Fire Emblem is a strategy RPG series that has been going on for over 30 years. That’s enough for roughly 20 games so far. It’s not as big as Final Fantasy, but that’s still a hell of a lot to try and take in.
So I thought it would be a good time to write out something that tells you everything you could want to know and a dozen other fun tidbits you might end up asking too.
Ok, So How Does Fire Emblem Work?
Fire Emblem games are tile-based, turn-based strategy games. Alternating between player and enemy phases, you move a bunch of folks around a map to have them fight foes, usually an evil empire. Stat pools are small, keeping the combat simple; you can do the damage calculations in your head.
Seriously, it’s <Weapon Might + character attack – target defense = damage>. You have all the tools to figure out exactly what is going on, on the board and what could happen at all times.
Everyone also has particular weapon access and unique stat growths. Thanks to the weapon triangle, a matchup mechanic that gives some weapons advantages over others, every unit can carve out their own little niche and situations where they can shine.
Your objectives aren’t just limited to routing your foes, as you’ll sometimes have to seize objectives, rescue villagers and villages, or smite a boss whilst waves and waves of reinforcements flood the map. With weapon durability and limited ways to heal, Fire Emblem becomes a case of resource management. What additional objectives will you try to get, and what risks are you willing to take?
Because you do want to be careful; after all, Fire Emblem is a game with Permadeath. When characters hit 0 hp, that’s their death. But don’t worry, the games really aren’t that long. Maps are only elongated by playing a bit conservatively so you don’t lose your best units in suicide charges. It’s not actually hard; it more often just sounds like it. And resetting is always an option if something terrible happens after all.
As you clear out maps, you’ll be able to add new faces to your cast with their own stat spreads and, depending on the game, unique classes and passive abilities. And with new skill sets come new strategies you can try and pull off against your foes. It’s alright if you lose a character because you’ll get two or more in their place.
Stories that are told minimally are because they’re settings for more emergent narratives.
What’s an Emergent Narrative?
An emergent narrative is one that is not written by the developers but ‘emerges’ from the game based on how you’re playing it.
You’ll care about the story of the characters you use by actually using them throughout the game: How you make them deal with the various objectives that come their way and the risks you’re willing to take to achieve them.
A close shave of a unit barely dodging death, a unit you like saving another with a critical hit, a unit getting some surprisingly good level-ups and wiping an entire map to be the MVP, a unit who was tragically killed stopping an onslaught of reinforcements to save another ally or a new ally unit who shows up that map and turns the tide in your favour.
These are the events that really make the “story” of the game and are what is memorable to you.
With a fairly simplistic story with some strong themes, this enhances the experience to much greater heights than trying to awkwardly push in a character arc and exploration for every single unit when you can instead allow the player to develop their own user-created canon.
We get attached to characters with four lines, the same way people get attached to their Roombas or the US military gets emotionally attached to their bomb disposal robots.
And then, because people don’t play exactly the same, they can share their experiences and stories with each other, replay the game and create a new story, and flesh these characters out even more.
I’m a Total Newcomer; Where the Hell Do I Start?
This depends on what you have access to that you can put the effort in to get ahold of and play.
If you feel that you can put that effort in (trust me, I get it if you can’t) and you just want the best starting points out of every game in the series, I would recommend Path of Radiance for the Gamecube or The Sacred Stones for the Game Boy Advance.
Fire Emblem Path of Radiance follows many of the classic tropes of other Fire Emblem games whilst also exploring a story filled with a surprising amount of political intrigue, given the main cast of a mercenary corp. That intrigue will stay with it throughout the story and develop some fascinating characters. And it’s got strong tactical gameplay.
To carefully manage a solid blend in an SPRG with a large cast is a tricky feat, and Path of Radiance achieves it. It’s one of the best Fire Emblem games in the franchise and gears you up to play any of the others. And there’s also its fantastic sequel, Radiant Dawn.
Fire Emblem The Sacred Stones sacrifices some story depth for a less tropey, but main character-focused journey—the relationships between several of the leads are exciting and fun to set an SRPG around. The mechanical depth combined with the game’s relative simplicity also makes it easier for a newcomer to get invested and branch off to other Fire Emblem games.
However, for the layperson who knows nothing about Fire Emblem and only has access to modern consoles, you are limited in options. With the 3DS eShop now closed, there are only a couple available. However, what is available does contain something I would put quite high on the recommended for newcomers list: Fire Emblem Engage.
But even with the 3DS games considered, Engage is easily the best modern title if you want to figure out what’s up with Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem Engage has a strong gameplay focus and a fun cast of characters. You’re going to get a fair understanding of some tricky and creative map designs, and it encourages you to experiment, leading to ‘what if I tried this’ to turn the tide of battle in a delightful way. The story itself may leave a little to be desired, but the cheesy romp has some fantastic gameplay, and story implementation makes it quite immersive.
You’ll also develop a relatively solid understanding of one of the main characters from each previous Fire Emblem game. This way, it’s easier for one to gravitate to any character they like most and helpful to seek out harder-to-get-to titles.
Ok, I Noticed You Didn’t Mention Fire Emblem: Three Houses. That One is Also Easily Found on the Switch.
Fire Emblem Three Houses, what a game.
You’re right; this is awkward, given that it’s the only Fire Emblem besides Engage you can easily legally obtain. But Three Houses will not gear you up for any other Fire Emblem title and is, in fact, the antithesis of every Fire Emblem game to come before it, in a very negative way.
You see, what Three Houses does is the functional opposite. Three Houses’ story isn’t just not minimalistic but is full of timelines and years and events and covers you with all this backstory. The world is fleshed out and laid bare in much more fine detail than any others.
Only to follow that up with classical and tropey Fire Emblem plots, which wouldn’t be bad if they didn’t contradict the world established and built. As a quick example, in Dimitri’s plot, the story of the Blue Lions, the goal is to stop the evil empire and maintain the status quo. This is a familiar premise, but after half the game was spent establishing that the world is full of bad and kind of needs to change…?
Four alternate story paths and a class-changing system should allow emergent and unique experiences. However, without the weapon triangle mechanic, whilst giving you utmost flexibility on your allies’ equipment sets, every unit becomes the same experience functionally. That utmost flexibility is also achieved by flaffing about on an extremely repetitive overworld you’ll spend more time on than the strategizing part of the strategy RPG.
And the stories all fail to tell complete narratives. Making all of those story paths feel empty and unsatisfying overall.
I won’t cover this in further detail because I could write enough to fill a whole other article on its own (and I should. Still, ultimately, this empty narrative of substance-less volume takes precedence over the player’s opportunities for storytelling through gameplay and is a comparatively unfulfilling experience.
What About Those Other Games, Three Hopes, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions#FE?
They’re not classical Fire Emblem games. They’re spin-offs in different gameplay genres. Action RPGs and Traditional Turn-Based RPGs, respectively.
So, they don’t have the same factors I especially care for with Fire Emblem‘s strategy gameplay. Granted, they are both excellent games and worth checking out. Although Three Hopes assumes you’ve played Three Houses, so it might be a bit weird without it. However, that would also require… playing Three Houses. It’s all up to you.
Ok, So What if I Don’t Want to Actually Play Fire Emblem at all? What’s the Best Way to Pretend I Know a Lot About Fire Emblem So My Friends Think I’m Smart for Understanding Strategy Games?
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