Restoring the Crown

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 12.

As the game dumps yet another deluge of mediocre units on me in the space of a single chapter, I’d like to consider why it thinks I’m at all interested in them. (It’s for a good reason, really.) A couple brief stops to consider experience point gain and treasure chests, and we’re done with the game’s second act!

An Ample Abundance of Archaneans

They may be numerous, ineffective, and poorly characterized, but at least they’re ravishingly handsome.

Back when we first saw the battle preparations screen, I wrote that SD&BoL clearly understood that it was giving you more units than you actually needed to use. Several chapters later, Marth is now swimming in allies, many of them of questionable quality. After we liberate the Palace of Archanea, we have enough units to fully garrison two battlefields at once and make strong headway on a third. Why so many people, especially given how unhelpful some of them are? (I’m looking at you, chapters where we get five or so wishy-washy characters dumped on us without a shred of dialogue.)

As I see it, there’s an easy answer, and then there’s a better answer that takes a bit more effort to explain.

The easy answer is: permadeath. If your characters die, there need to be others to take their place on future battlefields. Fire Emblem is all about embracing imperfection: some people will level badly, some treasures will be lost, and yes, some of your units might die. It’s not exactly a game that forgives mistakes like that, but at the same time the spirit of the game forbids punishing them too harshly. Thus, if somebody ends up dying on you, their position isn’t permanently lost—you’re just made to fill it with someone less qualified for the job. So one reason for the sheer size of the SD&BoL cast is to provide backups in the event that the worst case scenario happens.

That’s the mechanical reason why the cast is so big. But I think there’s a more fulfilling reason for it, too—more fulfilling because it fires interesting parts of the gamer psyche.

The idea, to use a big ol’ fancy phrase, is that a look down the roster on the battle preparation screen gives the player a sense of metonymic time. There’s a really excellent article on Final Fantasy VI that explains what “metonymic time” means and how it affects the pacing of the fifth act of that game. If you have time, you should read it; it and other articles in the same series that we’ll get to a little later on are pretty eye-opening discussions of concepts very relevant to Fire Emblem and other RPGs.

Me, though, I like board games. (You’d never have guessed.) And Fire Emblem traces its roots to tabletop ancestors, as I’ve said. And I think the same principle is put to work in some very good strategy board games as it is in SD&BoL‘s long cast list, so I’m going to explain it from a more cardboard-friendly gamer’s perspective. I’ll call this principle the tableau effect.

In many a modern strategy game, most often those that come out of the so-called “eurogame” school, there’s a sort of progression that unfolds right in your own corner of the table. Typically, you’ll begin the game either with nothing at all or with a small, unimpressive group of game units to work from: a tile or two, maybe a couple cards, maybe an empty personal game board. These meager beginnings sit in front of you on the table looking lonely. But over time, as the game develops, you begin to add stuff permanently into that little display in front of you. To your starting tiles, maybe you add more, bigger, fancier tiles. With your starting cards, maybe you play new, more expensive cards, and maybe you arrange them in branching frameworks. On your empty game board, maybe a city begins to take shape.

The game continues, and more stuff enters into your own personal tableau. By the end, you look down and you can see a record that reflects all the decisions you made and risks you took over the course of the game. That big green tile really cost you, but it was a crucial decision on that one turn! That card for the monument took a long focus on infrastructure from the very beginning to play, but it sealed your victory in the endgame! That whole city started from just a single tiny house!

That effect is what I think of as the tableau effect: when looking at a personal in-game collection makes you reflect on all the adventures you’ve taken in the game so far. Plenty of board games do this in their own ways, and if my experience is any guide, that effect encourages a special connection to the events of a game. The tableau effect is always what gives me a satisfying sense of authorship over the game, what makes me want to try it again just one more time so I can create something new.

Also as in Fire Emblem, blue won in a blowout.
Before (L) and after (R) a game of Race for the Galaxy. Note the accumulation of stuff, and the fact that I made us choose to play as red against blue because Fire Emblem.

So let’s relate this back to SD&BoL. You look at that long roster of characters who’ve all joined at different places in Marth’s quest, and, I think, the tableau effect starts to kick in. There’s Navarre; I sent Caeda deep into the mountains to recruit him! There’s Sedgar; I remember when he and the rest of Hardin’s unit had that shootout south of Aurelis in order to stay alive! There’s Jeorge; he was imprisoned by that pirate dragon but I freed him! There’s Jake; he’s Anna’s boyfriend and we must keep him alive because Anna is watching us always! And so on. Every unit recalls the adventures you’ve been through to get where you are. A special connection forms between you and the game not just because you’ve played through it, but because the reminders of all the big things you’ve done are written all over your personal collection. Your units are like the medals for your past achievements, and they make you just that much more excited to add to them with more.

So there you go. The cast is big because it has to make up for people dying, yes, but it’s also big to make you feel just how epic the scope of the adventure is that you, yourself, have made. And maybe that makes you want to play just, y’know, one more chapter.

The Long Road to Leveling

Still wearing the pointy hat like it's cool.
This number comes up a lot, because everyone in the world has resistance 0 in this game.

Let’s return to another feature of the original Fire Emblem that seems archaic to my modern sensibilities. In SD&BoL, when a unit enters combat with an enemy but doesn’t KO them, your unit receives experience points equal to the damage they dealt. This is unlike future Fire Emblems, where a hit for any amount of damage nets a unit a flat-rate experience bump of somewhere around eight to ten points.

OK, says the astute gamer. So what?

I mean, there had to be some reason why the developers changed this. Here’s what I think it is: hidden in this pretty drab calculation is a somewhat significant implication for how units can level. SD&BoL starts a series-long tradition of providing several promising units at levels below (ranging to well below) the average competence of the rest of the army—for example, Linde and the yet-to-arrive Est. Project units like these typically find it hard to hit their enemies for much damage at all until they’ve built up competence over several chapters of preferential treatment and KO stealing. Nor is it always easy to set up KOs for them to steal, which (then as now) produce a hefty premium on the experience payout, because their hits are so dinky at first that you may find it difficult to weaken the enemy to a place where they’re (1) not defeated but (2) left with just enough HP for the project to take them out. (This is less of an issue for Linde, because, well, see the caption on the picture above.)

The more modern flat-rate-per-hit equation encourages you to train projects even in the face of this difficulty. You may not be able to set up a KO for them every turn to secure those big experience deliveries, but as long as they land hits, they’re making steady, measured progress towards their goal.

The SD&BoL old-school approach discourages you from training projects. If they can’t score a KO and can’t land significant damage, they might as well not be fighting. The payoff is negligible. And since there are a good many battlefield situations in which projects will struggle to wound their opponents at all, those projects may level too slowly to be of much practical use to the army.

Taking it one step further, the SD&BoL system also gives a maybe undue advantage to more advanced members of the army. As their damage output grows with successive levels, more senior soldiers’ experience gains will grow with them, making them level faster and accelerate up the promotion ladder along a sort of exponential path. Taken together with the discouragement of projects, this means that this feature of the experience system encourages you to pick an A-team and stick with it, ignoring everyone else you meet. That sounds pretty contrary to the open-choice nature of Fire Emblem. I can see why IS scrapped this approach in future games.

Not to say that the effect is necessarily large—a few experience points per hit doesn’t sound like it should make that big of a difference—but it’s only chapter 12, and it’s already noticeable. That tells me that it’s enough of a difference to matter.

Carrots, Protected by Sticks

Not the weirdest part of the Ageless Palace's design, but up there.
There goes Marth, chasing booty again.

Something that’s already clear in SD&BoL is that two features of maps perform pretty much the same function. On most maps, there are points where you can receive treasure. Outdoors, these are villages; indoors, these are treasure chests. The delivery varies a bit between them—chests require Marth or a thief; villages require only Marth and come with a bit of dialogue—but the primary point of the chest and the village in gameplay is identical. To my mind, they’re interchangeable map features.

And, more to the point, their purpose isn’t just to provide goodies. Chests and villages, distributed properly, help make a map more interesting, because they just beg you to distribute your units in a certain way to take advantage of them. In the Ageless Palace, for example, the treasure vault is a locked room separate from the main hallway that’s protected by a beefy general. If you’d like to avail yourself of the rewards that are just sitting out there for you to take come ON, you’re going to have to divide your units between the straightforward approach to the throne and the vault, committing a decent force to the vault to take on the general. And the sniper on the other side of the door forces you to deal with an awkward shooting-contest situation to boot. Chests and villages, properly placed, incentivize a tactician with good old-fashioned greed, making you divide your forces in such a way that you increase the number of interesting decisions you have to make.

Next, add a red thief to the mix. Now there’s an added time pressure that influences map pacing: if the thief ruins that village or raids that chest before you reach it, the treasure you want is gone for good. This spurs you to act quickly to reach the hotspots first (or, as in much of SD&BoL, makes you at least engage in some warp staff shenanigans). The sudden presence of a single unit in the enemy army thus changes your pacing and approach to a chapter, just because you want to get everything out of it that you can.

Budding map designers, take note: chests and villages are powerful tools to force some compelling tactical situations.

Miscellany

Or is it that none of these castles have roofs?
Archaneans still curse the day that their ancient engineers invented the wall-piercing arrow.
  • You know what I find to be really touching, as well as a nice little bit of characterization? I love Midia’s exchange with Boah when they’re preparing to be shot to death as unarmed captives. It’s a pretty cool moment because it convinces you that these are two really admirable people in a dark situation—true, but totally human, soldiers. That, and Midia’s love for Astram is inspiring. Here’s how my translation goes, obtuse as it sometimes may be:

    MIDIA: Master [Boah], why are the soldiers panicking?
    BOAH: I think [Nyna] brought the liberation army.
    MIDIA: Is that true? Then we’ll be saved!
    BOAH: Midia, we can’t celebrate yet. They have no use for us anymore, so they will likely kill us.
    MIDIA: But because of this, the enemy will be chased away. I’ll have no regrets if I fall here.
    BOAH: Haha … That’s brave. But if you die, [Astram]’ll be sad.
    MIDIA: … Yes … I wanted to see him once more. That’s my last wish.
    BOAH: Hold on to that wish and hold on till the very end. Never give up!

  • Another really solid piece of map design is the Archanean captive rescue in the northwest corner of the palace. It encourages you to hurry up to save the prisoners with your main force, but while you’re playing that part of the chapter, it also gives you a little side-quest to worry about, fiddling with unit positioning to absorb the worst of the jailers’ hits. The side attraction doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s possible to walk away with everyone intact if you prioritize the objective properly. Makes the chapter memorable for sure.
  • Heimler of Grust is the next on the list of firsts-and-lasts served up by SD&BoL: an enemy commander with a name and even a portrait, but no lines in, like, any telling of this story, and no part to play in it whatsoever save maybe for carrying an item. He could’ve just been a nameless paladin and nothing would’ve changed. Bizarre. (Oh, and apparently his name was originally Himmler. I know juuuuust why that one changed.)
  • Volzhin of Dolhr is one of the only Dolhran humans—as opposed to dragons—in the Archanea story. I can’t really comment on his characterization here, though, because, um:
Translation: "I served Medeus the Earth Dragon and all I got was this lousy robe."
Stupid Dolhrans. Can’t understand a word they’re saying.
  • Nyna’s gift of Parthia in SD&BoL is underwhelming—like, oh, hey, here’s this cool gift because you just finished the twelfth chapter, and not like you’ve just recovered one of the legendary weapons of the ancient empire from enemy hands. In fact, the way it’s written here you could almost mistake this moment for one that’s not the end of an act:

    NYNA: Thanks[,] Prince Marth. I was able to return to [the Ageless Palace] because of you. This bow’s called [Parthia]. It’s one of my family’s legendary items. The other two, [Mercurius] and [Gradivus], seem to be taken by the enemy. With these, battles become easier!

I know, I just keep teasing you with that “act” talk. I promise I’ll make sense of that soon. For now, we’ve restored Nyna to her throne and thrown off the occupation in the eastern kingdoms. There’s one occupied nation left, and it’s Marth’s own. It’s time to take the fight towards home.

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