Shadow Eternal; Light Unending

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 25.

At last, the finale. We’re about to come face to face with the titular Shadow Dragon. As Marth stares him down, I’ll get a couple points of frustration at SD&BoL‘s mapmaking and general game design off my chest, and then it’s on to the surprisingly elegant conclusion.

Consider first what a departure the final chapter’s player turn and enemy turn themes are from the turn songs we’ve heard over the rest of the game. Where you’re used to a spirited major-key player turn march, Chapter 25 keeps the marching pace but uses a new melody that’s low, understated, and ominous. Where you’re used to the red side’s theme as a lively gallop that continues the impression of the player turn song, Chapter 25’s enemy turn theme is jarringly different from the matching player theme: a desperate, loud scramble in a minor key that’s abruptly in your face. Ms. Tsujiyoko is changing the pacing you’ve felt the whole game long for this final moment, and the effect makes you squirm a little. The more you hear that forbidding heartbeat under your turn, the creepier it all seems; the more that compares to the sudden rush of the enemy turn, the quicker your blood gets pumping; the more that falls back into the sinister player turn melody, the more it all gets even creepier. All this sets up a sense of dread for the battle at the end of the chapter, where the theme is introduced with a solo square wave and jumps right into the high, unforgiving tension of the conclusion. What a ride!

The Gates of Dolhr Keep

I'm just lucky Tomas could string Parthia by this time.
To give you an idea of how talentless I am at managing an army—I shut off SEVERAL units in this chapter behind the northern courtyard door because they were too weak to competently close out the chapter. Tactics!

Say what you will about SD&BoL having aged; its final chapter remains a genuinely cool idea for a map even by today’s Fire Emblem standards. Your army splits into four groups to attack Dolhr Keep, each of whom starts isolated on the map and has to face off against different divisions of opponents. The logical place for all four groups to combine is, of course, the center, where the dragon king himself lies in wait.

But there’s an added time pressure to move out: on certain predetermined turns, the doors separating the four groups’ corridors from the main hallways slam shut. If one of your divisions is trapped behind them, the only way to get them back out is to use a key, if you had the prescience to bring one, or to send a thief the long way around. Meanwhile, not having one quarter of your team is a pretty serious (if not insurmountable) handicap, and stairwells are deviously placed right inside the doors to belch out enemy reinforcements against whoever gets trapped in the fishbowls with them. It’s a mean trick, which makes it an incredible idea.

Idea, that is. Not execution. The premise here is dragged down by SD&BoL still finding its sea legs as a game. The worst part is, because you can’t position your units on the map at the top of the chapter from the prep screen, the assignment of your units into the four divisions comes out, functionally, totally random. I assume there’s some algorithm the game uses to determine who gets assigned to which starter space, but because that’s one more thing that’s run through the SD&BoL black box, you have no idea what that algorithm is. Thus Marth and Gotoh start in the southern division and the rest of the placement is a crapshoot. Send a bunch of mages in and maybe they’ll all end up together. Send in a couple units with wyrmslayers and there’s a chance they all end up in the eastern division, across the entire length of the castle from the enemy manaketes. If no thief or character with a door key gets assigned to the southern division, Marth is far, far away from relevance to the fight. And good luck surviving if the southwestern division doesn’t end up with anyone of considerable defense.

So: great map idea, botched a bit because Fire Emblem is still in its infancy. But we haven’t even touched the most frustrating part of this chapter.

Challenging the Invincible

A few minutes later, it was also conveniently "time" for a pressing doctor's appointment Gotoh had elsewhere.
” … ha ha, just kidding, guys, you’re dead meat!”

A while ago I wrote about the big long trading chain that leads to Falchion. Back then, the discussion was about NPC irony. You have to pay close attention to what Gotoh and the villagers tell you, I said, or you’ll miss some necessary clues as to stuff you’ll need to do. Well, imagine that you missed a clue, or something small went wrong along the way, and you didn’t quite follow all those instructions to the letter. What does your experience look like in Chapter 25?

You can’t beat it. In most cases, if you mess anything up in the Falchion quest chain, you will stall out at the very last moment of the very last chapter, unable to beat the game.

There has never been such an appalling quantity of cheese in a Fire Emblem.

The reason for this is relatively simple. Medeus’s defenses are through the roof. Falchion has a special ability that makes it uniquely able to pierce Medeus’s dragonskin, but if you don’t have it, the only thing that can hurt him is a character you’ve specifically trained for the job, leveled to the extreme, pumped up on multiple stat booster rings, bearing a legendary weapon (probably Gradivus, given the relative weakness of the game’s archers). It takes quite a bit of foreknowledge and planning to construct such a character. That means that for most players heading into SD&BoL for the first time without that kind of knowledge or plan, if you don’t have Falchion with you, you don’t have a single person in the army who can damage Medeus. You make it all the way to the end to find that the end is a solid draconic wall.

And the problem with this isn’t at all that the Falchion quest is (practically) necessary! I like it! I think it’s a nice little narrative tool for Marth’s growth into a more complete human being, and its dependence on NPC irony is great, because I’m all for forcing players to read things and think for themselves.

No, the problem is that the game lets you continue if you miss part of the Falchion quest. Suppose back in the Fane of Raman in Chapter 19 that I’d let the Grustians loot the chest with the Starsphere and it was lost to me. I could finish Chapter 19 without a problem and go on to play through to the end before I realized I couldn’t win thanks to something I did six chapters ago. Or suppose back in Macedon in Chapter 22 that I’d let the thief sack Gotoh’s village before Marth could make it there, and lost Starlight. Same deal: I play straight on through and then can’t finish the game. Suppose nobody had the weapon skill to wield Starlight, and we therefore couldn’t win against Gharnef (as one can’t). Same deal. And in the vast majority of cases, with the game prompting you to save at every chapter’s end, the only remedy for botching the Falchion sequence would be to restart the entire story from the very beginning to get that one thing in that one chapter right.

Back in 1990 we didn’t discuss game design much. When some instance of hyper-player-unfriendliness like this happened, we might have turned red with frustration and rage, but at the end of the day we’d usually chalk it up to the kind of extreme difficulty we’d come to expect from Nintendo games. For its place in early gaming history, SD&BoL can get a pass even on this.

But with the benefit of hindsight and a few decades’ collected wisdom about gaming, I feel comfortable saying: this treatment of the Falchion quest is really terrible game design. It’s unfair to the player, and the price for not conforming to it is the loss of hours of progress and attachment. Later remakes of the War of Shadows pay close attention to this problem, and with good reason. It ruins the experience of the game for poor souls that get caught in its trap.

But enough of this. We did get Falchion, and we won. Let’s talk about winning.

The Earth Dragon Within Us

Typical human.
Marth’s strategy is apparently to slay Medeus by shaving off his toenails one at a time.

We’ve waited a long time to reach this moment. Medeus stares at you from the game’s box art; his name is all over the backstory and in many a character’s mouth in the preceding chapters. By the time you actually do meet him, you’re dying for just a glimpse of the face of the antagonist you’ve been chasing for so many hours.

And he’s a dragon, of course. His is unfortunately the last sad statement of the inner tragedy of SD&BoL‘s manaketes: in order for humanity to overthrow his tyranny, it has to slay the only one of his kind you see in the world of Archanea. It’s a fitting tragic end both for the species and the Fire Emblem war story that extinction is the final action you take in the narrative.

All this we expect from the final fight as we’re getting into it. What we don’t so much expect is that Medeus’s significance, when we do meet him, isn’t all that much as an autonomous game character.

His role is over in a few breaths. He has a couple lines taunting you at the end of Chapter 24, a couple more challenging you from the throne at Dolhr Keep, and then there’s a fight and he’s dead. By way of action the player sees onstage, he really does very little whatsoever.

You could be forgiven for filing this one into the collection of weak narrative choices that SD&BoL has to make in order to fit on its cartridge. And, I dunno, maybe so. But the astute gamer, I think, might see an entirely different significance to Medeus that’s enhanced by him being such a non-character.

The lack of character action given to Medeus, when combined with the overwhelming significance he has to the plot, suggests that you’re not meant to see him as a precisely human antagonist, like you are other characters. More so because he’s a dragon, of course. More so too because SD&BoL has another main antagonist who’s very thoroughly human: Gharnef appears several times, takes action to pursue objectives, clearly calculates things in a thoroughly (unnervingly) human brain. Gharnef we’re meant to evaluate as a character.

Medeus, by contrast, I think we’re meant to evaluate as a metaphysical concept. What Gharnef—the man who, as the story proves, has all the necessary insight and motivation to create war—has awakened isn’t so much one more extra-strong dragon as he is an embodiment of all the hatred and violence humans take up in the name of anger. It only figures that the ultimate tool of subjugation conjured by warmaker Gharnef isn’t another entity but rather an emotion, the very human emotion that inevitably sets our race to war.

And so it makes a little more sense why Medeus is a different kind of manakete from all his fellows. Malledus told us about the divine dragons, mage dragons, and fire dragons, but nobody ever mentioned that there was an earth dragon until you see Medeus in all his terrifying glory. He is unique, because he’s a much different thing from ordinary manaketes. They are characters subject to tragedy, too-human individuals who bear the sorrowful weight of their decaying race wherever they go. Medeus is the tragedy. He is what human life returns to, again and again, try though it may to escape the cycle of war. When you initiate combat with him, he crawls up out of the ground—after all, he’s an earth dragon, less a separate living being than an immutable part of the world itself. He’s in us all.

Medeus, like only a couple other enemy commanders in SD&BoL, gets a bit of dialogue when he’s defeated that drives this nail chilingly home. Here’s what he says when he’s been slain:

Ugh … I … lost … to the humans … But remember, Prince of Light. One day … As long as there is darkness, my manifestations will appear. Remember … As long as there is light, there will always be darkness …

He’s a bit surprised that humans, the creatures whose spirit he fills, can defeat him, yes. But just like Gharnef before, he’s not too worried. Wherever there’s “light”—read that as human heroes and the lust for glory—there too will be the darkness of Medeus. Where there is the push for humans to achieve greatness, so too will there be the push for humans to cause sorrow.

Sound familiar? War is wonderful and terrible, both at once, and never one without the other. Add to that now that it’s also inevitable. Medeus ends the game reminding us of the most ominous, and most important, lesson on the two halves of war.

Happily Ever After

One imagines Caeda's handmaids snickering behind her back about whether she'll be "coming to Altea" tonight.
So that’s what they call it these days.

Well, Medeus’s parting shot isn’t quite the end of the story. The real last gesture of SD&BoL is much happier, if a bit unexpected. Everyone’s packing up to return to where they’re from and begin the long work of rebuilding their homelands … and then this scene happens:

CAEDA: Marth, can I return to [Talys] now?

MARTH: Yes … [Caeda], I need to thank your father, but then I must return to [Altea].

CAEDA: I see …

MARTH: We need to rebuild the lands ruined by the war.

NYNA: Haha. Marth, you’re trying to trick the most important thing to you? Go and meet [Caeda]!

MARTH: [Nyna] … Uh … Uh … This isn’t good … [Caeda] …

CAEDA: Ah! Y, Yes!

MARTH: Could you … come to [Altea] with me?

CAEDA: ! … Yes, I’d love to!

In case you missed it from Nyna’s usual obtuse Engrish, Marth essentially proposes to Caeda, asking her to spend her life with him in Altea. Apparently he’s been eyeing her for some time during the campaign, or so Nyna’s line gives me to understand.

Does this come out of nowhere? Pretty much! But you know what? I think it’s the perfect contrast to the fall of Medeus. You may understand at the back of your mind that all good brings darkness, as he said. Maybe that’s the fate of our race. But if you look, the game shows you at least one lasting product of this war, and it’s not the eternal tragedy Medeus promised. It’s a marriage. At the end of the day, even if light and darkness come as a package, it seems like the light is the part that humanity will ensure leaves its imprint for good.

Now that’s a note I can end on.

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