I Love Fire Emblem, but Maybe It Should End
Disclaimer: All blog posts reflect the opinions, analyses, and interpretations of their author, and as such do not reflect the viewpoints of any past or present employers.
I may have dropped a few hints over the last three years that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favourite game of all time. That certainly wasn't an easy conclusion to reach. I've been gaming for over two thirds of my life and the previous throne-sitter, Tales of Symphonia, is the game that inspired me to get into the industry. There have been plenty of other titles since that I admit are technically better but, at the end of the day, none of them had quite such a lasting impact on me until Three Houses genuinely made me cry tears of joy.
Intelligent Systems' strategy RPG masterpiece took me on an emotional journey that I'd always said games should be able to carve out but very rarely achieved, so I figured, "If a game that got more of an emotional reaction out of me than literally anything else I'd ever played could push my emotions that far isn't the best I've ever played, then frankly what on Earth is?" So, I awarded Three Houses my "New Favourite Game Ever" title quite happily. Yet, for all my positive feelings about it, I can't help but worry that the series has peaked.
Every other Fire Emblem game that comes after Three Houses will inevitably be compared to it, and while that game has plenty of detractors I am not among them. I don't really care about how the balance isn't great at high levels or how it's a pain to speedrun or even how most of the sidequests devolve into a samey routine because, at the end of the day, what really matters to an RPG is its story; and this game has one that I look very fondly back on, and still argue stands high above most of what gaming has produced thus far. There's the rub, though: it is the best in the franchise, so what the Hell else can it do to evolve the concept going forward?
It's strange to think about now but, about a decade ago, Fire Emblem was on the precipice of concluding. Nintendo had seen that the series wasn't very profitable and told the developers that, if their latest game wasn't a hit, they'd probably bring it to an end. Cue Fire Emblem Awakening coming out, winning a bunch of awards, and giving the series a global appeal it had never enjoyed before. While the game made enough money that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems could financially justify a successor, I distinctly remember saying back then that I would have been perfectly happy if the series had ended there, because it felt like everything we'd been building up to. Awakening was basically Fire Emblem's "Greatest Hits" album; all the best ideas thrown into a blender because the series was ending and, at that point, the developers could pretty much do whatever they wanted.
Reading over interviews, it seems the philosophy behind the game was basically, "Who cares if it flops? At least we go out saying everything we ever wanted to say before but couldn't." An admirable attitude for one last hurrah, to be sure, but the problem with saying everything that you want to say is that it doesn't leave you many words left for when people insist you have to say more. That's why Awakening, despite being a patchwork quilt of decades of design principles, was still fun in the way that jumping into a ball pit is fun. Its successor, Fire Emblem Fates, on the other hand, was poorly-written, frustratingly-designed, plagued with an unlikable cast, full of systems that just didn't gel together, and I suspect the character designers were doing their jobs one-handed; if you know what I mean. It took until Three Houses for the series to be amazing again and, now that its own successor has been revealed, I have concerns that my favourite franchise has once again run out of things to say.
Three Houses marked the first time in a decade that I'd been truly blown away by Fire Emblem again. Both it and Awakening set themselves apart from the rest of the series by doing something completely new: in the former's case it was the kitchen sink approach to the series' mechanics, and for the latter it was the shift to a school setting and the greater emphasis on political drama. The problem with successfully bucking trends, however, is that doing so leaves a lot of people nostalgic for them; which is probably why the internet was spreading rumours of more remakes for a good two years before this latest title, Fire Emblem Engage, was announced.
While such rumours turned out to be unfounded, one look at the new game communicates quite clearly that it's bringing back all the old Lords from the series' past, and such nostalgic nods are usually a sign that the developers have no more fresh ideas and just want to regurgitate the past. That might sound like a cynical way to look at the new title, and perhaps it is, but I think it's legitimate to ask what Engage is going to be bringing to the table. I'm sceptical about how well making moony-eyes at what's come before is going to go down because, if its art style is anything to go by, the game looks to be courting a much younger audience; one that didn't grow up with these games like people my age did. Three Houses felt very much like a swansong for my generation of Fire Emblem, so I fully expected that the franchise would leave us behind sooner or later.
Problem is, if Engage is supposed to be a new Fire Emblem for the new kids on the block, why is it bringing back so much of the stuff I recognise? Why are we returning to the clash between divine dragons and fell dragons? Why is the opening scene a shot of a great and glorious painting celebrating all the series' past heroes? Why are we relying on these historical characters to empower the new ones that are meant to be forging a brand new future? Why is Marth here, again, for the umpteenth-billionth time? And why does it all remind me so much of something I would have played back when I was 13, as opposed to looking like something today's 13 year olds would be into?
For what it's worth, I do appreciate that they didn't go with another remake. The big rumour I kept hearing people talk about was that Genealogy of the Holy War or Thracia 776 were in-line for a revival. As much as I'd be excited to see those games finally get an official translation, I'm sceptical about how well they'd be received. Both are darker than almost anything that's come since, and there's no denying that their systems and writing are a bit dated. We live in a more progressive age, despite all the horrors of the world often making it seem otherwise, and those two games have a lot of incest, sexual violence, and straight-up child-murder in their lore. I just don't know if Nintendo would really just okay all that, especially now they're firmly-cemented in popular consciousness as "The Fun Company".
So, it makes more sense why a bright and colourful kids' fantasy was approved over remaking a grim one, not that everyone was happy about it. Barely hours after Engage was unveiled, I saw no small amount of disappointed comments that it wasn't "Three Houses 2". That, if Intelligent Systems weren't going to remake the Jugdral games, they should have made another title that captures their spirits while being updated for our modern sensibilities. The problem with that is that such a game already exists: it's called Three Houses, so we're right back to where we started. Engage being lighter and softer shouldn't be a problem for any of us, but what probably should be is that it's setting itself up to be another story about good heroes who are good that slay evil dragons who are evil because they want to eat the world.
It's a tale as old as Fire Emblem itself and, at 32, I feel little reason to hear it again. Not because I think it's going to be bad, few Fire Emblem plots could honestly be said to be awful, but because it's playing it too safe. Three Houses deconstructed the entire foundation of the franchise; laying out in gory detail why submitting yourself to the will of ruling classes that don't actually serve your interests is a terrible idea. Now we're just going to go back to the fantasy of a good little autocrat risking everything to save their people? It feels like putting your hand back in the cookie jar after your Mum's just told you off for doing it. They're trying to put a trope they shattered three years ago back together again and, to be honest, I kind of wish they hadn't bothered.
In fact, I'm starting to think it might've been better to just be to go out on the high note that was Three Houses. By all means, let's keep the brand alive. Re-release all those old games, probably with a disclaimer and bumped-up age rating in the case of the Jugdral duology, but maybe Intelligent Systems should've switched gears to something totally different? Perhaps make a brand new IP to replace Fire Emblem with altogether? This hypothetical new franchise doesn't even necessarily need to change genres, even a shift in setting would be fine for me. There's plenty that you can do with a tactical RPG that has nothing to do with medieval European fantasy.
To give but one example: what about drawing on the history and culture of other parts of the world? I don't know bollocks about the Middle East but I'd certainly be interested in a game that took inspiration from it. What about doing that game on Mars they said Awakening could have been? That's a very relevant topic these days, considering how Elon Musk is attempting to recreate feudalism on the Red Planet, so there's your villain good to go. Maybe they could even take a break from the strategy genre altogether and return to their Paper Mario roots? Make a fun little cartoonish platformer-RPG with a quirky sense of humour and a Tim Burton-y undercurrent of dread. It might not be what people expect from them anymore but it would at least be something interesting enough to be worth talking about, and being interesting should be the industry's lifeblood.
Any one of these ideas has the potential to be something genuinely new and exciting, and, in the ever-turbulent world of video game development, "new and exciting" is exactly how we avoid franchise stagnation. Think about it: how many big names, especially RPGs, have lasted as long as Fire Emblem and can honestly still say they retain the same level of quality and dignity that they did in their heyday? Final Fantasy? Nope, that hasn't been considered immaculate since the early 2000s. Yes, I know XIV did very well but we all know the Square Enix of the 21st Century isn't the same as the Squaresoft of the 20th. Tales? Look, Arise was pretty good, but let's not pretend the series didn't have its rough spots. Suikoden? Let's face it: the second game is the only one that anyone's ever cared about. Shining Force? A shadow of its former self. Golden Sun? When was the last time anyone did anything with Golden Sun? Star Ocean? Are we sincerely arguing that Star Ocean is still going strong? Star "To Boldly Go Into the Uncanny Valley" Ocean? Star "Can't Even Shift a Million Units Anymore" Ocean? Star "Dear God What Is Wrong With That Woman's Eyes I Can See Into Hell" Ocean? That Star Ocean? You cannot possibly be serious.
I hope Fire Emblem never has to go through such desperate periods, because they inevitably create incredibly lacking art. The moment a franchise starts churning out new instalments purely to make money, not because anyone had a truly unique idea, is the moment artistic integrity starts going down the plughole. Granted, Nintendo is better than most at ensuring the quality of their intellectual property, but something always gives sooner or later. It's just the way of the creative world. There is no perfect author whose every new release is always the greatest thing since sliced bread but there is an omnipresent risk that a series becomes consistently "decent", and that might just be worse than actually becoming bad. Art must be provocative, it must challenge its audience, it must seek to inspire some kind of feeling in us, or else it becomes boring and monotonous. You know, like all these yearly sandboxes that get churned out with increasingly-depressing frequency.
Fire Emblem is still being developed and published by the same companies with good reputations, but who are the individual human beings that work on it? Who are the designers and developers whose vision informs the way the franchise grows? It's okay if you don't know because they change every couple of games. Different people with different visions take over and, sometimes, they just aren't as good as what came before. They say there's a story inside everyone, but that's not the same as everyone having a series in them. Some people only have one or two brilliant ideas to offer, and their efforts to make that particular lightning strike twice never turn out to be as good. I'd argue we're already seeing that with Three Houses, because the actionised spin-off Three Hopes, while certainly not terrible, had mostly the same writers and yet its story definitely wasn't up to par with the original.
Once again: I'm not saying Engage is going to be bad. I'm sure it will probably be another fairly enjoyable Fire Emblem game. Heck, I'm sure I'll even get around to playing it, sooner or later. I just don't think it'll change my world like Three Houses did. The desire to wallow in nostalgia often blinds us to the possibilities of the future and, while profitable in the short-term, it never lasts forever. This is a lesson my new favourite game itself was all about: abandoning the conservative old ways of life in favour of something new, because sticking to what's been done doesn't bring forth the progress that people and places need to improve. Perhaps Intelligent Systems should've learned from their own writing and let the series go out in a blaze of glory instead of trying to rekindle its oldest embers?