Original blog post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author plays when he’s not writing. Well, how about a pretty great series of tactical RPGs — though they’re rarely on Fire and only occasionally an Emblem…
First things first: Nintendo has been around since 1889. Fun fact, they started out hand-making a Japanese card game.
Yes, really. Obviously, they weren’t making video games back then. That didn’t happen until the 1970s.
Nevertheless, Nintendo has had plenty of time to get good at what it does. In this case, it was almost exactly a hundred years between Nintendo’s foundation and the release of the first Fire Emblem.
Some Nintendo franchises, though, have been notably more successful in North America than Japan. This has historically been the case for Zelda and Metroid. On the other hand, some of their franchises have done the opposite and proven much more popular in Japan.
Of course, this is at least occasionally the result of not being released outside of Japan. Famously, fans are still campaigning to get Nintendo to localise Mother 3.
For a long time, it seemed like Fire Emblem was destined to be one of those franchises. Luckily for those of us outside Japan, Fire Emblem has managed to break out of Japan and settle itself into a comfortable little niche among Nintendo’s long-running franchises.
The series goes back to 1990, with the release of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Six subsequent games were released exclusively in Japan before the series made its worldwide debut with Blazing Blade in 2003.
Outside of Japan, it was basically treated as the first entry of a new series, to the point of being released as just Fire Emblem. Since then, the series has remained something of a cult classic, especially compared to Nintendo’s other major franchises. Several Fire Emblem games have still never been released outside Japan, though characters from these games have begun appearing with updated designs and English voice acting in the mobile Fire Emblem Heroes, which is sort of like Fire Emblem‘s equivalent of an All-Star Game.
Fire Emblem has also proven itself something of a cause of consternation for Smash Bros. fans, given the abundance of playable Fire Emblem characters making their way into the series, especially relative to the series’ comparative obscurity to Nintendo’s heavy hitters.
For example, Byleth, whose reveal video had a frankly hilarious like:dislike ratio before Youtube went and disabled dislikes…
The “too many swordsmen” line in the video is a direct reference/cheap shot towards one the major complaints about Fire Emblem characters in Smash.
I probably can’t be counted as a “real” Fire Emblem fan, because my first exposure to the series was through Marth and Roy in Smash Bros. Melee and the first game in the series I played to any meaningful degree was Awakening in 2013. The same applies to a lot of other people.
Awakening was responsible for a renaissance of the series and a major influx of new players. Of course, if you ask many of the fans of the earlier games, it’s also the game that ruined the series forever, but that’s neither here nor there.
So, what is Fire Emblem?
Despite the name, it’s rarely on fire and only occasionally an Emblem. Still a great series, though.
When my parents asked me that very question, I floundered around for a minute, before managing to stammer “It’s like Dungeons & Dragons! Sort of. Not really.”
On a fundamental level, that’s true. It’s a Fantasy strategy game that plays out in alternating turns that involves moving your dudes around a grid. The comparison falls apart under closer scrutiny, but it works to explain the series in general terms.
And, to clarify, the “Fire Emblem” referred to in the title of the series is basically the world-saving object the heroes need to save the day in any given game. What exactly it is varies between games: sometimes it’s a shield, sometimes it’s a sword, sometimes it’s a more abstract source of divine power. Sometimes it’s even actually an emblem.
I don’t want to get into too much detail describing the individual games in the series (I might do that later as a follow-up), but I do have some thoughts on the games I’ve actually played.
Awakening is a good entry point into the series and seems to have been designed as such on purpose, it’s pretty intuitive, not especially difficult on the default difficulty level, and gives the option to turn off the series’ infamous Permadeath mechanic.
The plot is nothing special (“There’s a evil dragon who wants to eat the world, kill it” — pretty standard for a Fire Emblem game), but the characters are all pretty fun and are all voiced by actors that range from good to excellent.
I also really enjoyed the ability to make my characters fall in love and get married. A lesser man would pair up his characters to ruthlessly maximise the effectiveness of their children. That is incorrect. As far as I’m concerned, the proper way to play a Fire Emblem game with this sort of support mechanic is “cutest couple wins.”
It’s not just a gimmick, either. It’s plot relevant, as the second arc of the game’s stories involves your characters’ children from the future back in time to assist them.
Sidebar: this element of Awakening also inspired one of my short writing exercises:
Fates is a lot like Awakening with several gameplay tweaks and quality-of-life improvements, but was criticised pretty widely by the fanbase. It has three separate plotlines that were released as three separate games (not unlike Pokémon).
It also became infamous as “the one where you can marry your sister.” Except none of them are actually your biological sister, a development which was extensively mocked in its own right. And the plot as a whole was criticised for being largely dependent on contrived plot twists and reveals that came out of nowhere.
On the other hand, Fates‘ art direction and especially its soundtrack were widely praised, and several individual levels are remembered fondly for making use of some novel gameplay mechanics.
For the record, I liked Fates a lot more than the fanbase at large did. But, then, I’m pretty easily-entertained. I especially like the relationship between the two main characters: Corrin (your character) and Azura (basically, a combination of a Han Solo and Princess Leia to your Luke Skywalker). Azura’s voice acting, and especially her singing (which is a major element of her character; her class is even called “Songstress”) is phenomenal.
Echoes is a weird one. It’s a remake of the NES (technically, Famicom, as it was never released outside of Japan) era Fire Emblem Gaiden. It carries over a lot of the old-school mechanics, particularly concerning how magic and character classes work, which can feel jarring and even daunting coming to it after playing one of the newer games. It also has dungeon exploration segments that are like nothing else in the other games in the series.
On a more positive note, it looks very pretty. In particular, the character designs are about infinity times better in the Echoes remake than in the original Gaiden. Take a gander over at the Wiki and compare what Alm and Celica looked like in the original game (i.e. like total dorks) to what they look like now (i.e. not like total dorks). The in-game cinematics are excellent. The music is very good. And the dialogue of the game is fully-voiced, which is a welcome change of pace from the earlier games.
I’ve mentioned Fire Emblem Warriors already. There’s not really anything to add that I haven’t already said. It’s a pretty good game which is also fully-voiced, which I feel elevates the overall experience.
Next up is 2019’s Three Houses.
Three Houses is a masterpiece.
The gameplay is probably the best and purest distillation of the traditions of the series, combining elements from both the older and newer games. The story, like in Fates, is divided into multiple routes, but delivered in a single game, plus a DLC side-story, which is unconnected to the main game, but not without charms of its own — each level of the DLC has a pretty complicated gimmick that makes the whole thing of a pain, but it’s worth playing at least once (if only for the benefits it unlocks in the main story) and culminates in a pretty cool boss fight.
Overall, the story of Three Houses is probably the most intelligent and mature a Fire Emblem story has ever been. The simplest way to describe it is that it’s Fire Emblem‘s version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Fittingly, Three Houses was a co-production with Koei Tecmo, the company behind Dynasty Warriors and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy games.
Like in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, none of the three factions are clear bad guys or good guys (the non-playable faction that are bad guys are the bad guys for everybody else), and most of the emotion of the story comes from people who used to be friends coming into conflict to realise their ambitions for the world.
The decision of who to side with is supposed to be hard, but it should tell you something about where my allegiances lie that I’ve done Edelgard’s route four times, think Dimitri’s overrated, and can’t stop accidentally calling Claude “Clive” — incidentally, there is a Fire Emblem character named Clive.
The cast of characters is small enough that all of the characters get enough screentime that nobody ends up feeling entirely irrelevant and they all get enough opportunities to let their personalities shine. The voice acting is very good, the soundtrack is very good, including several songs that are what I believe the Cool Kids refer to as “bangers”.
If there’s one criticism to be levelled against Three Houses, it’s that you can’t marry Indisputable Best Girl Anna.
Honestly, if Three Houses is going to be the foundation for the games going forward, I’m thrilled to see where the series is going in the future.
Especially if they let me marry Anna again.
ow, as it happens, we got an answer to “Where do we go from Three Houses?” pretty quickly. In Summer 2022, Nintendo released the game that serves as both a sequel to the original Fire Emblem Warriors and a kinda-sorta equal parts sequel-interequel-gaiden game to Three Houses in the form of Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes.
In terms of story, I think there’s a certain degree of “grass is greener” at play. If the story of Three Hopes had been in the main game and Three Houses was the spin-off, I think Three Houses would have been praised for transitioning Byleth from “aloof, badass recurring rival character” to “main character who single-handedly decides the fate of the world.”
On the other hand, Byleth has a lot more personality in Hopes, likely largely due to not having to function as a blank slate.
Similarly, the Officers Academy (which is apparently a plural and not a possessive…) is relevant for exactly one chapter in Hopes, so the fact that it’s actually central to the game in Houses would probably have been viewed as pretty cool.
Fundamentally, one doesn’t really have a better story than the other, and there’s probably some recency bias inevitable in the comparison, but Hopes does seem to make a deliberate attempt to flesh out some of the under-developed aspects of Houses.
At least superficially, Three Hopes does actually feel more like you’re actually on a battlefield than any previous Fire Emblem Game. Sure, it’s not a great representation of actual warfare, but it’s pretty good at capturing the feel of Fantasy genre warfare.
I won’t get into any spoiler territory, but the endings to Three Hopes are a lot more open-ended and probably less satisfying than those in Houses. Though at least the Black Eagles route has a last level that is absolutely phenomenal, even if it doesn’t stick the landing from a storytelling angle. The other routes have marginally less interesting final levels but similarly inconclusive but not entirely unsatisfactory endings.
Again, I won’t spoil any of the specific details, but each of the three routes in the game has two endings — less Good and Bad, and more so Normal and Slightly Better. It’s clear when that the route split occurs, but it isn’t necessarily clear what you have to do (at least without the benefit of hindsight or looking it up…) to determine which route you get.
Though, again, play Three Houses first, because several things that are massive spoilers are present pretty casually and as soon as literally the opening cutscene in Hopes.
Again, I think there’s a bit of recency bias here, Three Hopes isn’t necessarily the best Warriors games, but it did feel more immediately engaging than some of the other Warriors games.
If you’ve only played the demo, you haven’t got a full sense of the game. So much so that the demo’s actually a little misleading. The battles themselves get more interesting, the mid and top tier classes are so much more fun to play than the early classes, the story is a lot more engaging.
That being said, the demo is still a good thing to look into if you’re undecided on the Warriors gameplay. Three Hopes is probably one of the better Warriors games and it’s a good use of the Three Houses world, but it’s probably not going to win you over if you’re not into Warriors games.
In terms of the Nintendo-themed Warriors…es, it’s probably a toss-up between Three Hopes and Age of Calamity. The stories in the original Fire Emblem and Hyrule Warriors were pretty haphazard and basic. Age of Calamity had more attention paid to its storytelling and had characters with more interesting movesets than the original, but did have notable framerate issues — something I haven’t really seen (or at least been bothered by) in Three Hopes.
Three Hopes is definitely mechanically better than the first Fire Emblem Warriors — due in no small part to characters who have the same moveset (i.e. every character class has the same moves) all still having unique personal innate or useable abilities that differentiate between them — Edelgard has an innate ability that gives her attacks elemental Fire damage (plus, like the other two lords, a unique class), Hilda gets bonuses when paired up with a male character, Mercedes has an area-of-effect ability that damages enemies and heals allies, Ignatz lays down Splatoon–esque patches of paint that weaken enemies, Shez can teleport short distances.
It’s a small thing, but it does help to make it feel less like you’re playing as twelve of the same character like it did in the original Fire Emblem Warriors.
There are actually a few gameplay elements I hope the mainline Warriors games incorporate going forward.
In particular, every chapter has a little map full of territories you conquer through optional side battles. You always have to do at least a couple to unlock the main battle of the chapter, but there’s no obligation to do all of them, though each one unlocks a bonus that range from insignificant to something that can be utilised in the main battle with an appreciable effect like negating an enemy advantage or making it possible to recruit an enemy or neutral character onto your side.
In fairness, it doesn’t really do anything, but it’s a nice conceptual touch that does at least strengthen the illusion that you’re actually waging a war. Ultimately, it may just be padding, but I do kinda like that the game doesn’t just rush from setpiece battle to setpiece like that older Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games did.
And that brings us to the (as of this writing) most recent Fire Emblem: Engage.
Now, for what it’s worth, I’ve gone all in on the whole Toothpaste-chan meme and promptly named my Toothpaste-chan “Crest.”
And she is named for the toothpaste. It’s a happy coincidence that “crest” is another word for “emblem.”
She’s not necessarily a better character than any of the recent player characters in the series. But it’s the Byleth-Shez comparison after Three Hopes all over again.
Alear isn’t necessarily a better, more interesting, or more sympathetic character than any of Robin, Corrin, or Byleth. But Robin, Corrin, and Byleth didn’t get fully-voiced dialogue (until Warriors/Three Hopes) and therefore had less opportunity to actually show off their personalities.
They did have personalities — Robin’s sarcastic, Corrin’s loyal, and Byleth’s sheltered — but they didn’t get many opportunities to do much.
So, no, Alear isn’t a better character. She just gets more opportunities to be a character and therefore feels like more of a character.
Also, I actually like the two-tone hair (brief, vague spoilers: there’s a plot-relevant reason for it). In fact, I like most of the character designs despite the Internet’s complaints.
Apparently, Alear looks too much like a V-tuber.
…I don’t know what that is.
Similarly, there have been complaints that the characters are flat and on-dimensional.
Which is a weird complaint to single out a Fire Emblem game for. “One main character trait, but surprising depth” is, like, the rule of writing a Fire Emblem character.
Also, dead parents…
You’re the only character who gets a paired ending — and not all of the pairings are even romantic — which means most of the supports are fairly mundane and an in nowise romantic, which has upset some of the fanbase, but I’ve actually enjoyed the ones I’ve seen so far.
Admittedly, the story isn’t particularly deep, complex, or nuanced, though not with a handful of obligatory Shocking Twists(TM), falling back on the old Fire Emblem standby of “There’s an Evil Dragon, kill it.”
And sure, yeah, it’s less interesting than Three Houses. But, I don’t know, given how Pop Culture (especially Fantasy) still gravitates towards moral grey and everyone being terrible people, I’m kinda digging the simplicity of playing a Holy Dragon out to stop an Evil Dragon.
The gameplay is enough like Three Houses that the changes from Three Houses are actually kinda vexing thanks to my established muscle memory. For example, they’ve gotten rid of combat arts and weapon durability. Also, they’ve remapped some of the buttons for the menus and sub-menus.
On the whole, the combat feels slower paced and probably more difficult than it has been in recent games. I think a large part of that is the fact that enemies seem to have more armour and health (plus, bosses almost invariably have multiple health bars) so it inevitably takes more time to actually beat them.
The big gameplay gimmick in Engage is the Emblem Rings. In short, your characters can be empowered by the spirits of 11 of the popular protagonists of the series’, and also Ike, the AT&T of people of Fire Emblem protagonists.
…I literally cannot comprehend how the worst Fire Emblem protagonist is so popular.
On the boring end, you get stat bonuses when you equip one of the Emblem Rings. More interestingly, every ring gives your characters a super-powered form that unlocks special weapons and a special offensive ability that both usually looks pretty cool (and is over fast enough that it doesn’t get too frustrating by the time you’ve used it for the 27th time) and almost guaranteed to be a game-changer.
On the other hand, 12 rings is not enough for a cast of nearly 40 playable characters, though you are allowed to freely swap the rings around your characters, though progress to unlock the better abilities is slow enough that is probably makes more sense just to commit to a character/ring. This is a little mitigated that Nintendo has released two waves of DLC within the first month of the game’s release, adding six unlockable rings to the game.
One of the big complaints about Three Houses was how much time you had to spend in the Monastery. Engage does also have a between-battle base to visit, but it’s both almost completely voluntary to spend time there, and the activities there are involved enough to actually be kinda fun — the fishing minigame is more involved than Three Houses and the obvious standout among the activities is the Wyvern Ride that functions essentially as an on-rails shooter.
The general consensus is that Engage is more like the pre-Awakening games in the series. I can’t really weigh in on that because Awakening was my first game. That being said, the game does feel notably unlike the post-Awakening games — like we’ve seen, the combat is slower-paced, the levels take longer, a playthrough of the story seems to be taking longer (though some of that is because of fairly lengthy cutscenes), supports are more superficial (but not necessarily worse; some of the characters’ chats are phenomenal), and the only paired ending in the game involves your character.
FYI: They didn’t let us marry Anna again. Well, technically, you can still get a paired ending with her, but it’s clearly not a romance. Which is kinda good, because she’s all of ten years old this time around…
But, also, Kid Anna is a great character. Slap a tricorne on her, and she’s basically Dunstana.
However, there are no impediments to marrying Engage‘s Indisputable Best Girl Ivy. Which, really, is the only thing I wanted out of Engage…
Also. Wow. “Engage?” Rings?
Many, I can’t believe I only just got that joke…
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised and updated 2023.
Adapted from a post originally written 2020.
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