Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 10–11.
I’m knocking on the doors of the Archanean capital! A quick discussion of some plot points in SD&BoL‘s second act is in order, followed by another required mechanical discussion, this time on random levels. And I can’t leave Chapter 11 without mention of a certain someone in it, because if I omit that she’ll be angry with me because she’s watching me.
Here’s another map, for those of you that like maps.
I never entirely understood the strategic maneuver that happens after the liberation of Aurelis. Marth travels south through the Lefcandith Valley, one assumes, to move on the Ageless Palace of Archanea and reclaim Nyna’s throne. Makes sense. But then the army ends up on the other side of the mountains that run the spine of the country, and takes a big old detour far to the east to rest and recuperate in Port Warren. I guess the only passage through the mountains is somewhere in that southeastern foot of the country. (The map of Ylisse some thousands of years in the future may bear that out: the continents have drifted a bit, but the only way around the mountains—now shoved up against the western coastline—still seems to be all the way at their southern end, near the village of Law’s End that pops up somewhere around the ancient site of Castle Deil.)
Still, unless the mountains really stretch all the way northward into Aurelis, you have to wonder why Marth didn’t just approach the Ageless Palace from the north instead of taking the scenic tour of the old empire. Oh well. Maybe Port Warren was a sweet vacation spot.
And while we’re on the subject of strategic oddities, I was also always a bit confused about Marth’s reaction at the end of Chapter 8. After fending off Kannival’s ambush, Marth immediately decides—again, this is after he’s defeated the raiding party—that it’s too dangerous to continue by land and that the army needs to ship out by sea to avoid the Grustian threat. I never felt the sense of urgency Marth seems to have at this point. Like, dude, you just won. Although in this edition of the story, the choice does make a little more sense—endless reinforcements start pouring out of the forts to the north, and you really feel the same pressure Marth does to get the heck out of there. (Well, you do if you wait, like, six or seven extra turns for them to start showing up.)
Also, the place Marth decides to weather the Grustian storm is a pirate stronghold ruled by a king who wants to torch everybody who sets foot on his island. Brilliant choice of safe havens. You can tell this order came from greenhorn Marth and not his whip-smart and ravishingly handsome chief tactician, amirite?
Mr. Kaga, however, is not one to leave weird plot points unbalanced by interesting ones, and the latter half of the Archanean campaign is really quite clever. It’s based around something you see happen right in front of you on the battlefield in Chapter 7: Minerva of Macedon, ordered to cherry-pick the Archanean League as it squeezes through the bottleneck of Lefcandith, decides that this is too dirty a tactic and calls her lieutenants out of the battle. Harmein of Grust threatens the life of her sister Maria, whom the Grustian occupation force has taken captive, but his unit is overrun before he can send word to the captors to exact vengeance. When the League overtakes Pyrathi, Catria of the Whitewings, last seen turning coat at Lefcandith, arrives to ask Marth to free Maria from imprisonment at Castle Deil. He agrees, and Maria and Minerva both join in the following chapter.
For my money, this is the first instance of character driving a Fire Emblem plot. It’s handled pretty darn well. It sets up a few things: first, that several of your (future) units are (1) important and (2) principled; second, that Marth is willing to trust a former enemy in need; and third, that Grust is not above a good deal of dishonorable hostage-taking in combat. It also adds a nice bit of recurrence to the story, so that you start to recognize some of the faces you see. This isn’t to say that the resulting characterization is very complex—the lesson is essentially Marth good, Grust bad—but it is effective, and it’s refreshing to see characters’ personality in charge of what happens in the world at least for these few chapters. (It’s also important that our overwhelming first impression of Grustians is that they’re liars and cheats in war, because there’s this one guy we’ll meet later that, significantly, shatters that mold.)
Oh, and the reason I call it “Act Two” up there? You’re gonna have to wait until a little bit later to hear my take on that.
I’d be remiss in my discussions of Fire Emblem basics if I didn’t mention what’s maybe the most-ever identifiable feature of Fire Emblem. That’s right, random levels!
Here’s the concept: when a character levels up, which occurs in a reassuringly clean-cut and predictable way every hundred experience points they gain, they have a chance (but no more than a chance!) of improving by one point in each of their combat statistics. Every character has their own hidden stat growth percentages that determine how likely it is that they turn a point in each stat with each level; after that, it’s up to the luck of the die roll—or, as the Emblemiers call it, the “RNG,” for “Rigged Nuker of Games.”
“Random Number Generator.” Whatever.
A quick bit of Google research doesn’t give me a clear answer as to where the idea of the random level began. It might be SD&BoL, although given the game’s track record of not innovating in other ways, it probably wasn’t. Fire Emblem‘s direct antecedents took different approaches to the impact of levels: Dungeons & Dragons, for example, tended to make level influence the probability of skill success without tying it to numerical statistics; Final Fantasy made levels bump statistics, but only under an algorithm that was partly influenced by predetermined character class bonuses. (Final Fantasy II, of course, disposed of the idea of levels altogether.) To my knowledge, Fire Emblem was the first game to let rolls of the dice stand to determine characters’ gains on levels and have that be that.
As with many a bold design choice, this is not without some drawbacks. For example, sometimes a character—even an all-star A-team member—will turn the dreaded blank level, where they miss all of their rolls, the only stat that increases is “level,” and every one of their useful stats remains depressingly static. Sometimes that one character you used and liked in your first playthrough can’t get a good level for love nor money this time around, and you’ll be forced to demote them to benchwarmer status. Sometimes a perfectly good character ends up spoiled because the RNG refuses to give them even a single point of That One Stat, undoing all the other good things they might have going. Stuff like this turns off not a small number of players. (Read that whole thread for better discussion of the issue than I can put in here.)
Why, then, include this mechanism in a game meant for tactical thought and strategic planning? As with so many of the basic design elements of Fire Emblem, I think it’s about adding more interesting decisions. I see two main ways in which it helps the gameplay.
First, it gives players a constant source of strategic considerations, and one that they can’t ever totally prepare for. Key strategic decisions about team composition depend on how well, and with what variance, your characters level. Who can you bench right away? Who do you wait for to improve? What functions on the team can be better performed by somebody else? Who’s taken up enough of your training time to make you to try to fix them with a stat booster item instead of benching them? These questions about who belongs on the team and in the field are all related to the past and future success of your characters’ levels, and they’re strategic decisions you’re making at least once every chapter. If you could go on autopilot and know what the outcome of those decisions would be—if, say, everyone’s levels were predetermined and written in stone, all able to be memorized—you’d lose any necessity to make those decisions, because the optimal ones would be easy enough to figure out beforehand. But everyone levels differently every time, and so the best predictions you have are probabilities. And those are less and less likely to be accurate the longer you’ve been playing the game. So, ultimately, random levels force you to keep your head in the strategic game from the beginning to the end of your campaign. This is Fire Emblem, after all. Anyone can screw anything up.
And second, there’s a more positive spin to put on it too. Random levels ensure that no two runs of a Fire Emblem are exactly alike—not yours and your friend’s, not even your first and your second. Your Fire Emblem game is a smidge more your own because of that. It seems like kind of a silly point, but I think the effects of that little emotional connection are pretty profound. It encourages an attachment to your units that’s unusual in other games. Fans often compare character stats to see how their team leaders stack up; you start to identify particular people in the army as particularly capable of certain tasks; permadeath becomes all the more pressing an issue to consider when your characters are your own unique creations. I think randomness adds a really cool feeling of personal power to the whole medieval battlefield.
Eventually, we’ll see a Fire Emblem that decides to give players a choice between this random approach and predetermined character levels. Hopefully, the significance of that choice will be clearer when we get there.
The RNG Goddess Incarnate
In a little, nondescript house on the pond in Knorda, we first encounter one of the most mysterious figures in all of Fire Emblem. We’re still trying to figure her out to this day, some thirteen-plus titles later in the series. Her name, as whole generations of Emblemiers know and fear, is: Anna.
Yup. Mighty prosaic, at least to my American ears.
Really, her entry is kind of mundane, too. She’s just a commoner, apparently; her sweetheart Jake is serving in the Grustian occupation army and holding down the Palace of Archanea. You talk to her, suss out her concern for Jake, and then talk to Jake to recruit him. Simple stuff.
Except it’s not really the first time you meet her, is it? Strangely, she also appears as a sort of omniscient voice between chapters, asking you whether you want to save at the end of each one. This is doubly weird because the other regular instance of game-mechanic fourth-wall breaking, not to mention several expository monologues largely also intended for consumption beyond the fourth wall, is instead handled by Malledus. (The charming old devil.) When it comes to saving your progress, something about the process is different enough to merit an inexplicable appearance by this one girl. And that’s what makes meeting her in-world so remarkable.
Add to that that she’s also unusually recognizable. She’s the only villager with a name, and the name is eerily palindromic. That coquettish finger to the chin sets her apart from every other character portrait you see—most Archanean portraits don’t show their subjects’ hands at all, let alone fingers, let alone fingers poised archly (seductively?) in such a unique way. And very few of the characters look right into the camera in their portraits—but Anna’s no stranger to talking right to you, player. She knows you’re there.
So what’s the deal with Anna? I suspect the answer, at least in this installment of Fire Emblem, is something disappointingly mechanical. And Japanese. In that order.
The effect of seeing Anna on the save screen between chapters makes you notice her, so that when you spot her in the house in Knorda you suddenly say wait a minute, I know her and pay close attention to what she says. And that, in turn, clues you in to how to recruit a pretty useful character, so the payoff for noticing Anna is a nice one. The effect is also Japanese, in that the best way they thought to catch your attention was by using a young woman being flirty with you.
That, I think, is all the explanation there is to give Anna in SD&BoL. Future Fire Emblems, however, have taken Anna and run very, very far with her, and in the process have made her into something rather more than she was originally. She’s become a mascot of sorts, and other Fire Emblems have made progressively bigger deals of her being so mysteriously player-facing. In only a few short games you’ll find her everywhere, doing everything. Only a few games more and the games will be subtly hinting at her ubiquity, full of smug self-reference. That flirty finger never leaves her chin, and the unspoken wisdom in those come-hither eyes only deepens. And the reason for all this is, for once, not Fire Emblem conservatism at work, but one of the (comparatively) rare nods to nostalgia that crop up throughout the series.
Anyway. Thought this was worth a quick little primer, because it’s not the last you’ll see of Anna, and you and I both know it.
And she knows it too.
- Knorda Market was, according to my translation of SD&BoL, originally a slavers’ market. The ruffian in the market is trying to sell Linde as a slave, it seems. Mention of the slave trade is scrubbed clean from Shadow Dragon when it shows up in English many years later, which should come as little surprise to those familiar with Nintendo of America: the company has a notorious flair for censorship of the racier stuff to come out of Japan. If you’d like my two cents, I don’t think the game loses anything for dropping the (pretty aimless) references to an Archanean slave trade. Those references add edginess factor to the plot, maybe, but they hardly go anywhere, and the plot benefits nothing from them. I’m of the opinion that hard-hitting stuff should be saved for moments where the hard hit actually has weight. Just my take.
- While we’re mentioning Linde, let’s admit that the introduction of her character is built up pretty poorly. Her name only appears for the first time in Nyna’s speech at the end of the preceding chapter (“Oh, P.S., this woman named Linde is important and I’m worried about her and we should save her”), the importance of her dad is only—tersely—raised earlier in the same chapter, and then she’s kinda just there and rescued in Chapter 11. For someone of such important lineage, with a legendary magic book to boot, the story pretty clumsily delivers her arrival. Which, y’know, doesn’t stop her from being a totally awesome unit.
- Not to keep score, but guess who recruits Jake? Caeda. Again. By knowing just what to say. Again. She really is an excellent character.
- Chapter 11’s Khozen is unique in the entire series, as far as I know, in that he’s an enemy commander in a chapter with a seize objective who chooses to roam freely and let a nameless subordinate hold his charge. He’s also a manakete and his command is over the garrison of quite possibly the most important conquest the Dolhr alliance has made in the entire war, both of which should make him particularly memorable. Every edition of the War of Shadows story has elected to fight every ounce of that potential memorability by giving him as little dialogue as humanly possible. Doh. If there was ever a sign that the designers weren’t too concerned about perfecting their storytelling at this stage in the series’s life, Khozen is it.
OK, we’ve wrested the Ageless Palace from its aggressors. Nothing left to do but muck out whoever’s hiding inside of it. To the throne!