two paths, one story

Hot on the heels of its predecessor, Sacred Stones was the final Fire Emblem entry for the GBA, released outside of Japan in 2005. At first glance, Sacred Stones is nothing flashy. Itís newness lies in setting - it uses the same sprite style as the Elibe duo that came before it, but that wasnít exactly a bad thing, given the move away from the now familiar location. To this day, Sacred Stones is the only Fire Emblem game to take place in Magvel - same structure, same aesthetic, but new lore and characters to uncover. Make it look familiar. Itís a sound sell.

Sacred Stones took what made Blazing Sword great and improved upon it. The scope was greater. There were two diverging paths which led to a similar end, cuts back and forth before you select your twin protagonist - and when they reunite, that desert map is one of my favourite maps in any game. You could take a break between chapters and explore dungeons and level up units, or even give those youíve overlooked a try later into the game in order to take a break from the grind. And the familiar sprites and set-up brought the newcomers back for a second round - it certainly did for me, as I was eager for something new, something fresh. But I just didnít enjoy Sacred Stones as much as I did my first outing.

Even now Iím not sure what it was. Was it a case of higher standards? Was it the fact there was a lot of monster fights (including giant spiders and zombies and did I mention the giant spiders) whilst the plot took a backseat? Was it because I was trained in twists by then, and saw them coming? Was it because I still didnít like the lords? Was it my disappointment with the ending that boarded on loathing, as it felt rushed, way too easy and the plot didnít seem to know how to wrap itself up?

Itís a mystery. (Except the ending part. Thatís valid commentary.) Most vets typically donít cite Sacred Stones as their favourite title but thereís nothing really bad about it. Itís disconnected with the rest of the series and largely non-represented which makes it overlooked, but Iím hard pressed to think of major, universal criticism and negativity. For me at least, I guess Sacred Stones was a second helping of the same, and maybe that was the problem. Because it looked like Blazing Sword, felt like Blazing Sword, and Blazing Sword was my beginning, it was never going to measure up.

That was then. Retrospectively, thereís a lot to love about Sacred Stones, mostly in the details. Iím a sucker for the use of twins in a narrative, and that I can definitely pin on Eirika and Ephraim - I love multifaceted stories made possible by two family members with this type of blood connection. I love that Ephraim never saw his sister as anything less than capable, and itís in each other in which they trust. I loved that they went everywhere, allying themselves with the royals of each country, creating a band of continent-wide monarchy willing to (and actually) doing something in order to save the world. And thatís what the sacred stones are - a reflection of their unity! Iím psyched just thinking about it. Incidentally, Sacred Stonesís cast of characters is made up of numerous siblings - Tahna and Innes, Ewan and Tethys - and if someone isnít related by blood, they usually arrive in a group that functions as their family. Adopted siblings? Parental figures? Lifelong friends? It has the lot. Friendship, family, and belonging are massive themes in this game and donít I know that I love games about found families - even if in this instance, itís more selective than everyone in the group.

Lyon also bears a mention, because once again Fire Emblem introduced me to a new trope, with a good guy who doesnít want to be bad doing evil things because an evil entity forces him to. Thatís a vast understatement, but it was a far cry from the maniacal, laughing villains bent on world destruction when that individual does all of that but also happens to be the best friend to the protagonists who made a pact to be friends forever(TM). The game treats Lyon well: he is given time, flickers of development, and though heís not my favourite instance of villainy in Fire Emblem, he comes pretty close - it just wasnít something a teen was going to like, given that, yíknow, how dare you become corrupted and hurt your friends. You killed our father. Prepare to die.

Just add armour: Amelia
Amelia is my third favourite unit in the Fire Emblem series overall - which on the one hand is obvious and the other, probably not what you were expecting. Amelia starts life as a trio of units known as trainees, the effective predecessor for the villager class and harbingers of potential because they get an extra ten levels to make a difference - Ewan's a mage, so naturally he's an investment if you can protect him long enough (though from experience, he and Lute even out), and Ross becomes a fighter, but with the potential of added skill. I wasn't a fan of axe users for the sheer gambling nature of using them, but even on my first playthrough I could see the sense of raising Ross as his extra levels fixed my perception of his classí flaws.

And then there's Amelia, the recruit. The foot soldier. And if you know anything about foot soldiers, it's that their easy fodder for a well trained army: there Sacred Stones was, unabashedly asking me to train one (or another one, since Ephraim functions similarly, but he has the added bonus of being a lord). Use her, the game coaxed. I reluctantly did. She made it through her ten levels, I made her into a Cavalier, and a few levels after that I benched her.

I don't use the Cavalier class. I love the range of a horseback unit but I like the horse as something to be gained, a bonus if you will, to make the unit go places - not as a starting crux for a middling class, as dabbling in everything makes them mediocre. In using Amelia, I forgot this, and Sacred Stones has a lot of cavaliers, which made Amelia just another non-standout. What made her special was gone.

The next time I played Sacred Stones, I made her into a Knight. I also didn't use Knights, as their limited movement and slowness eradicated whatever you gain from their defense and HP if everything is going to hit them twice. Here's the thing: Amelia has excellent speed growths and she was doubling early on as a Knight. She needed a little support to carry her, but by the time I promoted her into a General Amelia was protecting everyone else. She was by far the best unit I have ever raised in Sacred Stones, and was capable of clearing monster dungeons on her own (I tried it once just to prove that she could). She was strong, fast, had defense and resistance growths. This girl was a monster and single handedly changed my perception of not only armoured footsoldiers, but footsoldiers to begin with. In this instance, skip the horse, add the armour, give her some boots, and make her rock that battlefield.

And in short, never underestimate a girl with a lance.

My memories of Sacred Stones are hazier than Blazing Sword, but what I do remember about Sacred Stones was that I could not wait to play this game. I saw it was out and I got hella excited, and asked my mum to buy me the game off eBay, because no way was I waiting six months for it to be released in PAL regions. (These were the good old days when, despite Nintendo still hating the EU for simultaneous releases, that my console wasnít region locked.) Iíve imported other games since, but I did that through more official channels than scrupulous cartridges off eBay because, inevitably, the internal battery failed and the game would no longer save. And it wiped everything. I had, fortunately, played the game through once with Eirika, but it seemed me and Ephraim were not meant to be. Until I bit the bullet several years later and repurchased Sacred Stones, reached the decision all raring to go with Ephraim, andÖ I picked Eirika. I just couldnít do it. Even now, I would still one hundred percent go Eirika, and when I restarted again, I got a few chapters into Ephraimís route, lost interestÖ you know how it goes. I, Rems, must follow my lady. Her brother is only tolerable at her side.

I liked the game better at this later stage, but my replay of Sacred Stones was long after the end of the GBAís life, and I was being dazzled by shiny new graphics and my love for Tellius, Shadow Dragon had bombed for me, and it was a largely underwhelming experience.

Yet, thanks to this large gap, my playstyle and unit preference - or, well, willingness to test and branch out - was at a peak, and that was a rediscovery. Thatís the great thing about Fire Emblem if you donít always stick to your firm roster - if you choose the people you discarded the first time, it becomes new all over again.

A Sword Affair: Gerik
Sword users have the most diverse range of classes. I find sword users to be reliable, even in the face of the weapon triangle, because lances have added weight to contend with and axes are notorious for missing. I could happily fill my roster with sword units, and have: but if given the choice, I would pick a Myrmidon over a Mercenary every time. I'd even pick a Thief over a Mercenary, as at promotion, a Thief goes from a skulky background infiltrator of chests to someone who can and will infiltrate their half of the castle. My preference in Myrmidons and Thieves lies in speed, and you're probably noticing a theme here - Rems likes fast units with high odds of dodging rather than relying solely on HP. I much prefer luring an enemy over with a near guarantee of a MISS! than to misstep and rely on a slightly higher HP stat. And in the case of being swarmed, a Mercenary never lasts as long before their luck (and health points) run out.

I mean, it's not perfect. Either way you're playing with fire (see what I did there... I'm sorry). It all comes down to playstyle and unit preference - and the priority that, if I am going to make use of a door blocker, that's when I'll pull out the lance user.

I've also never really had a decent Mercenary except for Gerik. I didn't use him the first time I ventured into Sacred Stones, and only when I came back to it many years later as others persuaded me he was worth my time, and hey, if you're going to tell me to use Gerik and Marisa and Joshua there's no arguments here. I have an affection for Gerik as a unit that I don't have for the rest of his class, because I really enjoyed using him - he worked well with those I paired him up with, often sending him out with Marisa and L'Arachel and they became something of my side team, where they'd go off to deal with reinforcements or block a corridor. But it was the support of a healer and a Swordmaster that made Gerik what he was - having tried to emulate it in other titles, it was never the same. In Binding Blade with Ogma and Blazing Sword with Raven, it never quite worked. Gerik was a singular experience.

Also he's just a pretty darn great character who's here to have a good time and make some money doing it and he will and can take everyone under his wing and that's one of my Types (and reminds me of someone).

So, who would I recommend using for a run through Sacred Stones? At one point or another, I have raised everyone - I made a point of at least promoting those I didnít in dungeon crawling to see if there were any surprises (infrequent) - but my favoured candidates for a Sacred Stone roster contains Eirika, Ephraim, Vanessa, Ross, Neimi, Lute, Joshua, Tana, Amelia, Gerik, Marisa, Cormag, L'Arachel, and Knoll. I especially liked having multiple fliers available for fog of war chapters, as having a crack team that can scout ahead and waylay (or spot) the spider swarms is something I can never not appreciate - otherwise, it's a case of splitting people off and holding ground where necessary, and these guys are also my favourites.

Actually, what surprises me most is how much I do like Sacred Stones, something that I never truly realised until I began writing here, right now. I didnít know I had so much to say - I expected this page to be a lot, lot shorter. But itís not undeserved fondness, because itís not strictly working with the sanctity of being the first game I played in one of my favourite franchises. Sacred Stones is not difficult, and is the most forgiving of any Fire Emblem game - perfect for anyone, even if that person just wants a singular stint in the series.

Simply put, thereís a lot to like about Sacred Stones, and if I was to ever return to the GBA games, it would most likely be to Magvel.

tales from tellius - path of radiance & radiant dawn