A few years ago, Fire Emblem Awakening released on 3DS. It was supposed to be the series’ high point, aiming to combine all of the previous games’ best mechanics while also implementing new ones to attract a new audience. You see, sales of Fire Emblem games hadn’t gone very well. The series is much more long-running than us in the West would know, reaching all the way back to the NES days, but we wouldn’t see a Fire Emblem game released in the West until the seventh game in the series, simply called Fire Emblem here but subtitled Blazing Sword by fans, launched on Game Boy Advance. It was followed by The Sacred Stones, and these two games still mark some of my favourite entries in the franchise. If you’re a fan of the modern games, if you’ve beaten Awakening several times and completed all three storylines for Fates, you might be looking for more. My honest advice would be to play Sacred Stones.
First things first – no, the story isn’t as outstanding as the one told in Blazing Sword. This is still Fire Emblem though, so you’re still going to get a tale of war, betrayal, loss, hope, courage and friendship with some brilliant dialogue and well-realised characters who you’ll grow to love. The antagonist of the game is probably the series’ most well-written villain, a true tragic monster who definitely believes he’s doing the right thing. It’s not so hard to imagine an alternate universe where the events of the game didn’t happen because of his bond and friendship with our two main protagonists, Ephraim and Eirika. Like the best villains, he’s driven by more than one thing – a need to save his ailing father, his seething jealousy of the skillful Ephraim and his implied unrequited love for Eirika. If you play through Sacred Stones and don’t feel a measure of sympathy for him at some point, then I don’t know what to tell you, because he’s easily one of my favourite characters in the entire series, never mind just comparing him to other villains.
Gameplay-wise, Sacred Stones is a great mix between the hardcore difficulty of games past and the easier modern games. Like Awakening, it has a world map where you can fight skirmishes against armies of monsters, and it also has an area called the Tower of Valni, a seven-floor tower filled with monsters that you can use an unlimited number of times to grind your units up if you haven’t distributed the experience perfectly amongst your troops in the main battles. This is all extremely handy because the game is hard. Units die permanently in Sacred Stones, a hallmark feature of the franchise that was only changed in Awakening with its ‘Casual’ mode. There are no difficulty selects, no easier modes, nothing to make your time more pleasant. Sacred Stones is hard, but fair, which is the most satisfying kind of difficulty. If you’re the type of person who likes to do no-death runs, like me, you will find yourself restarting chapters numerous times to make sure every unit makes it. It also has a branching class promotion system similar to newer games, so you have more choice over what to do with your units.
The art style is nice and bright, with colourful, chunky sprites and detailed portraits. The animations are fast and fluid, utilising a lot of so-called “smear frames”, where the sprites are blurred in some way to imply extremely fast motion. It really does give the impression that your units are swinging their hefty weapons about with ease, and the sound-work makes every critical hit feel so kinaesthetically pleasing that you might feel as if your Game Boy itself is shuddering with the impact.
I would recommend playing both of the Game Boy Advance games, they’re incredibly worth your time and make for some of the best, most in-depth strategy games ever. Their stories are incredible, with some brilliant characters who you’ll fall in love with. The games are deeper, more tactical than Awakening and Fates, and very hard too, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when you ace that chapter after restarting it for the fifth time. I’ve been replaying it recently because I’m pretty much too poor to play Fates right now, but replaying it has just instilled even more love for this game in me. It absolutely holds up today, due to a timeless design and a great story that captivates you through multiple playthroughs. Start with Sacred Stones to ease yourself into Blazing Sword, and trust me fully when I say that you won’t regret playing either of them.