I was legitimately surprised when Mike told me on the RPG podcast last week that he preferred Casual Mode in Fire Emblem, which resurrects your fallen characters at the end of each level. "I get too attached to my characters," he said matter-of-factly.
I was surprised because permanent death has always been an essential part of Fire Emblem for me. I can't really conceive of it any other way. But Mike isn't alone - a lot of people are allergic to permadeath in Fire Emblem. It seems to make them actively nervous, as if they are actually risking their friends and relatives in making the wrong decision. It's no coincidence that Fire Emblem didn't really seem to take off in the west until Intelligent Systems made permadeath optional.
It's relatively easy to figure out why: Fire Emblem has a cast consisting of characters with names, faces, and stories. They aren't faceless cannon fodder like in Darkest Dungeon; and when they die, the games isn't automatically over (unless your protagonist falls in battle). Moreover, Fire Emblem has a finite number of characters. When one of them falls, a new soldier cannot be plucked from a bottomless well of recruits, as in XCOM. One wrong move, and a whole story arc is down the drain.
But with all due respect to Mike, that's precisely what makes Fire Emblem special. The stakes are supposed to be high. You're supposed to be nervous that you'll lose a valuable character. And if they fall in battle, it adds to the story almost as much as it detracts from it. So here's my plea to you: Don't be afraid. Give Fire Emblem's Classic Mode a shot, especially if you're playing Birthright. You'll be surprised how much more tense and memorable your playthrough will end up being.
I say this having been a fan of the series for more than a decade now. My first ever Fire Emblem was Blazing Sword for the Game Boy Advance - the first game to be released in the U.S. It had a good deal in common with today's games, but with the notable exception that perma-death was not optional. Moreover, when a supporting character died, they were truly dead. When the epilogue rolled around, the only note a fallen character would receive would be where they died - a grave marker and little else. It could be frustrating - especially when a character died to an unlucky critical hit late in a mission - but it also made clearing each successive level that much more satisfying.
Of course, like most people, I rarely accepted a death. Unless I was truly at the end of my rope - which happened occasionally - I always restarted the mission. I would then run the gauntlet again until I eventually found an optimal strategy and cleared the level. As I progressed and my characters grew more powerful, the restarts became less common, though enemy units were still dangerous enough to keep me on my toes.
At this point you're probably asking yourself, "If you're just going to restart anyway, why even bother with perma-death? Isn't it way less frustrating to just run through each level and not have to worry about losing a character?"
Who cares about carefully balanced enemy placement and obstacles if you're too busy hacking through bad guys to notice it? You've basically reduced Fire Emblem to a turn-based Dynasty Warriors game with relationship mechanics.
Well, kind of. The problem is that Fire Emblem leans much more heavily on battlefield tactics than actual character development for its depth. The best Fire Emblem maps are like puzzles - each one intricately designed with chokepoints, environmental obstacles, and carefully placed enemies. You're meant to repeatedly check your enemy's movement range and carefully plan out your party's formation so you don't accidentally leave a healer or an archer exposed.
In the beginning, this usually isn't too difficult. If you put your best defensive units up front and keep your archers and mages in back, you're fine. But as the game progresses, you can find yourself getting repeatedly flanked by enemy units, forcing you to take careful stock of where they are coming from and how to block their progress. Often, it's good to keep a weapon like a Beast Killer at the ready in case a lot of fast-moving flyers and horse riders show up, as is the case with a number of the later Conquest maps. The fun of Fire Emblem's tactics is in finessing your way through a group of powerful enemies without losing a unit.
Take away perma-death, though, and Fire Emblem becomes trivial. True, you have to take some precautions to ensure that you don't lose too many units. Beyond that, though, you can hack and slash your way through most levels with relative ease. At that point, Fire Emblem becomes just another grind, and the map design begins to lose its meaning. Who cares about carefully balanced enemy placement and obstacles if you're too busy hacking through bad guys to notice it? You've basically reduced Fire Emblem to a turn-based Dynasty Warriors game with relationship mechanics.
Obviously, plenty of Fire Emblem players will be fine with this. People are drawn to the series for all manner of reasons: its outstanding presentation, its multi-faceted story design to show multiple viewpoints of a single conflict, its relationship mechanics. For those people, constantly restarting a single mission is apt to be the height of tedium, and that's fine - I wouldn't presume to tell them that they're wrong to want to avoid it.
In fact, I'll even go a step further and say that there's room for Intelligent Systems to improve on the core tactics. As some readers have pointed out, the enemies are too often obsessed with attacking your weakest units under the assumption that you'll quit and restart if you lose someone. They're a bit smarter in Birthright and Conquest - they'll retreat if they're injured, for instance - but there's little in the way of big picture thinking with Fire Emblem's artificial intelligent. Intelligent Systems leans heavily on map design and mechanics like Dragon Veins - hotspots that alter the environment - to hide the somewhat lacking A.I.
But having said that, there's just something missing when you turn off perma-death in Fire Emblem. It takes away the frustration, granted, but also the tension, the excitement, and frankly, the need for tactical thinking. All the sudden, weapon selection, support bonuses, and classes don't matter so much. All that's left is making sure your party gets enough XP to keep up with enemy progression. The actual gameplay becomes rote.
I'll grant that Conquest on Classic is not for the faint of heart. Some of Conquest's maps are flatout nasty even by Fire Emblem's standards. But in the end, the satisfaction of shepherding your army through a dozen powerful enemies, obstacles, and close calls makes it worth it. If you consider yourself a Fire Emblem fan, you owe it to yourself to experience the series as it was originally conceived - tough, uncompromising, and wholly satisfying."