This article was written primarily from the perspective of the GBA Fire Emblem games, Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. Some modern mechanics may be referenced, but specific developments of the series present in newer versions may be unknown to the author.
The combat mechanics of fire emblem are simple. Units take turns moving on a grid based map. To attack a unit, units can be moved next to an enemy unit (or nearby, depending on their weapon range) and simulate an attack. This gives an estimate of how much damage the enemy will take and how likely they are to hit an enemy.
When characters fight, they use weapons. Weapons might be lances, axes, swords, or even bows, but many of them fit into a weapon triangle - like rock, paper, scissors. Swords beat axes beat lances beat swords. This gives units a slight advantage if they have a weapon that beats their opponents. Some weapons, like bows, fit outside the normal triangle. Bows commonly don’t have any advantages or disadvantages (though they do have an advantage against certain types of enemy units who use flying mounts, such as wyverns or pegasi).
Units also have stats that can play a role in combat. Some stats change the amount of damage a unit can do, while others might give them the benefit of attacking twice. Another may increase their chance of avoiding hits. When units try to attack each other, a randomly generated number is used to determine if their attack hits. This is the basis of combat in Fire Emblem, and it provides a basic foundation upon which the franchise has been running for decades.
But what part of all this comes together to make a game that is fun to play? One aspect that helps is the stats. Fire Emblem characters can level up, increase their stats, and become more effective in combat. This means that despite the relatively simplistic combat, you get the added pleasure of seeing your units get stronger over time. Additionally, when units level up, their stats level based on randomly generated numbers - they aren’t guaranteed to have a ‘good’ level up, and may level up only one stat entirely!
This leads to the random number generation (RNG), an unseen aspect of the game that, were it missing, would make the whole of the Fire Emblem combat formula nigh on hopeless as a gameplay loop. Why is that? Because RNG makes the combat replayable, versatile, and emergent. Fire Emblem maps are largely hand-designed, not randomly generated. This means that the scenario your units find themselves in is the same in every playthrough. However, the results of these combat encounters can change quite a lot based on the RNG that happens. Take, for example, a hypothetical mission late in the game. Your units have leveled up, but a select few of them have had some astronomically bad luck with their level ups, leaving them quite weak in comparison to a few other units. Suddenly the difficulty will be a lot higher, simply because RNG has not aided you throughout the entirety of the game so far.
In another case, individual battle scenarios may turn entirely based on a lucky RNG hit. A unit may land a lucky hit that had a low possibility - or they may land a critical hit that had almost no possibility of happening. Fire Emblem games often have a permadeath feature, where once a unit is defeated, they can no longer be used for the rest of the playthrough. Managing to hit something unexpected can turn the tide, which can be extremely important in a game when permadeath is a constant spectre haunting every shadow of risk.
There can also be times when disaster strikes, and you have to make sure to deal with something that, by all rights, shouldn’t have happened. Say you’re near the end of a level. There’s only one or two enemy units left. You decide to attack. You miss. Your enemy gets a critical hit. You’re low on health. What now?
The RNG introduces a level of uncertainty to everything which makes the gameplay interesting in the moment, and during a replay. This only works well because of the other aspects of the game, though, such as the terrain system. Since Fire Emblem’s combat is played in a grid-based system, each tile of the grid could potentially have different topography - forest, hill, mountain, water, plains, etc. These different tiles provide small bonuses for the unit that is standing on them, such as the forest’s additional avoidance. Some of these can even increase a unit’s defense stat, meaning that they’ll take less damage. This leads to the positioning of your units becoming an important aspect of the overall strategy in the game.
Positioning is not only based on the terrain, though - certainly you can imagine that fighting with your squad close by is much better than running off on your own. This is echoed by Fire Emblem’s support system, which allows units that fight together often to provide small bonuses. Once a unit fights together enough (depending on the game, fighting while immediately adjacent or in the general proximity), short dialogues which provide some interaction between both characters open up. This doubles as an opportunity for character development, but also provides small bonuses in combat when those two units are near each other.
One thing Fire Emblem manages to do quite well is that the RNG never feels bad - but it does feel like luck. Disaster can strike at any time, but it is rare enough that it doesn’t feel like anything other than a one-off. Normally, your units will be able to weather through enemy after enemy without any major issues, so long as you aren’t throwing them into a nest of enemies that can attack them from any direction turn after turn. At the same time, the RNG allows for your units to do incredible things as well. Watching one of your units absolutely crush an enemy with an unexpected critical hit is satisfying on a visceral level.
Alright, so - Fire Emblem has a lot of different mechanics working together to make the system work. But how does any of that make it fun or interesting? When I first started writing this, I didn’t want to talk about the characters of Fire Emblem, because I wanted to divorce the gameplay concepts from the thematic and storytelling concepts. However, the more I think about the gameplay of Fire Emblem, the more I think that the gameplay itself is solid - and nothing more. The gameplay provides a way to interact with the game, and little more. The strategic layers are available, and somewhat interesting, but only necessary if the difficulty is ratcheted up. In many cases, the gameplay is only tense or interesting when your team becomes vastly outnumbered, or you have a special unit that is still quite weak that you want to train for later.
That leads me to what I think has led to the major success of Fire Emblem: merging the gameplay with characterization. As you play and level up, you naturally begin to have small storylines for each character. This one has a record of always landing a critical hit - great! That one misses way too often. This one has phenomenal level ups. This mixes with the character personalities themselves, which will often naturally be shown as you play with them more, because they’ll gain more character skits, which will make them even stronger. It provides a perfect foundation to slowly acclimate you to new characters, and to reinforce your opinions of characters you like. The RNG can even slowly turn you away from a character if they keep getting bad level ups and are unable to keep up with the rest of your party in combat. These sorts of meta-storylines help to keep you interested in the game even if the actual storyline is a bit lackluster, and especially if your main interest in the game isn’t picking the most grueling difficulty and working through an impenetrable horde of enemies stronger than your team.
In general, this makes the combat mechanics of Fire Emblem not the highlight, but the foundation. If these elements weren’t fun or interesting, the series would be much less beloved. However, much of the reason these games are enjoyed is not because of the combat itself, but for how the combat merges with the other parts of the games so seamlessly. Fire Emblem: Awakening, for example, managed to take shipping to a whole new level by letting you not only pair off characters, but also to use those pairs you chose to decide what those characters children will look like, and what sorts of stats they can have. Pairing off certain units can mean that their children become absolute wrecking balls, destroying anything in their way. This allowed both the people who loved the characters of Fire Emblem: Awakening to have their own cake, while those who just want more tactical RPG combat get to eat a special min-maxing cake.
Is there any way to make the mechanics of fire emblem not only the foundation, but also a highlight? One mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet - despite playing a surprising role in the game itself - is that of weapon durability. In many of the Fire Emblem games, weapons can only be used a certain number of times. Stronger weapons have less durability, meaning that you need to carefully ration certain weapons to ensure it is available for difficult enemies. This also means that there is a certain economy to the game, which Fire Emblem manages with the ability to gain money to buy additional weapons or items.
In general, this is an important aspect of the game - but it doesn’t feel great. The weapon durability system is similar to the just-in-case potion problem that games like Skyrim have, where you never want to use that potion you have just in case there’s a more important use for it later. This naturally manifests in using stronger weapons less than they should or could be used. While it absolutely increases the complexity of the decision-making required to play the game, it does not manage to provide a level of engagement with the mechanics which elevate the game - rather, it feels like an artificial limitation to enforce some sort of balance.
Perhaps a better way to handle this issue would be to allow units to have at least one weapon without a durability - a weak weapon that cannot be broken. However, stronger weapons can have limited uses, or perhaps can be repaired or simply refresh entirely at the end of each combat scenario. This would make it so that the tedium of managing certain weapons used for fodder enemies would be lessened, while still providing the tactical complexity of only allowing a certain number of uses for powerful weapons.
Another place for possible improvement is in how the RNG can influence the growth of characters throughout the game. Characters in the Fire Emblem games actually have weighted ratios that help determine which of their stats will gain a point on each level up, which usually means that certain characters will end up in more or less the same quality and with somewhat similar stats over multiple playthroughs. The nature of RNG also means that they can grow slower than expected, or in the worst case, not grow enough to be worthwhile at the points that you need them to be better.
So why not split the growth up a little? Let’s allow the RNG to take its share and give one or two points per level - but also allow a certain number of points for the player to allocate. This could be done via a point purchasing system, where advancing a stat from 1 to 2 might cost only 1 level up point, but from 10 to 11 might cost 4 level up points. This would still allow for the RNG to create characters of unexpected strength or weakness, but ensure that the player can use the units they enjoy in the ways they wish to use them.
To consider some more radical changes to the combat loop, let us consider that not all allied units may be named characters. What if some units could be hired to ‘fill out’ the army of warriors that Fire Emblem often tries to cast their array of units as, in order to actually make the field seem like two armies fighting? This would be similar to some of the combat systems used by Fire Emblem’s sister series, Advanced Wars, where units (such as tanks and infantry units) can be trained or built to give your side an advantage. Advanced Wars is very much a game where you expect to lose units, and merging the two styles of gameplay might bring about an interesting format where you have named characters, stronger, but riskier to throw into the deep end of the field, with nameless characters that can be used to hide weaknesses.
This would allow for much greater numbers of units on the field, creating a much more epic scale to some of the battles. This would also be an interesting way to expand some of the difficulty of the games without making them too difficult. For example, named units may not be able to steamroll quite so well as before if the game is balanced around having fodder around to soften up the enemy. This might also incidentally make the game harder because experience management will be more important. Units only gain experience through combat, so if units who might not be around for the rest of the game - replaceable fodder units - eat up too much experience, the most important named units may find themselves under leveled. Perhaps one solution for this problem would be to introduce some level of ‘battalions’ to each named unit. This would involve a named unit having a selection of units under their ‘command’ which allow them certain stat bonuses, but also provide experience for that named unit.
One downside for this, of course, would be that some battles might take forever to actually finish. This might be solved with a feature that newer Fire Emblem games have already implemented: auto battling. Instead of allow you to have (or optionally allowing you to defer) control over all of your fodder units, they can instead be controlled by the AI to help fight. These units would take their moves as part of an Ally phase, which is already present in most Fire Emblem games.
In general, though, the Fire Emblem combat formula manages to feel satisfying even despite any faults it may have. It provides a strong foundation for nearly any sort of game to build around it, and I am quite surprised that it is as underutilized as it is for a primary combat loop. It manages to make an intriguing system which requires interesting decisions to be made throughout the entirety of the game. Even once units become stronger, it is still possible to be overwhelmed by enemy units numbers. The biggest downfall of the system is the difficulty, which can often feel either underwhelming or overwhelming, but commonly struggles to find a middle-ground. This is probably because of the complex nature of the battle mechanics, many of which revolve around RNG, and the delicately balanced economic systems put in place to manage the strength of your team.
It’s hard to imagine too many parts of the system that could change without the classic feel of the systems becoming nearly unrecognizable, but perhaps there is room for more iteration on the primary components of the combat. For now, though, I think that Fire Emblem has one of the best grid-based combat systems out there - not instead of alternatives, but in addition to them - and that I hope to see even more games try out this style of combat in the future.