I’m the master of strategy, until someone uses en passant

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Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade (2004)

It mightn’t much fit my macho image, but I can tell you without any hesitation or modesty that I’m one heckuva chess player. OK, I haven’t played against a human, an AI opponent or even against myself in the last ten years or so. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still kick some ebony or ivory behind if war broke out and the main fighting weaponry turned out to be chess pieces.

Early doors, the Russian Grand Masters may look to have wrapped up ground supremacy in this imagined war of mine. But when it comes time to go to the mattresses, my Cossack enemies will find me a formidable foe on the checkered board. I don’t mind telling you, I have a stunning record of long, drawn-out stalemates on sparsely populated chess battlefields, which is about as good a result as you can expect from any kind of war.

Yes, I am a master strategist and that’s no lie. It was for this reason that I finally felt equipped to make my long-awaited break into the Strategy RPG genre. I’d made a few attempts at this before, attempts which I’d rather not talk about. Well, since you ask, I’d had a wee look at Shining Force 2 but I didn’t really last very long – the Mega Drive’s fault probably.

Then I took a look at one of the most lauded sRPGS around, Final Fantasy Tactics for PS1. Christ, I’ve never felt so stupid, and that is saying something. The first mission, which for competent players was presumably the most excruciatingly laborious tutorial mission ever, just flew right on by me.

Send this warrior unit there? Well, it’s a decent suggestion, game, but I think I have a better plan. Whoops! Chiefed because I moved that vital unit to a square that looked far better to me, letting him fall prey to all kinds of magicky buggers. And the war surely would only get tougher from there, with 60,000 missions and almost a million stats to keep up with.

Still, when the Smash Bros games brought in a whole hose of sword-using pretty boys, I was gutted. Not because of who these characters were, but because of the series they came from. Gutted that it was a Nintendo series I knew nowt about. I even know what the hell a Game and Watch was and how the Ice Climbers (R.I.P.) became so romantically linked.

But Fire Emblem? What? What’s all this about? And it seemed at the time that I wasn’t  meant to know, since the numerous Fire Emblem games of the time were all Moonland only. Even the US hadn’t seen any, to say nothing of Europe. If Japan is the moon from here, then the US is Pluto and I’m stood there forlorn on Canis Majoris, waving my arms frantically between a black hole and an impending supernova, desperately waiting to be bestowed with a localised game.

Finally, and thanks in no small part to the Smash Bros games, Fire Emblem shed the moonspeak and made its bow in English-speaking territories – and more importantly for me, French-, Spanish-, Italian-, German-, Dutch-, Magyar-, Suomi- and Serbo-Croat-speaking territories.

Now I’m still a fledgling squire in the complex world of Fire Emblem, so series old-hands will have to forgive me here. The first thing to know about Fire Emblem is that it’s a turn-based strategy caper where you can move each of your units a certain amount of spaces per turn. The whole series has given us hundreds and hundreds of named characters, each with their backstories, origins and “tsundere” tendencies (did I get that right?).

In fact, throughout this game and doubtless others in the series, you’ll be bombarded by so many names and other proper nouns that by Mission 3 you’ll have lost track of whether you’re bringing the Burlesque Dragon’s Scale from Lagos to Ouagadougou or rescuing Princess Hamachi from the fiendish clutches of King Mo Al-Shabab of Eastern Arabia. Due to this assault on your headspace, you’ll have to write off the vast majority of characters who’ll join your brigand of rogues throughout the main story.

But you can’t fully ignore the periphery characters either, because they’ll be the pawns you use to fight with, and it’s not as if there’s a war factory available to mass produce comely maidens on angelic horseback. That brings us to the second and most chilling defining point of the Fire Emblem games: death is permanent.

Yes, you may have invested all of your emotional resonance into the lecherous knight or the differently-abled bard boy, but one wrong movement and a couple of thrown axes later and you’ll be mashing buttons to skip through their dying words. I wish they weren’t so self-indulgent in death though. Yes, dear boy, you may very well have forty arrows sticking out your gullet, due to my hopelessly inept tactics and myopia. But I’ve got a battle to win, lad, and you’ve been deemed an acceptable casualty – surplus to requirements.

But are they really? We strategists and generals, we love to just throw cannon fodder to the wayside. And maybe if we were mass-producing infantry, as you do in other games and as we humans have done in global conflicts, you could just do away with the lesser soldiers as you made your advance on the enemy, and not feel a crumb of guilt about it either. Tens of thousands of deaths to advance twenty metres on the battlefield? It’s a strategy that’s been employed several times in past human warfare, and it will happen again in the future.

But we mustn’t be so callous in Fire Emblem of course, because they’re real people (well, people with names and more than 4 lines of dialogue, which in game terms is Pulitzer Prize stuff) and we also have the capacity to rewrite history and try battles again. So that’s exactly what I do – any time I lose a unit, which is heart-breakingly frequent, and usually comes through me not bothering to check if they were being frogmarched too close to the Incredible Hulk on horseback with a sword large enough to impale God, I simply curse to myself then reset (checking that nobody’s looking) and repeat. What a deal that is. I’ve called for a few mulligans like that in my chess career, after having made hopelessly suicidal moves through astounding ignorance, only to be told by my opponent to sit on it every time.

So we can circumvent the permanent death mechanic, which slows gameplay progress right down but at least it keeps you going – and keeps you on your toes. It does mean that you can’t produce your own armies, meaning that scope for strategy is more limited, and there becomes more of a temptation to lean on tougher ‘crutch’ characters to cut a swathe through the trolling enemies; after all, two or three decent hits can put one of your units down for good. You never mind sacrificing a Pawn or even a Knight in chess, when there’s a Queen to be had. But would you display the same cold streak if each of your eight Pawns spoke to you and conformed to anime tropes? Actually, best not to answer that.

So that’s your experience with Fire Emblem, then – carefully nurse your units over the line, having saved-and-quit more than once to make sure your Cro-Magnon axeman makes it to the end and you get to savour those sweet additional dialogue trees, while also making sure that every unit has functional weapons and equipment (yes, the weapons have durability levels which is always fantastic news) and get a big enough share of the Experience Points to level up.

It’s fun for a time, especially as the tutorials never seem to end in this game which means a lot of the levels are half-done by the time you assume “control”. But Christ, I can’t even look after my Queen properly in chess, usually looking on haplessly as she gets felled by some sneaky Bishop from out of nowhere. So what makes you think I can juggle all of what Fire Emblem throws up? It’s fun to get out there on the battlefield sometimes, but perhaps I’m not the master strategist I always thought I was.

22 February 2017

2 thoughts on “I’m the master of strategy, until someone uses en passant

  1. I loved Fire Emblem! I only played one game (Fire Emblem: the Blazing Blade) but I sure played the hell out of it. I used to try to play with my favorite characters, (the archer Rebecca) but I had no idea how to keep my archers alive, haha! I would have to start over too, almost every battle! Thanks for the great review!

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