Original Gameboy

Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones

Good: Excellent strategic combat, three difficulty levels

Bad: Not much different or new

Basically: More of what made the first Emblem great

Mark: There are two ways to approach a boss in Fire Emblem: send in your strongest pipe-hitting badass for a guaranteed victory or chance saving the kill (and experience points) for a weaker foot soldier who, eventually, could become a valuable badass himself. Developer Intelligent Systems faced a similar risk-versus-reward dilemma in creating the sequel to its excellent GBA strategy role-playing game. The choice it made with Sacred Stones is obvious: don’t take any chances and go for the safe, predictable win.

Anyone who played 2003’s original Emblem will not only feel at home with the sequel, but also struggle to tell the difference between the two. Almost visually identical, they share the same friendly setup and solid gameplay—turn-based tactical combat with a rock-paper-scissors-style attack priority system. A decent plot again keeps you invested in your individual troops, with the fact that characters can actually die (and stay dead) heightening the tension.

Sacred Stones makes a few welcome alterations, including soldier-evolving options and easier item retrieval. Also, fewer hand-holding early missions, a branching story, and more optional battles add up to a longer quest. Overall the game is polished and addictive; I just wish it were ambitious. More unique battlegrounds, different attack ranges and effects, a new mechanic or two—the Emblem formula would benefit from some added complexity.

Shawn: Duck the dry dialogue, skip the story. You’ll still dig your clerics, falcon knights, and cavaliers—not for who they are (blue-haired, wide-eyed boilerplate), but for what they do in Fire Emblem’s whip-smart battles. In fact, when one falls, it’s like losing a best friend (or at least the long hours you invested leveling him up). And that—the part that says when he’s gone, he’s gone forever—is the game’s tactical error. (Not a real Waterloo, but a blunder big enough to discourage risk-taking in the line of turn-based duty.) The rest is four-star strategy, squarely done and with enough back-and-forth between studied defense and decisive sieges to keep your feet on the coffee table.

1UP.COM—Che: Strip away the epic story of good versus evil (I dug it way more than Shawn did) and the dizzying number of characters, and you have very straightforward combat—essentially nothing you haven’t seen before in kindred spirits like Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars. What makes Sacred Stones unique is how it sugarcoats the level-grinding, treadmill-like repetition with a captivating, episodic story line. The fact that dead characters are gone for good makes every battle thoughtful and tense. It’s definitely one of the GBA’s best tactical games. P

Leave the Link Cable at Home

Up to four players can field a team of five combatants each in Emblem’s shoddy multiplayer game, but instead of playing on a battlefield where, you know, actual strategy might come into play, you challenge each other in 1-on-1 arena auto-battles. It makes little sense and is even less enjoyable.

The verdicts (out of 10)

Mark: 8.0

Shawn: 7.5

Che: 9.0

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: Intelligent Systems

Players: 1 (2-4 via Link cable)

ESRB: Everyone

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.

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