Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: Laguz

Looking back at it, it has been quite a long time since I talked about the mechanical implementation of the Laguz in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. When I made my original comments about them, I had barely even used a lot of the Laguz characters, and I had not yet seen how they compare to Beorc characters in the final stages of the game. It seems I never went back and corrected some of my observations. I guess I was too wrapped up writing about the plot at the time. I guess now is as good of a time as ever to write at length on the subject.

Most notably, I need to revise the statement I made that the main system of stats for the Laguz, the fact that their stats double when they transform, is a system that works reasonably well. I really don't think that it is the case anymore. It is certainly an interesting way to make even minor changes in stats very important to a Laguz character, but it ultimately results in a Laguz character simply being far too weak in its human form. Because of the huge difference in defense and speed, any enemy who would be a reasonable threat to a transformed Laguz can easily kill an untransformed Laguz, because they are guaranteed to use a high-damage double attack, often against a target who can't fight back. Finally, combined with the different level systems for Beorc and Laguz, the stat doubling just makes it harder to compare the fighting ability of characters of different races.

A major problem for Laguz characters that I didn't mention last time around is the fact that they just don't seem to be able to level up well compared to Beorc. It is just hard to get a Laguz to gain levels and stay at an even level with Beorc characters. Even if a Laguz does gain enough experience (such as with a large amount of bonus experience), they seem to slowly lose effectiveness compared to their Beorc allies.

The reasons for the Laguz's inability to gain experience are a bit complex. Certainly a major part of it involves the fact that laguz just seem to earn less experience while they are transformed. Because Laguz levels mean something different than Beorc levels, a Laguz should require about 1.5 times the amount of experience as a Beorc to go up an equivalent level, but Laguz seem to just earn less than that in battle. A far more certain factor about this issue is that Laguz just can't fight as often as a Beorc character. and thus has a bit more trouble building up experience. Laguz have periods in which they can't fight, but you must fight in order to earn experience, so Laguz just can't earn as much experience as a Beorc given the same period of time. What is more, some of the best ways to build experience, such as holding a choke-point and fighting off a wave of many enemies, are impractical for a Laguz because their transformation gauge empties with each fight. Because of this, most Laguz need to focus on killing at least one enemy every round they can, but most of the time this is impossible. On top of all of this, many Laguz can't be deployed in battle as often as Beorc characters, so they have even less of a chance to earn experience.

The other issue for Laguz characters, the fact that even if they do gain levels they don't seem to compare well, has its own set of reasons. Even though Laguz gain levels more slowly, their stat growth rates tend to be poor, so they often don't level very well. Each Laguz level up benefit is worth twice as much as a Beorc level up benefit, but they get so much fewer that it cancels out that advantage. But because their stat growths for important stats are so low, levels gained from Bonus Experience tend to be absolutely terrible for Laguz characters, often featuring only a boost to HP (less than what they get from normal level-up), Luck (the one stat that doesn't double), and a single major stat. What is more, Laguz characters don't Class Change, and thus don't benefit from the same Class Change stat boosts that Beorc characters do. Finally, even if a Laguz character manages to reach its stat caps (which is harder for them than Beorc), that only puts them on an even level with a Beorc character who has reached its stat caps. Ultimately, a top-level Laguz who can't fight all day and can't use special weapons has the same stats as a Beorc who can, and events in the late game even negate the advantage of their unbreakable claws.

Now that all of that is out of the way, I will take a moment to comment on the individual Laguz tribes.

Wolves: Their transformation gauge fills by 6 for every turn spent untransformed, and it empties by 4 for each turn spent transformed. Fighting while transformed lowers empties the gauge by 3. As such, a wolf will empty the gauge faster than it can fill it, even if it only fights once per transformed turn, and thus it must spend more time untransformed tan transformed, unless it uses Olivi Grass or a Laguz stone to fill the gauge more quickly. Because the gauge fills so slowly for them, they will only be able to transform on the sixth turn of battle, so one of those items is necessary to get them into battle in the first half of a fight, but even Olivi grass only helps that by two turns (it is three points short of getting a third turn, which means three wasted points). It is just hard to effectively use a Wolf in battle.

Cats: Their transformation gauge fills by 10 for every turn spent transformed, and it empties by 5 for every turn spent transformed. Battle is beast form emptied the gauge by 4. A cat's transformation gauge fills very quickly (they are the only Laguz who can afford to wait and let their gauge fill naturally), but it also empties quickly. Fortunately, a cat's transformation gauge fills faster than it empties (slightly, assuming only one battle per turn), so they have no trouble recovering from battle. This makes it seem like Cats should be very useful, but I have always had problems with them. I think the reason for this is the fact that, because their gauge fills and empties so quickly, it is a poor choice to use items on them. An Olivi Grass only speeds initial transformation up by one turn and wastes 5 points. A Laguz Stone would be a waste on them because their gauge would empties so quickly. Cats are not bad, but they are just hard to use to their full potential.

Tigers: Their gauge fills by 8 for every turn spent transformed, and it empties by 4 for every turn in beast form. Battle in beast form empties the gauge by 3. Like Cats, they gain more than they lose, but unlike Cats they don't lose so much per turn that using item is ineffective. Using an Olivi Grass reduces initial transformation time by two turns, at a loss of just 1 or 2 wasted points (depending on how you count). With Olivi Grass, a Tiger can transform just as quickly as a Cat that is using Olivi Grass, and fight quite a bit longer. They are the first kind of Laguz who can actually afford to hold a position and take a number of attacks (though not indirect ones). For them, the math actually works.

Ravens: Ravens use the same numbers as Wolves, with the same poor result. They are simply lackluster.

Hawks: They use the same numbers as the Tigers, and work equally well. One thing that is particularly noteworthy about the Hawks and distinguishes them from other Laguz is their special abilities. The Hawk named Janaff has the skill Vigilance, and the Hawk named Ulki has the skill Insight. Unlike most other skills, these abilities are character-specific and can not be removed. Both skills give a significant boost to combat ability, and Janaff's Vigilance gives him a far greater vision range in Fog of War maps. Because of their reasonable transformation time and powerful skills (not to mention flight and Canto abilities), the two Hawks are some of the few Laguz who are on par with or better than most good Beorc.

Herons: Now we get into something a bit different, but first... Their gauge fills by 3 for every turn spent untransformed (4 for Reyson), and their gauge empties by 5 for every turn spent transformed. They should never get into battle, so battle numbers don't matter much. Obviously, their gauge drains faster than it fills (even without battle), so they spend more time in their human form than in their bird form, but it hardly matters. For Herons, being transformed means they do the same thing they do when not transformed, except they happen to be slightly better at it, so unlike other Laguz they don't need to be transformed in order to be useful. Also, Herons are the ultimate support characters, both able to use Galdr to actively support and Blessing to passively support. Heron Galdr are so useful that a turn spent increasing their transformation gauge with items is a poor choice simply because they could instead be using Galdr. Herons are the one kind of Laguz that are unquestionably useful throughout the game, and might serve as a model on how Laguz should be designed in the future.

Lions: Their transformation gauge fills by 5 each turn spent in human form, and empties by 3 for every turn spent in beast form. Battle empties the gauge by 2. They build up slowly and can stay transformed for very long periods of time, and naturally fill and empty the gauge at the same rate (assuming one battle per turn). Using Olivi Grass reduces initial transformation time by three turns, with no wasted points, and transformation takes so long (and lasts so long) it makes using a Laguz Stone a very good choice. Much like with Tigers and Hawks, the ability to get a lot of benefit from items in order to fight a long time makes Lions a lot more effective than Laguz who rely on natural restoration of the transformation gauge (though it helps that Lions only join late in the game when you can actually afford the kind of items they rely upon).

Dragons: Their transformation gauge fills by 5 for each turn spent in human form (4 for White Dragons), and empties by 2 for each turn spent in dragon form. Battle empties the gauge by only 1 point. They have even better transformation gauge fill/empty rates than Lions (who were pretty good already), and thus gain even more benefit from items like Laguz Stones and Olivi Grass. In addition, they are the one kind of Laguz who can fight using indirect attacks, and White Dragons are the only kind of Laguz who can inflict magical damage. Because of all of this, they are far more useful than most Laguz and can actually match the long-term endurance of the Beorc and Laguz Royalty. Above and beyond their combat strength, though, they have an even greater role: support. Dragons have the powerful passive support skills Night Tide, Blood Tide, White Pool, and Boon that can heal and strengthen their allies, making them incredibly valuable even if they are not transformed, much like a Heron. It is a shame that Dragons only join absurdly late in the game.

As a whole, the entire system of transformation is incredibly dependent on items, so the Laguz that have good synergy with Olivi Grass and Laguz Stones are far more useful than the Laguz who don't. If there was some other way to build the transformation gauge other than natural restoration that also depended on the natural growth rate, it would probably have balanced the system out a bit more (and made Cats very useful). As it stands, though, relying on natural growth is just too slow for any Laguz.

One thing that I can't help but notice is that some of my favorite Laguz, the Herons and Dragons, both use powerful support skills to help allies even when not transformed. They don't have the kinds of unique weapons that boost their own power in special ways like the Beorc, but they have skills that boost the power of allies and add to their value. Unlike the many kinds of Bird and Beast Laguz, Dragons and Herons have advantages that go beyond the mere stat comparisons that tend to favor the more reliable Beorc characters, so it is easier to justify using them in battle. In my opinion, this is an advantage that could become a true niche for all Laguz characters in future games. Many Laguz already have slight nods towards this kind of role (skills like Howl, Glare, and Shriek weaken foes under special conditions, and many Satori Sign skills have similar weakening effects alongside their heavy damage), and there are a number of skills that could be easily altered to add to this (for example, turning an effect like Daunt into a Laguz innate skill). If nothing else, powerful character-defining skills like Vigilance and Insight can become more common. A move towards a combined combat/support role would put Laguz on a more even level with Beorc, help differentiate them from Beorc, and add to the tactical complexity of the game.

That covers most of what I have to say about the Laguz. Well, I still need to write about the Laguz Lords, but they deserve their own topic anyways. I may also write a bit more about the Herons as well. I really hope that the people behind the Fire Emblem games continue to use the Laguz in future games, and continue to improve upon the concept.

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