Terror on the Wing

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Chs. 21–22.

Marth’s attack on Macedon makes me confront my biggest personal roadblock in the War of Shadows, my greatest opportunity to improve characters, and someone who will be an interesting character sometime down the road. Stay tuned for the point I make about enemies, though; it’s a keeper.

Interestingly, the enemy turn theme is neither particularly ominous nor limited to playing while the enemy takes a turn. It’s also the battle prep song. What I love about it—and you’ve heard this from me before—is how it unmistakably carries on the martial sound of the player turn theme. In this it’s a perfect study in counterpoint. Where the song under your turns is a spirited march, the song that starts up as soon as you hit the end-turn button has the same galloping rhythm that that one section of the player turn song does. The difference is that the entire enemy turn song takes place at this gallop, which really gives the turn momentum. And that’s got to be intentional, because the enemy turn involves zero player input, sometimes for long stretches (including its beginning, in which there’s always a big pause while the AI figures out what it’s doing). With that much downtime, you need something to drive the action forward. This song does it perfectly. The effect also pays off on the back end, too—as soon as the gallop breaks up and the rat-tat of the player turn song sounds again, the pace of the music slows down, making it feel like you’ve just come out of a harrowing opposing turn and can now take a breather before you strike back. The two songs get away with this effect because they feel like iterations of the same piece, both in similar major keys and at similar tempos. They work together as a unit.

The entire pacing of the game, I think, is established by the balancing of these two songs. Ms. Tsujiyoko was quite the clever composer.

That One Chapter

"Sire, next time, maybe we shouldn't charge their fortress straight over open plains from the beach."
Not pictured: fifty thousand billion paladins and wyvern riders just off camera to the north.

So. That one chapter. You know, that one. The one that takes twice as long as the rest because someone keeps dying in that one place and you figure out how to fix it and then two other people die somewhere else and where did that come from and then you retry it another dozen times and you get this horrible feeling of two-steps-forward-three-steps-back with each new attempt. That chapter.

I expect which chapter in a given game is that chapter depends entirely on the player and the RNG, but I’ll bet you most people have one in most games. For me, That One Chapter in the War of Shadows is, with deadening reliability, Chapter 21’s landing on the Macedonian coast. (It isn’t That One Chapter in the third Fire Emblem, for a pretty simple reason, but we’ll get there when we get there.) I dreaded it going into this playthrough. It just never ceases to feel like you’re up against seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array when all you’ve got to fight them are six pairs of Don Alverzo’s tweezers.

Rather than share exactly how many tries this one took me this time, though, I’d do better to ask a question that’s a bit more meta. What role do tough chapters play in a serialized, linear game like Fire Emblem? Why make some moments notably rougher than the ones around them?

The answer, as with so many fundamental building blocks of Fire Emblem, is related to both narrative and gameplay.

Let’s tackle the narrative function first. Big, tough chapters put a kind of spacing in a story that’s similar to big set pieces in, say, novels or plays. Holding an audience’s attention requires a steady swing from high-tension moments to lower-tension moments—in a game, the challenging parts are natural highs in player tension. Bonus points if the moments of high challenge arrive, as they typically do, at moments of narrative climax: nothing draws a player’s attention to a story action that’s going on quite as well as a sudden ramp that sets that action apart from the beats around it. Gameplay tension is an excellent mirror of story tension, if a designer combines them.

This in mind, it’s interesting to me that my vote for hardest chapter in SD&BoL is for a chapter between major objectives where the enemy commander is a no-line nobody (Orridyon is much cooler when he has dialogue, I promise). I could just chalk this up to personal idiosyncrasy, but on reflection I think the timing isn’t necessarily all that weird. The difficulty punch is thrown right at the top of the fifth act, when Marth arrives on the island where he’ll stage the final showdown of the War of Shadows. The end is in sight. Makes sense that the game offers Chapter 21 up to remind you of the stakes.

Understanding the gameplay function of the difficulty spike chapter requires a little more digging into how we play games. The main activity in playing games is learning a skill, whether that skill is logistical, tactical, or strategic in nature. Simply put, the more you play games, the better able you become to approach new tasks with a proper learning framework—which suggests that learning stuff is the main thrust of what you spend your gaming time doing.

So if the main activity in games is learning, the best way to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something over the long run of a game is to test what you’ve learned. Enter the hard chapter. A spike in difficulty is the perfect opportunity to show you how far you, the player, have come. Pass it and you realize intuitively that a challenge that hours ago would have seemed impossible is now perfectly doable with the newfound resources you’ve developed. It’s not all because of levels for characters inside the box, either; the biggest reward comes from proving that you’ve figured things out and grown yourself. Used appropriately, spikes in difficulty can have big payoffs in terms of player reward. There’s a lot of fun to be had in that feeling that you’ve progressed.

So, in sum: big, challenging chapters make important plot points stand out and make you feel like you’re growing as a tactician. I’d say that’s more than worth a Chapter 21 every now and then.

Self-Improvement

RING. Speed RING. Not ... oh jeez.
Minerva’s addiction problem afterward was one of the true tragedies of the war.

By the time the Archanean League takes Macedon, it’s built up (and possibly used) a substantial supply of powerful little items that tool around with units’ stats. In SD&BoL, these all take the form of rings; later Fire Emblems will turn them into various other magical artifacts. These stat boosters all permanently raise a particular stat of the unit that uses them by a certain amount: at one end, the defensive ring grants a not-too-shabby 3 points of defense, while at the other, the Talisman shoots the user’s resistance up an eye-popping 7 points.

The astute gamer will instantly recognize that stat boosters are that special kind of resource that is (1) relatively scarce and (2) powerful in effect, two qualities that, taken together, mean that their use becomes another interesting decision put to the player. It’s a question entirely of strategy: what’s the best way to invest these stat boosters for the maximum payoff to the team?

The way I think about stat boosters, the answer to that is: there is no good way to use them.

Oh, pooh, you say, give me a real answer! Here’s what I mean.

I think the function of stat boosters is primarily to re-balance essential characters who don’t level well. As I’ve mentioned before, Fire Emblem isn’t forgiving of mistakes, but it is understanding of them, so it tends to provide a bit of a buffer to acknowledge that sometimes the RNG just doesn’t break your way. Stat boosters are part of that buffer. When a character in the early game isn’t leveling well, the solution to the problem is simple: put them on the bench and sub in a character who can fill the same function more capably. (Or put them in the grave instead, as sometimes you’re forced to do.) But when a character you’ve used for a while starts to underperform later in the game, you’re in a bit of a stickier wicket. You can’t just bench them, because nobody is trained well enough to take their place—but if they’re leveling consistently poorly, they’ll eventually be no use on the battlefield either. What’s to be done?

Stat boosters are what’s to be done. The solution to late-game leveling woes is to punch up the stats that your team members are struggling with to keep them afloat. The proper use of a stat booster, in my mind, is to pick out a character you intend to field in most battles going forward and correct their biggest weakness with surgical precision.

So this answers the who, but it doesn’t answer the real strategic question the player has to make: the when. This is where you figure out there’s no good solution to the problem.

Two opposing forces are competing as to when you ought to use a stat booster. On one hand, you want to use them ASAP to reap their maximum benefit. Every chapter—every turn, for that matter—that an A-list unit has to struggle with some junky stat is a turn where your tactics might be compromised and your experience point gain to the army as a whole won’t be optimal. The sooner you correct the problem, the better. But on the other hand, stat boosters are so rare that you don’t want to use one until you’re absolutely sure that a unit needs it, lest the ultimate stat booster nightmare occur and (1) the unit you used it on corrects the problem themselves in their next few levels while (2) some other important unit falls behind on the same stat. So you simultaneously want to use stat boosters right away and hold off on using them until the last possible moment.

Those two competing objectives in mind, the stat booster question becomes delightfully unanswerable. It’s a strategic decision that’s agonizing because, in the end, you can’t ever be sure you’re making the right choice. And agonizing decisions are interesting, so it looks like the presence of stat boosters just adds another element to the package of what makes Fire Emblem so fun.

Keeping Your Enemies Closer

The main Dragon Knight power, if this game is any indication, is looking important to the plot while not actually being important to the dialogue.
The Macedonian Dragoons: We’re not just dragons and luscious red manes of hair!

Before we begin winding down the last act of SD&BoL, there’s one more essential secret to the Fire Emblem formula that I need to discuss. To me, this idea is nearly as important as the one about the message of Fire Emblem, so listen up:

The most important narrative tool in any Fire Emblem is the characterization of enemy commanders in the story.

I think the development of enemy commanders is essential because of the theme underlying SD&BoL and every Fire Emblem thereafter—that war is glorious and horrible, both at once, and never one without the other. Being able to see the leader of the opposing force as a person, rather than as an obstacle to be overcome, goes a long way towards setting up the double dimensionality of war. When you see the enemy commander as more than just a cardboard evil cutout, you begin to understand that even your own actions have consequences both great and wicked, even as you know you’re the good guys.

(Paradoxically, it also helps you maintain the sense that you’re the good guys. It feels really weird, in the early chapters of SD&BoL and elsewhere, to slaughter people whose faces you can see without them having some chance to react to it. If they can at least speak enough to give you a reason to fight them, you avoid the feeling that you’re on a murderous genocidal rampage against, say, the Macedonian occupation force.)

Now, not every enemy commander needs to be fully, completely, one-hundred-percent characterized. Plenty a pirate captain or brigand king in the entries ahead won’t have much more to offer than some curses and snarls before you fight them. And that’s OK! The key isn’t that every single person on the battlefield look three-dimensionally human—while more realistic, that would tip the scales way more in favor of tragedy than the murky balance of glory and sorrow Fire Emblem wants to show you. Rather, the key is that certain specific figures pop up from time to time in the game that make you wonder, think, regret, and maybe hesitate before you give that “attack” command. They can be villains whose roles and motivations are explored over dozens of chapters, or they can be single-chapter sub-lieutenants with only a couple lines of dialogue. It doesn’t particularly matter. It only takes a few choice lines of characterization to really make something you’re doing stick in your mind, to sow the just-ever-so-slightest seed of doubt about your cause.

It should be no surprise that SD&BoL, as a game focused entirely on that global Fire Emblem message, features a couple of these figures despite its overall paucity of storytelling. Enemy commander characterization is so important that even SD&BoL with its scarce room in software memory has to do it a bit. The first of these characterized enemies we saw in the last entry, in the form of the well-loved Camus. The next is … well, future tellings of the War of Shadows will make Michalis of Macedon into the next of these. In this telling he’s just a red-haired dude who calls his sister stupid. Neither of his sisters has anything to say back to him, and he dies without another word. Lost opportunity there (presumably due to the limitations of the hardware). If you ask me, I think one of the reasons Camus was such a big hit in SD&BoL was because he was the only enemy commander to fill this important narrative function—that naturally places a lot of attention on him, much of it sympathetic.

Also, before we leave this topic, one little teaser, by way of a corollary to my enemy commander principle. If enemy commander characterization is essential to the narrative of a Fire Emblem, I think the characterization of the main villain is the most revealing tool of all for sussing out what narrative message a Fire Emblem is trying to get across. As it so happens, there are two figures who you can credibly say are the lead antagonists in SD&BoL, and we’re about to encounter them both in the last few chapters. So there’s more to be written on this very soon.

Miscellany

You can't win against Gharnef.
Someone should tell him you can’t win against Gharnef.
  • The difficulty of Chapter 21 nearly makes me forget that it’s a wide-open, totally boring map. Although, interestingly, it would not be as difficult as it is without all that open space. Much of the challenge is figuring out how to field large groups of fast-moving units that all can converge on you at once. Chapter 22, meanwhile, is a remarkable contrast, because it’s hemmed in and richly varied in terrain.
  • Keeping tabs on the legendary magic subplot, Chapter 22 is the most demanding chapter in terms of what needs to be done: Marth (nobody else) must show up at the northeast village (across a wide swath of map) holding the Lightsphere and Starsphere (both of which you need to find at the Fane of Raman, and which together take up half of Marth’s entire inventory) to receive Starlight (which he then needs to pass to a mage who can wield it). The main demand in the chapter is reaching Gotoh’s village: there’s a thief headed off to sack it from the very first turn, and he’s protected by a heavily armed wave of land and air cavalry. Alone, Marth can’t reach Gotoh before the thief does. Either you’ll need to work extremely quickly to punch through the enemy ranks and reach the village to defend it until Marth arrives, or you’ll have to engage in a li’l fun with a Warp staff. There are several Warp staves in the game, of course, but the use may not be immediately obvious here. A tough but interesting side objective. (Also a necessary side objective. But we’ll get to that later.)

And now to bring the plot to a head. Next time, we do the unthinkable: try to win against Gharnef.

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