How Fire Emblem Has Tried To Balance Pair-Up Supports (And Why It’s So Hard)

Supports may not be the first thing people think of when they hear “Fire Emblem,” but there’s no denying that they’ve become one of the cornerstone gimmicks of the entire franchise. If Fire Emblem is designed to make you think of your personalized army as a band of friends or colleagues, then the support mechanics and conversations are the glue holding that illusion together: letting the player see how a character lives their life will make it that much more crushing if they have to let that character die.

It’s an aspect of Fire Emblem that the games have really tried to ramp up with recent entries as the support conversations get longer and more intricate. However, balancing the gameplay associated with these supports has long been an uphill battle, as each entry tweaks the type and amount of buffs associated with fighting by a friend’s side. This balancing difficulty came to a head when Awakening introduced the Pair Up mechanic to the series.

It’s an open secret that Pair Up was broken in Awakening – simply stacking a unit on top of another could grant a pretty high chance to double attack or nullify damage, and these chances were per hit. That means characters who doubled would have two chances for their support unit to follow-up attack and characters who were getting doubled would have two chances for the damage to be nullified. This was on top of the hefty stat buffs given by support partners, and the fact that these benefits could be activated just by standing side by side as well.

Intelligent Systems had to course correct in Fates, instead introducing Combat Stances, which maintained some elements of Awakening’s Pair-Up system but split it in two – you could guarantee follow-up attacks with reduced damage or guarantee a guard would nullify damage once by using the Attack and Guard stances. Still not satisfied, this selection of support mechanics was also quickly tossed aside in the entry following: Echoes did away with any type of Pair-Up, instead reverting to the cut-and-dry “stat buff for standing near friends” that had served the series so well in its GBA days.

Then in Three Houses, Fire Emblem ushered in the Adjutant system. Of the last four games released, every single one has tried a different approach to Supports and the benefits they’re supposed to give. Why is this so hard? Haven’t they been doing this for 30 years now? Well, no. As we said, the major juggling act came in when Awakening introduced Pair Up, which was in fact new to the series. Prior to Awakening, the only way to have two units share a tile was with the Rescue command, which actually used to debuff the unit doing the rescuing. Carrying a teammate around slows people down, doesn’t it?

However, Awakening’s roaring success combined with its heavier focus on the Support building (and subsequent marriage) system made it clear that these mechanics would need to be important in the coming entries to maintain that momentum. Basically, Intelligent Systems decided to play to what it perceived were the series’ strengths and incentivize gaining and reading even more supports by offering bigger and better combat buffs. It’s not new to the games at all, but it’s taken much more of a spotlight in recent years, leading to a series of adjustments.

All that being said, Fire Emblem may have struck a more solid balance with the Adjutant system than most would be led to believe. The benefits given are consistent and singular, like in Fates – you can choose an adjutant to heal, defend, or follow-up, but they can only do one of those things – and players have an upper limit to how many adjutants they can employ in addition to being forced to choose them ahead of the battle. While units in-battle can still benefit from the tried and true “stat buff for standing near friends,” up to three people can reap the rewards of tag-teaming. After four games of trial and error, we have to wonder…

Will Adjutants persist into Fire Emblem 17? Or will the Pair Up system see yet another rework as the franchise struggles to convert the power of friendship into raw numbers and benefits?

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