Review by Vauclair
This was all in vain...
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War is the fourth installment in the FE series. It was developed by Intelligent Systems and released for the SFC in 1996. The game was never released in West, but it received an excellent fan translation. The cover looks pretty neat with Pegasi and Dracoknights flying in the background, the guy looks like you typical blue-haired FE main hero, even his garments are somewhat similar to what Marth wears. Well, as soon I started up the game I could tell FE4 was a very different beast - much more so than the cover led me to believe. The menu theme immediately had a slightly bleaker vibe to it and the color palette was wildly different, too. Everything looked darker and almost autumnal compared to the garish hues and colorful environments from the previous games. Much like the visuals, the writing and tone of the game were - or at least tried - to convey a mature, fairly convoluted story and largely abandoned the high fantasy tropes in favor of court intrigues, betrayals, warring kingdoms and illegitimate heirs. If that sends you thinking of Final Fantasy Tactics or even Game of Thrones, well, you're exactly right.
The most important gameplay change FE4 brought to the table is the weapon triangle which would become a series staple. Now swords profit from an accuracy edge over axes, axes over spears and spears over swords. Elemental magic follows a similar system. Another important gameplay aspect is the romance system. Now characters can develop love relationships between them. Some of these relationships are story-dependent and would happen regardless, others are determined by the player who gets to decide which characters talk to each other and eventually fall in love. Interestingly enough, the romance system would later return in the 3DS games. Speaking of which, couples formed in the first part of the game (Prologue to Chapter 5) have children that become playable in the second part of the game after a 17 year timeskip (Chapter 6 to Endgame). The children often inherit their parents' items as well as their skills. Skills are another addiction to the gameplay, but are they a good addiction? I don't think so, because they are pretty unbalanced and just work against the solid core mechanics established in the previous games. Honestly, the developers got the gameplay right with their very first attempt - FE1 was solid, if rough around the edges. They tried to do something very different with Gaiden and mostly failed. Then they went back to their first game, polished it and made it much better with FE3. In 1996 they tried to do something very different with FE4 and... Yeah.
The story wants to be epic and spans over decades and has you battling all over an entire continent with many different kingdoms in it. Each map is supposed to represent at least an entire region with several castles, villages and factions. They are stupidly big and that's why there are only 12 maps/levels in the game. It's also why this is the only FEgame with an actual save system (no suspend save) - it's not conceivable to play FE4 blind without abusing the save system because of how huge and time-consuming the maps are and how cheap the game can get. It's not a particularly difficult FE game, in fact, the enemy AI seemed even sillier than usual, but after 6-8 hours you're bound to blunder somewhere. This a glaring game design fault because it removes the tension you seek from a FE game and the game might as well be playing itself. It's a deeply unrewarding gaming experience. Even if you're just playing it for the story, you might as well consider reading a visual novel, at least you won't have to deal with all the tedious gameplay sections.
Not only are the maps stupidly big, they're also boring to look at. In the previous games you could expect a nice variety in environments with outdoor as well as indoor maps. there were temples, castles, dungeons, rivers of lava, frozen lakes and so on. In FE4, 90% of the maps are exactly the same. Flat terrain with a bit of greenery over there, some mountains over here and there you go. There's one map with snow in it as well as one desert map which is an absolute slog to get through. This is the worst level design I've ever seen in an SRPG and it also makes for the most tedious SRPG I've ever played from start to finish. The trading system is also atrocious. Now each character has their own money and item supply - they can't share. Unless they're lovers, then they can give money to their intended. However, they still can't share items. You'll have to sell the item to the shop first and then they can buy it back from it - at double the price. What's wrong with you, UnIntelligent Systems? Who thought this was a good idea? Was it you, Shouzou Kaga? I know it was you, man.
So... Is the story any good? Yes, it is. It's pretty good - as long as it dawdles in the smaller SRPG pond. As soon as it ventures into the much bigger JRPG ocean, it really isn't that great and it definitely doesn't justify the horrid gameplay. Still, the characters are pretty well written and most of the conversations serve some kind of purpose. Having characters talk to each other often reveals information about their past and motives - not to mention how they can gain permanent stat boosts. It also helps that the fan translation is high quality and professionally done and I almost feel bad about it, because obviously someone cared a lot about this game. Still, the good writing and fan translation definitely helped me to see FE4 through.
I appreciate FE4 for introducing the weapon triangle as well as for showing some storytelling ambition. For better or worse, they had at least a few lines for each and every character and they all felt fairly distinct. I also appreciate the timeskip and romance concept. Having the children of your first generation heroes fighting side by side was definitely pretty cool. That said, I got very little enjoyment out of the game - if any. I can see why other people would like it more - as for me, if this is what games were all about, I would just read books or watch movies.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu (JP, 05/14/96)
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