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Fire Emblem Sacred Stones Feature - image courtesy of alpha coders Fire Emblem Sacred Stones Feature - image courtesy of alpha coders


Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is One of the Best RPGs on the GBA

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones’ uniqueness is precisely what makes it one of the best RPGs on the Game Boy Advance. 



Making sure each game has had its own identity has always been a key part of Fire Emblem’s modus operandi–no two titles are ever alike. Dark Dragon set a deceptively simple foundation that juggled strategy and RPG elements. Gaiden downplays its strategic elements in favor of playing out like a more traditional JRPG. Mystery of the Emblem is as much a remake as it is a sequel. Genealogy of the Holy War styles itself a slow-paced epic that trades dozens of maps for a dozen massive ones to better convey the scope of war. Thracia 776 is an interquel set during Genealogy that rounds out its maps with puzzle-like set-pieces which demand tight resource management and tactical foresight. The largest overlap amongst titles is the one shared between The Binding and Blazing Blade, but even they differ under scrutiny. All this is to say that The Sacred Stones is more than a black sheep, but a worthy entry in a franchise that thrives on experimentation. 

Eirika vs Saar - image courtesy of something awful forums

It’s important to note that Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones’ development ran concurrently with Path of Radiance for the GameCube. By all accounts, Intelligent Systems intended The Binding Blade to close out their run on the Game Boy Advance until the studio recognized Fire Emblem’s newfound international popularity. In a likely attempt to keep series momentum intact while audiences waited for PoR, The Sacred Stones was developed as a completely self-contained sequel for the GBA. One that had an opportunity to not only refine FE6 & 7’s gameplay, but radically differentiate itself from the soon-to-be-released FE9. Where Path of Radiance offers the typical Fire Emblem experience for home consoles — no grinding with linear progression — Sacred Stones takes a page from Gaiden’s book and revisits a style of gameplay FE last experimented within 1992. 

Strategy is still in play, but the gameplay loop has more in common with a JRPG than the average Fire Emblem. The story often brings you back to a traversable world map between chapters instead of transitioning you into the next battle right away. Maps are only ever played back-to-back during moments of narrative urgency. Random encounters pop up on the overworld that you can grind money and experience off of. The majority of enemies are demonic monsters rather than soldiers in an opposing army. There are two playable dungeons with multiple floors to fight through, and items to collect from treasure chests & as drops from enemies. Branching promotion lines and class-based skills offer units a greater sense of player-driven individuality. Post-game content encourages you to keep playing long after the credits have rolled.

The Sacred Stones’ very premise is a change of pace for the series, leaning into themes and tropes commonly associated with dark fantasy. The dead rise as revenants and roam the lend. Giant spiders eat villagers. Bonewalkers, mauthe doogs, gargoyles, and baels stand ready to slaughter anything in their path. Death is a constant. Terrors take over entire townships, turning signs of life into wastelands. Almost every national figurehead is killed during the course of the story, some in a realistically unceremonious fashion. Magvel’s near-apocalyptic state is a consequence of man’s actions, demons from myth brought forth through arrogance and corruption. Societal destabilization is given an uncomfortable amount of focus for the series, and an abundance of emotional betrayal darkens an already bleak story.

Blazing Blade Sacred Stones graphics - image by Renan Fontes

Intelligent Systems wisely matches The Sacred Stones’ narrative darkness on an aesthetic level. Although FE8 reuses a considerable amount of assets from its GBA predecessors, the graphics’ color palette has been noticeably darkened. This is on account of better shading on some level, but the coloring make use of a wider range of earth tones, countering Elibe’s almost garishly bright art style. Water is a deeper shade of blue. Grass is a fuller shade of green. Character composition simply looks more natural while still embracing Fire Emblem’s love of color. Every unit is visually distinct yet aesthetically grounded in their world. It helps that Magvel is a well-realized setting as is. 

The Sacred Stones may be a stand-alone entry, but it manages to get a fair amount of worldbuilding done nonetheless. Important regions are culturally and geographically unique. Renais is a peaceful country surrounded by mountains that governs with friendly diplomacy. The forested Frelia stands as Renais’ closest allies and the guardians to the legendary Tower of Valni. Grado is a massive military state and the single largest power in Magvel. Jehanna is a desert region home to proud warriors. Rausten is a holy nation prone to monster raids that shares an intimate connection to Magvel’s dark history. The continent is full of memorable set pieces that enrichen the setting. Neleras Peak is an active volcano and a Gorgon’s nest. The Narube River’s water shines gold as the sun sets on the battlefield. Darkling Woods is an enormous forest guarding the Black Temple, the Demon King Formortiis’ tomb. 

Magvel - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Fire Emblem’s core identity is very much intact, but The Sacred Stones’ gameplay loop fundamentally differs from its predecessors. The mere inclusion of a world map influences how progression plays out. You can backtrack to shops and armories that would be locked to a single map in previous games. Unit inventories can be managed at any time. Beginning with Chapter 9, monsters start popping up on the world map and you gain access to the Tower of Valni — a dungeon with multiple floors that keep unlocking until Chapter 15. Overworld skirmishes and dungeons naturally offset the series’ approach to experience as a resource. Most FE games are designed around a finite amount of experience, forcing you to strategize around who to feed EXP to. Training a single unit is an expense that may or may not pay off depending on their growth rates.

Like Gaiden, The Sacred Stones presents a scenario where every single unit can be realistically trained. This does lower the difficult curve of what’s already one of the easiest Fire Emblems, but it doesn’t actually make the game any less fun. Unit balance goes out of its way to cater to different play styles, featuring a mix of weak units to level and powerful pre-promotes ready for battle. The logic seems to be that players interested in a straight RPG have multiple units they can build to their liking. Those who want to play FE8 as a proper strategy game can instead rely on their pre-promoted units without ever needing to grind. Trainees like Ross, Amelia, and Ewan exemplify the former, while Seth represents the latter.  

Sacred Stones Ross and Seth - image by Renan Fontes

Resource management may not extend to experience anymore, but it does still play a role. Unit inventories remain limited to five a piece and the convoy sits at a 100 item limit that’ll whittle down if you grind too much too fast. Random enemies can occasionally drop gold, but farming money reliably is unlikely to happen until the endgame. This keeps FE8’s gold economy in a decent shape regardless if you overlevel your army. Doing so could even force you to equip high-level units with low-tier weapons if you spend too much money replacing broken equipment from grinding. 

Skirmishes themselves are fairly well put-together. Some skirmishes are fought on pre-existing fields, while others take place on entirely new maps. It’s not unusual for a fog of war to set in and obscure enemies. Positioning still matters, especially while training weaker units. Most monsters will rush the field looking for prey regardless of whether any units are in range. Plenty of enemy variety keeps battles engaging. Later skirmishes in particular go all out when it comes to fashioning armies of terrors together. Perhaps best of all, they serve as a great way to conveniently build up supports without wasting dozens of turns in the main chapters. 

Sacred Stones Class Promotion - image courtesy of lets play archive

Promotion is still handled through class-specific seals, but branching paths offer units an extra layer of customization. With the exception of Lords, units now have one of two options whenever they promote. A Cavalier can either become a Paladin or a Great Knight. A Pegasus Knight can promote into a Falco or Wyvern Knight. Myrmidons can be promoted into Swordmasters or Assassins. The return of class-based skills means you need to be strategic in how you grow a unit. Natasha can either gain a mount by promoting into a Valkyrie or become a Bishop who learns Slayer, a skill that triples her Light damage against monsters. Wyvern Knights can potentially ignore enemy damage through Pierce, Summoners can Summon allied phantoms onto the battlefield, and Rogues can Pick anything without the use of Lockpicks.

Likely stemming from its short development time, The Sacred Stones has smaller and fewer chapters than either The Binding or Blazing Blades. This doesn’t mean that map design is lacking, however. A shorter playthrough demands a brisker pace while forcing each chapter to be as creative as possible. The first few maps serve as a soft tutorial ala Lyn Mode from FE7, albeit much better executed. The prologue teaches you about choke points, terrain, healing, and the weapon triangle in less than two turns. Chapter 1 introduces reinforcements and seizing on a wider field. Chapter 2 brings in villages, village destruction, recruitable allies, and shops. A mountain divides the map, forcing you to either walk around or rely on your flier to ferry units back & forth via the rescue mechanic.

Chapter 3 introduces chests, supports, and stealing (which in turn sets a precedent for skills). Chapter 4 makes heavy use of the magic triangle while bringing monsters into play. Chapter 5 is a Kill Boss map with a recruitable enemy, an arena, and multiple paths to the boss — subtly teaching you how to properly split up your squad and bait enemies. Come Chapter 8, you’re seizing a castle and controlling two squads from separate sides of the map. The Sacred Stones’ opening chapters barely feel like a tutorial, intuitively teaching you new strategies by gradually raising the difficulty curve. 

Sacred Stones early chapters - images courtesy of lets play archive

Although The Sacred Stones has two main characters, the story initially places its focus on Eirika, the princess of the now-deposed Renais Kingdom. Her co-lead and brother, Ephraim, is not introduced until Chapter 5x, FE8’s sole Gaiden map. The early game centers around Eirika’s journey to reunite with her brother as Ephraim attempts to fight off the invading Grado Empire covertly. Upon completing Chapter 8, the game transitions to an intermission of sorts called A New Beginning, where you are prompted with picking your main Lord for the rest of the game. Not only do Eirika and Ephraim have their own set of chapters to play, but several cutscenes during the last act are actually heavily altered to reflect whoever the protagonist is. What’s especially interesting is that either route can be interpreted as the “intended” campaign. 

Eirika is the natural choice since you’re just sticking with your established main character. Tasked with journeying to Rausten, Eirika’s army stands by her side while Ephraim continues his undercover assault on Grado. On the other side of things, the story places an incredible amount of emphasis on Ephraim even when he’s off-screen. Suddenly shifting protagonists midway through a game makes for an appealing change of pace, and 5x does a good job at presenting Ephraim as an endearing character. He also benefits by having Eirika’s army by his side while she’s provided with a Frelian escort on her way to Rausten. Where Eirika’s story fleshes out the supporting cast, Ephraim’s highlights one of the series’ best roster of villains. When it comes down to it, both routes are distinct enough to warrant playing. 

Eirika concept art - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Chapters 9 through 14 are totally unique on either route, while 15 & 16 have slight variations in positioning and enemy variety. Eirika has a simpler set of maps to contend with, but there are notable standouts. Chapter 10 is a seize map that places an allied squad dead-center and a recruitable enemy all the way to the south. Carefully placed enemy squads force you to move strategically if you want to recruit all four units. Since Tana can recruit Innes, you can send Eirika towards the throne with her own squad while the rest of your army protects the NPCs. Chapter 12 makes use of carefully positioned mountains designed around creating checkpoints. Spiders slowly preying on houses incentivize you to get to the top of the map as quickly as possible. High enemy density mixed with a tight layout makes for a memorable chapter. 

Ephraim’s route outright has some of the best maps in the game. His version of Chapter 10 is downright genius in terms of design. While a small map geographically, the chapter tasks you with multiple objectives within a ten-turn limit. Your primary goal is to recruit & protect Duessel, but you can end the map early by gunning right for the boss. Keeping all of Duessel’s allied units alive nets you a Knight Crest at the end of the chapter, encouraging you to beat the pirates to shore. Cormag in the bottom-right can be recruited if spoken to with Duessel, incentivizing you to use the unit you’re meant to protect in order to bait enemies. Enemy placement is just smart enough where approaching each squad too slowly prevents you from getting everything the map has to offer. 

Chapter 11 is an almost claustrophobic map that raises the stakes with each turn. The whole battle takes place at sea, with a ship of monsters progressively getting closer to Ephraim’s. By the third turn, monsters will have set up planks so they can board your ship. Fog of war keeps several enemies obscured, turning what would otherwise be a simple route map into an overwhelming gauntlet where a single wrong move can be damning. Knowing when to stay on the defensive or go on the offensive is critical, as is creating enough chokepoints to mitigate enemy damage. The fifth turn introduces the chapter boss and two recruitable NPCs on entirely different sides of the map, giving you no choice but to split up your army for the last stand. 

Ephraim vs Vigarde - image courtesy of lets play archive

Chapter 14 is a strong contender for The Sacred Stones’ best map, an epic battle in Grado’s capital ready to punish the unprepared. Enemy squads in front and behind locked doors fortify the center of the map. Reinforcements swarm from the sides, hunting down anything in sight. Long-range spellcasters will pounce on every opportunity to put your units to Sleep or turn them Berserk — a dangerous status effect that can result in your party killing each other. Vigarde is one of the hardest bosses in the game, especially relative to when fought. He’s prone to nullifying damage and has a low crit chance that can be deadly if left unchecked. You need to have your strongest units and healers at the ready to take him down.

FE8’s home stretch takes after Ephraim’s route in regards to quality, the last few maps ending both campaigns on quite a high note. Chapter 19 presents a risk versus reward scenario where creative thinking is encouraged. While the main goal is to keep Pontifex Mansel alive for 13 turns, the chapter ends prematurely by killing the boss. You can either turtle around Mansel or take the fight to Riev. Since reinforcements spawn in every turn, enemy density never lessens and the map becomes more chaotic the longer it goes on. Fog of war also keeps enemies obscured, setting up ambushes that’ll punish the careless. Limited turns and chests on opposite sides of the map force you to make quick progress. Every move matters. If you’re smart enough, you can have a squad ready to defeat Riev as soon as all six chests are open and end the chapter early anyways. 

Darkling Woods Black Shrine - image courtesy of lets play archive

Chapter 20 is a war of attrition that pads its terrain-filled field with powerful monsters. Reinforcements who yield high experience make this the perfect battleground to quickly farm levels before the last chapter. You can ferry-rescue your Lord to the throne in a matter of turns so long as you have a strong enough flier. Even then, getting near the boss triggers Riev’s movement along with an influx of reinforcements. The Final Chapter places Lyon inside a rearguard of Gorgons, and two powerful Draco Zombies in front of the only paths to the boss. Constant reinforcements push you to complete the map as quickly as possible, but poor placement as a result of thoughtless rushing leads to death. You have all the tools to finish the map, you just need to come up with a coherent strategy. 

The Sacred Stone may be short and on the easier side of things, but tight pacing and fun map design more than cut the difference. Chapters never get as overwhelming as they did in The Binding Blade, nor do they demand Thracia 776s degree of tactical competence. The Sacred Stones gets by with memorable maps that offer flexibility in how you approach each set piece. The difficulty curve isn’t brain-dead either, just lowered. Ephraim’s route has enough challenge to go around and the inclusion of the series’ first post-game mode gives you a playground to sink hours of gameplay into. Even if FE8 doesn’t scratch the same strategic itch as its predecessors, it’s a great RPG in its own right and an excellent reinterpretation of Gaiden’s core (one that set important precedents for Shadows of Valentia). 

Lyon vs Ephraim - image courtesy of the lets play archive

Narratively, the shorter length makes for a story that leaves no room for excess. The script is to the point, but colorful and packed with excellent dialogue. Ephraim’s bravado makes him instantly likable. Eirika’s sincerity and willingness to trust everyone translates perfectly in her soft style of speech. Lyon’s voice is noticeably different between his timid self and Demon King persona. Support conversations are not as natural as The Blazing Blade’s, but they still flesh out the supporting cast and setting a great deal.

Units tend to be connected to the main plot or have intimate knowledge of Magvel’s lore, leading to enlightening conversations. Duessel and Knoll discuss important background information that sheds insight into Lyon’s downfall and dovetails into a poignant glimpse at living with the guilt of betrayal. Eirika and L’Arachel’s supports offer valuable insight into two of the story’s most important characters, fleshing out the princesses beyond how they present themselves to the world. Ephraim and Eirika’s conversation develops their personalities considerably, making their arcs so much richer. 

Sacred Stones Lyon CG - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

The real stars of The Sacred Stones’ cast are the villains, each one as distinctly motivated as they are distinguished. Valter is a malicious sadist who hunts down Eirika throughout her route. The first thing he does in the story is severely wound Seth, one of your strongest units, establishing himself as a genuinely imposing threat. It’s deeply cathartic when you finally get to cut Valter down. Then there’s Selena, a loyal Grado knight who does not agree with her kingdom’s sudden aggression but loves her emperor too much to not fall in line. There’s no triumph in killing a good woman bound to fight for the wrong side. 

Orson is one of Renais’ finest soldiers, only to turn traitor following the death of his wife. He condemns his home kingdom to death just so he can revive her, spending his days tending to an emotionless husk. The story gives players every reason to hate Orson, but his fate is nothing but pitiable. Unable to cope with his wife’s death, Orson essentially treats her like a moving doll — imagining what she might say and speaking in return. His death is mercy for a mad man. 

“We must learn to accept sorrow. We must take it into our hearts and tame our grief…”

Lyon - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Lyon is outright one of the series’ best antagonists, a cautionary tale about failing to confront your demons and the inevitable. Lyon has an inferiority complex that he refuses to acknowledge, bubbling his entire life. He loves Eirika desperately but thinks himself beneath her. He envies Ephraim with a hot jealousy, seeing himself as nothing but his best friend’s lesser. Lyon sees a vision of Grado suffering a natural disaster, its people dying from starvation with no solution in sight. This knowledge coupled with his father’s death shatters Lyon’s mind. Despite being a bright, strong man with a genuine desire to protect his kingdom, Lyon does not believe himself capable. He goes so far as to defy the laws of nature, reviving his father as a puppet and stringing along an entire war to prevent an act of nature. Lyon’s is a fool’s errand. 

Lyon leaves the most painful parts of his life unattended for too long. He never tells Eirika how he feels, missing his chance at happiness. He never tells Ephraim about how small he makes him feel, missing his chance at reconciliation. He never moves on from his father’s death, running away from his actions by asserting his power through a corpse. He does not so much as go to Renais for aid, condemning a continent to ruin because he was too meek to reach out to the two people who would have surely helped him. In the end, Grado is devastated by a landslide regardless and their emperor dies having accomplished nothing. Lyon could not accept life’s hardships and the world suffered for it.

Death is a major theme all throughout The Sacred Stones, extending from characters to exploring the concept of societal collapse. Magvel is one of the most war-torn settings in Fire Emblem. By the end of the game, terrors have spread across the entire continent. Several skirmishes take place in ruined villages that you previously protected, suggesting they fell to monsters after your forces left the scene. Orson lets Renais rot to the point of ruin during his short reign, so much so that Seth feels the need to humble Ephraim when the people cheer for their king — reminding him that Renais’ citizens would be cheering for anyone to better their station. Unlike Lyon, however, Ephraim and Eirika are able to face reality. Where Vigarde’s death breaks Lyon completely, Fado’s death humbles his children. 

Ephraim concept art - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Eirika gains independence and proves herself a capable leader who can empathize and recognize how much the commonfolk are suffering. Ephraim tempers his rebelliousness into responsibility to uphold everything his father stood for, even at the expense of his personal freedom. They took sorrow into their hearts, tamed their grief, and came out the other end better versions of themselves. The story ends with Ephraim, a king kind enough to participate in Grado’s reconstruction with his own hands, and Eirika, the ruler Renais needs in such desperate times. All Lyon can do is delude himself into a fantasy where death is reversible and man controls nature. The Sacred Stones’ greatest tragedy is that Lyon was never any worse than the woman he loved or man he envied. He just could never see himself as their equal, and fell to corruption. 

Eirika and Ephraim’s character arcs are not as prominent as Lyn, Eliwood, or Hector’s from The Blazing Blade, but that works to the benefit of FE8’s story. This is a fast-paced game that cannot afford the slow, emotionally charged moments that defined FE7. What it has instead is a thematically rich story that manages to get a lot of character work done efficiently. Ephraim has a single chapter before the route split, but his one appearance is enough to define his greatest strength and biggest flaw: confidence that borders on arrogance. Orson’s wife never needs to appear since everyone’s reactions sell the morbidity of her “revival.” Quick flashbacks with Lyon inject a necessary amount of pathos to cast doubt on his actions and make the ending all the more impactful. Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones does more with less. 

Sacred Stones ending - image courtesy of sprites resource

Fire Emblem is at its best when it pushes the series in new directions. At its time, The Sacred Stones was an off-beat follow-up to The Blazing Blade meant to hold fans over until Path of Radiance. On reflection, FE8 almost serves as a prototype for modern Fire Emblem — from split promotions to the world map and skirmishes. The cast is small, but intimate, willing to show the full scope of their personality even if it clashes with the setting. Post-game content is now the norm, Creature Campaign’s spirit living on in the likes of downloadable content and Echoes’ Thabes Labyrinth. Yet FE8 still feels like a classic Fire Emblem, a bridge between what the franchise was and what it would eventually become. 

The GBA was home to three Fire Emblem games by the end of its run, and all of them distinct. Where Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade has the best balance of RPG and strategy, The Binding Blade embraces the series’ strategic potential while The Sacred Stones leans into the RPG mechanics that define gameplay. All three are different interpretations of what the series should look like, and they’re equally valid. Ensuring each game has its own identity is what makes a franchise thrive, not complacency. Its uniqueness is precisely what makes Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones one of the best RPGs on the Game Boy Advance. 

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.