Invasion of the West

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 18–19.

On the docket today, we return to job classes and the importance of NPC irony. Then it’s time to sink our teeth into the first tragic aspect of the latter acts of this RPG. In the process, it’s also time to be reminded once again that we can’t win against Gharnef.

Here’s a quickie music cue to get us started. If you’ve played SD&BoL, you’re probably already sick of hearing this one in pretty much every battle ever (although maybe not as sick as you are of hearing this one, amirite). Even if you haven’t heard it before, you’ll get the idea of it well before its 1:20 is up. And that’s a bit of genius, really, because this song was never meant to be listened to at long stretches at a time. It fills short, automatic moments that play out on rails as the computer rolls the dice and you bite your nails in anticipation. Battles are, what, at most ten or twenty seconds? Far shorter than the length of all these repeats of the battle song, anyway. The song itself contains just enough motion to keep the tension up during those moments, and one little climactic build-up to make sure you’re paying attention. There have been better battle songs since, but this one does what it needs to.

Level Up: Deluxe Version

Missing: sweet, sweet 8-bit lightning bolts.
Unlike Navarre, I can’t write “hero” as my job title on my tax return.

They’ve been nearly twenty chapters in training, but now it’s time for the original cast to bust out those promotion items and class change on into a better career. (Well, some of the original cast. I just discovered that knights are also on the list of classes that are unable to promote—surprise!—despite the fact that generals are clearly promoted knights and there is also a promotion item called the #&%!ing knight crest. I mean, come on. I hope Roger likes the bench; he sure doesn’t deserve it.)

As with other Fire Emblem fundamentals that began in SD&BoL, promotions come at a time when there’s little enough going on elsewhere in the game that I have a moment to ask really basic questions about them. So: Why promotions? What do they add?

Hold on a minute, says the astute gamer, I know the answer to this! Back a while ago when we looked at differentiation between character classes, we decided that one reason we have character classes is because it’s expected of a game in the fantasy genre. Dungeons & Dragons did it, and every one of its descendants followed suit. Well (the astute gamer says triumphantly), Dungeons & Dragons did class changing too, and plenty of games thereafter did the same thing. Just look at Final Fantasy. We must have class changes in Fire Emblem because they too are part of the required litany of a fantasy battle game.

And that’s absolutely true. A class system without an opportunity for promotion or change feels—at least to the mind of the experienced RPG player—like something’s missing. Fire Emblem adopts promotions in part out of necessity. But I’d like to think there are other more practical functions that promotions serve in SD&BoL, too, functions that don’t look so much like Mr. Kaga’s just going through the motions. I think promotions serve a gameplay-oriented end and, oddly, a narrative-oriented end as well.

Gameplay first. You can’t deny that a promotion gives you a little kick of reward. There’s a cool little transition scene, and then your unit comes out shiny and new and, upon closer inspection of their stats page, pumped up across the board. But if you could do this to just anyone in the army, it wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying. You’d just rush everyone through the stat-pump mill and get back to battling. Fire Emblem promotion, I’d argue, is so enjoyable because it is the culmination of ten to twenty levels’ worth of training a unit, one who likely started off as ordinary and grew by the exertion of your own effort. It’s a mini-tableau effect, seeing someone you trained grow in one easily recognizable moment into something really formidable as a testament to your work.

And the reward isn’t just payable in endorphins: as a general rule across Fire Emblems (and doubly so in SD&BoL), pre-promoted units who join the army in their advanced class tend to have worse stats than formerly unpromoted units of the same class who you trained up through the ranks. So from a gameplay perspective, not only does it feel good to see your protegés really make something of themselves, but you’re also getting better bang for your buck out of individual units in the army. And that, in turn, touches on permadeath, too—it’s all a reward for keeping the original unpromoted characters alive throughout their training, which means that it’s payback for the player’s demonstration of skill at the strategic component of the game.

See? Plenty of good gameplay reasons for promotion. But let’s go one step further and say that promotions also serve a subtle narrative goal.

The important concept here is that promotions divide the progress of the game cleanly in two. There’s before your original units promote, and then there’s after. All other factors being equal, your soldiers will all tend to promote within a few chapters of each other, which really divides the entire flow of the game into a sort of pre-promotion era and post-promotion era. (All other factors are not equal in SD&BoL, of course, particularly given the piecemeal distribution of promotion items that leaves magic users a day late and a dollar short, but I’m drawing this conclusion at the more theoretical level.)

Most interestingly to my mind, the moment of transition between the two occurs, in SD&BoL and elsewhere, right around the time of the third-act climax of the five-act RPG. That can’t be an accident. That kind of timing reinforces the transformative nature of the climax even in the mechanics of the game: there’s no surer way to make the player feel like tensions have shifted than carrying that shift into the mechanics through which the player approaches the story. The kid gloves seem to come off just as the narrative starts the path to resolution. It all lends a real momentum to the endgame.

So yes, promotions are in part obligatory thanks to Fantasy Gaming 101, but they’re also a clever tool that Fire Emblem consistently uses to set up deep player rewards, both mechanical and plotological.

NPC Irony

I get it, orbs can't talk!
“And the first orb turns to the others and says, ‘Holy balls!'”

Chapter 19 is precisely the moment at which NPC irony becomes essential to finishing the game. So I suppose it’s time I let you in on what it is.

If you want the real explanation from a source far better studied than me, I get the term from a set of articles on Final Fantasy VI (of course) that I’d say are pretty much essential reading for game designers: here’s the specific article that coins the phrase. I’ve linked to others in this series before.

Briefly—irony is when someone says something but means something different; in literature, “dramatic” irony is achieved when a character says or does something whose full significance they don’t know but that the audience understands. So with “NPC” irony, where a non-player character (“NPC,” for you non-RPG-buffs) has a line of dialogue that’s meant mostly to impart some kind of direction beyond the fourth wall. In-universe it might just be some villager’s offhand remark, but as a player, you recognize it as a clue to something you should do in the game. The example pictured above is textbook NPC irony: an elderly villager in Chiasmir in Chapter 18 tells Marth that three magic spheres are kept in the Fane of Raman. The guy’s just making an idle comment, but the astute gamer’s instant reaction is “well, this means I should expect to collect three spheres when I go to the Fane of Raman,” and probably also “hey, I bet the Lightsphere and Starsphere that Gotoh told me about are two of them.”

NPC irony is an interesting tool because it’s a necessary one. RPG towns without NPC irony would be teeming with people whose dialogue might make the game narratively rich, but it wouldn’t ever feel like you were getting anything from talking to people. In a sense, the presence of NPC irony is the carrot that entices the player to explore the world by talking to people who aren’t necessarily on the rails of the main plot—because there’s a chance you pick up a little nugget of insider knowledge as a reward. (You also get a deeper narrative while you’re looking for that little nugget. Come for the irony, stay for the world building.) This is something that doesn’t exist outside of games, because in other storytelling media it neither can nor would need to.

NPC irony in Fire Emblem serves the same rewarding purpose … sort of. The difference is that the reward in SD&BoL isn’t optional. Beginning around now, NPC irony becomes virtually essential to beating the game. If you’ll pardon me fast-forwarding a bit, this is why:

  • To beat the last commander of the last chapter of SD&BoL and finish the game, you’ll either need (1) Falchion or (2) a character you’ve souped up beyond belief with lucky levels and stat boosters bearing a legendary weapon. It’s really tough to put together option 2 without knowing what you’re doing—and knowing what you’re doing is always challenging in SD&BoL—so for most players the only feasible option is to secure Falchion.
  • To get Falchion, you’ll need to assemble the Starlight spellbook.
  • To assemble Starlight, you need to pick up the Lightsphere and Starsphere and bring them to a certain place.

Which means that, for the average player to even have a chance to win, they’d need to locate the Lightsphere and Starsphere. Just as the old man in Chiasmir doesn’t quite tell you, both spheres are in the Fane of Raman in Chapter 19.

This is a pretty straightforward sequence of events, and it’s not hard to understand what to do when. The catch is, the only direction you’re given on any of these steps comes through NPC irony. It’s Gotoh contacting Marth in Khadein saying he knows just how to approach Gharnef and asking for the two spheres. It’s the old guy in Chiasmir. It’s directions we’ll receive in later chapters. But it’s most certainly not an organic solution presented by the play of the game itself. NPC irony must be attended to, or you will lose SD&BoL.

And that accomplishes a goal that I’m sure IS wanted from the outset: the player has to read the game to play the game. No mashing buttons through the dialogue scenes, or you’ll end up overwhelmed at the end without a clue as to what to do. Remember how SD&BoL has all those trappings of literature? That’s because it wants you to read its story. Its clever use of NPC irony reinforces just the same habit.

Whether the end effect is fair to the person who misses one component of that chain and ends up stuck on a save file in front of the Shadow Dragon with a dinky rapier and a strength stat in the single digits, now, that’s a different question. But we’ll get to that later.

The Tragedy of the Manaketes

Thankfully, she has thousands of years to learn syntax.
Somebody set up us the bomb!

A while back I told you that manaketes are one of the recurring elements that I think reflect the thematic spirit of a given Fire Emblem. We meet another (crucial) one in Chapter 19, and I think she’s enough for me to draw some conclusions about the theme SD&BoL is aiming at. Because I’ve said what I think that theme is, and the manaketes fit it like a glove.

First, Tiki. She is, evidently, all that remains of the divine dragon tribe, one of only three tribes of manaketes ever recorded in history. (Anecdotal experience suggests the mage dragons of the Basilisk tribe are also few and far between.) Tiki’s just a child, which suggests that she had divine dragon parents who were slain just recently, when she was very young. The rumors about her out in the human world are, as they’ve been about other manaketes, grossly inaccurate: Malledus reports before Marth enters the Fane of Raman that its guardian is “a powerful goddess … who burns all who enter.” And the first we see of Tiki is—oh, we know that guy, don’t we.

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

Yes, the first we see of Tiki is her being conned by a man we already know to be a conniving manipulator of people. The fact that Gharnef’s latest victim is a small child speaks volumes about his standards. Neither you nor morality can win against Gharnef. Here’s what he says to her:

[Tiki] … Princess of the [Naga] clan. Burn the trespassers of this temple with your power. Remember, I saved you from [Medeus] when you were separated from [Bantu]. Don’t forget!

From her reaction later, it seems that he hypnotizes her as he says this; talking with her later appears to wake her from a trance.

(As a side note, Gharnef’s words here wonderfully reveal just the power he wields. We’ve heard time and again that Gharnef is an ally of Medeus, but see right here how easily Gharnef throws Medeus under the bus to win another powerful ally. “Oh,” he says, “what a big scary villain he is! I’m the one that saved you from him!” Gharnef is pulling the strings of the whole world, and he knows it. Not even Medeus can win against Gharnef.)

So we recognize very shortly after we meet her that Tiki is in a thoroughly pitiable position. And there’s a certain other manakete we know, too, who’s also not doing too hot. To recruit Tiki—as Gharnef’s little bit of dialogue may remind you—we need to bring Bantu back to the battlefield. And as awesome as he seemed when we first met him, chances are he’s dispelled some of that sentiment over the dozen chapters that have passed since. His levels are awful. On the battlefield, he’s not particularly quick to move, and his attack has a range of only 1. He doesn’t promote (although he at least has good company in this). Even if you’ve tried to use him during the campaign so far, chances are you’ve had difficulty and given him back up to the bench.

All this paints a rather more solemn picture of the manaketes by the fourth act of the game. Every manakete we’ve met to this point is either dead at our hands or alive, reviled, and suffering from serious health issues. And we know that most of these disadvantages are unfair, and we know on top of all the rest that their race is gradually vanishing from the world. Taken together, it’s clear the manaketes have been served one heck of a raw deal. They’re on the way out, and the world is conspiring to see them go.

This is the first tragic stroke in the darker back leg of SD&BoL. As with the main Fire Emblem theme, the legendary glory of the manaketes does not come without an equal and opposite reaction of pain and sorrow. In fact, the manaketes may be the first really sympathetic victims of the war you see with your own eyes. They’re dying in agony, and there’s nothing much you or Marth can do to stop it. That right there is the game welcoming you to the other side of war. For Marth, even saving the world won’t save all of the world: the manaketes get it bad, whatever he does. Nor does it help that you remember in the back of your mind, watching all this, that the final enemy you’re marching against is himself a dragon, too. You’re going to have to murder another one before it’s over. The once proud race just keeps on losing.

Manaketes will continue to have this aura of decline and tragedy about them into many future entries in the series, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t figured it out themselves. Which is why there’s one more moment in this chapter that—I know, yet again—makes my eyes get a little misty. You can slay Tiki in cold blood, advancing yet more suffering for the manaketes and terminating the Naga tribe … or Bantu can rescue her. Here’s how that goes down:

BANTU: [Tiki]! Here you are! You’ve been hypnotized by [Gharnef] … Wake up …

TIKI: Uh … ! Ah … ! Grandpa … What … [happened]?

BANTU: You awakened! Are you fine?

TIKI: What happened? It was so scary, like a bad dream.

BANTU: I’m sorry for making you suffer … But don’t worry, from now on we’ll be together.

TIKI: Promised? I don’t want to be alone ever again.

Tiki may not know precisely what’s going on, but she is on the receiving end of the entire reason manaketes still have to live: fellowship and codependence. Where forces conspire to reduce the manaketes to nothing, they need to lean on each other, just as Bantu vows to Tiki. However dire things may look, the words “from now on we’ll be together” can carry a powerful consolation. Or they do to me. Somehow the screen gets a little blurry for me every time Tiki tells Bantu that she doesn’t ever want to be alone again. Somehow it gets blurrier every time Bantu assures her he won’t let her. Dunno why that could be.

Miscellany

"No, sire, it's not a magical artifact, it's ... it's like a map, that's round, see, and ..."
Also called a “globe.”
  • It’s Chapter 18. Enter the quintessential Fire Emblem project. By “project” here, I mean a character who identifiably will need a lot of extra help and special focus, but who has such potential in their numbers that that extra effort will pay off in spades. The name of Est of the Macedonian Whitewings, who appears here to deliver Mercurius to Marth, is interchangeable with “project” in modern Emblemier circles, because she’s every bit the long-term commitment: joining late, unpromoted, at a low level, and with modest stats, she seems hardly worth your time—until you peek at her stellar growth rates across the board, and realize there’s more to her than meets the eye. Whether to train a project or distribute experience among more established members of the army will be a perennially interesting question of strategy in Fire Emblem; Est is the first time the series really makes you answer it.
  • Speaking of Mercurius, it appears to be usable only by Marth in this version of the War of Shadows (and confers a number of interesting leveling-related bonuses). I can understand the rapiers and Falchion, but this one—plus the fact that you can buy virtually endless rapiers at just about any store—really makes it feel to me like Marth gets an overabundance of special stuff in SD&BoL.
  • The name of the Sable Order lieutenant who defends Chiasmir, who I know as Sternlin, in this translation is “Stallone.” The theme song for this post should’ve been this instead.
  • In the Fane of Raman, the Starsphere is in a chest, but the Lightsphere is in the hands of a heavily-armed thief. The chest next to the Starsphere is open and empty to show that the thief looted it. I love that little touch.
  • The third magic sphere in the Fane of Raman, the Geosphere, is rather the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. It is not a near-necessary plot point like its two sister spheres (well, not this time around, anyway), and using it can get a bit dangerous. The inclusion of something so unique and impractical always felt a little strange to me.
  • You can’t win against Gharnef.

Grust is nearly ours! The march southward continues in the next post.

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