Spells Across the Sands

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 15.

Following the conquest of Gra, Marth takes his first and more readily explicable detour into the Khadein territory. Here’s a word on speed mechanics, and a few more words on the most important villain in the story.

Reminder: you can’t win against Gharnef.

I’ve already talked about music a bit, so have a little tune to get stuck in your head as you’re reading. Other themes from SD&BoL are better remembered than this one, sure, but this has always been special to me even so. It may be because it builds a stirring bit of tension out of just a simple chord progression, some 8-bit instruments, and a bunch of sixteenth notes. It fits the military sound of Fire Emblem perfectly, and it energizes you for the battle to come. Because once you hear it, you know there’s a battle to come. Simple and effective.

You’re Too Slow!

They got him the fancy pink javelins with the green tips, and he STILL couldn't hit the slow guy.
Roger’s just hoping this guy finishes the way he started.

SD&BoL is my chance to discuss the nitty-gritty of the Fire Emblem battle system before whole other layers of complication and story end up on top of it, so you’ll have to pardon me for turning once again to another minutia of combat. On the chopping block today is the speed differential.

And yes, it may be a minor detail, but the effect of it is tremendous. The single biggest concern in an attack, in most cases, is whether a unit gets one turn or two. Without a sufficient speed advantage, both units are on a relatively level playing field; strengths play relative to defenses on their own merits. With a speed advantage, though, the damage output of one side can (often does) double. Double! And there’s no way for the opponent to get around that—if you’re up against somebody who has the speed advantage on you, they get two turns when you attack them just as well as when they attack you.

There’s no bigger kick to the flow of combat than one side getting that coveted double turn. A lot of game balance rides on it. Fast, weak units stake their whole usefulness to the team on being able to land multiple hits to make up for their shortcomings. Knights’ vulnerability to enemy doubling provides a drawback to their otherwise great defenses and strength. Many a unit who falls somewhere in the middle tends to enter a whole new era of value to the army once they begin to reliably double most of the enemy units—in this playthrough alone, Abel, Hardin, Castor, and main man Marth himself all fit this pattern.

So when does the double turn trigger? SD&BoL does a quick calculation behind the scenes. (Follow along here, if you’d like.) First, both combatants take the weight of their weapon—which, this being SD&BoL, is a secret to everybody—and subtract it from their speed stat to get their attack speed. Then, if one side’s attack speed is greater than the other’s, the faster side gets the second turn.

Yes, all you need is to be the faster unit by simple majority. Just one point of speed advantage will do. Later Fire Emblems will require a difference of more than a few points for the double turn, but SD&BoL gives the things away like candy—as long as your attack speeds produce an inequality, someone’s taking two turns.

As you might imagine, this results in a great proliferation of double turns. So far, many of these seem to have been in favor of my army, although most times there’s a promoted red unit facing off against an unpromoted blue one the red one reliably gets it instead. Point is, virtually no attacks result in an even one-turn-each matchup. I think that’s an overall loss for the game. Generally, when damage is magnified by everybody taking a bunch of hits in battle, I find the nuance that slower-paced combat can offer gets lost in a bunch of quicker KOs. It also tends to minimize the advantage that faster units have. Consider Navarre, whose current speed in the mid-to-high teens (unpromoted, mind you) gives him two turns against virtually anything he fights—and who in practice is little different from Abel, whose current speed somewhere just over 10 is good enough to double everything too, if only on a slimmer margin. There’s no functional difference between the utility of the two on the battlefield. Abel, with his horse, better strength, and ability to wield lances, is slowly edging out Navarre as the better unit. Every speed point Navarre gets now is a point of gravy, although it trickles down to his dodging ability somewhere.

Anyway. SD&BoL understands its combat system well enough to keep it interesting, but I appreciate the bit of interest that tweaks in future speed differential calculations will bring. And I have to wonder, in passing, whether there’s such a wealth of double turns for the blue army because it helps them gain enough experience to be competitive—after all, the only way they get experience is by dealing more damage.

You Can’t Win Against Gharnef

You can't win against Gharnef.
You can’t win against Gharnef.

And now the most important part of Chapter 15: our first face-to-face meeting with the true villain of the story.

Hang on a minute now, says the astute gamer! Gharnef isn’t the final villain; that’s Medeus! And the astute gamer would be right, but only to a point. Gharnef may not be the last opponent Marth will face, but he certainly is the most important one.

Let’s unpack that.

From a quick look, there’s not much Gharnef does in this chapter. He shows up standing in front of some treasure chests in a keep. He doesn’t move. If you walk over and provoke him, you’ll quickly discover that, for one thing, he’s invincible thanks to his special magic book, and for another, he can probably kill virtually anybody in a single round of combat. Wait him out long enough and he’ll get bored and leave, daring you to follow him:

Marth, I can’t stay here forever. If you want the Falchion meet me at [Thabes].

And that’s it. He’s gone. Poof! Some antagonist, right?

I can’t really get into the wonderful sneering lines that Shadow Dragon gives him, which to me better reveal the key to his character, so for now I’ll just stick to what’s in this version: The trick with Gharnef at this point lies in how other people characterize him. As soon as Marth takes the city of Khadein, he’s contacted by Gotoh, who tells him that he’s got a bone to pick with this so-called Dark Pontifex of Khadein:

While watching your struggles against [Gharnef], I felt I should help. Listen carefully. [Gharnef] and [Miloah] were my students, but [Gharnef] stole [Imhullu] from me and vanished. He’s indeed in possession of the Falchion. With [Imhullu] and Falchion even [Dolhr] can’t defeat him. But if you find the [Starsphere] and the [Lightsphere] and bring them to me, I’ll give you Starlight which can defeat [Imhullu].

So Gharnef is a thief, yes, but he’s also unstoppable even by the dragons of Dolhr. This is pretty unsettling. You know your final goal is to defeat Dolhr, and if there’s a power out there that can’t even be touched by them, well.

You can't win against Gharnef.
You can’t win against Gharnef.

This ominous warning plants the seeds of Gharnef’s true aim: he’s a Saruman figure. He’s pitting the world powers against each other in order to establish his own dominion over all of them. He doesn’t just think he’s better than all of them, he knows he can’t be stopped with the magical artifacts of the world in the state that he’s carefully arranged. His chessmastering already seems to be working in Khadein, where he now rules and where his legendary former teacher can’t even set foot anymore. And so, in Chapter 15, Gharnef shows up just to mock you, standing still, daring you to throw your lives at him. It doesn’t matter whether he loses Khadein; it doesn’t matter if he lifts a finger. He’s winning anyway. He knows it. You can’t win against Gharnef.

The fact that Gharnef isn’t the final villain prompts one of the more important questions of SD&BoL: what is the real face of villainy? It says a lot about what SD&BoL is driving at that the answer to that question isn’t just the guy leading the main war effort. It’s a layer deeper—it’s the guy who’s the architect of the whole war. Not the fighter, but the one who made the fight in the first place. The war may be the focus, but the most dangerous person is the one who knows just how to make it keep going and going and going.

What a dark message for a game you thought has been so empowering up to this point! And it’s only turning darker from here on in. Brace yourself. That is getting discussed in the next post, finally.

Miscellany

Now pay VERY close attention, or these past fifteen hours will have been for naught.
“I’m Prince Marth. I reply to you with the power of talking.”
  • Thematically, I enjoy the mage reinforcement who teleports into the Khadein treasure stronghold, although it does break my reinforcement commandment about giving some indication of where reinforcements are going to show up. And also the one about not spewing out a bajillion units turn after turn after turn, but that’s just SD&BoL being its nutty self.
  • Gotoh’s first contact by telepathy in this telling of the War of Shadows story seems a bit, y’know, transactional. He contacts Marth, it seems, less out of a desire to set the world right and more out of a desire to teach his uppity former student what for. Bring me some legendary magic spheres that I should be looking after, he says; if you do I’ll hand over what you need to stop that ingrate. I rather prefer Shadow Dragon on this point (as on virtually every other point, predictably), where Gotoh instead seems like he’s wanted to contact Marth for a while for the pure sake of helping the good cause, but can’t until Marth undoes the seals set by Gharnef around the great magical confluence in Khadein. Or maybe I made that up in my reading of Shadow Dragon. I make a lot of things up as I go about these stories. Just wait ’til we get about three more Fire Emblems down the line and my revisionism really gets in gear.
  • Gharnef’s wicked book of supreme dark magic, named Imhullu in later editions after the wind in Babylonian mythology, is called “Maph” in this translation. Fire Emblem wikis of note suggest that this is a translation of “mafu,” a Japanese term for “demonic wind.” It certainly looks the part when it’s used in battle.
  • You can’t win against Gharnef.

Marth, resigned that he will not, for the time being, be able to win against Gharnef, decides not to take the Dark Pontifex up on his offer to visit Thabes and instead sets a course south. For Altea. Next comes the liberation you’ve long awaited.

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