Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 24.
The penultimate chapter of SD&BoL takes us to the gates of Dolhr Keep, giving me time to reflect on the course of war, the purpose of death, and the limits of human endeavor.
… I swear this is mostly about game mechanics.
The song of the day is the chapter-clear march, because when you clear a chapter you get a window that says “Next Story” and I’m, er, turning to, uh, the next story in the series soon, so, uh, it’s appropriate, I guess. At first listen, this might sound like just another military march, in keeping with the lion’s share of the SD&BoL chiptune library. But in-game it stands out quite a bit in character—because it plays once you’ve finished a chapter, which is always a big accomplishment, but I think also because it has a spirit all its own. Where so much of the soundtrack is about driving forward in the moment you’re in right now, this song cuts back on the tempo and gives you a direct, cheery melody. Its focus isn’t so much on the here and now as on the moment that’s just ahead. The modulation into a minor key that happens around 0:53 is indicative that there’s more to come down the road: one battle’s behind you, another’s still on its way. As usual, Ms. Tsujiyoko provides crucial momentum to the gameplay using something not at all connected to it.
I realize it’s a chapter early to be reviewing the plot of the act, but there’ll be enough to talk about next time to wrap things up, so here’s a map for you.
Marth’s campaign has the dubious honor of leaving no enemy undefeated. If you look at the map above, every nation that isn’t shaded blue is either an enemy nation that Marth conquers in the last act or it’s allied Talys (or it’s Khadein, which who-even-knows-if-it’s-a-state, but if it is the Archaneans kill its leader in the last act for good measure). Looking at the map shows you already that there’s no refuge from the fires of war.
In the final act, Marth ships out from Grust to land on Macedon and march to its castle. It’s been a great deal of time since we’ve seen Macedonians last, and this time they wear quite a different face. Our first brush with Macedonians is Emereus’s occupation force in Aurelis, a bunch of low-level non-promoted units under the command of no-dialogue generals who fall easily against the tides of the budding Archanean League. Tune in fifteen chapters down the road and the Macedonian home army is full of promoted soldiers armed to the teeth and quite prepared to deliver the most grueling chapter in the game (in my view). Even if the in-game narrative barely explains it, I think this division is wonderfully illustrative of how the rift between the Macedonian royals may have saved the world. Michalis only got to commit Emereus’s troops to Aurelis before Minerva disagreed and was able to prevent the full corps of the Macedonian Dragoons from following suit. Minerva may end up feeling helpless when she’s pressed into Grust’s service, but imagine for a second what would’ve come about if you’d had to fight Chapter 21’s army in Chapter 4. Seems like Minerva’s actions may have saved the world from enslavement to Dolhr by making your first opponent beatable.
Or that’s my telling of the story, anyway. I’m probably making it all up, but it lends a nice air of significance to the whole thing: the ability of one person to change history.
Marth slays Michalis and reassembles Starlight, and is at last ready to confront Gharnef at Thabes. To do this, he somehow travels all the way across most of a continent in the span of a single chapter. If I had no context from later games to draw from, I’d say this was the most glaring bit of nonsense in the game. The official line, however, appears to be that the army meets Gotoh and he uses his magic to warp them to Thabes to confront Gharnef, and then back again once they claim Falchion. Which, y’know, magic, OK, I guess. One wonders why he didn’t warp them back into any better position to assault Dolhr Keep, but maybe his magic doesn’t work that way. Who knows. It’s magic.
Chapters 24 and 25 are the final rush, conducted in exactly the same way that every other act-end set piece is except for the fall of Grust: a chapter in the fields approaching the enemy stronghold, and then a final chapter inside the castle walls where you seize the throne. That structure lends the game a nice wholeness, in that you know the motions from here. It puts the end firmly in sight, and it gives you a subtle sense that you know you’re going to win.
And then Marth slays Medeus and wins the War of Shadows! But that’s for the next entry.
Why People Die, Part 2
Chapter 24 is the focal point for quite possibly the coolest invention of SD&BoL—and, interestingly, yet another Fire Emblem first-and-last, because it’s never resurfaced in any other Fire Emblem story. Elice’s Aum staff is very, very limited in use, but that’s because it has the most sweeping power of any staff there ever was: if Elice stands in the Resurrectory at Dolhr in Chapter 24 and uses the single charge of Aum, she can revive one dead ally once. It raises the dead. That, in a game of permadeath, is a big deal.
And now that we’ve had a little more time hanging out with permadeath, we can offer a few more good reasons why it’s such a big deal. The last time we examined why people die in Fire Emblem, I suggested that the main purpose of permadeath was to provide a strategic element to what would otherwise be a game driven single-mindedly by tactical decisions. I stand by that claim, but now that you’ve followed me through most of a whole game, I think you’ll be able to appreciate a few other side benefits to the feature, too. Here are four, in no particular order:
- Permadeath necessitates having a big cast, because it needs a roster of characters that’s in some places duplicative. As I’ve said before, Fire Emblem may not treat you very kindly when you mess up, but it does acknowledge that things will probably not go perfectly for you, and so it provides ways to work around major setbacks like the death of a star player. The easiest and most interesting way SD&BoL does this is by expanding the list of recruitable characters by giant margins, so that you have a lot of different choices to make now and on the replay.
- It gives you a little reward for keeping early joiners alive. The way SD&BoL is set up—to say nothing of every single Fire Emblem thereafter—the characters who get in the door soonest and at the lowest levels in general have the greatest potential to be all-stars late in the game. If only they survive that long. Permadeath means that it takes hard work and conscientious effort to raise your opening zeroes into heroes, but it also means that those characters you do shepherd through twenty-plus chapters of growth are really accomplishments you can be proud of as a player at the end. Never underestimate a player’s feeling of authorship over their game.
- Permadeath supplies a delightful little emotional kick. Not delightful for the person on the receiving end, maybe, but delightful in the sense that watching players squirm to avoid it is one of the signature stresses of Fire Emblem. You don’t just try to play well in a given chapter and shake it off with an oh-well when you blow it—every time you blow it you lose something for good. Stakes are high, and it really forces a level of player investment that wouldn’t necessarily be there if the potential damage you could do in a single chapter wasn’t catastrophic.
- Without permadeath, the Aum staff wouldn’t be as cool as it is. This sounds like a bit of bad reasoning (if there weren’t permadeath, there wouldn’t be the need for an Aum staff), but I think the Aum staff being awesome is a very important part of the endgame. The last chapters of the game ramp up both difficulty and plot milestones in bringing the story towards its close; Aum plays an important part as a new powerful tool that pops up right at this crunch time. Because there’s permadeath, your single opportunity to cheat that permadeath becomes a memorable chance to flex some powerful muscles, and stands out as another defining moment of the game’s closing.
No doubt we’ll find more reasons death is interesting as we go along in future entries. The point I’m trying to make here is that one definitive choice in game design can have numerous effects throughout the dimensions of a game. At the risk of sounding tautological, Fire Emblem wouldn’t be Fire Emblem if people didn’t die when they died.
(Not) Popping Caps
Level your favorite character enough in SD&BoL and you’ll find that, after a given stat hits 20, the character conspicuously stops gaining points in it. As later Fire Emblems will make clear (and play around with in much more granular fashion), characters have stat caps—maximum stat values beyond which you can never push them. In SD&BoL, figuring out what’s capped where is really easy: there’s a universal stat cap of 20, and it applies to everything. Simple enough.
The intent of stat caps, I imagine, is to keep the playing field roughly level between the reds and the blues. Although this game was created in a time where “grinding” hadn’t yet entered the vernacular, I’m sure the designers foresaw the possibility that a player could funnel experience to a handful of team favorites so that they’d grow wildly out of proportion to the opposition they faced. Enough of a head start like this, and the chosen few blue units could just steamroll anything they faced for the rest of the game, because their stats would just keep on rising into the stratosphere with every new KO. The stat cap stops this problem by putting a ceiling on how much any individual can contribute to the team, forcing you to maintain an army rather than a handful of favorites.
In practice, this means that there’s a clear stopping point as which any character is As Good As They Can Be. I kinda like that. Perfection isn’t readily attainable, but it’s pretty simple to calculate, and you can use that as a metric to evaluate how your advanced units are doing towards the end of the game.
The across-the-board cap of 20, though, has a couple drawbacks. The first is that 20 is achievable by a number of people in a number of stats each. The most egregious case of this I have this time around is Caeda, so I grabbed her for the picture above, but several other soldiers are also topping a few things out. Abel, Hardin, Marth, and Navarre all have multiple 20s as of the close of Chapter 24, and Ogma and Linde have their own singular 20s. When stat caps are so easy to hit, it feels less like I’ve raised these characters into peak battle fitness and more like I’m just checking boxes in a list. Take that or leave it.
The second drawback occurs because of the first. For every 20 a character has, of course, that’s one less stat that can improve on level up. Add to this the fact that nobody’s ever really going to care much about a single HP, Wpn Lvl, or luck point at this late hour of the game, and you have a recipe for taking all the fun out of leveling. Consider Caeda above: her past few levels, not having produced a strength or defense point, have been total non-affairs. The presence of lots of numbers that can’t get better takes that slot-machine feeling out of leveling up, which I think robs the game of a bit of momentum.
Future Fire Emblems will eschew this unversal stat cap for an eternity of messing around with class-specific or even character-specific caps, tweaking the things infinitely and never quite being satisfied with the formula that results. Muddled as that makes this issue in future entries, I can’t help but feel it’s for the better.
- Missing from the above discussion about stats is any mention of one of the weirdest things about SD&BoL, which is that it devotes constant screen space to a “resistance” stat in which virtually everyone always has a 0. There’s only one way to get resistance in SD&BoL: use a talisman. And there are only two naturally occurring talismen in the story, although there are more for sale in a secret shop. The sum effect is that using magic is this weird thing that’s not influenced by a strength stat and never counterbalanced by a resistance stat, and so turns out to be a bizarre constant-number source of damage. Freeze spells always do 7 damage, for example; Merric’s Excalibur does a constant 13. This turns assignment of the talismen into one of the more critical strategic concerns in the game, but it also robs magic users of crucial interesting points to get upon level-up. Win some, lose some. I prefer later Fire Emblems‘ approach of including a magic power stat and actually, y’know, having resistance be treated like anything else, but in a way that opinion is just a matter of preference.
- You know who does get around the resistance thing, though? #%^@*&! mage dragons. They have effectively infinite resistance, because their #%^@*&! mage dragon scales neutralize #%^@*&! magic. Mage dragons are my bitterest, bitterest foes in this game, and they make me inordinately angry.
- The whole SD&BoL shtick of obnoxious, endless reinforcements took a few chapters off from its last appearance in the third act, but it’s back here with a vengeance. Enough turns into this chapter and the forests of Dolhr start to swarm with unlimited manaketes. To stop them you need to commit some five or six units to forts staggered all across the interior of the map, plus one at each of the four corners of Dolhr Keep. I admire the time pressure the map is trying to put on me using these guys, but I don’t at all admire the way it chooses to apply that pressure.
- The staff I know as Aum is in this version rendered Oum, as in the high sacred mantra of Buddhist, Hindu, and other Eastern religious practices. Not being a Western concept, it has several perfectly acceptable alternate spellings, including “Aum,” but I never realized what the name was getting at until just this playthrough. This name is maybe a bit unusual in Fire Emblem, in that the name has a significance in the real world that actually does add connotative value to the thing that bears the name in the game (the highest, most exalted holy staff in the world). That’s certainly more than Camus or Mars or Thabes can offer. I have the sneaking suspicion that the reason why is that Aum is an Eastern concept with which the game’s Japanese developers are far more familiar than they are with Western theology. This, however, is a better subject for discussion in other games, and other series.
- For as disheartening as endless waves of mage dragons can be, the plot really does a fine job of coming to a head here. Elice is restored, the Resurrectory is accessible and can feature the coolest bit of magicking in the game, the land of dragons is finally in sight, and Medeus at last appears at the close of the chapter to egg us on to the final assault. Everything says the end is here. My blood’s really pumping.
This is it. The last chapter is up next. Let’s save the Archanean continent from Medeus.