Somewhere in the burning sands outside of Plegia castle, beneath an oppressively hot sun, the corpse of Cordelia's body was feeding a vulture. She was just one of many who had fallen in battle, destined to become a feast for crows in a lifeless landscape, but she was different from the others. She was my soldier.
I had plans for her. A vague notion of such, at least, for this is my first time truly playing a Fire Emblem game. I didn't really know what was in store for her, but I knew that she belonged. The last of her squad, having been forced to hear the dying screams of her sisters as she fled to warn her country of danger, I had known that she'd get along well with fellow Pegasus riding warrior Sumia.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is surprisingly similar in a lot of ways to Western tactical game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a title which our very own podcast crew was quite taken with. Each title focuses on sending units forth into battle, and if they fall in a skirmish, they are gone for good. Just as in real life, death is permanent.
That is, as long as you're playing by those settings.
My first actual experience with Fire Emblem was Shadow Dragon on the Nintendo DS. However, I had only managed to play a few missions in it and no more. All I had time to learn was the permanency of death and the lethal nature of the game's combat. So when I started Fire Emblem: Awakening, the latest entry in the franchise on the Nintendo 3DS, I decided I wanted death to mean something. Surely enough, there was meaning to every soldier of mine that fell in battle.
It meant hitting the reset button.
I refused to accept such simple mistakes or turns of misfortune, to witness a potential warrior cut down before their prime in such an early skirmish. I was trying to play seriously, so how should I respond when the game deals me from the deck of capricious fate? No, it would not do at all!
There is a drawback to this play style. While the game tells me I've only played for about ten and a half hours total, my Nintendo 3DS has recorded every single second ticking on the clock. I've actually logged about sixteen hours into the game, meaning over five hours have been dedicated to repeating fights until my soldiers emerged bloody, battered, but breathing.
For the majority of those hours, Sumia had been flying over the battlefield alone, a vulnerable knight upon her Pegasus, wary of archers in the field. She was often vulnerable, and I never felt comfortable sending her far, even as a scout of sorts. Yet when Cordelia joined my ranks, another Pegasus Knight capable of soaring the skies, my heart leapt. Sumia would have a partner, a sister, to fly alongside.
For a few battles, their partnership was glorious. I'd send one on ahead, impaling a foe with a javelin to knock them off guard, weakening them, before sending the other to skewer the villain upon a spear. Together they secured villages, snatched items and treasures from the battlefield, and picked off lethal foes from a distance.
It all came to an end at Plegia castle, when a Wyvern rider soared in and thrust his axe into strong, beautiful Cordelia.
The fracture into Cordelia's bone was my inevitable breaking point. It was the moment that I had to stop, sigh, and just accept the inevitable. Not all of my characters were going to see it to the end of this game.
That's okay. The game granted me two brand new characters on that very battlefield, and I had been struggling to give each soldier a fair chance in this war. I was actually up to my armpits in varied, useful troops — all eager to fight under my command. Mechanically speaking, there was little lost with the passing of Cordelia.
Which struck me as odd, I must confess. Unlike XCOM, Fire Emblem provides characters with a varied set of personalities and character quirks that are developed as you play the game. Soldiers will establish relationships with each other based on how you use them in battle and how often you partner them up with other compatible units. Outside of combat you can listen to their small talk in the barracks, and once they've established enough of a repertoire, you can bear witness to more intimate interactions that provide a milestone in their relationships. If I was missing out on anything with Cordelia, this was it.
Yet still I did not feel sad, disappointed, or even frustrated. Before I could fully register the loss, Cordelia had been replaced, and I was focused on how well the new characters were intermingling with my old ones.
It felt as if Fire Emblem sabotaged itself. Perhaps it was because I didn't have Cordelia on my team for too long — that I didn't get the time to invest in her and her growth — that I was not sad to see her go. Maybe it was because I was already juggling so many characters that the loss of one meant little. Or, perhaps, the weariness of restarting battles had weighed upon me so heavily that it crushed all sense of attachment to these soldiers. As Iron Maiden once said, "If you're gonna die, die with your boots on!" At least she'd done that.
Acceptance. That is what I believed, at least. Cordelia was gone, and it was time to get up and hustle on to the next battle. I excitedly promoted select characters, grinning ear to ear as I watched their stats improve (including Sumia, striking like a hawk from the skies above to pierce her unsuspecting prey through the heart). I completed some distractions on the side before continuing the story forward, the red-headed Valkyrie already an afterthought.
I was blind-sided by a cut-scene, not unlike Cordelia was blind-sided by the axe blade. As the protagonist, Chrom, was picking himself back up from an emotional defeat, the troops rallied. Suddenly silent characters, each of whom could have been dead at this point, all stepped forward with words of encouragement. Was there smoke in the air? My eyes were beginning to water as I read each and every soldier's vow of loyalty, because I knew there was one missing. That there would always be one missing.
I'd like to say something dramatic here, that I failed Cordelia or some such, but the truth is I don't quite know why I was almost brought to the point of tears. There was very little time to get attached to this fictional character, and until then I hadn't missed her fictitious soul one bit. Yet at that moment I couldn't help but wish I had hit the reset button. That, for Cordelia, I would have broken the laws of her reality just so she could have lived to see this cut-scene.
So here's to you, Cordelia. May my next playthrough see you march forward, hardened and scarred by battle, to the end credits.