There’s some minor confusion over the English title of this 2001 PlayStation strategy game: Is it “TearRing Saga”, as shown so clearly on the save screen? Perhaps it’s “TearRingSaga”, as written on the title screen, the disc, and the box’s spine? Or could it be “Tear Ring Saga”, as printed on the back of the manual and the front of the official guide book? Seeing as the game’s sole release can’t stick to anything and I need to call it something, let’s go with… Tear Ring Saga, because it’s the only reading of the title that really makes any sense in English.
Much like Front Mission: Gun Hazard, what at a glance appears to be the case of programming vultures cynically swooping in to create a quick knock-off of a popular work is in fact the more straightforward case of the original’s creator finding employment elsewhere, in this case Fire Emblem‘s Shouzou Kaga (as well as arguably the definitive Fire Emblem artist, Mayumi Hirota). Unlike Gun Hazard, which took that team’s experiences working on the already excellent Assault Suits Valken (AKA: Cybernator) and then used it to explore exciting new hybrid action/narrative possibilities on the mighty SNES, Kaga made no attempt whatsoever to disguise the fact he was making something a little more familiar – Fire Emblem: PlayStation Edition. There are Knight Proofs, a Pegasus knight weaker than wet paper in a storm introduced in a map full of archers, cavalry units that must dismount when they go indoors, plenty of maps won by seizing the main location guarded by a powerful enemy general… and just in case there was any room left for doubt: the game was originally titled Emblem Saga (to the point of having a playable demo under that name included with Dengeki PlayStation D43 magazine) before release, with lead hero Ryunan sporting a conspicuous head of blue hair. I think we can all accept that while Nintendo’s ninja lawyers are undoubtedly omnipresent sue-happy forces of darkness capable of sleeping peacefully in their beds at night after removing unofficial public access to things Nintendo have no real interest in offering officially they weren’t wrong to pull up Tear Ring Saga’s publisher, Enterbrain, in this one specific instance (even if Nintendo weren’t as successful in court as they’d have liked to be).
With all of that heavy SNES-era Fire Emblem baggage so willingly hung from Tear Ring Saga’s freshly-created shoulders – the same old strategy RPG-ing set in the same old world of fantasy politics, dragons, and people who can turn into dragons – it’d be easy to accuse Tear Ring Saga of being uninventive, just another cookie from the same Marth-shaped cutter.
Well yes OK that’s not entirely untrue but we were never, ever, promised otherwise – if anything, this is one rare example of a game absolutely delivering on its pre-release sales pitch. Besides, isn’t the idea of having more Fire Emblem to play (especially back then, when the N64’s Fire Emblem had been cancelled and Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 was already not the easiest game in the world to get hold of) the main draw? And even if we were to argue it wasn’t, shouldn’t gaming have the space for someone to just keep on making the sort of game they really like making – isn’t that the dream for everyone on both sides of the creative process (think of how badly the world misses official Belmont-themed “Igavanias” now they’re gone)?
Whatever side of that particular thought-fence you fall on there is an unfortunate side-effect to this wholesale lifting of Fire Emblem’s everything: Tear Ring Saga makes no attempt whatsoever to address any of the most frequently encountered mechanical frustrations found in Kaga’s earlier Nintendo-based work, and so over a decade on from the heroic Marth’s Famicom debut you’re still stuck fighting stat gains so heavily randomised it’s not only possible but likely your character might gain nothing at all for their hard-fought work and landing a killing blow is always the best way for any unit to gain the most experience points in the shortest period of time (a problem solved by something as simple as FEDA: The Emblem of Justice‘s – a SNES SRPG released years prior – universal post-battle points bonus for all surviving characters). Neither has anything been done to address the friction between game design that hopes to kill off at least a few friendly characters along the way and the player’s reality; that weak replacement they left languishing in reserves forever because they were never great in the first place a poor substitute for the promoted powerhouse lost to an unlucky critical hit, and the non-story battles necessary to boost this stand-in’s XP and eventually make them vaguely useful in unpredictable supply. That’s assuming a comparable unit exists in the first place anyway, Tear Ring Saga veering wildly between throwing Armoured Dudes on Horses at Ryunan and gifting him truly unique characters who should be protected like the precious helpers they are all game long, with no way of knowing how rare someone (or someone’s type) is on a first run through unless the player also happens to have the game’s 380+ page strategy guide to hand.
One unexpected issue that sadly felt more Tear Ring Saga’s own (although Fire Emblem was hardly innocent) was the way unrecruitable opposing characters tended to be distinctively fat, ugly, or possess cartoonishly thick Neanderthal style foreheads. Regular “commoner” NPCs were no better, entire villages awash with rotund beige and tan women and rough elderly men save for that one named girl with the flowing cape held in place by a decorative clasp who will definitely join your party if only you can talk to her in time once the latest battle’s started. Why does this matter? It matters because Tear Ring Saga clearly wants to have its fleshed-out fantasy world of gods and legends and brave lords taken seriously – and it had the talent and the storage space to do better. It’s a jarring simplification that undermines the setting, as only conventionally pretty, visually interesting, well-dressed people can be… I was going to say “heroes” but in truth the game applies this design rule so broadly it’d be more accurate to just say “good”. Only pretty people can be good people in Tear Ring Saga’s world.
In spite of – or perhaps because of – many of these gripes Tear Ring Saga is without a doubt a compelling experience. Each map feels like a fiendish challenge stuffed with deadly choke points for you to unwittingly order your group in to, tantalising treasure chests just a touch too far off the main path for comfort, and narrow bridges to the side of the heavily fortified main gate for you to optionally sneak through if you dare. The danger stemming from the constant fear of permadeath and unpredictable swings in luck mean every decision will have lasting consequences, some of them unknowable until it’s too late to do anything other than learn to live with them. Battlefields are awash with mechanic-led storytelling, skirmishes changing drastically as you panic over an influx of enemy reinforcements appearing far too close for comfort, experience the sheer chaos of AI controlled mini wars between pirates vs zombies (and hoping neither party come close enough to cause you trouble), and witness conversations between old friends (and rivals) who didn’t expect to meet here – friends who may switch sides and then encourage their friends to switch sides too, a difficult fight suddenly turned in your favour. Tear Ring Saga has an extraordinary talent for making this conflict feel like an organically developing situation, people you spared/saved battles ago reappearing under new circumstances and possibly a little more convinced of your chosen path now they’ve had more time to see the alternatives or have been split up, captured, or threatened by someone they were previously loyal to.
There’s only one honest way to describe Tear Ring Saga and it’s not “Fire Emblem: PlayStation Edition“, it’s “Fire Emblem Deluxe“. The wealth of optional and missable content in here – not to mention the presence of two playable leads and a lightly wander-able overworld map – make it feel like this was a game given the time and the budget to be exactly what it wanted to be, and that was a lavishly animated Fire Emblem game filled with thrilling and well thought out battles. It may not learn from or do anything to alleviate the established issues/distinctive foibles that put many off seeing Kaga’s work through to the end but that’s because it consciously chooses not to, and that decision is just as much the source of Tear Ring Saga’s enduring appeal as it is its turning-it-off-in-a-grump irritations. Its dogged refusal to be anything other than what it wants to be means when clashes don’t go your way – which is a heck of a lot of the time – victory really does feels like a strategic achievement rather than a methodical clearing of the latest forgettable sprinkling of opposition. And seeing as you’ve just done so well… one more map wouldn’t hurt, would it?