Vengeance in Gra

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 13–14.

With two nations seized, Marth’s army is about to go in for the hat trick. The welcome wagon on the shores of Gra is filled with ballisticians, units that I think are well worth a discussion. I’d also like to follow up on the last post’s experience point analysis, and—wait, have I not talked about music at all yet? At all? What have I been doing for fourteen chapters?

Bombs Away

How does the commander have a cannon when the archers don't even have muskets? MAGIC.
“Sir, I don’t think that blond guy with the sword got your memo.”

Save for one other retelling (out of two!) of the War of Shadows, SD&BoL is the first and last we’ll see of the ballistician class in the whole series—or, in the ungainly turn of phrase in this translation, of the “shooter” class. What gives? How did ballisticians move from being the featured part of one chapter to never appearing again?

I think it all comes down to class differentiation. And the bottom line is, there really isn’t that much ballisticians do that archers and hunters don’t both do better.

Ballistae, in this game, have a range of 2, regardless of which of their fancy artillery pieces they’ve mounted. This is identical to the ranges of every regular bow, so the immediate comparison is between ballisticians, archers, and hunters. All three, upon closer inspection, fall on a spectrum: on one end are the slow, armored ranged units; on the other are the fast, poorly defended ranged units. Ballisticians are the first end, hunters are the second, and archers fall in between. So far so clear-cut.

The problems arise when the numbers come out. The difference in defenses is striking—ballisticians have defenses on par with promoted generals—but so, subtly, is the difference in movement rates. Hunters have a roundly average move value of 6. With the range added by their bows, they have quite a good range of action on the battlefield. Archers’ move rate is only one point less, but the difference is notable, because (1) the rest of the army moves faster almost to a man, except for knights, (2) chapters in SD&BoL often include long stretches of territory to cover, over which archers’ low movement puts them more significantly behind over time, and (3) the step from 6 move to 5 is the difference between covering three squares of rough terrain in a turn and covering two, which is actually a sizable disadvantage given that the mere presence of rough terrain could cause an archer to lose a third of their mobility.

And then there are the ballisticians. Their movement is 4. On paper, again, that doesn’t sound like much of a step down from archers’ 5, but in practice the step is huge. At 4, they have the lowest movement in the army, beating out the archers and, yes, even the knights. Their range is none the longer to make up for their pitiful sluggishness. Add to this the fact that certain kinds of terrain are impassable to their wheels—Beck is recruited on top of a hill in chapter 13 and can’t get down from it to save his life—and they become the most singularly immobile unit in the game.

The payback for actually getting them to see action, presumably, is supposed to be the variety of strong weapons they have. And sure, that’s nice. I particularly like the addition of the thunderbolt and hoistflame to their arsenal, allowing them not just to look futuristic and cool but also to choose between magical attacks and physical ones. (Of course, with all the 0-resistance muggles running around in this game, that choice is usually pretty obvious.) But there’s nothing that their big ol’ artillery does that normal bows can’t, by and large, and the fact that the units who wield the bows are exponentially easier to get to the places you want them to be than the artillery is in most cases dispositive of the question of which is the better unit.

Long story short: ballisticians disappear from the series after SD&BoL because the two other classes that perform their function both do it better. To the extent that there are different kinds of ballistae for different functions, there’s no reason why there can’t be different kinds of magic bows to accomplish the same effect. I think, deep down, the developers knew that as they headed into the sequels.

But don’t dismiss the ballisticians just yet. Wait ’til you see how Shadow Dragon makes them relevant again. It’s worth it, and it makes the encounter with the Wooden Cavalry of Grust much more memorable.

Getting Hit in the Face for Fun and Profit

Ouch! But don't worry, I'm getting luckier! Ouch!
After the hundredth knock on the head or so, Lena really did feel like she was learning something.

I wrote last time about some difficulties with how the game apportions experience points, but I left one key part out. That post just talked about how combat units gain experience. Curates and clerics get experience too, but not from fighting—so of course that means their system is even wonkier.

Here’s the central problem: there’s a class of units that performs an essential function (healing), but that function doesn’t involve combat at all. Members of that class don’t fight because they can’t fight. So if experience gain is normally based on damage dealt, what’s to be done about leveling them?

Veteran Emblemiers know what sounds like the most common-sense solution: base their experience gain on what you command them to do every turn, just like the other units. In their case, that would mean giving them an experience premium every time they healed their allies. But this approach invites some problems. For one, there’s absolutely no risk when you command your healer to (get experience and) heal an ally, unlike when you command your other soldier to (get experience and) attack an enemy. That means that you could conceivably sit around healing up everyone’s paper cuts for repeated experience gains without really making many interesting decisions. Call this “cheese healing.” You might limit the healing experience premium to—let’s take a page from SD&BoL‘s book, say—the amount of HP healed, but that will always be far less than the amount of damage output the regular soldiers deal, and it will never include a KO premium. So that means healing premiums have to be quite large to be competitive, and if a player were diligent about abusing them to heal bunches of tiny flesh wounds via cheese healing, you’d likely see your healers promoting well in advance of everyone else in the army and throwing off some of the balance of the mid-game chapters.

To avoid those invitations to game the experience system and cheese heal, SD&BoL makes a really odd choice. Healers here gain experience not by healing—not, in fact, by doing anything at all related to healing—but by getting attacked. It doesn’t matter whether they dodge or whether the enemy hits for a little or a lot. SD&BoL‘s healers gain a 30-to-40-point experience premium every time they participate in a battle, and that’s the only source of experience for them.

It certainly avoids the problem of risk-free experience gain. It does not, however, do a good job of aligning experience gain with anything remotely related to the healer’s job. The front line is nowhere for a defenseless curate to stand, but that’s where he has to stand if he wants to level. The helpful cleric wants to tend the wounds of units who jump back with few HP left, but she can’t both do that and make progress on her experience total. And because healers have such low defenses and so few HP, a single hit is typically enough to weaken them to the point where they can’t stand the front line another turn without running the risk of death. This in mind, if you’re looking to really level your healer, you’ll either need (1) another healer devoted to healing the first healer who’s equally hamstrung by the experience system, or (2) deep pockets lined with vulneraries. Neither is a great use of the space in your army or inventory. (Also, remember the part where this system was probably invented to ensure that cheese healing doesn’t promote healers way earlier than everyone else? Well, thanks to this, now they promote way later than everyone else. Guess that worked.)

If you’ve played future Fire Emblems, you know how the series resolves this problem in the future: it scraps this approach and takes the premium-for-healing approach instead. And guess what? Exactly the problems I list above pop up. You can cheese heal pretty much every turn, because there’s always someone who needs 1 HP filled. Every single experience point can be made free of risk. And because it’s so easy for the healers to make these experience points, they’re reliably among the first to promote, or at least to cap their levels, in almost all of the new games.

The takeaway, I think, is that there’s no flawless system for leveling healers in a game that’s so focused on something they can’t do. To an extent, the developers just get to pick their poison and run with it. That said, I think the poison they pick in later Fire Emblems is a better one than this.

Also, before we leave the topic of healers, let me just say—what the heck is with the staff names in this translation? Heal staves became “live” staves. Mend staves are “relieve” staves, which if anything sounds weaker than the “live” staves. Recover staves are something else entirely in other Fire Emblems. And then … what on earth is “reblow?”

Fire Emblem Tunes

Are you to the storages?
“They say if you listen to this song long enough, your face turns purple like that guy down the street.”

Cue the music!

… finally. There are some all-time classic songs that debut in SD&BoL. It’s taken me too long to get to them. I’m eager to change that—but first, let’s give credit where it’s due.

The credits list two composers for the score: Yuka Tsujiyoko (née Banba, the name credited in SD&BoL) and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka. The pairing is a perfect reflection of the IS-Nintendo collaboration model. Tanaka, the supervisor and mentor, was, even at the time, a thoroughly established game music composer who had worked as a sound designer for Nintendo for ten years, earning credits in north of 30 games. Tsujiyoko, on the other hand, was a programmer with a degree in electronic engineering. She played piano and composed music as a hobby, but she had no prior sound design credit. But of course, she was the IS employee on the sound team, and that meant that the lion’s share of the score-writing responsibility fell to her. She and Tanaka entered into a sort of junior mentee–senior mentor relationship over the course of their work on the game—by all accounts a thriving one, seeing how Tsujiyoko now credits Tanaka as one of her biggest musical influences. (Her other major influence, she says, is Grammy favorite jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny.)

Together, the pair did one heck of a job. Their original compositions for SD&BoL continue to play in new arrangements in entries in the series over 25 years later. There’s just no question that Fire Emblem, like many a great game, wouldn’t be what it is without the score.

And there’s just no question which track should begin my discussion of the music in SD&BoL, either. Listen right here!

The player turn theme is classic Fire Emblem stuff for a couple reasons. First, it’s recognizably martial in character. There’s a regimented feeling, if not an outright battle-ready drumbeat, to a lot of Fire Emblem music since its very first tracks. No doubt the point of that is to fit the war-game theme—it’s certainly a motif that’s right at home on the fantasy Europeanoid battlefield, which makes it a nice little method of player immersion in the world of the game. You hardly realize that the soundtrack is putting you in the battle as much as the (maybe limited) dialogue. Ever notice how the section from 0:45 to 0:52 sounds a bit like a horse galloping? Because Jagen most certainly did.

Second, it’s upbeat. Like, who knew war was this happy? Remember when I mentioned how a number of devices in the early parts of the game are meant to impart a sense that you’re on a grand, sweeping, epic quest? This is one of them. Your turns are accompanied by a heroic, major-key tune in sprightly 4/4; everything feels right with the world. It really puts the wind in your sails. We’ll see many a Fire Emblem from here on out deliver bright, joyous military songs for their first chapters, and this is precisely the mold they’re trying to fit. Be patient, steady, strong, the music says. I know you will do great things.

Tsujiyoko, I should add, has moved on to do great things herself. Not only has she composed or supervised music for quite a few other games, but many an original song from SD&BoL will also recur throughout the series, in another of Fire Emblem‘s comparatively few nods to nostalgia. The shop theme, for instance, should be very familiar to veteran Emblemiers. Keep your ears open as we move through Fire Emblem history, and you’ll probably hear more and more goodies like this in time.

(As in many a long series that started in the eight-bit era, you’ll also hear your share of musical duds. For the sake of your own sanity, don’t listen to the healing theme on repeat. Hearing this all day long, no wonder the clerics and curates only learn things by getting hit on the head.)

Miscellany

"If anyone asks, I am totally NOT Camus the Sable."
“That princess with you. The Archanean. How does she feel about, y’know, Grustian guys?”
  • I love how all the ballistae are different weapons. Best of all, I love how the high-end ballista is just unmistakeably a cannon. I can forgive the technological questions this raises about Archanea in the War of Shadows period (Gordin could seriously own some dragons with a li’l gunpowder), but I can’t forgive how they name the cannon—wait for it—”Elephant.” At least its name in the remake sounds cool and elephantine at the same time. This time, remove all the cool and replace it with goofiness. Here’s Grigas of Grust sounding like a doofus while threatening the Archanean League:

    So you finally came. Take this! Elephant!

  • Chapter 14 shows off another good storytelling instinct: Camus the Sable makes his first appearance in an unassuming house north of Gra Bastion. He’s not identified by name; you don’t know who he is. But the music goes eerily silent, and he mentions both Boah and Nyna, and leaves promising that you’ll meet him again. Something about him is clearly important. This is just totally brilliant, because when we meet Camus on the battlefield later, we’ll realize that this encounter shows, rather than tells, Camus’s concern for Nyna and honor as a courtly gentleman. And we’ll have the obligatory oh-that’s-who-that-was moment, which is always good for kicks.
  • Not a turn or two thereafter, there’s this weird thing where the top Whitewing lieutenants fly straight at Marth and join his cause, and then their whole legion flies in behind them in order to … attack them. Like, their commanders don’t harm a hair on a single Archanean’s head; clearly this defection was planned. But Palla and Catria join up and then their entire legion immediately tries to rip the stuffing out of them and their allies. Macedonians are weird people.
  • The title of Chapter 14, “Land of Sorrow,” made much more sense to me in Shadow Dragon than here. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I’ll just say that the additional screen time Jiol of Gra gets in the remake helps make it clear that, although he’s a petty and tyrannical man, he’s only that way because his country is small fry on the table of nations and he knows it. Gra is doomed to be a pawn to the schemes of bigger powers. Jiol puts all his money on the bet that slaying Cornelius of Altea might finally give Gra some significance in history—and “Land of Sorrow” is where that bet implodes and Jiol loses everything even so. Poor little floundering Gra is a tragic sort of place, in that context. SD&BoL, however, gives us none of that context, and the man who killed Marth’s dad and set so much of this story in motion just gets a generic little taunt before you best him:

    The [Altean] rebel scum … I should have destroyed all of you!

  • For heaven’s sake, why have axes gone off the market completely?! If anyone had told me all the armories were going to stop selling axes after chapter, like, 4, I would have bought a little stash to support me for the rest of the campaign. As it stands now, I’ve been diligently leveling Cord, but he may have to be forcibly retired from the team because there just aren’t any more of his weapons to be found in the whole darn western reach of the continent. This right here is what bad game design looks like.

The League’s conquest of Gra leaves them on the doorstep of Altea, but the legendary sword of the Altean royals, Falchion, isn’t with the man who slew its bearer. Time to go hunting for it in strange places. Strange magical places. That’s next time.

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