Fire Emblem - Persistently entertaining
I'm a big fan of Nintendo's Intelligent Systems; who wouldn't be after Paper Mario, Mario Kart Super Circuit, Advance Wars 1 and 2? Their latest game is Fire Emblem, a long running series in Japan making its first English debut.
Comparisons to Advance Wars are inevitable - turn-based strategy game, grid map, and little groups of units battling it out. At the first play, it may feel too similar to some gamers, but differences emerge making Fire Emblem a completely separate interpretation of how to make a tactical strategy game. The RPG elements included in Fire Emblem provide depth and character without sacrificing simplicity. Characters only use one type of weapon and no armor. When characters reach a certain skill level, they can advance to a new class (i.e. knights to paladins) which allows the character to use another type of weapons, further extending their usefulness. The weapon types follow a rock-paper-scissors approach, or in this case, swords-lances-axes. There are three types of magic that interlock in a similar manner. While the mechanics are simple, maneuvering your squad to get the right match-ups is a challenging and ultimately pleasing puzzle.
One of the notable features of Fire Emblem is mortality of the characters. When characters die in a level, they cannot be brought back to life and do not return for subsequent battles. Exit stage left, thank you for playing. Fire Emblem tries hard to keep the player as honest as possible by transparently saving after every menu selection. If you attempt to cheese the game by turning off the GBA as a character dies, when you turn your system back on, you'll be treated to the same death scene each time you load your game. The only way to save your characters from death is by replaying the entire level. When a scenario can span 30-45 minutes, restarting can be a significant sacrifice to save a less favored character.
To further endear players to their units, characters that repeatedly end turns next to each other develop support relationships that provide bonuses when they fight together. It takes dozens of turns to develop these relationships and the bonus is worth the effort. A death of one of a partner in one of these relationships is a crucial loss of time and effort, making the decision on allowing a character to pass away even more difficult.
While the rigid approach the game takes to standard save/reload cheese may come off as annoying, it does much to make the game world more vivid to the player. Characters are almost as close to living things as could exist in a videogame format. You become attached to them because they can be so fragile and must think seriously about the consequences of leaving a weakened party member exposed to enemy forces. (In a brilliant turn, the game allows some characters to rescue other characters by scooping them up and dragging them to a safer location.)
That said, the scenarios are entertaining, well scripted, and have a wide enough amount of variety to keep the game fresh throughout the experience. Some levels feature fog of war, indoor battles with locked doors and breakable walls, anti-magic wells, or special requirements like defending a certain character. My favorite levels are ones where your group of a dozen soldiers has to split up and accomplish different tasks, almost in a Mission Impossible-style. Deciding who to bring on the mission, how to divide them up, what equipment they each need, and synchronizing the battle so that everything falls into place is supremely satisfying.
There's nothing that an experienced gamer hasn't seen before in Fire Emblem, but I've never seen those components stripped to their essence and combined in such a elegant matter. Fire Emblem is the only console strategy game that can be compared favorably to Advance Wars, and that's all the praise I need to give.