Around 14 years ago I still remember pushing a new game into my metallic red Gameboy SP, not knowing what to expect. The game was called “The Blazing Blade”, not a story about a swordsman with now increasingly legal pastimes, but the 7th installment in a franchise that at the time I had never heard of. Immediately I was hooked. The casual tactics franchise with hidden depths instantly became one of the my favorites. Since I have played every Fire Emblem game I could find. Despite this however, I was still unfamiliar with the entry titled “Fire Emblem Gaiden”, understandable given it never reached western shores. That was until recently, with the announcement of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a modern day remake.
I must confess I went into Echoes with fairly low expectations. Everything I had heard about Gaiden has implied it was considered somewhat the black sheep of the Fire Emblem franchise. A heavily criticized collection of gameplay experimentation that had long since been exorcised from the games that followed it. That mistake you made one time when you were young and dumb and have been trying to forget ever since. Therefore, after spending a good deal of time beating Echoes’ campaign on the default difficulty, and staring at the game case smugly laying back in my quivering hands, a single bead of sweat rolling down my brow, I was taken off guard by the realisation that one of the best handheld experiences of the year so far was staring back at me.
The game follows characters Alm and Celica, two friends forced apart at childhood who later reunite only to find themselves at odds over increasing tension between the two surrounding regions. The story is fairly common faire, particularly to anyone with existing interests in Fire Emblem or just fantasy storytelling in general, but it suffices to drive the player forwards. This divide between the two central characters does open the door to one of the biggest differences in the Echoes campaign. After a few short introductory acts, players will be presented with the choice to act as either Alm or Celica and their respective forces interchangeably however they see fit, each character taking a different path on the game’s world map.
This divide of campaign works particularly well, not just as each army has a natural difference in composition and seems fairly differentiated from one another in play style, but also as it feels like an improvement over the traditional formula. When playing an entry like Fire Emblem: Awakening, over the course of the game you will end up with a sizable force, only a fraction of which you can take into battle with you. While the series has always been picking and choosing your favorite units, it has always left me with the feeling that I am missing out on content in a single play though, having to leave it behind for a second play through should I even get around to starting one. Fire Emblem: Fates provided players with both the Birthright and Conquest campaigns, allowing them a more focused look at each factions characters before heading into Revelations, but this came at a very real price to consumers. By the time I had finished Echoes, I felt like no character had gone to waste, a refreshing change.
The split campaign is interesting in other ways as well. Through exploration of locations such as villages, castles and dungeons players will find consumables and equipment to take with them. Even unit recruitment, none of which occurs in battle here, involves finding and talking to the character in question and being prompted with a decision to accept the newcomer into your force or not. At first this confused me, what purpose would rejecting new blood ever serve? The answer soon became obvious when the game offered a limited opportunity to take any units or items left behind by one force for the other, offering a whole new level of tactical consideration.
Further adding to the spirit of team building is the game’s take on the villager class. Each force will gain access to one or more villager characters and players are free to choose which base class they should advance into. As an example, from the 4 villagers I was provided at the start of Alm’s side of the campaign, I gave myself a starting point of a mercenary, a mage, an archer, and a pegasus knight, choosing to forgo the option of a soldier or cavalier. I could have had any combination of the above of course, a nice touch that had me feeling more of a personal attachment to my army right from the get-go. This could just as easily be seen as a double-edged sword as each character’s stats still lend themselves to some classes over others, and inexperienced players who may not know what to look for could be left regretting their choices as their close-combat Tobin bites the dirt time and time again. Overall though, given the franchise’s tendency to lump you with characters whose classes might not best suit their stats, having some degree of choice is welcomed. The only real disappointment here is that Celica gets handed far fewer villagers than Alm, with Atlas joining her party only after progressing some distance into the game.
Unit promotions do not require seals as you may now be used to, rather they are carried out at altars dotted around the game world. Promotions in Echoes, beyond initially deciding how villagers will progress, is now completely linear. Once a unit is ready to be promoted, you will be given no choice what they become. Archers will always become snipers, followed by bow knights, just as mages will always end up as either sages or priestesses depending on the characters gender. Players of newer Fire Emblem games may find themselves missing the additional customisation here, though every promotion does still feel like a substantial improvement.
Throughout Echoes you will also be handed quests to complete, resulting in varying rewards from currency to spend on weapon upgrades, equipment, and renown. Across the entire campaign you will only find a handful of quests to embark on, and the game seems to provide no means of tracking them such a even a basic log making them incredibly easy to forget. This is a shame as some of the quests are genuinely quite enjoyable, such as taking on especially powerful creatures to recover lost heirlooms, but on the whole I was left feeling the feature was underdeveloped. Even upon completing the campaign, I do not recall ever being told what effect renown has, though after searching for an answer it apparently its only relevant for a Streetpass ranking.
The other major noticeable change for Fire Emblem regulars will no doubt be the battle mechanics. The thematically suspect, yet highly functional, weapons triangle is nowhere to be seen. Your lances will be just as effective against axes as they are against swords. Actually, I do not even recall seeing a single axe throughout my play through with only a single exception, but not one that could be used to slay anything except firewood. Archers can all of a sudden counter-attack at close quarters, which is handy considering they no longer effortlessly pluck fliers out of the sky, at least not right away. There is still a little rock-paper-scissors at work here, you will want magic users to put any kind of dent in powerful armoured units for example. Despite the absence of these mainline staple mechanics, the combat in Echoes surprisingly does not feel any less tactical. The game actually felt more punishing if anything, forcing me to really consider some of my turns more than I would have in titles like Awakening or Fates, which by comparison can occasionally seem overly simplistic.
One feature I was convinced I would meet with disapproval is “Mila’s Turnwheel”, an item that allows a limited amount of rewinds per combat. I can myself, like many experienced Fire Emblem players I expect, be a little guilty of turning my nose up at anything that trivializes the challenge of keeping all of my units alive and kicking. However I now find myself convinced that this is a feature that needs to find it’s way into every future game form this moment on. You see when one of my units dies a most permanent death, what do I do? I restart, load back into my save file, re-enter the battle from the beginning, fight my way back to the point I reached and pray that a lucky critical doesn’t make me repeat the process again and/or through my console through a window. Mila’s Turnwheel doesn’t make it any easier to keep units alive, it just saves me an incredible amount of time when one dies!
Character skills, aside from spell casters, are not learnt after achieving set levels in Echoes. Rather the game employs a system whereby skills are eventually learnt through equipped weapons, shields, or accessories. Some skills are automatically bestowed simply through the act of equipping the parent item, others will be hidden and require you to unlock them through continually taking the item into combat. It is a system that I am particularly fond of, reminding me of days spent playing Final Fantasy 9, but its execution here is not as strong and left me feeling a little sour. Unlike for Zidane and friends, removing an equipped item renders the skills learnt from it unusable until another item with the same skill is held. This instantly devalues the use of a large number of the items found in Echoes. You will never need to bother using an iron sword for longer than you have to, regardless of skills learnt from it, safe in the knowledge that you will no doubt find something better with a completely different skill set anyway. All this said, I found myself using skills in the game very little, so their importance within the game as a whole seems of fairly minimal consequence, though this may change as players raise the difficulty level.
In the earlier Fire Emblem games I was exposed to, virtually every item had a limited number of uses. Every sword had a design flaw that would seem them crumble to dust after 40 or so swings. Later, thankfully, this was changed so that only healing staves expired. Echoes approaches this different still. No equipment, weapon, healing, or otherwise is restricted in how often you can use it per say. Instead, skills such as healing, offensive magic, or combat arts all carry a health point activation cost. While this may seem daunting at first, it adds a pleasant extra dimension to the tactics of the game, leading you to consider if and when you can afford to unleash a high powered attack. Where it really shines is in the knowledge that it effects enemy units just as much as it effects your own. Smacking down a mage to the point where they can no longer cast powerful spells, even if they wanted to, is an incredibly satisfying feeling.
Outside of the mechanics the combat animations, level design, range of enemies and music are all by and large exceptional. Some levels can be a bit tiresome, particularly ones that use cliff faces or similar terrain to extremely limit movement and arbitrarily increase the time it takes to move on. With specific regards to the combat animations, these are without question the finest ever seen in a Fire Emblem game. Attacks, counter-attacks, and dodges all flow into each other beautifully.
During your travels you will occasionally come across a dungeon. Entering one of these areas has you navigating either Alm or Celica through fully 3D environment, encountering enemies and looting chests. While visually one of the most unexpected shifts from traditional Fire Emblem games, this was also one of the features I found to have the most problems. Having to constantly readjust my view was a hassle and and getting a preemptive strike on enemies, rewarded with small bonuses in the resulting combat, often seemed hit-and-miss. None of the dungeons I traversed felt particularly interesting in design, and getting through some of the later ones felt like an outright chore. Furthermore, the fights you get into within dungeons feel heavily generic and at times identical when compared to the crafted combats you experience elsewhere. Fighting the same enemies, in the same formation, on the same map, tens of times in quick succession ends up having as much need for strategical thinking as deciding if you want ham or turkey in your lunchtime sandwich.
Then there is the stamina system. As you engage in combat, your units will tire through use. When their stamina depletes, they will become fatigued, and any combat they enter from that point on will be with penalties such as a rather large cut of their maximum hit points. To recover stamina, units must either be fed consumables found throughout the world, or one such consumable can be offered at an altar to restore energy to the entire party. Even as I write this review I cannot for the life of me understand what the intention of this system was. The obvious conclusion seems to be as a measure to restrict the level grinding possible in dungeons, but simply leaving and re-entering a dungeon seemed to fully restore stamina for me anything. I thought it might be a system designed exclusively to make the later, longer dungeons harder, but at this point I was carrying more oranges than the State of Florida and as such it was never an issue. It seems to me that the entire stamina system could just be dropped with no real negative impact on the game at all.
Echoes overall is a very faithful remake of an older Fire Emblem game and as such I would be remiss not to highlight the absence of some of the series newer, more beloved features. Notably there is no marriage options in the game. This is not to say the game is devoid of romance however, there is still plenty to be found in the support conversations that are available. Children and inheritance naturally are also not featured in the game at all. The game does support Amiibo however. Both Alm and Celica unlock special dungeons, and can be used to save a snapshot of each respective hero. They each, along with a wide range of other Amiibo, can be used to summon temporary AI-controlled units into battle.
The game’s DLC offerings certainly raised a few eyebrows when they were first announced, the season pass costing as much as a new game by itself. I personally take a fairly lenient stance towards paid DLC, either the content is worth the price or you just simply ignore it and move on. The one notable exception to this comes when the DLC in question has clearly been developed alongside the main game, raising the risk that the content on offer is cut from the experience you have already paid to play. Thankfully I can report that Shadows of Valentia does not feel incomplete before downloading additional content, the main campaign clocking in upwards of the 30 hour mark. Unfortunately it may also be the case that the game could be seen as better without the DLC, which can end up throwing balance out the window and resulting in an extremely easy overall gameplay experience.
Shadows of Valentia is far from the failure that was Gaiden, or at least how that game had been described to me. New players to Fire Emblem will be treated to a solid and lightly challenging strategy RPG, while series veterans will receive a fascinating glimpse of the ways this treasured franchise could be different.