What’s a Battle Without Death?

You’re deep in the trenches of a fierce battle in a war with no end in sight. Several of your party members are low on health and beginning to become cornered by looming enemies. Between a swing of an ax and several fierce magic spells, your FAVORITE character finally succumbs to the enemy’s onslaught. By your own miscalculations you just killed your most cherished character. Now they are not only no longer a member of your party, they are also virtually dead for the remainder of your game. Gone. Adios. Buh-bye.

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This may be a familiar scene if you’ve ever played the tactical role-play and turn-based strategy game series, Fire Emblem- famous for it’s permanent character death rule. The game, published by Nintendo and developed by Intelligent Systems, has stirred up some controversy with an alteration to its death rule within the latest installment to the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening. At the very start of FE:A, players are asked to select a difficulty setting (with options ranging from Easy, Hard, and Ludicrous) as well as a Game Mode. It’s within the Game Mode options that tradition has been broken and controversy arises.

You may choose between Classic Mode, a mode that includes permanent character death within the game as it has existed in all previous installments of the series, or Casual Mode (known in European versions as ‘Newcomer Mode’), a mode which nixes permanent death from your game entirely, allowing any character who dies in battle to return to your party following your victory. To put it simply, players now have the option to play in a world where death simply does not exist.

The Game Mode selection screen
The Game Mode selection screen

The FE:A project manager, Masahiro Higuchi (a developer who has been involved with all of the Fire Emblem games since their incarnation) has responded to the controversy of Game Modes saying that he too was initially not a fan of the Casual Mode, stating, “If someone dies, you can’t just go and resurrect them like in other games. You need to think more carefully about the value of the lives you’re controlling in the game. It connects with the difficulty level, too — it makes you work your way through the game very carefully, which I think makes each victory all the more exhilarating. It’s one of the charms of Fire Emblem, which is probably why adding Casual mode generated a fair amount of controversy,” however he says he has come around, conceding that this altered rule for the newest game has likely led it to become the biggest success of the series- a series that was stagnating and on the brink of cancelation prior the release of FE:A. It’s perhaps thanks to this controversial change that new players have flocked en mass to the world of Fire Emblem, saving the series with over a million copies sold.

While some fans can argue that the lack of permanent death hinders the game’s brutal tactical components, thus making battle strategies less strenuous for players, I find that it’s important to consider another key aspect of the game to understand why the optional exclusion of permanent death has led to such success. The game is not just about battles and leveling up- it’s also about the relationships that you as a player (and also a character within the game) are allowed to experience, as well as develop within your game.

The Support system within the game acts to establish bonds or affiliation between playable characters. It is from these supports that characters can gain certain in-game statistical bonuses as their relationships advances through the ranks; C, B, and A. Characters have a set list of other characters that they are able to become friendly with, and these relationships are advanced by fighting proximity. The established friendships can even advance so far as a union, or marriage, between male and female characters (there are no same-sex couplings, but that’s a conversation for another post).

 

A completed Support Log from the Japanese version of Fire Emblem: Awakening.
A completed Support Log from the Japanese version of Fire Emblem: Awakening.

It’s important to note that these relationships aren’t just stats- as relationship ranks rise they are played out in textual conversations between characters, which occurs in-between battles. These conversations can run the gamut from humorous to deeply emotional, uncovering loving emotions and family relations alike. Not only do they often reveal the nature between characters relationships with one another, they also in turn shed light on character details to the player, which then further endear players to their accumulated characters. These relationships aren’t necessarily needed to advance the story, but I do believe that they serve to attach us strongly to the characters we favor.

A support conversation between Chrom and the custom character 'My Unit' players are able to create at the start of the game.
A support conversation between Chrom and the custom character ‘My Unit’ players are able to create at the start of the game.

So, in a game full of battles and slaughter, why shouldn’t a player be allowed a little levity in the form of relationship building and the omission of death? After so much effort put forth to advance an army of characters in their battle skills as well as building relationships with as many characters as possible it is BRUTALLY harsh to see all that work washed down the drain by a character’s death. In game, there’s very little grieving done by the remaining characters within your army, instead you’re left to mourn your character’s deaths alone. But of course that’s what Casual Mode is for. It lets you ignore death, and play out your wildest pairing fantasies. By the end of the game, you’ve won battles- fought with perhaps a bit more ease than your permanent death compatriots- but still; it’s been a war all the same. I believe FE:A gets it right by allowing players to choose between major game rule such as permanent death. War is unforgiving, and sometimes to get a little escape, you may want to bend the rules on just how far reaching that brutality can go.

  3 comments for “What’s a Battle Without Death?

  1. silver
    February 26, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    The Fire Emblem games are rather well known for their difficulty in the loss of characters. As a lover of strategy games I’ve attempted titles of the series only to be left in tears and save files I’ll never touch again. You bring up a big point of controversy. Long-time players of the game can appreciate the difficulty of characters that stay dead, but that’s all the game keeps entertained; long-time players. It’s all well and good to have big fans for a series, but it cuts off the possibility for first time gamers who don’t have the strategy down pat. With no new fans coming in, no new economy comes in, result? INSTA DEATH. A game needs to evolve to survive, a pattern you can trace through any long running series, such as Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy with the changing game mechanics. Although the long-time players of the series may not appreciate their beloved series demeaning itself for easier play for beginners, it’s a necessary step to continue in the gaming world.

  2. quigles
    March 20, 2015 at 12:57 am

    I am actually playing through Fire Emblem: Awakening now, it’s the first in the series I have ever played and I decided to play on classic mode simply because I enjoy the extra challenge of permadeath. I am actually halfway through the story (I just finished the chapter where Emmeryn dies) and I can honestly say that the permadeath feature (that I understand the series is known for) really makes the challenge that more apparent from a gameplay perspective (granted the only characters I have lost are Miriel and Panne). But can I recommend that every newcomer to the series play on classic mode? No. It can get extremely hard at times (I cannot count how many times I accidentally got Chrom killed off) to the point of near stressful and I cannot help but think the story is much better with the full cast of characters present in every cutscene. Plus, since Fire Emblem: Awakening is already an incredibly replayable game, playing on classic mode after beating casual mode (or if you are me, vice versa) is nothing more than opening up another save file and playing the game again, satisfying long-time fans and newcomers alike. This game should serve as a role model for future Fire Emblem installments to come. Now if only Nintendo would tell us more about Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem.

  3. rodonne2
    April 4, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    I agree with a lot that was written in this article. “Fire Emblem” was a great installment to the Fire Emblem series, but there were some new dynamics that did not fit the Fire Emblem series. The casual setting for the game makes the game easier for new and old players of the series, but takes away from the theme of death that the Fire Emblem series has set up. Because Fire Emblem is a strategy game, the whole “death is permanent” makes the player plan every move, as to not lose a character permanently. If this is taken away then “Fire Emblem” becomes a game of recklessly throwing your characters at the enemies.

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