Sacred Stones is a very good turn-based strategy RPG.
This was my first Fire Emblem experience, and I really didn't know anything about this game before I bought it, other than it was an RPG and I needed a game for my brand new GBA (first title I bought too) so I was pleasantly surprised how it turned out.
Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones is a turn-based strategy rpg. At the start of a chapter you get to pick and choose your party before going into battle. Some characters are pre-selected for you as they're part of the storyline, but the rest is completely customizable. The parties size will vary depending on the chapter, so for example you could get 14 characters to battle in one chapter or 10 in another. Once the chapter has started and your parties are assembled, your characters are set on the map (you don't get to place them on it). The game uses a grid system, similar to that of a Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre battle grid system (which ironically the Fire Emblem series pre-dates both of them).
The game's turns are set in rounds, so you move and attack with all of your characters first, then sit back and watch the enemies attack. When you initiate a battle with an enemy, your character is on one side and the enemy is on another, similar to the opening to a fighting game like Street Fighter 2. Your character will take 1 or 2 hits (depending on the weapon and his speed) at the enemy, and if the enemy is still alive, he will get a counter turn to swing at you. When it's the enemies turn to battle you, the fight will have the enemy attack first and your character will get the counter. With this system, even though the enemies are attacking you, your party could technically wipe out half of the enemy forces without even moving (I've done it!).
The weapon system is kind of unique to me. You don't equip armor or weapons in this game, but rather your character has 5 item slots. You can put various healing items or weapons into the slots, but you don't technically equip them. It depends on what class your character is on what weapons they use. Each weapon has a number of uses it will prefer before breaking. Each time you attack with that weapon, the number will drop. The weapon you used last will the weapon you use during the enemies attack. The battle system has a rock-paper-scissors style to it. Swords top Axes, Axes top Spears, Spears top Swords, so there's plenty of strategy within the game.
You gain experience for every little attack you do, including counterattacking. Your character gains a new level at every 100 experience points. All your characters start off with a pre-determined class, but eventually you'll find an item that can change their classes if their level is high enough. You can't buy these items, and they're sometimes rare to find, so changes classes is a slow process compared to Final Fantasy Tactics. Some characters might only change their class once. When you do finally have a chance to change their class you get an option between two related classes.
Chapters will start you off with pre-determined goals, such as "Kill all enemies", "Survive" or "Defeat the boss". In most cases you'll probably be trying to kill everything on screen until you reach the boss of the map. The boss won't move until your characters get within fighting distances from him. Bosses are usually about 3 times as strong as the other enemies on the map, but if you swarm him with 5 characters he'll usually go down without much resistance, just pray he doesn't kill one of your characters with his turn. After you defeat the boss, you usually have to siege the land, which for the most part is always a waste of time.
On the maps there are various obstacles like fire, swamps that can reduce your characters grids, or mountains that can stop your character all together. They're also houses your character can stop at to get advice, additional story or an item. You can even stop at shops and buy stuff during the chapter. There are also rocket launchers you can pit your character inside and start taking out enemies at a distance, which is very cool.
The biggest thing that separates Fire Emblem from other RPGs is when your characters HP drops to zero they are DEAD. No turning back, no revive spells, no phoenix downs, your character is gone. You can however restart the chapter if you want to preserve your characters life, but battles can take up to 40 minutes, if not longer, so that's alot of time just for one character. I tried to keep all my characters alive until the end, but I eventually gave up around chapter 19.
----------Characters / Story----------
You play as Eirika and Ephraim, twin brother and sister. You are the Princess and Prince of the kingdom Renais, when your kingdom is suddenly blitzkrieged into war by former ally Grado. The Grado empire is after each countries sacred stones to destroy them. Eirika and Ephraim must go out and resist this evil empire by banding the other countries together.
I loved the story, and by god there is alot of it. The dialog scenes can take up 15 minutes of your time, and sometimes more (I use to play this on my break at work, but couldn't even finish a dialog scene during that break!). I love the whole desperation of war aspect of the story, which reminded me alot of the early days of World War II. I think the game could of used less dialog, they can endlessly babble on for to long.. but hey, who am I to complain? Also there's alot of characters that get lost in the shuffle once you get more, and they become less and less important to the story.
For the most part, the graphics are very impressive. So I'll do the bad part of them first. There's a lack of variation on the maps in this game, it's either a field or inside of a castle, with an occasional marsh or mountainous area thrown in. The maps are in 2D and seriously look like crap. While Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Tactics Ogre and other Strategy RPGs for the GBA are still 2D they give a 3D feeling to them that look current and update. The maps on this game still look like an NES game. The maps are completely flat, so the mountains look just like the trees and so on. You'll only know if you can walk over them if the grids allow you do, so I barely pay attention to my surroundings and just pay attention to my characters grids.
On a more positive side, there's a TON of characters in this game. Most of them have dialog scenes, you can recruit a bunch of characters for your party, and each recruitable character and enemy are carefully rendered into the battle sequences. The characters look about 100xs better than what they're shown on the map, for example they look like a NES game on the map and look like a SNES game on the battle scenes. The moves and attacks can be HUGE at times, which are extremely fun to watch and find out, especially the critical attacks. The dialog scenes are just the upper parts of the characters bodies talking to each other from left to right with a nice looking background on display. The characters eyes will blink and their mouths will move, so they're pretty animated. I've seen atleast 4 characters on screen at a time during dialog scenes.
I love just about everything about the music. Once you unlock the music, you can go into an "Extra" menu and listen to anything you want again without interuptions. The dialog has the standard Nintendo text noise that gets on my nerves, I'm pretty sure you can't remove it.
The world map is a connect the dots Super Mario 3 type map. Each chapter in the game is represented as a dot on the map, since your party is constantly moving across the continent, never backtracking. Between chapters you can venture back to any dot on the world map. If you saved a shop in the previous chapters or the enemies didn't destroy the shop, then you can always go back between chapters and buy from that shop again. There's two sidequests on the map that will unlock on the map. Monsters show up on the map aswell, they don't move across it though, they just block your way. The further you get into the game the dots start to connect more and it will be easier or faster to walk through, but I rarely had a reason to go back.
----------Time to Complete Game (first run through, last save before credits)----------
Total Turns: 334
I only played Eirika quest. After you beat the game, watch the ending and watch the credits, you get to find out what happened to all your recruited characters. It will also tell you when those characters died. The game will show how many moves you did in total and in each chapter aswell. Other than that, there's no secrets unlocked, but you can replay it with Ephraim.