The Master of War

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 23.

This is the one where we win against Gharnef.

As the plot veers into myths and legends, check out this song that plays in the vicinity of myths and legends. Gotoh’s theme is unusual in that it sounds like little else in the game. Where much of the soundtrack ends up in marches and lively 4:4 militaristic jaunts, this piece switches over to 3:4 and takes a much slower tempo. The flute-like square wave channel takes a high meandering melody while the other square wave hits long notes below it. They hit cadences and just let them sit for a beat, sinking in. The result of it all is a song that really makes moments with Gotoh stand far apart from the rest of the action. It gives him a particular magical feel—and a particular inhuman feel, too, when you realize that the game is about how war relates to humanity, and how the warlike songs don’t reach Gotoh. Food for thought. But that’s for another game, isn’t it.

Skilled Labor; Unskilled Labor

And this is where he stays. It's mediocrity all the way down.
Alteans may be able to wield magic written in books, but they can’t for the life of them figure out how to convert weapon skill points to resistance points.

Before we jump into the really interesting topics of this post, let’s pause briefly to run some more numbers. This time, the one of interest is the “Wpn lvl” stat, which later Fire Emblems have treated in a totally different way.

The way weapon skill works in SD&BoL is the straightforward way you’d immediately imagine it would, if you were adding it onto the basic Fire Emblem stat system. It’s just another stat. Characters have a base value and a growth rate in it, and level it randomly based on the growth rate at point of level up. Its function is to determine what you can equip: every weapon has a (naturally hidden, because this is SD&BoL) skill level that its bearer has to have in order to wield it. If you have Wpn Lvl equal to or greater than that, you’re good; if not, you can haul it around, but you can’t swing it. Simple enough.

The first weirdness about this stat is that there comes a time—relatively early, as it happens—where it ceases to be of any relevance whatsoever. If you look at the requisite weapon skill levels necessary to wield all the weapons in the game, which can be done via the usual method of cheating, you’ll notice that (1) there’s a lot of change in what you can equip between skill levels 1 and 5, (2) you’ll pick up maybe one or two more proficiencies in high-end stuff between 6 and 9, and then (3) after you hit 9, points of weapon skill are completely useless. Well, OK, the Archanean Regalia Parthia and Gradivus have requirements in the teens, but if you, like the majority of characters in the army, are not angling to be the bearer of a legendary weapon, every point of weapon skill beyond 9 might as well not be there. No other stat works like this. That’s maybe the first indication that there’s probably a better way around the weapon skill question than what we’ve got here.

And if you are aiming at one of the Regalia, or if you’re exceptionally unlucky and just trying to hit that 9, this system works against you in another way: it’s up to random chance. If the RNG doesn’t treat a character well, they won’t ever be able to break into the silver weapons, or wield that legendary weapon you want them to. Just like how experience is calculated based on damage, this works against the little guy: the surest way to bump up the damage you’re able to do, and thus the amount you can help the team, is to equip better and better weapons. In SD&BoL, that requires leveling in Wpn Lvl as well as strength. Fall behind on either one and you begin to slide into irrelevance, hastened along by the fact that it gets harder and harder to gain experience when you’re behind that pace.

All of this suggests that future Fire Emblems could stand to change the way weapon skill is developed. And to their credit, they do, and the answer becomes to separate it completely from all the other dimensions of leveling a character. It adds in a new strategic consideration in the process. Stay tuned!

Can You Win Against Gharnef?

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

Chapter 23 is the resolution of the arc of Gharnef’s character, who I’ve argued before is the real ultimate villain of the game. In a sense, the true grand finale happens atop the tower of Thabes when Starlight topples the Dark Pontifex. So it’s worth a closer look to see exactly how he takes his exit.

The answer is: brilliantly. If you had any doubt about the role he’s playing in this war, he dispels it with his taunt that opens the chapter:

Marth, you’ve finally arrived. I’m [Gharnef], I’ve waited for you. In order for me to own the world, I have to kill you. I’m not under [Medeus]’s control. With the Falchion and [Imhullu], I can control [Medeus]! Go Marth! Defeat me if you want the Falchion!

He’s the chessmaster. If the War of Shadows is a symphony of chaos, glory, and horror, Gharnef is sitting in front of it all as the conductor. His goal, as he states so clearly here, is ownership—the very thing that drives so many of the world powers to war in the first place. He knows that he can subjugate the current strongest world power, Medeus of Dolhr: Imhullu makes him invincible, and Falchion the dragon-slaying sword can threaten Medeus into doing his bidding. Marth and the Dolhran Alliance have slain the other leaders that could stop him. All that’s left for Gharnef is to take out the last real threat between him and the enslavement of a dragon king who rules the world. That last threat is Marth. Good luck.

And what’s really sickening is, by showing up at Thabes to fight him, you know you’re doing exactly what Gharnef expects. He’s controlled even this. He’s always known Marth would come chasing after Falchion, seeking vengeance for Cornelius. He’s dangled Falchion in front of Marth ever since the encounter in Khadein in hopes of provoking him to throw himself against Imhullu. He does it again at the top of this chapter (“Go Marth!”). And since Gharnef is invincible with Imhullu, he knows exactly how that fight will turn out when it arrives. His victory is guaranteed, and the world is his. You can’t win against Gharnef.

Except you do. You win against Gharnef. And you do it by delivering the one surprise Gharnef ever encounters in the entirety of the war. Why he doesn’t see Starlight coming is a matter of speculation, but I like to think—given Mr. Kaga’s penchant for the Shakespearean—that it’s because his hubris leads him to ignore his only weakness. Gharnef has arranged the whole world just so: this warring power against that, this legendary weapon in these hands, and so on. The most important part of the arrangement is him taking Imhullu and sealing away the only method by which it might be defeated in the Starsphere and Lightsphere. Only Gotoh would know what to do from there. No way, thinks Gharnef, will his masterful arrangement ever be outdone! He’s too good, too smart for these ordinary simpletons! And yet his prideful assumption is shattered when Gotoh does help Marth, and Marth does reconstitute Starlight, and Marth’s army brings just the weapon Gharnef fears most to bear on him after all.

Creepy!
Point …
Not so much!
… counterpoint.

I said last time that the main antagonist in a given Fire Emblem is typically its most revealing hint at the central theme of the game. So with Gharnef. I think he begins with SD&BoL‘s major meditation on war and takes it precisely the step further into discomfort that the game wants to take: not only is war glorious and terrible, but, as Gharnef knows all too well, it’s inevitable in human nature. Gharnef is there to remind us that all it takes is one person who knows what people will do. The right word and the right placement of an action are often all it takes for a whole world to descend into bloodshed. It just takes one mind to want that to happen, and the rest follows too easily from there.

If you’re unsettled by this kind of revelation, I’ll warn you now: Fire Emblem is not the series for you. Beneath its veneer of war stories for young folks, each of its entries is going to expose a truth about humanity that, if not always disturbing, is at least never comfortable. It wants to engage with our darker sides, presumably so that we’re more able to stay conscious of them when we, invariably, begin to experience them ourselves. How else could it be that war is both glorious and nightmarish, if there isn’t a part of us that secretly glories in the nightmare?

And finally. Gharnef, with Camus, is one of the very few villains to get a line when he’s beaten in battle. Here are his dying words:

Ugh … Starlight … I can’t believe I lost … But remember … Even if I die, your power’s no match for [Medeus]. I’ll wait patiently in hell.

Hear that? It’s not “see you in hell.” That would be too commonplace. It’s “I’ll wait patiently.” Because even in death, he knows it’s just a matter of time before more of his evil plans fall into place. That’s how humanity works, after all—if you pull the strings right, you know violence is sure to follow. Even Gharnef’s death won’t stop his eventual victory. You can kill Gharnef, maybe. But you can’t win against him.

The Redemption of Altea

"Sir, with due respect, it's NOT a falchion."
“Guys, this is important, right?”

First (pedantic) things first: the Altean heirloom Falchion is, judging from all the artwork ever drawn of it, not actually a falchion. A falchion is a sword with a short, curved, heavy blade sharpened to a single edge. Falchion—as distinct from a falchion—appears in most game art as a double-edged longsword that looks pretty light. One suspects, as with many a name in many a Fire Emblem, that the designers here chose a name that carries deep significance purely because it sounded cool. Such choices continue to irritate me. In other news, the sky is still blue.

OK. That out of the way, the end of Chapter 23 begins to bring the loose ends of the plot together. Most important of these ends is Marth’s recovery of Falchion, which pretty much cements his arrival into hero-hood. The defeat of Gharnef lends a wonderful roundness to the plot gesture begun in Chapter 15, when Gharnef himself was untouchable walking death and Falchion was stored hundreds of miles away. Now Marth has at long last regained the symbol of his father’s kingdom, and the gameplay echoes his sense of growth into the shoes his dad wore.

The restoration of Falchion is also the final step alluded to in the long line of NPC irony that began with the capture of Khadein. By this point you’ve spoken telepathically with Gotoh, marched on Grust, ransacked the Fane of Raman for the holy spheres, pooled them in Marth’s hands, delivered them to a village in Macedon under heavy pressure from the Macedonian army, forged a storied magic book, and brought that magic to bear against the most powerful opponent you’ve yet seen. Your sense of accomplishment when you finally receive what you’ve been looking for all along is really something special. In the next chapter, once Marth can wield the thing, you find that the payoff for all that work is also pretty sweet.

And let’s not forget what else is restored to Marth in the conquest of Thabes: his sister. Morzas may have led us to expect never to see her again when we took the Altean throne, but she returns to us in one piece now, full of the desire to see the war end and armed with a pretty darn cool staff. It seems that at least a small part of the tragedy that surrounded the recapture of Altea has been lifted after all.

The important takeaway from all of this is that it all builds into Marth’s character. When Marth retook Altea, he wasn’t quite ready to come together as a complete man and ruler, hopes and nations riding on his shoulders. Pieces still were missing; things still felt off. Rather, he had to grow a bit more to truly grasp what war means—he had to survive the sad end of Grust, the raid on Macedon, and the chilling but universal truth of Gharnef to really recognize how he fits into this world as an adult. Flush with a more complete sense of the duty that comes with being fully human, he’s now at last ready to drive the narrative home to its end. It’s only now that he understands what world he’s saving that he can really save it responsibly.

Which means that the end’s coming.

Miscellany

"Sire, we get it."
On that day, Gharnef’s rule was … overthrone. GET IT GET IT
  • Starlight, for all its relevance to the major points of the story, is not particularly impressive to watch in action. There’s a bit of small twinkling, and it’s over. Imhullu is far more impressive and creepy.
  • Even by modern Fire Emblem standards, this is a pretty cool idea for a chapter, with one major villain and a bunch of fake-out illusions of him standing around the map. Unfortunately, at least in this telling of the War of Shadows, the entire interest of that idea is blown apart by the fact that you can tell at a glance exactly which of the Gharnefs is the real deal: only one has Imhullu, and he moves identifiably differently from all the others. (If you’re of a mind to consider wasted map potential, though, SD&BoL‘s trump card is still waiting to spread its wings.)
  • There’s another part of this map that, reminiscent of the road to Castle Grust, is dead boring: the lowest floor of the tower is wide open and empty. There’s no enemy on the way to the two treasure chests, and no enemy has any real chance of getting there either. What a waste of space.
  • The name of Thabes (in this translation, “Tebe”) falls into an eye-roller category: not the name of a real place from history or mythology, maybe, but painfully obviously ripped off from one. This sort of name breaks my willing suspension of disbelief harder even than stuff like “Orleans” does. If you’re going to invent a name, invent a name. This sort of half-commitment to naming fantasy locations is like a big red flag reminding you you’re sitting in front of a screen.
  • Most interesting to me about beating Gharnef is, it’s not Marth who does it. Marth can’t wield Starlight, after all. You have to pick an ally to take the last step of Marth’s vengeance against his enemies, even though it’s a gesture that’s really about settling Marth’s own personal score. I think that subtly points to another crucial lesson of SD&BoL: that thickly plotted war and chaos, so inherent in human nature, can only be overcome when different people join up to work together. You look out for my objectives, I’ll look out for yours, and the world as a whole becomes a better place to be. (Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve never once let anyone but Linde defeat Gharnef. Changes to that are on the way in later Wars of Shadows on this blog, mark my words.)

That’s it for far-reaching gestures and side trips. The endgame starts now. Next time, we knock on the doors of Dolhr Keep, and Medeus isn’t far behind them.

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