Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones
Game Boy Advance
Shining Force on steroids, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones takes the tried-and-true gameplay of the anime-inspired strategy RPG and introduces several interesting twists. These departures from the typical, along with the variety of characters and classes, help make up for the clichéd archetypes and settings, and mitigate the "been there, done that" feeling of the story.
Briefly, the story runs thus: The continent of Magvel has, for centuries, been at peace after the Demon King was defeated and imprisoned in one of the Sacred Stones. Suddenly and without warning, Grado, one of the nation-states of Magvel, launches a military campaign seemingly designed to conquer the continent. When the kingdom of Renais is attacked by Grado, the twin heirs to the throne Erika and Ephraim must battle against Grado's forces while trying to understand the purposes behind its assault on Magvel.
Nothing new here, story-wise. The beating heart of the game can be found in its combat and characterization, with the action taking place on tactical maps where all of the units of your army are visible, and much of the dialogue happening in short expositional dialogues between skirmishes. As a tactical RPG, your main focus, aside from the story, is developing your army and deploying your forces to best advantage. Here's where one of those "twists" comes into play -- if by some misfortune your foe manages to kill off one of your units, that unit is permanently removed from the game unless you restart the entire battle. Death in FE: TSS is as permanent as it is in real life, making for some difficult choices as a player.
The aggressive AI certainly takes this into account, often taking special pains to eliminate exposed or under-supported units. Smart and/or experienced players can take this into account, luring AI-controlled units into traps, but it's still a shock to see that Journeyman you've cultivated over several battles get wiped out by an attack you didn't see coming. And it's important to grow weaker/less-experienced units as well, as they can become some of the most powerful in the game. Indeed, unlocking the potential of these less-powerful units can be immensely entertaining and satisfying, assuming you can keep them alive long enough.
Other departures from a normal tactical RPG include specialized dialogues that take place between units in the heat of battle, as well as a "relationship tree" that charts how close certain characters/units are. Characters with a closer relationship will be more efficient in combat when paired together. These gameplay variations, combined with above-average hand-drawn graphics, a decent (if repetitive) score, and excellent replayability due to branching character development trees, make FE: TSS a worthy addition to your tactical RPG library.
Nicely drawn characters and surprisingly well-animated battle scenes.
Repetitive, but not intrusive.
It's great fun to build up your army and develop your characters into unstoppable fighting machines. It isn't so great when they get offed by aggressive AI.
Branching character development trees and a storyline with some flexibility make this worthy of multiple plays.
Explains basics; player's can learn story, setting, and controls simply by playing the game.