Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harry Potter and the Emblem of Fire

I'm not sure why turn-based strategy games so frequently lack a difficulty setting between "Harlem Globetrotters" and "battle of Stalingrad," but it's something I've come to accept from the genre, and Fire Emblem certainly follows suit. My dawning awareness of this fact is the main thing I remember about my first experience with the series: alternating between easy, which felt less like a strategy game than an unusually long and condescending tutorial, and normal, which felt like playing chess when you never learned how to play, and also you're drunk, and someone keeps punching you in the face. I was reading Lord of the Flies at the time, working on an article about Bully and school shooting narratives--thank goodness THOSE aren't topical anymore--at my sister-in-law's place. Life was better, then. It had regular soda, and cigarettes.

The Sacred Stones was the my entry point into the Fire Emblem series, and the last game I remember purchasing for the Game Boy Advance. I'd spent more than fifteen years with the Game Boy and its variants, before the DS came along and perfected game consoles, so I suppose it's fitting that my final purchase was so memorable, but I don't remember what prompted me to buy it. I only know that right as I was starting to "get" it, I lost the damn thing somewhere in transit, and found it astonishingly difficult to replace without going to rather alarming expense. Fortunately, after a year or so of searching, a DS remake was released--Shadow Dragon, a remake of the series' premiere that I had missed--about which I wrote a mediocre and poorly proofed entry here.

I wasn't great at Shadow Dragon, but I feel like I understood it: learning to love the characters who'd be cruelly taken away from you for the simplest of mistakes, and learning to discard the worthless little shits who filled out the roster so the ones you cared about could survive. It wasn't built for long-term play, and even the hidden levels, while technically making the game longer (and exposing your characters to additional risk), were useful primarily because there simply weren't enough enemies in the game to sufficiently level everyone up. You couldn't play Shadow Dragon as an ongoing, infinite process. Everyone would die.

Awakening, of course, offers a choice on that front. Sort of. Sure it offers you the option to have "dead" characters taken away from you, as has traditionally been the series' wont, but they aren't dead. They're "retired." Not in the cool way, like in Blade Runner: their role in the story, if there is one, is unaffected. It kind of takes the piss out of permadeath when you can see the dead milling about at the craft services table between levels.

Nonetheless, losing soldiers to imaginary-death is uniquely galling, since Awakening goes on for-fucking-ever. The number of battles you can get into is literally infinite, and Nintendo will happily sell you additional ones in the e-Shop.

I find I miss the limitations more than anything. The reclass function never made any fucking sense--turn your deadly swordsman into a shitty, awkward knight!--but at least its existence pointed to a fundamental scarcity, that you weren't going to get many chances for a given class of combatant, and you'd goddamn better learn to appreciate them. The weapons followed suit. Sure, you could find an anti-cavalry axe somewhere, but anti-cavalry lances were plentiful, and delineated the superiority of armor over cavalry. (Even cavalry bearing anti-armor swords came at you from a point of statistical weakness.) Cavalry units were particularly limited and valued; in Awakening, nearly every class has a mounted variant, even the nerds, and while reclassing is more limited, it's also a hell of a lot more useful, and allows your characters to be leveled up infinitely.

Where scarcity remains, it's met with surfeit. "Rare" weapons present themselves with surprising consistency, to the point that it becomes hard to keep track. Due to the crucial finitude of nearly all weaponry, inventory management has always been annoyingly complicated in Fire Emblem; there's something perfectly compelling, and eternally frustrating, about a game that would be improved by removing one of the series' oldest and most consistent features. Then again, I guess that's how we got to Casual mode in the first place.

Fire Emblem is dead. Long live Fire Emblem. Just maybe don't make it quite so monogamy-oriented next time. In Shadow Dragon's multiplayer mode, I had an unstoppable squad of low-tier fighters with amazing stats, and do you know why? Because they supported each other emotionally, goddammit. To the tune of 45% hit and evasion bonuses. Awakening restricts relationship bonuses to one at a time, and an S-rank requires all-out hetero banging to achieve, so good luck forging an epic relationship between Virion and Kellam. Sure, you can do it, but you'll always be thinking, "this is cool, but it'd be a lot cooler if I could make these two fuck."

Which I guess is how it feels to be a shipper, huh?

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