ten chapters and a follow-up tale, very much connected to the first part of the game, that took the wheels completely off and left players totally free to deal with enemy armies.
Given the introduction of the property to fans that did not know it too well had already been taken care of, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones starts out from a much better position than its older brother. And it is possible to say it takes good advantage of that, since it creates not only an adventure that is quicker to get to the meat of the gameplay, but also a journey that expands on what was put in place by its predecessor, qualifying as a product that – though not outright superior – manages to feel more complete than a game that was already quite good itself.
In The Sacred Stones, the freedom that was only attained after ten chapters in The Blazing Blade can be achieved right from the start. As soon as they start a new campaign, players are asked with choosing one of three modes: an easy path that, to welcome rookies, comes with thorough explanations of the game’s basic mechanics; a normal road that differs from its more friendly counterpart not in difficulty, but on how it does away with tutorials altogether; and a hard journey that will be especially appealing to folks who care neither about exposition on units, movement, and stats nor about being faced with puny foes. Immediately after a choice is made, players are transported to the continent of Magvel.
As it seems to be the standard for settings of the franchise, Magvel is a land broken into multiple nations, each with its own habits, government system, and ruler; despite these differences, though, and a history of war, the region has been peaceful for quite a while. Given there is no Fire Emblem without some sort of conflict, however, weapons are about to be brought out somewhere. In the case of The Sacred Stones, the action begins when its audience’s attention is directed to the Kingdom of Renais. There, King Fado is surprised by a sudden attack coming from the neighboring state, the Grado Empire, with which Renais has had such a long-standing partnership that even the children of both rulers became close friends when younger.
Unable to react quickly enough, Fado decides to see to the safety of his descendants. Prince Ephraim, his son, is missing in the midst of the battles that have exploded, reportedly guiding his own unit against Grado’s men. Meanwhile, Princess Eirika, remains inside the castle walls, leading Fado to urge one of his best generals, Seth, to escort her to Frelia, a nearby kingdom that is known for its pegasus knights. After escaping the enemy and getting to their destination, Eirika is warmly received by King Hayden, who urges her to stay and wait for her brother’s return. The girl, however, gently refuses and explains that she has to find Ephraim.
It is with Eirika and Seth that the journey of The Sacred Stones will being. But, much like it happened in The Blazing Blade and as it is recurrent in many Fire Emblem games, there is a structural twist in the middle of the road. After she reunites with Ephraim following numerous battles, the paths of the siblings will part: while the young man will head straight to the heart of the Grado Empire to confront Emperor Vigarde about his motives, the princess will navigate equally dangerous territory to try to ask the other nations for help. And when that split occurs, players will have to decide who they are going to accompany.
Regardless of the choice that is made, the ending of The Sacred Stones will be the same. Just like they parted, Eirika and Ephraim will reunite, and the branches their separation creates will merge back into one for a sequence of chapters that will close out the plot. However, interestingly, playing through the two routes is a must, because – it almost goes without saying – they show different perspectives on the same war campaign, making it hard for one to get a complete picture of what will unfold without controlling brother and sister.
The units that join the two are different, and since Fire Emblem tends to do a good job at developing those minor characters so that they grow into more than soldiers on a map, taking one path means not getting to know the secondary plots of the other. The eight chapters that are exclusive to each sibling are also quite distinct, and since Eirika often hears about the exploits of Ephraim and vice-versa, gamers that go down one branch will certainly be curious to see how the events reported to them actually play out. And, finally, a few people who have relatively major roles in the storyline only get a good deal of attention in one of the routes.
With those exclusive traits in mind, it is very disappointing, then, that The Sacred Stones does not make it easier for one to explore the two paths. After the game is beaten once, Intelligent Systems could have easily allowed a second playthrough to be started from the eighth chapter, which is when the roads of Eirika and Ephraim diverge. The more modern Fire Emblem Fates, for the Nintendo 3DS, would eventually feature a similar structure and offer that opportunity. However, here, that implementation is not made, and anyone wishing to see it all will have to start from scratch and go through a whole lot of battles before they begin seeing new content.
A distinction in structure, though, is not the only element that separates The Sacred Stones from The Blazing Blade. On the battlefield, both games are pretty much the same, down to the presentation itself, which – standing between charmingly cartoonish and slightly realistic – has the effort borrowing the very good character models, animations, scenarios, and visual assets of its predecessor. Like every Fire Emblem installment, The Sacred Stones has gameplay centered around taking turns moving units on a map, with players being tasked with a variety of goals that change according to the level, including defeating all enemies, beating a specific boss, seizing a castle, and even surviving an onslaught for a predetermined amount of turns.
Leading a unit close enough to a foe will let players attack, which can be done after viewing a preview – exhibited on a table – of how the duel will likely unfold. Each member of the army belongs to a specific class, which – in turn – can equip one or more different kinds of weapons; and these are involved in a rock-paper-scissors triangle of strengths and weaknesses.
Furthermore, every class has its own quirks: healers are extremely fragile and must be protected at all costs; flying units – which can be pegasus knights or wyvern riders – easily fall prey to the arrows of archers, who have a wider range of attack; knights and their horses are able to move many squares in one turn; armored units, contrarily, have low mobility but excellent defense; they are, however, easily destroyed by magic-wielders, whose spells come in a trio of kinds that is – like the melee weapons – involved in a rock-paper-scissors triangle. Under these strategic details, which are as natural as air to longtime Fire Emblem players, the game has an equally steady RPG layer.
For every battle they take part in, units gain experience points, eventually leveling up and having their stats raised. Once they reach level ten, and provided gamers have acquired the necessary items, they can be promoted to a new class; and The Sacred Stones, drawing inspiration from the NES’ Japan-only Fire Emblem Gaiden, actually differs from The Blazing Blade by giving each class not one, but two possible promotions, leaving it up to players to select how their units will evolve. In addition, within Fire Emblem traditions, conversations can be triggered between the characters inside the battles, a choice that – besides leading to some character development – also increases the support of the units involved and gives them stats bonuses if they battle side by side.
The greatest twist The Sacred Stones offers in relation to The Blazing Blade actually happens to be its navigable world map. The latter game might have showed characters traveling across the areas of the continent in which their battles took place, but it was a mere aesthetic detail to give players a sense of geography. In The Sacred Stones, though, in yet another feature drawn from Fire Emblem Gaiden, the map has a practical purpose, as it allows Eirika and Ephraim to – just like Mario in one of his 2-D quests – move around the overworld freely.
It is, obviously, not just for show. The fact the map is navigable is put to good use, and most of what is extracted out of it has to do with increased accessibility. As far as difficulty is concerned, The Sacred Stones – similarly to The Blazing Blade – holds a good challenge; in addition to having a hard mode, its journey – even in its regular level of difficulty – holds mighty obstacles: some of its later chapters can be brutal; and given a unit that is killed does not return, hence making all those experience points go to waste and the strength it provided disappear into thin air, players will be struggling to keep everybody alive all the way through, likely resetting a few chapters multiple times to avoid such costly mistake. But, overall, the experience of The Sacred Stones is less stressful than that of its predecessor.
For starters, armies of monsters – a consequence of the dark forces disrupting the peace in Magvel – will appear in previously visited locations; as such, if they feel like getting an experience boost, something that is extremely useful for a few initially weak units that show up late into the game, players can retread to those places and kill some bad guys. Moreover, the always extremely necessary shops, which must be visited consistently given weapons have a set durability, are easier to access: in The Blazing Blade, they were just available during the battles; in The Sacred Stones, they are on the map at all times. Finally, since monsters drop money, resources are not so scarce: where in the first Fire Emblem game to be released outside of Japan players had to scour chests for treasure in hopes of not running out of gold and, therefore, weapons; here, cash is not a problem.
At last, for the purpose of bringing in some added replay value, connected to the map are also the three main optional challenges of The Sacred Stones: the Tower of Valni, the Lagdou Ruins, and the Creature Campaign. The first, made available after the ninth chapter, is an eight-floor gauntlet of individual battles that get progressively harder, yielding rewards in the form of items and experience points. The second, which becomes reachable upon the completion of the campaign, is basically its harder counterpart. Finally, the third allows one to only freely roam the map after the game is beaten, making it possible to not only fight monsters, but also unlock new characters in both the Tower of Valni and in the Lagdou Ruins.
Ironically, even though it is more recommendable to longtime Fire Emblem players due to the fact it lacks the long introductory arch of The Blazing Blade, the steps The Sacred Stones takes towards accessibility may cause some frustration in those veterans. After all, its abundance of enemies and goods removes the stifling resource restrictions of its predecessors, making its adventure – therefore – much closer to the easier contemporary entries of the franchise than to the mighty challenges that were rather frequent in the past.
That caveat aside, The Sacred Stones is yet another very good entry in the saga, and it is likely to universally please. Because, in the end, its greatness does not originate solely from the fact it adds the practicality of a world map to a well-known gameplay framework that has repeatedly proven it works well. The Sacred Stones is great, ultimately, because it joins exciting strategic battles with an engaging plot that moves through sweetness, sadness, and darkness. And when that formula is achieved, the Fire Emblem franchise is at its finest state.