Through the Samsooths

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 2–3.

I feel like I ought to mention a bunch of really basic Fire Emblem things as I play through the first game. In that spirit: let’s talk about why character classes work so well! And then about other parts of SD&BoL that aren’t so hot.

A Real Class Act

When you dress in red, you get less creative.
Look at all the pretty characters! Except for the red ones; they’re all the same.

Here’s another thing that’s been with Fire Emblem since the very beginning: character classes. And how. Right from the start, the series throws the whole job fair at you. Some classes share a function with others that perform it a little differently; some are totally unique; some are so important that you get two or three or more recruits with the same job. Here’s my army in SD&BoL as of just the close of Chapter 3: a lord, a knight, a pegasus knight, an archer, three cavaliers (one promoted), a curate, two mercenaries, three fighters, a thief, a cleric (like a curate but female), a pirate (like a fourth fighter but not), and a hunter (like a second archer but not). So much variety!

… which begs the question, why is there so much variety? I can think of a few reasons. One’s facile, but the rest are maybe a bit better thought out.

Let’s get the stupid reason out of the way first. There’s a bunch of character classes because everybody expects it. Fire Emblem is the descendant of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, one of which evolved character classes over a few installments and the other of which always made character class a point of deep strategic importance. Those two old salts are themselves the descendants of Dungeons & Dragons, the father of all tabletop RPGs, which essentially invented the concept of character class. Any successor to this line with a cast of characters was bound to slot those characters into combat roles. It’s the mode in which D&D has programmed us to think about the fantasy battlefield. And the roles are familiar: healers, swordsmen, barbarians, thieves, mages (they’re coming in a little bit). Fire Emblem gives us character classes because, at bottom, we’d look at it funny if it didn’t.

So there’s that. But there are also good reasons, gameplay-wise, why classes are important too. For one, character classes help us figure out what a character will be like on our team. When a character joins the army, you can only see part of the story about their utility. You’ve got the stats and level they join with, but a character’s function on the team in later chapters—and this is more and more true the earlier they join—is determined by their growth rates. However good a unit looks at first, it’s how they’ll look after numerous levels that determines what they’ll do on the team down the line. Just ask Jagen. A unit in time may prove fast or slow, strong or weak, defensive or a lightweight; it’s all influenced by their growth rates.

Trouble is, there’s no way of knowing those rates. Some of the most important keys to knowing how characters will perform are locked away inside the system. (Well, there’s always a li’l old-fashioned cheating, but sites like that weren’t around in 1990.)

That’s where character classes come in. They perform a helpful double duty. First, because characters of a class tend to share some typical characteristics, they provide a nice preview of what every unit will be like. You may not know exactly what Navarre is going to turn into when you meet him, but you know that mercenaries in this game grow fast and skilled and moderately strong, so you have an idea. You may not know exactly how, say, Draug is going to turn out, but he’s a knight, so you can expect him to give you at least a few defense points. Using character class as a heuristic, you can prevent every new character decision you make from being a total crapshoot. And second—relatedly—there’s a big cast in this game, many of whom compete to fill similar positions in the army. You need a way to winnow this selection into choices of individual characters to fill those positions. Character class helps you decide at a glance who’s right for which job.

See, it is practical! And there’s another function for character class, too. On the Fire Emblem battlefield, different classes come with different places a unit can stand on the map. Some units move farther. Some can absorb hits better, and thus are less afraid of the front line. Some units can attack at range, which tends to become an essential consideration in positioning your army to receive the red troops when they take their turn.

The key to this differentiation is not just that it adds an interesting dose of variety by itself—which it does—but also that it interacts with the designs of maps. Hardly a chapter goes by in which the map won’t force you to divide your soldiers between multiple objectives or to defend multiple flanks at once. Often, each of the divisions you’re forced to make also has to contend with terrain features. In situations like these, differentiation between character classes makes your choices matter a lot. For example, sending your only knight one way means that (1) the knight’s division will have to move slowly to keep his pace and (2) the other division(s) won’t have a super-defensive unit to hold a front line. Alternatively, you may have to decide which division gets the faster, lighter-weight hunter and which gets the slower, tankier archer. Or you may look at a stretch of desert or hilly country in front of you and reconsider how on earth you plan to get those horses through it.

All of this is to say that differentiation in character class interacts with map design to magnify the importance of the tactical approach you take to a chapter. I’ll no doubt be returning to the subject of choice in tactical planning; for now, I’ll just tell you I think it’s one of the most important things a good map can give you. So character class is pretty darn important, is what I mean.

And maybe it’s that hidden kind of importance that’s made class differentiation such a staple of fantasy RPGs from the beginning. Gary Gygax, one assumes, knew precisely what he was doing when he let some of us be rogues where others were mages and warriors. Maybe when we come to expect character classes, what we’re really expecting is the interesting tactical improvisation in which defined roles force us to engage.

Homework Emblem

More definitely, however, the river is NOT moving.
Who’s moving? Is anyone moving? Can they move any farther than the highlighted square? Can you tell me why? NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE AN ANSWER.

Last time I got on here and told you how familiar everything felt about SD&BoL. Now it’s time to focus on what’s missing.

The mechanics of SD&BoL may be instantly recognizable to (reverse) veterans of the series, true. But some things are left out of the interface that have become second nature to me. Not having them all of a sudden makes a lot of the mundane tasks of battlefield planning suddenly quite a bit more taxing. From least to most keenly felt, here are a few little player aids that I’m used to from later Fire Emblems that are absent from this trip to Archanea:

  • There’s no auto-end of your turn after you’ve moved everyone. You still have to manually tell the game your turn is over, even when you reach a point where you can’t do anything else with it. It leaves me biting my nails, wondering whether I’ve forgotten to make some critical tactical maneuver.
  • You can’t see the terrain of a square on the map if someone’s standing on it. If you need to calculate movement through it, it becomes a matter of luck rather than planning.
  • Speaking of terrain, there’s no explanation of what it does to movement and defensive capabilities outside of a split-second panel just as combat begins. And even then you only get, what, some unlabeled percentage? (Plain, 5%!) What does that even mean?
  • When you’re moving a unit, the game doesn’t show you a movement radius. You have to move the cursor to where you want them to go to see whether the game will let them go there. There are no movement or attack radii whatsoever available for units you can’t move—so you’d better know move stats, weapon ranges, and (unlisted) terrain effects for all those enemy units, or you’ll have no clue what they can do.
  • Later Fire Emblems will introduce a combat forecast window that pops up right before you command an attack, breaking down both sides’ hit percentages and potential damage from the encounter. This is a brilliant at-a-glance way to assess your combat chances, because it refines all the arithmetic clutter of battle into a few digestible decision-making stats. That window is nowhere to be found in SD&BoL. You have zero access to any unit’s hit percentage or crit rate. Potential damage could be calculated, except …
  • There is no listing of the differences between weapons. Most aggravatingly, this means you can’t tell the base damage any unit can deal, because the might of their weaponry is invisible. This also sets up numerous other unfair moments. For example, if I didn’t know the difference between a hand axe and a regular iron axe, I’d be in for a rude surprise when I position my wounded cleric just out of a pirate’s range and he runs up and throws the friggin thing at her.

And look, I’m not saying that all of these are insurmountable problems. Even after you have the combat forecast window, there’s a fair amount of number-crunching you’ll do to keep your units safe on the battlefield. That’s fine. What I’m saying is that when the majority of interactions with the enemy begin to feel like doing your homework rather than like tactical commands, the game begins to lose some of its edge. The main selling point of Fire Emblem, recall, is that it permits tabletop-style campaigns that would be prohibitive using pen and paper. The more the game forces you back to that pen and paper, the more it departs from its central purpose.

And two of those problems really are insurmountable. Not knowing how much damage your units can deal in battle or how likely it is that they’ll deal that damage reduces the building blocks of Fire Emblem to guesswork. You end up in this weird situation where you have a bunch of numerical stats but the results of them are still not quantifiable. You can strategize all you want to, but at the end of the day you just submit inputs of units into a black box and hope your gut sense about those numbers was right. Once again, thank heavens for cheating. Later games’ increased transparency about the outcomes of battles is a monumental improvement on this.

Of course, as the astute gamer notes, no comparison like that was possible in April 1990. SD&BoL was at the time the extent of its entire genre; there was nothing else it could have learned any lessons from. So while we note its glaring lack of user-friendliness, let’s take that with a grain of salt. However much it may at times feel like accounting, it works pretty darn well as a game overall. That’s no small achievement.

Let’s go to Aurelis.

Brilliant tactician, humble beginnings.
And on the way we first see this handsome old devil.
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