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Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade is as Brutal as it is Brilliant

The start of a new chapter for the series, Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade is as brutal as it is brilliant. 

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The Fire Emblem franchise is no stranger to difficulty. The original Fire Emblem is one of the hardest RPGs on the Famicom. Its Super Famicom sequel/remake, Mystery of the Emblem, makes up for being fairer on a design level by also being harder. Thracia 776 was the last entry series creator Shozo Kaga worked on before leaving the franchise and is one of the hardest games in Nintendo’s ludography. It can be argued that a fair challenge has always been built into the franchise’s appeal. From perma-death to weapon durability and tight resource management, Fire Emblem is not afraid to let players fail. This player-driven difficulty curve is exactly what makes the series so compelling to begin with. It’s only fitting that the first installment without Shozo Kaga’s involvement doubles down on the franchise’s strongest qualities. The start of a new chapter for the series, Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade is as brutal as it is brilliant. 

FE6 Roy art Shozo Kaga - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

The Binding Blade also represents a number of significant firsts for Fire Emblem. FE6 was the first entry to release on a handheld, the first to include a Hard mode, the first story with major branching paths, and the first game without a connection to the series’ previously established chronology. Making the transition from home console to handheld can come with its compromises, but Fire Emblem lost little to nothing. Maps are as dense as ever, built around intricate set-pieces. Weapon and item variety is through the roof, allowing for plenty of experimentation. Secrets, side quests, and optional content are in abundance. For a fresh start on new hardware, The Binding Blade doesn’t miss a beat. 

The Game Boy Advance ends up being a perfect home for Fire Emblem, maintaining most of the depth found in the home console entries along with introducing a few quality of life improvements. Most notably, units can now be repositioned before battles. The Shozo Kaga era deployed units onto fixed tiles depending on their order in your party. Rigging the perfect deployment positioning was an exercise in futility that often took more effort than was worth. At the same time, optimal positioning at the start of the map goes a long way in a strategy RPG. It’s only natural that The Binding Blade turns repositioning into a proper mechanic in the prep menu. The strategy starts before you ever hit the battlefield. 

Another benefit of turning repositioning into an actual mechanic is that it encourages players to actively check each chapter’s map. Maps are long, enemies are tough, and the flow of battle can change at the drop of a hat. There’s nothing worse than restarting a chapter 25 minutes in because you failed to consider all the different variables at play. Checking the map is lowkey one of the most important features in the prep menu and can mitigate a lot of TBB’s difficulty. Seeing how enemies are split up, what weapons they’re carrying, and their proximity to terrain is important so you can outfit your army accordingly. Resist the urge to jump into battles blind, and come in with a plan instead. Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade demands that you approach every situation intelligently. 

Fire Emblem Prep Inventory - image courtesy of Reddit

Even item management is harder than usual on account of inventory changes. Where the Super Famicom convoy held 128 items, the GBA convoy only holds 100. Not just that, individual character inventories have been reduced to five items apiece compared to Geneology of the Holy War & Thracia 776’s seven-item inventory. Expect to wear out items fast and to replace them on a near-chapter by chapter basis. Fortunately, FE6 does not shy away from offering players overpowered tools to play around with. More than a few shops sell Killer and Silver weapons, allowing you to stock up on useful weapons by mid-game. Killer Swords, Lances, and Bows can effectively replace their Steel counterparts for the rest of the game if you manage your money well enough. 

Weapon durability is also jarringly low for the strongest weapons. Marth’s Falchion had infinite durability in all its appearances. Sigurd’s signature sword Tyrfing from Genealogy has a staggering 50 units. The titular Binding Blade has a mere 20 uses. Of course, this is all intentional on Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade’s part. Low durability for the most powerful items keeps players from dominating battlefields without consequence. Even the weakest weapons have value, if only to keep your strongest ones intact for the hardest chapters. You’re encouraged to keep a variety of weapons on your units, swapping to whatever best suits each battle. With the lower inventory in place, selecting the right equipment is crucial. 

Despite inventory cutbacks, unit availability ends up fairly generous from map to map. Unit deployment tends to sit in the 13-16 range, and new units join Roy’s army on a regular basis. Some units are (much) better than others, but just about anyone can be trained up in proper Fire Emblem fashion. There are also plenty of replacement units in case you want to fill in specific roles. Marcus has bad stats for a Paladin, but his comparative strength to early game enemies gives him tactical purpose — either as a meat shield or a boss softener. By the time Marcus drops off, you’re introduced to Zelot who can fulfill Marcus’ niche for a few more maps.

Fire Emblem 6 Thieves Shozo Kaga - image by Renan Fonte

There’s really no need for more than one Thief, but FE6 gives you three just in case. Chad joins in the early-game, Astolfo joins by mid-game, and Cath can be recruited as late as chapter 22 if you still need a Thief. Lugh, Lilina, and Hugh are mages who follow a similar pattern, recruited in chapters 3, 8, and 16 respectively. Chapter 19 gives you a level 18 Druid in case you neglected both of your Shamans while a level 20 Bishop joins in Chapter 21 should you still need a dedicated caster. Knowing that you have good options in case you lose a unit makes it easier to stomach perma-death and embrace FE6’s brutality. 

Characters can get lost in the shuffle of a large cast, but Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade cleverly fleshes out even the most narratively irrelevant units through the Support mechanic. A natural evolution of Genealogy’s relationship system, every single unit has five or more characters they can bond with. Roy may be the main character, but his retainers have almost as much depth as he does between all their Support conversations. Supports are ranked in three tiers — C, B, and A — leading to three unique conversations between each pairing. Most of these scenes are short since they take place on the battlefield, but it’s commendable just how much personality the script fits into a single line. Every character has their own voice, a distinct personality, and a unique outlook on their home continent of Elibe. 

Supports keep characters relevant after the narrative pushes them aside, and offers an insightful background that the story doesn’t have time to fit in. Lilina’s narrative role ends after Chapter 8, but her supports flesh out her feelings for Roy, the kind of man her father Hector was, and how approachable she is in spite of her nobility. Entire arcs play out in the confines of Support conversations. Sue is haunted by the fact she watched her clansmen get slaughtered and only manages to put the ghosts behind her by supporting her grandfather, Dayan. Fir’s Supports with Rutger and Karel highlight the empty life of violence she marches towards so long as she carries a sword. All of Roy’s Supports highlight key facets of his personality — from his talents as a strategist to his own insecurities suddenly leading an army. 

Roy and Wolt support - image courtesy of Youtube (shadowwolfchaos725)

Supports are built by placing units next to each other at the end of your turns. Every turn builds affection between the units, which triggers their conversation once enough points have been built up. Along with extra characterization, each rank increases the buffs offered through the mechanic. Buffs themselves are determined by a unit’s elemental Affinity stat and are active so long as units are within three tiles of one another. You can (and should) create entire squads built around the Support system, dividing your army up in a logical way that’s actually beneficial. The main caveat with Affinity is that its bonuses are not defined and the stat itself goes completely unexplained in-game. 

For as much depth as Supports add to the cast and gameplay loop, the mechanic is an inherently grindy endeavor. It can take 60 turns just to get certain pairings to their C Rank. That’s several chapters’ worth of turns. Then again, that’s several chapters in a storyline that stretches 31 if you do everything. You are not meant to build supports on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Getting to an A Rank can be a whole game experience, which makes achieving it and getting the Support bonuses more meaningful in the end. Supports are rewards for sticking with your units. Later games understandably simplified and sped up the mechanic, but there’s something satisfying about watching two characters bond over the course of an entire playthrough.

It is worth noting that units can only support five times per playthrough and you cannot see who supports who. You’re expected to find out by playing the game naturally, but paying attention to the story fills you in on a few pairings. Doroty and Saul join the party together, so logic dictates they’d be able to Support each other. Likewise, Saul and Yoder are both members of the St. Elimine church and naturally share a Support. Not everyone can support one another, but that just encourages unit experimentation. You might be tempted to use a unit you otherwise wouldn’t if it means learning about a favorite character in the process. Most importantly, every playthrough ends up a little different depending on who you choose to support. Supports are Fire Emblem’s player-driven storytelling at its purest. 

Wolt Level Up - image courtesy of libreddit

While just about any unit can be viable with enough training, The Binding Blade makes you put in more work than the average Fire Emblem. A large portion of Roy’s army suffers from low growth rates, leading to underwhelming level-ups compared to other games. Paired with their low base stats, most units come off egregiously weak. While frustrating, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every stat counts in a game where the average level up might only net you HP. There is no room for dead weight on a map and allocating experience to the right units requires strategy in & of itself. It’s not as if FE6 lacks powerful units, either — you just need to put in the effort.  

It also helps to know when to promote units to their next class. Subpar level-ups mean that it isn’t always strategically viable to wait until a unit reaches their max level of 20. Promotion bonuses are hefty enough where promoting at level 15 or even 10 ends up smarter than waiting. Maps almost feel designed around promoting right away, funneling you class-specific promotion items as soon as the difficulty curve rises and your army starts hovering around level 10. Holding off even for a few chapters means contending with potentially underpowered units as enemies only get stronger. Some units simply benefit more from their promotion bonuses than they do ten levels. 

FE6 Shanna Promotion - image courtesy of LP Archive

Promoting a unit not only resets their level back down to 1, it radically changes their in-battle sprite. While a minor detail, FE6’s presentation is worth shining a spotlight on. Battles have never looked so good. The Binding Blade’s presentation takes a step back from the more grounded Super Famicom era, embracing a brighter color palette and fantastical animations. Critical hits are elaborately designed animations full of personality and weight. They’re a visual feast to trigger and a gut punch to be on the receiving end of. Even basic animations are flashy in their own right.

Maps themselves are considerably more colorful than they were in FE4 or 5, opting for a lighter tone that better suits the Game Boy Advance’s small screen. Allies and enemies are easily identifiable in their hues of blue and red respectively, and terrain is always placed in a way that makes each map feel like a real place in Elibe. As far as gameplay goes, FE6 has some of the best level design in the series. Early maps are well-paced and gradually build up the difficulty curve, throwing new challenges at you with each chapter. The mid-game branches off into different paths depending on your actions, while the last stretch of chapters often demand long-term planning and actual tactics. 

Roy helps add another edge to maps by being a weaker Lord than usual. Most Fire Emblem Lords are competent enough to be a valuable unit on every map. Marth couldn’t promote in his games, but his eventual access to Falchion and solid stats kept him perpetually useful. Roy is fine for the first few chapters, but falls off hard the moment you gain access to promotion items. Roy does actually promote, but not until after Chapter 21. Roy’s comparative weakness forces you to rely on the rest of your army, almost removing the inherent benefits that come with being Lord. 

Roy Game Over FE6 Binding Blade Shozo Kaga - image courtesy of Breaking Canon

Keeping Roy alive requires a level of strategy that just doesn’t apply to other main characters. He is a borderline liability with low movement and stats that cannot compete with most enemies before the halfway point even hits. Albeit irritating on the surface level, working around Roy’s limitations leads to creative gameplay scenarios. You can use your horses or fliers to ferry him across maps while keeping him out of harm’s way. Roy almos functions like a King piece in Chess, begging to be protected at all costs. Getting your Lord in proximity to seize each map’s throne is basically a puzzle when most enemies past the halfway point can slaughter them. 

Even at his weakest, Roy can’t take away from the sheer variety of fun set pieces Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade packs into its chapters. Chapter 4 is set on a wide-open field surrounded by towns where Pirates spawn from the open sea. An NPC Troubadour escapes the enemy castle a few turns in, followed by a powerful enemy Myrmidon who she can recruit once his squad joins the map. Poor positioning will result in Rutger’s reinforcements routing Roy’s army, but strategically keeping Clarine just close enough to make contact and get out nets you a very valuable unit. 

Chapter 13 builds tension with each turn, masterfully balancing storytelling through gameplay. The map begins with Roy’s instructor guarding the main castle only for the main antagonist Zephiel to defeat her in a scripted sequence and take over. Zephiel then defers the throne to one of his Wyvern General Narcian, who gives up the throne to the map’s actual boss, Flaer — effectively serving as a decoy to wear down Roy’s unit before the real battle. While Zephiel eventually leaves, his presence on the map puts into perspective just how overwhelmingly powerful the King of Bern. Checking his stats makes it clear that he could single-handedly slaughter your entire army at this point in the game. The first few turns on a fresh playthrough feel borderline futile.

FE6 Chapter 21 Map - image courtesy of LPArchive

Maps are always calling for thoughtful strategies and clever tactics. Players who mindlessly rush into combat or fail to prep properly will only suffer. Chapter 21 is a massive map that devolves into non-stop carnage if you try to explore the entire battlefield. Reinforcements are region-based, coming at you in waves depending on where your units stand. A single wrong placement can result in waves of enemies swarming you before you’re ready. The map’s heavy use of terrain encourages you to create chokepoints next to mountains as you march your army either east or south. Dense forests give you a safe location to bait enemies from, before splitting off into empty plains ready to be rushed. 

While Chapter 21 is particularly brutal, enemies are almost always well-equipped. Coupled with FE6’s low hit rate across the board, you need to take advantage of the Weapon Triangle every chance you get. You will miss often, so make sure your accuracy is always as high as can be. Alternatively, don’t expect to see 100% hit rates too often, so be ready to take chances. Playing to the strengths of both the Weapon (Sword beats Axe beats Lance beats Sword) and Magic Triangles (Anima beats Light beats Dark beats Anima) is key in getting around TBB’s metric ton of dangerous enemies. 

It’s important to take advantage of every tool at your disposal since the enemies do just the same. Reinforcements attack on the same turn they appear, leading to downright deadly ambushes if you aren’t careful. Most reinforcement squads are telegraphed by mid-chapter cutscenes, but where they spawn from is sometimes anyone’s guess. This keeps gameplay tense as the tide of battle can completely shift in one turn. Turtling and waiting for enemies to come to you is smart on paper, but becomes a serious problem when reinforcements flank you. If your tactics can’t change on the fly, prepare to die. 

Roy vs Zephiel FE6 Shozo Kaga - image courtesy of Something Awful

The sheer difficulty of some bosses can cause whiplash for series veterans. Bosses hit hard, have high defense, receive a massive avoid buff from their Throne, and sometimes have a decent chance at landing a critical hit. Most bosses have at least one melee weapon and a ranged weapon, ensuring you can’t play cheap with archers, mages, or javelins. Early chapters often force you to rely on multiple units to wear down boss HP over multiple turns. Later chapters outright demand you use the strongest units in your army just to survive one round of battle. The only way bosses could be more aggressive is if they moved. 

In some cases, you really have no choice but to confront enemies head-on. Most Gaiden chapters are unlocked by completing certain maps in a set amount of turns — finish Chapter 12 in under 20 turns and you get to play 12x. More often than not, Gaiden requirements also force you to keep new units alive. Chapter 14 is a fog of war desert map with items to find in the sand and a very weak mage to escort that needs to be completed in less than 25 turns. The threat of bandit reinforcements keeps you moving towards the Throne, but the allure of desert treasure makes the risk of exploration worthwhile. Keeping Sofia alive, rushing to the Throne, and finding every secret item is difficult, but makes Chapter 14 one of the most rewarding maps in the game to effectively strategize around. 

Binding Blade Chapter 16 - image courtesy of LP Archive

Some chapters border on downright overwhelming when taking their Gaiden requirements into consideration. Chapter 16 is a busy map with a lot to do, and it perfectly exemplifies Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade’s game design at its best. Your main objective is to seize like always, but the map incentivizes you to hold off and complete risky side objectives instead. There are ten chests to plunder, but an enemy general (Douglas) will actively chase your party. You can’t safely kill Douglas either, as doing so locks you out of 16x. Not only do you need to keep Douglas at a safe distance if you want to comfortably open every chest, there are two recruitable units to keep track of. 

The first is an enemy mage, Hugh, who can be hired into Roy’s army for either 5,000 or 10,000 Gold. Of note, Hugh carries a VIP Card on him that gives you access to the map’s Secret Shop — allowing you to purchase promotional items and Angelic Robes. You also need to recruit Zeiss in the top-left corner of the map with Melady if you want to eventually play 21x. As an added bonus, you can even steal Narcian’s Delphi Shield with a Thief. You need to figure out how to bait Douglas around the map while getting your Thieves to chests, Melady to Zeiss, Roy to the Throne, and making sure that Hugh does not die during your initial assault (kiss goodbye to the VIP Card if he does). 

Gaiden chapters are often much shorter than their main story counterparts, themed around simple gimmicks to maneuver around. Chapter 8x has damage dealing lava tiles that prevent you from creating chokepoints, Chapter 12x is a fog of war map inside a cave filled with poisonous gas, and the flooring randomly disappears in Chapter 14x. Chapter 20Ax is arguably the highlight, a Gaiden chapter with six possible Thrones to seize. Only one is real, however. Seizing a false Throne immediately spawns reinforcements on a map that’s already dense with enemies. While an overwhelming challenge at first glance, it’s fun to take on each Throne with your different squads. Plus, the real Throne doesn’t reset if you need to restart the map, allowing you to ignore any fakes. 

Durandal - image courtesy of LPArchive

Completing each Gaiden chapter rewards you with one of Elibe’s Legendary Weapons. Each Legendary Weapon is its own weapon type, encouraging you to spread them out amongst your army. Durandal is a sword, Armads is an axe, Maltet is a lance, Forblaze is an anima tome, Aureola is a light tome, Apocalypse is a dark tome, and the Saint’s Staff is self-explanatory. Completing the set are Roy and Zephiel’s personal swords, the Binding Blade and Eckesachs. Although anyone can wield a Legendary Weapon so long as they have an S rank for its weapon type, they only have 20 uses apiece. You also need to keep all eight (plus the Binding Blade) intact until after Chapter 22 to unlock the final set of chapters. Legendary Weapons are extremely powerful, but they can only be used strategically. 

If you have every weapon in your possession by the end of Chapter 22, the story will continue past the war with Bern for three more chapters. False endings as a means to encourage replay value are nothing new for the series, but Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade goes one step further by including two route splits as part of its narrative. A total of seven chapters change depending on your actions during a given playthrough. Who you recruit and which part of Elibe Roy’s army visits are dictated by you — albeit in a fairly obscure manner. 

The first route split branches off depending on which village you visit during Chapter 9. Visiting the right village unlocks a Bard, Elfin, as your refresher unit, whereas visiting the left (or neither) unlocks a Dancer, Larum. Both units are functionally the same, but they take you to a different pair of chapters before branching back onto the main path. The next route split occurs after chapter 16 and is actually based on which units you’ve leveled. If your Pegasus Knights’ combined total experience is higher than your Nomads’, Roy’s will travel to the nation of Ilia. If you used your Sue and Sin more than Shanna and Thea, Roy will go to Sacae instead. 

FE6 Ilia and Sacae - image by Renan Fontes

The Ilia/Sacae split is far more substantial, stretching from Chapters 17 to 20x. Both regions are vastly different from one another, playing to their own specific strategies. Each region’s geography is catered to its respective classes. Ilia is a harsh region covered in mountains and snowy forests that fliers can easily get by. Sacae has wide-open pastures perfect for nomads to ride across with ease. Even their way of lives clash. Ilia’s people turn to mercenary work to survive the elements while Sacae’s tribes hunt off the land. Sacae is arguably the harder of the two routes, but they’re both worth playing to see the full scope of Elibe. 

Branching storylines are better than false endings as far as replay value goes, but Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade goes one step further with its ranking system. Completing the game grades your performance from A to E on Tactics, Survival, Funds, Combat, Experience, and Power. Your grades are then averaged together into a final ranking. It’s surprisingly fun figuring out how to get through FE6 in as few turns as possible with as much money as possible while recruiting everyone and actively training an army. Aggressively difficult, but fun. If nothing else, it’s just nice to see where you can improve your tactics for future playthroughs. 

FE6 Zephiel art - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

As well designed as The Binding Blade’s gameplay is, the story isn’t quite on the same level. FE6’s narrative is by no means bad, but it is simple and takes its time to pick up the pace. Early chapters are dedicated to establishing major players, each nation, and Elibe’s fragile political climate. The best thing about the plot is how it takes Roy all over Elibe, shining a spotlight on the continent’s rich history. Even without the existence of its prequel The Blazing Blade, The Binding Blade’s world feels genuinely lived in. As slow as the first half is, it at least grounds the storytelling in a cohesive setting. 

The story is at its best when diving into Elibe’s history or focusing on Zephiel, the King of Bern hellbent on ending humanity’s claim on the world and giving it back to the dragons. Zephiel’s motivation is compelling and captivating. Warped from the abuse he suffered as a boy, his ideology stems from a desire to right what he sees are perceived injustices. Humanity slaughtered the dragons and took what was theirs’. At the same time, Zephiel really is no better than what he condemns since he all but enslaves a dragon to have his will done even after death. While Fire Emblem games typically end with a dragon straight out of myth serving as the final boss, The Binding Blade asserts that men are the real villains. Zephiel was not corrupted the way Hardin was and his presence lingers long after his death. 

Ultimately, the story does the best thing it can do and concedes to the gameplay where possible. While FE6 isn’t shy on plot, cutscenes are well-paced and rarely bog the player down in too much text. Support conversations end up carrying a lot of weight in this regard, providing valuable insight into characters you actually want to learn more about. Maps are essentially their own little stories in motion, each battlefield a chapter waiting for you to pen it in blood. 

The script’s tone never downplays the gravity of the situation either. Roy’s Supports regularly dive into the emotional hardships a young man would face leading such a large army with a decent amount of maturity. Zephiel is hardly three-dimensional, but his sister Guinivere’s sympathy for him adds pathos to an intimidating villain. Framing Idunn as a genuine victim adds a layer of tragedy to the final boss fight, and being able to spare her life by dealing the final blow with the Binding Blade makes for a better ending than simply killing her. 

Roy vs Idun final battle - image courtesy of LP Archive Fire Emblem Shozo Kaga

Regardless of whether you kill or spare Idunn, completing the real final chapter unlocks detailed character epilogues for any units who survived the last map. The rest of your party are left with small footnotes, another incentive to replay the game. While the later GBA titles would offer detailed epilogues for every surviving unit — regardless if you used them — FE6’s attempt at “rewarding” you for bringing specific characters to the endgame is charming in its own right. Roy can also marry one of six female characters so long as they share an A Rank Support, slightly altering their endings. 

The path to The Binding Blade’s finale is not an easy one by any stretch of the imagination, but it is fulfilling. Even ignoring the level of challenge Gaiden chapters bring to the table, the main storyline is well-paced with intricately designed maps that encourage you to think critically at all times. The difficulty curve rises as you slowly learn new strategies and train your units. Gameplay is hard, but fair. The Game Boy Advance gave the series the perfect opportunity to trim the fat and refine the basics. The new aesthetic courtesy of the GBA is a solid contender for the series’ best, bursting with personality. Detailed route splits and multiple endings keep replay value fresh while making every playthrough dynamic. Maps are dense with optional objectives that always reward you for playing the “hard” way. The Binding Blade is the best fresh start Fire Emblem could have asked, and a genuinely brilliant SRPG. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

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