Thursday, November 28, 2019

Fire Emblem 16's Byleth is a Moron

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a rant that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday because Palutena forbid I actually make an effort to maintain any chronological relevance whatsoever.

Note: I’ll be referring to Byleth as a female for this rant. While I usually (admittedly not always) try to acknowledge player gender choice in protagonists for whom the option is present, there are a few games whose protagonist’s gender aligns better in terms of theme, character development opportunities, or even just surface reasons like vocal talent with 1 of the gender options than the other. Like Male Shepard in Mass Effect, or Nora in Fallout 4. Given the connection Byleth has to Sothis and just her origins overall, I think it’s fair to say that Byleth’s being a woman is more logically consistent to the overall particulars of Fire Emblem 16’s story. That’s simply how I perceive the game, and it’s easier for me (not to mention a lot more fluent for my overall prose) to just go with Byleth as a woman while ranting. Hope it won’t be too big a stumbling block for y’all.

Superman is a goddamn moron.

Look, I don’t read the comics. So maybe this issue isn’t a problem in the source material. But in cartoons and movies and cartoon movies? Superman may as well not even fucking HAVE heat vision, because the only damn time he ever remembers to use it is when it’s narratively convenient for him to. The guy has the ability to spit lasers from his fucking eyes, beams of pure nuclear heat almost twice the temperature of the core of the sun (seriously, that's what the Wiki says), and yet, somehow, even though this asshole can unleash unfathomable cosmic devastation with surgical precision by doing no more than moving his goddamn eyes...this Kryptonian stooge’s go-to strategy in every fight is invariably to get in close and punch something. Every time he decides to instantaneously launch the fire of God from his peepers, it’s for some non-combat support role, like welding steel beams together to keep a structure stable, or performing laser surgery, or just shaving himself. All helpful purposes for it, of course, but he doesn’t have to choose between using his gift of reverse laser eye surgery to be the celebrity chef at a boy scout wiener roast or to melt offending enemy limbs. He should be able to do both! If he ever manages to remember that he is the living personification of the expression “If looks could kill”, it’s only against specific enemies who are so impossibly strong that heat vision can’t beat them, or some stupid robot grunts that are so weak anyways that fucking Chief O’Hara, the most useless human being ever to darken DC’s or any other superhero continuity, could probably have taken them out. At least half of all the battles or other dire situations I’ve seen Superman engaged in could have been either outright won, or at the very least substantially improved, by the application of heat vision.

Remember that episode from The Animated Series where Superman’s fighting Metallo, and he’s trying to find ways to stay further away from the villain so as to stay out of Kryptonite range, like smacking him with telephones poles and stuff? Remember how at no fucking point does Superman think to maintain his combat distance by using his built in long-range super power? And remember how the kryptonite hookup in Metallo is so weak and flimsy that in a much later episode of a show in the same continuity, a power-drained Supergirl was able to cut the wires holding the kryptonite there in Metallo’s chest, not even with her own heat vision, but an honest-to-Highfather medieval knife?

Jesus Fucking Christ.

So yes. Superman is a pea-brained moron for consistently forgetting that he has a literal death-stare. I’ve always been so frustrated by how lazy and unimaginative his writers are with his powers, only bothering to fully utilize them when it’s either completely narratively convenient, or when they’ll have no effect on the situation anyway.

And now that you know how annoyed I am by Superman constantly forgetting about the superpower of heat vision for the sake of lazy can imagine my feelings on Fire Emblem 16’s Byleth and her refusal to ever use her control over time itself.

This woman has the ability to turn the hands of time back several minutes at will, multiple times in a row if she needs to. That is unequivocally 1 of the most overpowered abilities yet conceived in fiction! In some stories, a device that can allow this even just once is the most sought-after treasure in existence--Galaxy Quest very justly made ownership of a simple 13-second time-reverse plot thingy, the Omega 13, the center of its plot’s conflict. And Byleth’s version of this can go waaaaayyyyy farther back than a mere 13 seconds! This idiot has the ability to Groundhog Day herself with a single thought, several times if need be...and she SQUANDERS it!

Okay, yes, the Divine Pulse, as it’s called, is available to the player in any battle to use at any time, allowing the player to jump back any number of turns to undo a bad decision. And I’d wager it gets plenty of action in just about everyone’s playthrough of the game, regardless of difficulty setting. Sothis knows I did, although I’m certainly no Fire Emblem master.

But gameplay mechanics and in-battle actions are 1 thing, and the plot’s narrative is another thing altogether! And in terms of the latter, Byleth is just as much an incompetent goon with her abilities as Superman at his absolute worst. When she walks into a trap set by some pissy old warlock who appears to have Grade 8 brain tumors inflating his cranium, does Byleth use any of the several moments the guy spends springing his magical trap to reverse time 30 seconds and then not step into the giant magical roach motel? Nope, she just lets herself get sucked into a nether realm, the escape from which leads to the sacrifice of her mental roommate.

When Byleth is knocked into a giant chasm in the midst of battle, does her survival instinct kick in during this moment of the most primal, universal mortal fear possible and cause her to rewind reality back to a time where she was still terrestrial? Nope, she just lets herself fall into a pit that’ll damage her so badly that it’ll take 5 years of heal-napping and a plothole nearly as big as the chasm itself to get her back on her feet. An entire war might have been cut off before it could begin had Byleth just bothered to hit the ZL button.

When the enemy masterminds of the game’s conflicts stand before Byleth and then teleport away after delivering their necessary exposition, does Byleth ever consider that she could go back in time a few minutes, ask 1 of her archer pals to go stand behind a nearby tree, and take a shot while the bad guy’s busy yammering about lofty yet ill-advised social revolutions and whatnot? Nope, she just stands there as still and lifeless as a damn mannequin until the Flame Emperor has said his inevitably stupid piece and vanishes off to continue completely incorrectly prioritizing the order of which foes he’s taking on.

When an enemy decides to pull the old “Sore Loser (Who Possesses Nuclear Missiles)” card, does Byleth think to spin time back a minute or 2, so she can make even the slightest attempt to prevent said bad guy from completing his Orbital Bombardment summoning circle? Nope, she just sits back and lets the freshly-emancipated-from-years-of-torture Rhea step forward to block those missiles with her own body. Byleth may very well be angling to slip an S Rank ring on Rhea’s finger, but apparently the power of True Love stops just a hair short of being able to remind someone that they can rewrite time itself so the hottie they’re crushing on doesn’t have to take a ballistic missile to the face.

Byleth is even stupid the 1 single time she DOES think to actually use this damn superpower in a cutscene! When Monica stabs Jeralt in the back, Byleth does, miracle of miracles (literally), actually use the Divine Pulse and try to stop the tragedy from occurring. Unfortunately, her attack is blocked, and Monica kills Jeralt anyway. The scene which follows is very sad, and a nice way to show Byleth’s emotional development,* and probably the most poignant moment in the game.

But it’s also really, really dumb. Because Byleth isn’t limited to just 1 single use of the Divine Pulse at a time. Even if she hasn’t lifted a finger to develop her capacity to use it up to that point, she still has 3 charges of it by default! The emotional power of Byleth’s first tears being shed as she holds her dying father within her arms is undercut a bit when you remember that if she actually cared about the guy living, she still has at least 2 more shots at saving him!**

I guess that’s another connection we can draw between Byleth and the stupidest moments ever conceived in the history of Superman--a willingness to just sit around and watch as ol’ Pops dies a highly preventable death.

Honestly, why did Nintendo even bother giving Byleth the Divine Pulse ability? It doesn’t do anything for the story! The only plot-centric purpose this ability ever serves is the fact that its introduction is also the introduction of Sothis, when Sothis stops time during the prologue so that Byleth won’t be killed by a bandit. And that’s something that could easily have been accomplished without anything so complicated and grand as the ability to rewind time! Nintendo’s attempt to hit every box on the Waifu Checklist at once could just as easily have been introduced by having her notice out of the corner of Byleth’s eye the incoming bandit attack, and warn Byleth of it so that the latter can defend herself. This would have been just as adequate for setting up Sothis’s mysterious presence in Byleth’s mind, and Sothis’s divine power is established effectively later on with the whole nether-realm trap event anyway, so nothing significant is lost with the absence of the Divine Pulse.

And sure, it’s a helpful and very welcome gameplay mechanic...but honestly, it could have just remained that alone, a gameplay mechanic. Had the ability to go back to a previous turn in order to correct a mistake been nothing more than a new feature in FE16's combat, totally unrelated to the actual plot, no one would have questioned it.

If your character is going to have a superhuman ability, then for Sothis’s sake, actually commit to them having it. Don’t just have them forget it exists until it’s convenient for you! Either make the effort to work your plot’s requirements around their full potential, or move on to a project more appropriate to your lazy limitations as a writer. This shit gets tiresome after a while.

* A welcome rarity, that. FE16 falls over itself to tell you, over and over again, how much Byleth has developed her humanity over the course of the game’s events, but I’ll be damned if we get to actually SEE that development very often.

** You might argue that she clearly can’t save Jeralt if that bad guy is gonna show up and block her attacks against Monica, sure, but the Divine Pulse can reverse literal dozens of turns in battle--it would be easy for Byleth to simply travel far enough back that she could be at Jeralt’s side and ready long before Monica was on the scene. Hell, she could probably go back to the middle of the battle preceding this moment, and, in the chaos of the fight, attack Monica then, with Byleth’s allies by her side. Even if you want to posit that the Divine Pulse is narratively more limited in its scope than the gameplay suggests, Byleth could at the very least go back again and shout a warning to Jeralt. The guy is 1 of the greatest warriors in Fodlan; he’d surely be able to dodge Monica’s attack if he had any warning that it was coming.


  1. I didn't really care that much about how stupid Byleth is. The only time I thought about the Divine Pulse is when her father dies, since it instantly made me wonder, "Why don't you try again and go further back this time?" If she hadn't tried using the Divine Pulse, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it. As it is, all Nintendo had to do is show Byleth trying a couple of times and running out of energy for the Divine Pulse. Or maybe Byleth could have said after the first attempt, "I can't use the Divine Pulse any more!"

    Except Byleth doesn't talk, and that's my real problem with the character and my biggest issue with Three Houses (which I otherwise like quite a lot). For all the talk of Byleth changing, I didn't ever see it in any of my playthroughs. Each time, she began as an unexpressive mute and ended as an unexpressive mute. I'm fairly neutral towards silent protagonists, which means that sometimes I think they work well enough and other times I think they're bad. As far as bad silent protagonists go, I believe Byleth is one of the worst, since her silence works completely against her supposed character development and ruins every support conversation she's a part of (those conversations need two people talking in order to work; when Byleth is involved, the other character may as well be talking to a wall). It doesn't help that I remember when Fire Emblem had protagonists that did speak.

    1. Ah, yes, that is also 1 of my major complaints about the game. I'm planning to do a rant on that, as well. We're just asked to take the game's word for it when multiple people say in dialogue (a word which isn't even especially accurate for interacting with Byleth) how much she's changed. It's the classic old problem of Telling and never Showing.

      The funny thing is that she should, by all rights, be 1 of the best silent protagonists in RPGs, because it's actually an established quality of her character rather than an unexplained storytelling anti-device as it is with almost every other silent protagonist, and something which she supposedly works through and around on her personal journey. But it doesn't work because they aren't good enough to make it work, and the result is that she sucks.

      ...That's actually a concise version of the planned rant, right there, now that I think about it. Uh...pretend you're hearing it for the first time when I do actually post it.

      And yes, it definitely doesn't help that silent protagonists aren't a tradition in Fire Emblem--I wouldn't call Marth, Sigurd, or Selis stunning examples of character depth and overwhelming quantities of dialogue, but they did at least interact with what was happening around them. Ike and Lyndis were clearly actual, real characters, and Corrin, who for many people is the protagonist that Byleth is following, had a well-defined character whose personality and situation both gave her (or him) a very memorable place in the player's mind, helped in no small part by the fact that she (or he) didn't shy away from actually being involved in her (or his) own personal story. Having your most distinguishing trait be an unsettling taste in hosiery doesn't really measure up, does it?

      ...I like that and it'll go in that future rant as well. Again, I order you to pretend that it's new and I'm not lazy.

    2. What's unusual about Byleth as a silent protagonist is that the characters around her act as if she's changed a lot, which rubs me the wrong way because I couldn't see any of this character development reflected through her actions or speech (the latter because she doesn't talk, of course). I can't really think of any other silent protagonists like this, as the other characters don't usually comment much on their personality, so their games' narratives present them as static beings (Crono starts as a heroic guy and ends as a heroic guy; the same can be said of other quiet heroes like Link, Adol from Ys, and the various Dragon Quest protagonists). I think most writers know better than to make a big deal about these characters' changes because such changes either don't exist or are very difficult to show.

      Also, while thinking of Byleth, I thought about how much better her development would work if she began as a silent protagonist and simply started talking like a regular character after a certain point (like after she fuses with Sothis, for example, or sooner so that her dad's comments about her growth don't seem insane). If that wasn't possible, the least Nintendo could have done is given her more interesting dialogue choices, or altered the other characters' dialogue so that they actually respond to what Byleth says. The game gives the player a number of options where the other character responds the same way, regardless of what you have Byleth say, which makes me wonder what the point of having options is.

    3. Oh, that WOULD work way better. In fact, not only would a change from silent protagonist to speaking protagonist made Byleth a way better character and even achieved what they wanted far more effectively, but it also could've made for a KILLER plot twist if her dialogue growth made a huge jump after fusing with Sothis. They could've had her gradually becoming talkative before that point, and then suddenly she's a standardly talkative character with certain mannerisms reminiscent of Sothis's personality and mannerisms. Damn, that would be COOL.

      At the very least, I really hope we do one day see an RPG that begins with a silent protagonist and then, unexpectedly, transitions him or her into a speaking one.

    4. Drakengard does the opposite of that, which is kind of neat.

      My problem with characters like Corrin is that if they're going to make a character my avatar I expect them to be just that, an avatar. It's a little jarring when the character that is supposedly me starts having all these thoughts and opinions with no input on my part. Personally I'd prefer it if they dropped the avatar thing altogether but since they won't do that, my second choice would be handling the avatar character like they did in fire emblem awakening. Bland, inoffensive, but likable personality and not really the main character but close enough that I don't feel left out.

  2. Superman does kill people, jesus fucking christ.

    1. ...And? I fail to see the relevance. If the guy can hold back his impossible physical strength, he can do the same with his heat vision in appropriate circumstances. And he doesn't even really have to. There are countless circumstances where he could have melted enemies' weapons, or disabled enemies entirely with it. Burn out Metallo's Kryptonite power cell, melt Sinestro's ring or just outright heat-slice the finger holding it clean off, set Grodd's fur on fire (don't let him burn to death or anything, just let him be extremely distracted by it to create a window to subdue him), incinerate any damn inconvenient plot-doohickey he can lay eyes on, burn a hole in Lobo's bike, burn The Shade's night stick to cinders the moment he pulls it out, melt/slice/blow up robots immediately and stop wasting time with them, carve Brainiac's ship into superheated pieces from the inside out instead of messing around with punching the jerk, burn an enemy's foot enough to make the pain mess with their mobility...there are a LOT of non-lethal uses for heat vision that would immediately end battles before they began or give him a substantial advantage.