5 Level Design Lessons from Fire Emblem

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

  • I played all Fire Emblem games except the first 3, but I did play all 3 associated remake.

  • I mostly start from hard difficulty and up unless I must choose normal difficulty, but for most entries I have played at least two difficulties.

  • I always play "classic", which means I must restart if any of my character die.

  • I have never restricted myself during playing, such as not using certain strong characters, only use the main character to beat the level, etc.

An FE tradition is to provide players a very strong helper unit at the 1st chapter (does not apply to all), but will become normal or even worse as the game progresses. These characters are typically cavalry type who can move very fast. And they are either promoted class or have high starting level so they are much stronger than any other playable units. In easier difficulties, they are mostly invulnerable during the first several chapters so they are super reliable until beginner players get familiar the system; in harder difficulties, they are mostly used as crucial strategic units to be a first aid, block certain spots, damage but not kill enemy units to let weaker units earn XP easier. By all mean, it is players' freedom to decide how to use them wisely.

Jagen's (the helper unit) initial status in chapter 1
Marth's (the main character) initial status in chapter 1

Lesson 1: not all contents need to be useful throughout the entire game. Provide a early helper (any form) can widely extend playing experience.

Each Fire Emblem will have some chapters that contain chests or locked doors that require keys. Normally, if it is the first time players see a lock in the game, typically a new character who can unlock will become an ally. In some rarer cases, players will find a first key dropped by an enemy or rewarded by visiting a village some time before the first lock (and players will not be this lucky again for later locks). There are also some chapters that have the war fog, and typically the previous chapter will reward player a torch that can increase the sight. Another example I remembered is from the Sacred Stone chapter 4, the player team encounted monsters instead of human enemies. Then the story introduced a monk class character who uses light magic that can effectively damage monsters. By doing these, players will effectively remember what will be needed for these special situations.

Lesson 2: introduce what players just need at the correct time.

As a strategy game with well-designed map for the scenario, it is normal to encounter enemy reinforcement. The most common reinforcement is when playing defensive chapters, players naturally expect some enemy reinforcement. However, it is also not that rare if enemies strike behind players, or ambush the players. My experience was, if I failed because of my wrong decision, I would just curse myself and play it again; however, if I failed because of some unexpected issue, I just curse the game designer. Fire Emblem did a great job on this -

  • For enemies that will spawn behind players, players will be hinted either by the pre-battle or in-battle dialogue.

  • In many maps, players can see many castles stay together. Sometimes they are not in the main route of the level, so players would think these unnatural arrangement be a reinforcement spot intuitively.

A typical map for this case. Player can directly go to the small island

and kill the boss if they are fast enough; but obviously the small castle

clusters will spawn enemies that catch your back. The line up of existing enemies also hints players there will be reinforcement from behind.

  • Sometimes castles (outdoor map) or stairs (indoor map) will also appear inside the enemy's area. Maybe new players will not notice them the first time, but they will know these special tiles are very likely to be a reinforcement spot.

  • Many indoor maps make the interior of a room not visible if it is locked. Player should be able to expect an ambush when unlocking such rooms, and they are mostly safe since the door is only 1 tile large so enemies won't go out at the same time.

  • If non of above applies, the game usually give players enough turns to react (less turns in harder mode certainly).

The circled parts are stairs - enemies will pop up when player units get closed.

Lesson 3: give players chances to deduce the mechanics - do not make things completely unexpected, especially if the game is startegic.

There are also several chapters I really enjoyed to play, and they all inspired me a lot for some more specific level design perspectives:

The first chapter is FE: Conquest chapter 8. Dragon Vein is the feature system in Conquest and has unique effects for each stage that can greatly affect the gameplay. Let's first see the map:

Basically, players must visit at least 3 villages (marked by yellow square) to get full bonus. There are a couple of enemy units also want to visit before you. If they visited first, the village will close and many enemies will spawn together. The center is a frozen lake, normally it act as plain ground, but if you activate the Dragon Vein (two blue circular effects below the lake), the lake will be defrozen for 1 turn and all units on the lake cannot move. Players can use the Dragon Vein if enemies on the lake are fatal, or immobilize the visiting enemy to slow down his pace. However, it will also make your own units on the lake immobilized and the entire central map will be inaccessible. I found this mechanic is more engaging than those are purely beneficial. Since the strategy for this mechanic is to balance the influence, which requires more global thinking of the entire stage. Such system is a double-edged sword, players can either win or fail because of activating it.

Lesson 4: do not fear to design some double-edged mechanics. This can make the level even more fun and deeper.

The stage right after it - FE: Conquest chapter 9, is also very good. It doesn't really have unique mechanics, but a perfect example of clearing the level using different ideas. Again let's see the game map:

Players start from the left, attacking the big stronghold. This map is in normal difficulty, so if play in lunatic, there are 6 enemies consist of 3 heavy armor (high defense) in the front line, and 3 archer (high damage) in the back line. They will only attack your unit when all of them can reach your unit, so in such wide space, they are fatal. However, if players are careful enough, they can march until the side of the stronghold and break the fragile walls - then go into the stronghold. This route is definitely easier, but is more time consuming because of the thin corridor and relatively far location. You will also lose XP from enemies at the entrance. As a result, players should decide if they want to clear the stage faster, earn more XP, or just be safe. This stage enables the probability of multiple playstyles.

The map with many castles and small island I mentioned above also allows two completely different ideas, earn much more XP by fighting large number of dangerous enemies, or kill the boss immediately without risking.

Lesson 5: make the "experience" non-linear - can we make players say "wow" after they discover something alternative?

Even played almost each entry multiple times, I am still enjoying many levels from Fire Emblem and keeping finding more surprises I have not discovered before. There are many levels that I just felt good but still couldn't tell why they were great. Definitely playing more, and thinking over it.

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