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Fire Emblem: The Morality of Mortality

/ Feb 19th, 2013 No Comments

Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem: Awakening has breathed new life into the series

Bringing Fire Emblem: Awakening to the West has been as hard fought a campaign as any seen within the sprawling battle hardened series. Fire Emblem is a franchise consisting of thirteen main games (including two remakes) that has only had six titles see the light of day outside of Japan. Now Intelligent System‘s war strategy sim is one of Nintendo‘s poster child properties. Awakening saw release back in April 2012 in Japan with no forecasted western release at the time. After Nintendo’s E3 3DS presentation last June, which saw the title glaringly omitted, fans feared the worst. After a subdued reveal shortly afterwards, the title would eventually reach North America on February 4. Now the game is selling out virtually everywhere amidst a stock shortage fiasco. Many stores are reportedly sky rocketing price tags across the US to exploit demand. After a spell of modestly well received GBA and GC entries, Fire Emblem has finally awakened as a brand. Europe gets a swing at the action in April – a full year after the Japanese release.

Forging The Fire Emblem.

Fire Emblem has always been a bit of an understudy to the Legend of Zelda as far as prime time Nintendo fantasy epics go, namely because western audiences have had to catch up. The series’ international introduction came in the form of Marth and Roy’s appearances in Smash Bros Melee in 2001, Marth being the lead role in the first and third games in Japan and the curiously gameless Roy featuring as a promo for the yet to be released Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi (Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade) which hit Japanese Game boy Advances in 2002.

[adsense250itp]Fire Emblem is an enigmatic property despite its rising acclaim. On the surface it looks all blue cosplay hair, oversized weapons and anime magic. Under the veil, it’s a bleak world of turn based turmoil, death and despair. Many fans have been drawn in by a unique property to the series rarely seen elsewhere in games. As you fight across challenging battlefields with your band of comrades in tow, should any of your party die it’s curtains for them, forever. That’s right, once a character dies they stay dead, a harsh rule that has insured players proceed with a heightened level of caution and strategy that otherwise might not have been invested in other tactical RPGs of Fire Emblem’s ilk.

The characters are no generic manga-eyed mannequins either, these characters play out their roles as if from a novel. Gamers are taken along the adventure by way of the life stories of each member of this motley crew. The hero’s motivations may lie in anything from an impassioned quest for revenge to a duty to protect a family member or betrothed within the group. Often characters even fall in love with each other as the game progresses, heightening the anxiety to keep them alive within tense environments.

Dead Means Dead.

Napoleon once said, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”. I forget which Bill and Ted film he said it in, though. He’s obviously never seen one of my crunchy omelettes. When looking over a party in Fire Emblem before a battle it’s vital to plan ahead for when the player’s dudes are getting scrambled. Any illustrious Nintendo Ambassadors out there that took Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones for a spin should attest to this. For those that haven’t played it yet, please do. It’s great.

Fire Emblem

The hairstyles in the Fire Emblem universe boast more colours than crayola crayons. Fan favourites from the 23 year old series appear as DLC in Awakening.

I’ve hazardously laid waste to many of my key adventurers and accidentally left a number of expired villagers in my wake. Regrettable as it is, I wouldn’t change that, there were necessary sacrifices as well as mistakes made along the way to Grado. Er, I’ve killed some bad guys too. Every time a valuable combatant dies in battle gamers make the game harder for themselves in the next battle, because they don’t come back. By chapter 14 I’d managed to kill all the optional recruitable characters from each mission. Without consulting a guide or walkthrough, how was I supposed to know I could recruit them? Fire Emblem is as unforgiving as the newly precious Dark Souls! In one mission I fumbled a rescue operation, which saw a small child eaten by a swarm of giant tarantulas. The heartfelt death quotes of each character are especially affecting. I meet every one with an “Oh dear,” which makes me look strange on the bus. Players can reset and restart the battle if they experience a significant beatdown, but then they are really being punished, as many battles can last up to an hour. Although it might not sound it, that checkered journey is what actually makes the game so enjoyable.

Addressing The Morality Of Mortality.

Fire Emblem

Death has always been a major theme in Fire Emblem. An affecting plot device and gameplay element rarely used so effectively in many of todays games.

Admittedly in past games there have been moments where fallen characters could be revived in a relatively limited and specific capacity; this is a fantasy series after all. However, a ‘no death’ mode didn’t appear until the Japan only release of Fire Emblem: Shin Monshō no Nazo: Hikari to Kage no Eiyū (Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow) for Nintendo DS in 2010. Fire Emblem: Awakening also offers both a “classic” mode and a “casual’ mode. Classic mode retains the permanent death element of earlier games while casual mode ensures players’ cast members are revived after each mission.

Without trying to sound too much like a purist, the ‘casual mode’ kind of misses the point of Fire Emblem. Almost any character can die at any time so exercising impartiality and taking a measured approach is key. Playing without deaths denies something important from the experience, a fundamental element. It is somewhat ironic that the necessary moral dilemma of being fated to make sacrifices, is itself being sacrificed. This is an adventure game and a good adventure needs danger. Take away the danger and voila! There’s the ‘casual’ mode folks.

Death in Fire Emblem is uniquely engaging. When gamers think of significant deaths in games it’s easy to think of Aerith in FinalFantasy VII, Chrono in Chrono Trigger, Nei in Phantasy Star 2 among many others. However, these are deaths that lead towards a specific narrative path. Players are not actively responsible or the cause of most story lead fatalities in video games, merely spectators. In Fire Emblem however, it’s all on us.The pixel blood is on our hands.

When it comes to survival based horror, from the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill games through to the Dead Space series and Zombi U, gamers are also witnessing a different confrontation of death and morality, namely because they are actually the protagonist. They are Jill, Chris, Harry Mason, Isaac Clarke or whoever, and it is actually them that is fighting to survive. In Fire Emblem if little Lute (a young would be mage who joined my ranks after her village was destroyed) gets killed, the game goes on and it’s up to YOU to keep it going. Too bad Lute!

Keeping The Flames Alive.

I’d rather not make this sound like just another silly ‘militant hardcore elite > family fun casual 3DS playtime crowd weeee!!’ grumble, but I implore those interested in the game, whoever you are, to play Fire Emblem: Awakening on classic mode. It asks more moral questions of the player than most games. It’s easy to feel that by including an option to prevent characters from dying has somewhat diluted this exceptional and refreshing aspect. Absorbing all that added rage and frustration and (most importantly) empathy can only enrich a gameplay experience in a way that the ‘diet Fire Emblem’ of casual mode simply can’t.

On a side-note, the ‘casual mode’ development doesn’t help to silence any repeating arguments surrounding games becoming easier. Players will invariably approach things differently under lessened circumstances. There are already enough Tactical RPGs that offer the softer approach of after battle resurrection. Casual mode feels to me like swimming with armbands. The future looks good for the series with the Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem announcement on every fan’s mind. Hopefully the classic jeopardy of Fire Emblem will be present in the crossover. However, if you play it on casual mode you’re not doing it right and we can’t be friends, so there! R.I.P Death.

Olly Jones
Olly Jones is a contributor to the editorial team at Gaming Illustrated. As an artist, Olly has created artwork to publicize games for Capcom, Ubisoft, Arc System Works and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Olly Jones

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