The Grustian Menace

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 7–9.

This is a sort of interlude phase of SD&BoL, between the end of the first act and the more high-strung moments of the second. Continuing down the list of essential Fire Emblem basics, I’ll write about enemy reinforcements. But then let’s talk about storytelling-related stuff, OK? Like characters. Female characters. And dragons. (Just male dragons.)

It’s a Trap!

The blue side looks unprepared, but the guy on the left levels better than all the other ones put together.

The army’s detour in Port Warren marks the first instance of another series staple: enemy reinforcements. From the moment those knights pop out of the northern forts, Grust tells you it has no intention of caving to you as easily as the Macedonian occupation force did.

Now, reinforcements are a feature that is totally-100-percent lopsided in favor of the guys in red. You do not get reinforcements. Not in this chapter, not in this Fire Emblem, not ever. The enemy, meanwhile, gets reinforcements whenever the designers want to give it some. Sure, both sides move units of the same classes and everybody can wield the same weapons, but this is the first time you see the deck start to get stacked against you with a feature that you’ll just never, ever be able to exercise yourself.

So why has so imbalanced a feature become such an essential part of the Fire Emblem battlefield? Two words: interesting decisions. The think-on-your-feet tactical decisions that are forced when you’re presented with the unexpected arrival of some new stimulus mid-battle are inherently interesting. When you have to improvise or handle a situation on the fly, not only does it shake up your earlier strategic approach to the chapter writ large, but it affects your tactics in two ways writ small. You have to adapt to handle the reinforcements that appear, for one thing, and then, for another, the way in which you adapt likely changes your realm of tactical options for the rest of the battle going forward. All of that adds up to requiring some really intricate problem-solving, making the game more rewarding. No wonder so many later games take this idea and run with it.

With that purpose in mind, reinforcements need to have a few characteristics to make sure they accomplish peak tactical complication. As I see it, there are three important parts:

  • Reinforcements need to leave proper room for the decision. If the point of reinforcements is to force a tough tactical decision, they need to arrive in such a way that (1) you can make that decision and (2) it will have an effect on the battle. Reinforcements that arrive on top of your army and insta-kill one of your units without giving you a chance to respond leave no room for any decision at all—they’re a cheesy gimmick, and a player on the receiving end of these sorts of tricks sure as heck won’t feel rewarded when they encounter them. The inverse is a problem, too. Reinforcements that arrive all the way across the map with mediocre strength and take multiple turns to enter the fray won’t change the battle calculus nearly as much as a division that pops up ready to offer a challenge one or two turns away from the thick of it. There’s a balance to be struck.
  • Reinforcements should be preceded by some amount of forewarning. Again, suddenly getting ambushed by the deus ex machina 40-strength reinforcement squad is nobody’s idea of a good time. If something important is looming in the next few turns, it’s good form to at least alert the player that something is coming. Where reinforcements are in part predictable, they can be built into a tactical model that you can test in your game and that any player can enjoy. Unpredictable reinforcements are a roll of the dice with your soldiers’ lives dependent on the outcome. That’s so much less fun than just some straightforward tactical analysis. And remember, even in the worst of cases, where the reinforcements promptly murder the player’s lord and force a replay of the chapter, the player knows where they’ll be on playthrough number two. Which brings me to …
  • Reinforcements should present an interesting obstacle even after you know the pattern. If you already know when and where the reinforcements will arrive, they should still add something to the battle and force you to make decisions. If this is not the case—if, once you know where the reinforcements are, you know precisely the Single Workable Solution you just have to implement to overcome them—then all that reinforcements add are a silly trial-and-error mechanism that, once solved, isn’t interesting anymore (and, truth be told, probably wasn’t ever interesting in the first place).

How do SD&BoL‘s first-ever reinforcements do on their report card? Eh, there’s room for improvement. The first thing I notice from this playthrough is that it’s clear how the designers are trying to use them: these reinforcements are here not necessarily to add tactical considerations, but more to punish the player for taking too long to finish the chapter. In Port Warren, and again on Pyrathi, reinforcements only begin to come out of the forts several turns after I’m able to make it to the castle I need to seize—and once they start coming, they just pour out in droves every single turn. This tells me that they’re meant as a kick in the pants if you’re being too cautious as a tactician. “Get moving, blue side!” they say. “Stop crawling along so defensively, or you’ll just have a bigger problem!”

After Mannu’s defeat, the surviving Pyrathi pirates pooled their loot, bought a Volkswagen and some clown makeup, and entertained Archanean children for decades.

Which, honestly, is a decent idea, because Fire Emblem maps frequently need incentives for players to move things along. (This is certain to be the subject of some post in the future.) And on at least one of the characteristics I note above, Chapters 8 and 9 are pretty strong—there’s decent forewarning of these reinforcement units, both from the villager in the house who tells you to watch out for them and from the clear visibility of the forts on the map itself, which gives you identifiable visual cues as to where the problem will be coming from when it comes.

But I have two problems with these particular reinforcements. Lesser problem first: the arrivals of these units, at least from the forts in Port Warren and Pyrathi, don’t really make for exciting points of tactical consequence. Thought was clearly given to that to some extent. Outside Port Warren, for example, the knights, who move slowly, are closer to the goal and separated by less space, while the riders, who quickly cover ground, have more ground to cover. But the spans between the forts and the relevant part of the battlefield are unhelpfully large, which makes it a while from the appearance of the reinforcements to the time they can interact with your army. Add to this the fact that they show up so late in the chapter that a decent player can clear the whole thing several turns before they even show up, and you have a recipe for them not mattering a lot.

On the other hand, there’s something that reinforcements in SD&BoL do that matters way too much, and this is my second and by far more significant problem with them. They move on the same turn they appear.

Once more, with feeling: They move on the same turn they appear. This is a demon that future Fire Emblems will fight (or embrace, depending on the game) for years and years to come. In fairness, the feature isn’t without its positive points: it catapults reinforcements into the action sooner, narrowing the room for the decision, and the reinforcement divisions aren’t unpredictable after you know the pattern. That said, I think it’s an awful idea on the whole. When reinforcements move as soon as they appear, without time for you to react, it cuts the room for the decision by so much that the effect in most cases unavoidably crosses into cheese-difficulty territory. If they’re anywhere near your army, boom they’re attacking you before you even see them. If they’re at all strong, boom your characters are injured or dead before you have a chance to know what hit them. This sounds an awful lot like the trial-and-error scenario I outlined above. The one that’s not fun.

This is total conjecture here, but I think it must be much easier to design maps in which reinforcements make a difference but arrive at the end of the enemy turn than it is to design a whole game’s worth of maps where the fact that reinforcements arrive at the beginning of the enemy turn doesn’t result in no-contest ambushes. Either would be balanced, mind—I just think that, from what I’ve seen of Fire Emblem, it must be easier to create the one than the other. For that reason alone, I think the better practice is to reinforce at the end of the turn. Let players see what they’re getting into. Let them have a shot at fighting what shows up, if they’re brave. Beats ambushes from nowhere any day of the week.

SD&BoL apparently falls too early in the Fire Emblem canon to have learned this lesson. I guess we’ll see when the series will.

Role Models

Caeda, Nintendo's first Ms. BAMF.
“Now you shall bend the knee to the puppy-dog eyes of Talysian royalty.”

Let’s focus on something important that SD&BoL does quite well, to its great, great credit. For this, I’ll need you to travel back in time with me to the gaming world of 1990. Think about the characters you see in video games, there in those halcyon days of the NES. Got it?

Now think about what the female characters are like.

Female characters. You know, women. Half the world’s population.

With one exception that comes to mind (I’ll get to her in a sec), women are not the main characters of the games of this era. Rather, women are largely objectives, and there’s a tiresome theme in how they fit into, like, every single gaming story of the day. Consider the prime examples. Peach (“Princess Toadstool,” as Her Majesty preferred in those more formal times) gets kidnapped by Bowser and Mario intervenes to rescue her. Zelda gets kidnapped by Ganon with her piece of the Triforce and Link intervenes to rescue her. Gwaelin gets kidnapped by a dragon and Erdrick intervenes to rescue her. Sara of Coneria gets kidnapped by Garland and the Light Warriors (all dudes, even the one who looks like a girl) intervene to rescue her. Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser again and Mario returns. On and on and on.

But that one exception, the one who gets a game all to herself to shoot up some nasty aliens? The central conceit of her game is that she runs through the whole thing in a rockin’ space suit, and the big reveal at the end is that it wasn’t actually a man under that suit but a woman all along! And, oh yeah, she’s pretty, and now she’s dressed in a revealing leotard. And you can now play through the whole game with her in the leotard, because of course.

Somewhere, Justin Bailey is enjoying his immortality.
“Federation Command was right. This WILL protect me better than my R-grade Chozo-powered battle armor.”

This, as the astute citizen of the internet is well aware, is the sort of stuff that has been debated and explored from every angle, from the insightful to the reactionary to the deeply, deeply worrisome. Let’s avoid that discussion. At bottom, everybody knows what’s going on in these games. They were made to market to boys. This sort of stuff was included, one assumes, to pique the curiosity of those boys who, entering into adolescence, found female characters suddenly interesting in a way they hadn’t really considered before. And whatever the reason, making the women of games relatable in the way that the men were—in this medium that’s so dependent on the player’s connection to the characters on screen—was just never a priority for a good long time.

Never, that is, until Fire Emblem.

I’m not saying that SD&BoL is necessarily the first video game to offer capable, relatable female characters (I hesitate to use the term “strong,” for reasons other writers have expressed better than I could). I’m not saying that SD&BoL has a female lead—it doesn’t; that’s Marth. I’m not even saying that SD&BoL is populated by a very large group of playable women. What I’m saying is that it has Caeda of Talys.

Caeda of Talys! She’s not just a cool name with a spear on a pegasus (although she’s all of that, and don’t you dare call her Sheeda). You might not know it at first blush, but in my opinion, and imma let you finish, Caeda is one of the greatest classic female Nintendo characters of all time. Of all time!

Her first virtue—and this is crucial—is that she’s playable. Plenty a NES woman gets captured before the first second of the game and thereby fulfills the extent of her function. Caeda turns that on its head. Her first act of the game is to evade capture by Gazzak’s pirates, even as they overtake her dad’s castle. The story begins with her running to a man for aid, sure. But then she turns around and starts fighting with the man, as his equal on the battlefield and as the only member, at least for a while, of a uniquely useful character class. You control her. You press buttons and she kicks pirates’ butts.

But the coolest part about Caeda is that she’s not just a strong woman (click on that link I dropped a couple paragraphs back, seriously) who can fight, but she’s also a ridiculously talented diplomat. There’s a truly clever brain behind that brawn. Caeda essentially forges a huge part of the army of the Archanean League just by knowing exactly what to say to everyone. In the process, she takes huge, brave risks that pay off splendidly. She spurs Marth to begin his journey. She convinces Castor to join, first by listening to why he’s sided with the pirates and then by selflessly handing him her purse for his mom’s medicine. She convinces Navarre to join by offering her own life to his sword. And on the shores of Port Warren she becomes the driving force in what is simultaneously the weirdest recruitment conversation in the series and the greatest testament to how incredible she is at pulling people’s strings. Here’s how my translation handles it:

CAEDA: Hi, I am [Caeda] of [Talys]. I won’t fight.

ROGER: ! You surprised me! Was it on purpose?

CAEDA: You believe in love? You love someone?

ROGER: W … what? Are you alright?

CAEDA: I’m sorry. I just wanted to speak with you. You looked so nice. What’s your name?

ROGER: Eh? Um … I … I’m … Roger of [Grust].

CAEDA: Roger, in war, women and children cry. My group’s trying to end this useless fighting. Do you understand?

ROGER: I do. I don’t fight because I want to, but I can’t betray them.

CAEDA: You care for someone in [Grust]?

ROGER: My parents died and I have no lover, but I can’t betray [Grust].

CAEDA: No matter what?

ROGER: Yeah, sorry …

CAEDA: I see, but you are really a nice person. I’m glad we got to chat.

ROGER: You’re leaving?

CAEDA: If I stay any longer, I will cause problems for you.

ROGER: You’re a nice person … There are no women like you in [Grust]. Hey! Don’t leave yet … I … I’ll go with you!

Roger may be a simpleton, but he’s a well-meaning simpleton, and Caeda immediately identifies both of those elements of his character and puts them to work for her. A few well-placed compliments and a regretful departure, and she’s turned out a fresh recruit for the League. Caeda is unmatched in physical and mental sparring.

And she’s not the only one. SD&BoL gives us at least several other women of really remarkable prowess as it continues. Minerva of Macedon, for example, is an inspiring figure of solid principle, and the three retainers in her pegasus posse are no slouches themselves. The best healer in the army, Lena, is a woman, and she manages to convince her pacifist brother to join the League ranks too. We’ll meet the courageous knight captain Midia later. Even Nyna of Archanea—an unplayable princess of a conquered empire, cue the damsel-in-distress warning signs!—is bright and proactive in her quest to retake her throne, and has an insightful command of lore, history, and geopolitics. I don’t find it too much of an exaggeration to say that this kind of female character writing is years ahead of its time. For that, SD&BoL, I applaud you.

And if you’re still unimpressed by Caeda, well, wait ’til you see the Wing Spear.

Here There Be Manaketes

If you’d asked eight-year-old me to draw the coolest thing in the world, the picture would probably look something like this.

Chapter 7 features the arrival of the next big recurring concept I’d like to track between Fire Emblems. Only this one’s not so much a concept as a race of people. And they’re not so much people as dragons.

Tons of mythologies have dragons, right? Many a culture and author dreamed up dragons when it wanted to invoke some incarnation of awesome power, from Journey to the West to Beowulf to The Silmarillion. And the fascinating thing is, every writer puts a unique spin on what dragon-ness means, because awesome power means something a little bit different to every narrative.

So too with Fire Emblems. The manakete tribe will make appearances across a wide range of Fire Emblems, and I think that every time they appear, the characterization of their race has an important meaning to the narrative of the game. How’s that for a thesis statement?

My question, then, is what the manaketes are to SD&BoL. Our first brush with them is … no, it’s not Bantu, silly! It’s the guy in the house in Aurelis who found a dragonstone. He tells you he’s a bit scared of the whole concept of manaketes, to be frank, and you can have this stone and be off with it and he’ll be pleased as punch to be rid of that business. The stage is set. Manaketes, we know already, are Others to the world of humans.

Then we meet Bantu. We’ll discuss him shortly. And at the end of that chapter, a certain handsome elderly gentleman arrives mid-screen to tell you a little story. Here’s what we learn from Malledus in this translation:

Sire, today I’ll tell the tale of the [manakete] tribe.

A long time ago, the [manaketes] lived in [Dolhr] in three groups: the Divine Dragon tribe Narga, the Demon Dragon tribe Bajilisk, and the Fire Dragon tribe Salamander. The Narga tribe was the strongest and defended humanity when the others attacked it. [Manaketes] are able to seal their dragon forms inside dragonstones and appear human.

There was an age of peace, then the Earth Dragon [Medeus] appeared. He used his tremendous power to defeat the Narga tribe and established [Dolhr]. He invaded the lands owned by humans and took over the world. Suddenly a youth named Anri set out to defeat [Medeus]. Eventually, [Medeus] was defeated by Anri. Then Anri established [Altea].

100 years later, [Medeus] revived. Sire! You’re the chosen one, direct descendant of Anri. You must defeat [Medeus]!

This monologue, like Marth’s receipt of the Fire Emblem a few chapters ago, bumps up the stakes yet again. Now the story isn’t just about recapturing your homeland (a personal goal), and it’s no longer even just about righting the wrongs made by a conquering empire (a societal goal). Now it’s about settling a score a hundred years in the making, graven on your family by the tread of history (a truly epic goal). The scope just keeps broadening!

Thanks to this little history, manaketes are no longer just mysterious Others. They’re actually a more divided bunch than they appear at first. Sure, we know Dolhr is led by dragons and is currently pursuing the enslavement of humanity, but way back in antiquity, one tribe of them fought against the other two. We may have yet to observe the finer differences between these breeds of dragons firsthand, but we know that not all dragons are born alike, even if a dragon is our primary antagonist.

This wisdom is further borne out by the first manaketes we encounter. The first dragon we meet is Bantu, a fire dragon—and thus a member of one of the tribes that Malledus tells us once tried to “attack” humanity. But he’s not a bad guy at all! He’s a mysterious wanderer, just a guy looking for a girl we’ve never heard of. He joins the team without a single peep of complaint. And unlike what you might have been expecting, he’s totally powerless. “I lost my stone,” he says, “so I can’t fight.”

We have a backup stone for him, of course, and it turns out that once he’s got that whoo boy can he fight after all. But on first impression, he’s just a harmless frail man in a cloak with low stats.

Contrast him with the second manakete to enter the stage: Mannu, king of Pyrathi. He’s not so harmless. When Marth’s army seeks refuge from the Grustian ambush on his island, Mannu’s welcome wish is for them to “[b]urn and become sacrifices to the Salamander Tribe.” As an enemy commander, the difficulty curve of his fight is steep.

The total effect of this is a convincing lesson that manaketes are a complex race of people who are not in the least bit homogenous. There are differences between them, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of their complexity.

More than that, too. There’s a hint of something melancholy about them, just from the little we know of them so far. They’re dragons who can pass as humans, if they choose to confine their draconic nature to a stone. And you can see what sort of reputation that earns them among the wider populace from that Aurelian villager. As a manakete, you either walk through the civilized world as a shade, pretending to be something you’re not, or you embrace your dragon side to the shame and hatred of humanity. Kind of a lose-lose deal, it seems. Add to this the fact that the Divine Dragons seem all but extinct and that there’s a record of infighting between the dragon tribes, and there’s an aura of tragedy that seems to follow the manaketes as they move through the story. Almost as if there’s a little more to the people of the Archanean world than good and evil, whatever the grand old thrust of the main storyline might suggest.

But that’s a story for another day. We’ll return to the manaketes, both in SD&BoL and in every Fire Emblem thereafter, to see what they tell us about the history we’re writing. Now it’s back on the path to Archanea, by way of a quick detour to liberate an unlikely enemy captive.


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