An Old Game for the Modern Audience
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is the latest in the Fire Emblem series. For those unaware, Fire Emblem is a turn based strategy rpg series exclusive to Nintendo platforms. Shadows of Valentia is a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, which was never released outside of Japan. The original Gaiden was known for being much different from the other games in the series, with features like sidequests, dungeons, and other features that the other games in the series have not used since. While I can’t really judge this game as a remake (having never played Gaiden), we can still see how these features and additions mesh with some of the more recent additions to the Fire Emblem formula. So how does Echoes hold up compared to the other elements of the series? And was there a reason that the previously mentioned features were left out of the series?
A Story Told Long Ago
The game is set on the continent of Valentia, which is split between the countries of Zophia and Rigel. Each worships one of two divine dragons. Rigel worships Duma, who values strength above all else. Meanwhile Zophia is under the guidance of Mila, who spoils mankind with her blessing. Things go bad when Rigel invades Zophia, the Zophian king is overthrown, and the goddess Mila vanishes. The player takes the role of two protagonists: Alm, a village boy raised by his war hero grandfather, and Celica, the lost princess of Zophia. Both set out to end the conflict Rigel has caused in different ways. Alm joins up with a resistance group to unite the continent through conquest, while Celica sets out on a pilgrimage to find Mila, hoping to restore her blessing.
Describing this game’s story is hard. Not because it was confusing or bad, but because there wasn’t much to say about it. It wasn’t bad, but there also wasn’t much to excite me or pull me in. To be fair, however, this is a retelling of a game that released on the NES back in 1992. You shouldn’t be expecting some sort of narrative masterpiece. It gives enough of a reason for why the characters do what they do, and throws a few good twists along the way, at least until the final act. Without spoiling anything in the game’s last chapter, the story really picks up and gets interesting. It’s unfortunate that the game really picks up at its conclusion, but better a game that starts slow and ends with a bang than a game that is slow the entire playthrough.
An Army Full of Character
Fire Emblem is known for having a colorful cast of characters full of personality, and Echoes delivers that here as well. All of the player units in the game have their own unique personality and charm to them, which even a few of the villains have to some degree. Each character’s personality is on full display in combat dialogue and village conversations, which flesh them out even further. Part of what makes the characters of Echoes great is their grounding in reality. As much as I enjoyed the zanier characters of Awakening and Fates, the Echoes cast is much more realistic. They behave like actual human beings, as opposed to being driven by character tropes and cliches. I’d even go as far as to say that this is quite possibly the most realistic cast of Fire Emblem characters yet.
The support system the series has become known for returns in a different form here. Support conversations are more limited than before, and take place during battles. They still offer plenty of character development between units, but not to the extent of Awakening or Fates. Each character has at least one support, although I would have liked to see more from a few characters who only got one support.
The Art Of War
The series turn-based gameplay is mostly the same as ever, but a number of new features and changes separate Echoes from titles such as Shadow Dragon and Awakening. A number of these changes are things like archers having longer range or magic expending HP to cast. The most notable change however is the lack of the weapon triangle. Weapon types don’t have any advantages over others in Echoes, so you can’t expect to win a battle because the enemy had mostly sword units but you had a lance user. You have to rely on the terrain bonuses and statistics if you want your battles to have the best outcome possible. And honestly, I found this system is just as good as the weapon triangle, if not slightly more fair.
The map design, however, was pretty lackluster. Most of Alm’s maps consisted either of open areas with a few forts, or a stretch of land with a castle at the end. Celia’s route, meanwhile, had a lot of environmental variety, going from cemeteries to deserts to sinister marshes. However, her maps tended to be pretty uncreative too, especially in chapter 2 where most of her battles reused the same boat map. Again this was likely a problem with the original Gaiden’s maps. Occasionally you’d get a creative map that gave you opportunities to use the environment to your advantage but a majority of the time the maps were pretty dull.
The game’s class system is different as well. Rather the promotion system of previous games, Echoes uses a new more “linear” class change system that encourages the player to promote units as soon as possible. It restricts promoted classes to one type per class. For instance, only Soldiers can promote into Knights, and mercenaries are the only class capable of becoming Myrmidons. The exception to this rule are Villagers, who pick from a list of classes to promote into. I liked this progression, but I had a complaint or two with its execution. The promotions are done at shrines of Mila, which are usually found in dungeons. This meant that I would have to run through an enemy-infested area and backtrack through the world map whenever I wanted to promote my units.
The game introduces a new feature called Mila’s Turn Wheel. The Turn Wheel allows the player to undo an action within an encounter, but only allows the player to do this three times (the limit can be increased by finding cogs within the game). On paper, this idea sounds pretty cheap and exploitable, but I found it to be a useful tool. Mila’s Turn Wheel makes it easier to undo an accidental move or redo a skirmish between units, when the initial fight goes south because a unit missed on a 90% hit or got one-shotted by a lucky critical. Players who don’t like the feature can skip it altogether with no penalties.
Beyond the Battlefield
Fire Emblem Echoes is much more “open” than other games in the series. The story itself doesn’t branch or change, but the world map offers a lot of detours and alternate routes for players to follow. At one point in Celica’s route, I encountered an island with a Necrodragon off the main path. Beating the Necrodragon granted me access to a dungeon containing a sword that is effective against terrors, which are pretty frequent enemies in Celica’s route. Later on I found myself at a fork in the road in Alm’s story between fighting a pair of generals or going to a mountain to fight an evil witch. By defeating the witch, you find something that turns one of the two generals into an ally and makes the other battle much easier. These small paths and detours give the player a degree of freedom, and rewards them for exploring.
Another new addition are the dungeons. In the dungeons, gameplay switches to a full 3D perspective with the player controlling Alm or Celica as they explore the dungeon for loot, stat boosting fountains, and Mila shrines. You can encounter enemies in the dungeons and engage them in smaller battles, attacking them outside of combat to gain an advantage in the skirmish. The idea of the dungeons isn’t a bad one. I liked the occasional bit of exploration to break up longer strings of tactical battles. I found it initially difficult to perform actions such as the dash attack, because of how the controls were mapped. The controls while running are a bit stiff as well, making it harder to turn corners while dashing. The dungeon controls took a bit of getting used to, but once I did, I found myself enjoying them.
Another new Fire Emblem Echoes feature from Gaiden are the villages. In villages, players can talk to npcs, forge weapons, and find items. Villages are presented in a visual novel styled interface reminiscent of the Danganronpa games. Each section contains several NPCs who will either offer side-quests or tell the player information about the world, giving them hints on where to find special items and letting you know what’s going on in the world. I found villages to be a very welcome inclusion. They do a great job using NPC conversations to further worldbuilding, and I liked seeing what both characters had to say about various items and structures in these locations, whether it be Alm making bad urn puns or Celica commentating on literally every cat in the game.
The Little Things
Recent Fire Emblem games have used an anime-centric art style, whereas older titles such as Shadow Dragon took more inspiration from medieval fantasy. Fire Emblem Echoes’ art style is somewhere between the two, and the art itself looks pretty good. Other than the art, all the other visual elements in the game were pleasant to look at and well designed; the character designs, the villages, and even the over-world map.
The voice cast for Fire Emblem Echoes is outstanding, with each voice actor or actress fitting almost perfectly with their character. A few actors play more than one part, but the ones who do manage to keep the voices distinct enough to differentiate the characters. You will be hearing these voices a lot, because most of the dialogue is fully voiced. But better than the voice acting is the game’s soundtrack. Both routes feature great music that fits with both the two protagonists and the tone of the game.
Overall Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia had the potential to be one of the best installments in the series. It offers a lot of new features that change up the Fire Emblem formula. However a number of flaws hold this game back from perfection. Most of these flaws are tied to the original Fire Emblem Gaiden, rather than to Echoes. I still really enjoyed my time with Fire Emblem Echoes and I’d easily recommend it. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a great game that falls just short of high expectations.
Available on: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Nintendo ; Developer: Intelligent Systems ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 19, 2017; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia.