Fire Emblem – Swords, Strategy, and S-Rank Romance

JRPGs are awesome. They’re like anime that you can play! The old-school Final Fantasy series will always be the gold standard for me, and I recently re-kindled my love for the Tales series with Tales of Vesperia. But if you want a truly hardcore RPG experience, one that will last you through the entire pandemic if you don’t break your console out of frustration, you can’t do much better than Nintendo’s flagship series Fire Emblem.

Not just because it has lots of pretty girls (and boys, and 1 genderfluid professor)

Most people will know Fire Emblem from its ever-expanding roster of attractive sword wielders in the Smash Bros. games, but the series actually goes as far back as the NES! The first game was released only in Japan back in 1990, making it arguably the first strategy RPG ever. For the first time, you weren’t just controlling one dude or a ragtag band of adventurers – Fire Emblem gave you an army, fighting a continent-spanning war. You have to carefully position your units and think many steps ahead of the enemy to win, a level of complexity that was unheard of back in the 8-bit era.

The first game, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

The battle system is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Each class has unique strengths and weaknesses, and even characters in the same class will often specialize in different weapon types. Swordmasters are insanely fast and often get critical hits, but they’re useless against a spear-wielding tank class. Pegasus Knights can fly all over the battlefield and have amazing stats all around, but a single archer can shoot them right out of the sky. And if any of your units die, they’re gone forever! You have to reset the battle, or carry on without them. (Fortunately, the more recent games have a Casual mode, perfect for newer players or people who are not quite as masochistic as FE’s old-school fanbase.)

These cutscenes look amazing for a 3DS game (Fire Emblem: Fates)

Fire Emblem makes losing units sting even more by really making you care about them. The story of these games is usually the same: some fantasy political conflict with a dark wizard (who is also a dragon) conspiring behind it all. But the character writing is where the games really shine, thanks to the unique mechanic of support conversations. Whenever your units fight together, they bond, which eventually gives them powerful stat boosts when they fight together and unlocks optional cutscenes of two characters just… hanging out together. You get to learn the hidden pasts and unique little quirks of even the most seemingly insignificant units, which makes you empathize with them and want them to succeed. Of course, this naturally extended to dating and marriage as the games went on, culminating in Three Houses where the hardest part is winning the damn tea-time mini-game so you can wife Dorothea by the end.

Don’t judge me

And the music is so good, y’all! It’s up there with anything Final Fantasy has ever done. There are some classic motifs used in every game, but each one also has its own special themes to pluck at your heartstrings. The soundtracks have evolved from classic chip-tuney licks on the GBA to sweeping symphonies that mix orchestral, rock, and even dubstep. There are so many great tracks on each game’s OST, but if I had to pick my favorite, it would be this one:

I haven’t played all of these games – there’s dozens of them, across every console generation imaginable – but I have played most of the games considered to be the best, so here’s my filthy casual run down of my favorites. If you’re new to the series, these ones are accessible enough to pick up and play while still having a lot to sink your teeth into!

Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade: This was the first Fire Emblem released in the US way back in 2003, and the first to feature a female protagonist, Lyn. This is old-school FE at its best: every map advances the story, and everything, from visiting towns and shops to recruiting new characters, is done on the battlefield. It can be grueling, since you don’t have much time to relax or grind out levels, but if you like the challenge of classic strategy RPGs, it’s a great starting point.

Fire Emblem: Awakening: After a string of disappointing releases, 2012’s Awakening saved the series from being canceled and made it a flagship franchise for the first time. The world is huge for a 3DS game, and this is where the relationship building aspect really takes center stage. You can pair up nearly any mixed-gender units (though no gay options yet…) and even have kids who fight with you via time-traveling shenanigans. It’s a bit wacky, but this game has a ton of charm and is probably my favorite of the series.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses: The first game on an HD console, 2019’s Three Houses modernized the Fire Emblem series in the same way Breath of the Wild did for Zelda. You play as Professor Byleth, and you can pick one of three houses of students who fight together and eventually, each other. It’s basically the lovechild of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and a harem anime. The Monastery where you teach those adorable brats has tons of fun stuff to do, and the character building system is amazingly flexible and fun. And they finally, finally made the series more LGBTQ+ inclusive by using they/them pronouns for Byleth and having gay and lesbian marriage options. If you just play one Fire Emblem game, make it this one. Black Eagles for life!

Whether you’re a hardcore strategist, a hardcore shipper, or just play Three Houses for the memes, Fire Emblem has a little something for everybody. Long-running game franchises series often struggle to adapt to changing times, but this one has only seemed to improve with age. The battle system might seem intimidating if you’re new to strategy RPGs, but once you get the hang of it it’s incredibly rewarding and fun. Just don’t play the gacha game, Fire Emblem Heroes, which is not good for anything except seeing characters from the other games in gratuitous swimsuits.

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