Fire Emblem fans have seen a virtual renaissance for the entire franchise. Ever since 2009, the franchise has offered hit-after-hit title, both critically and commercially. With the new wave of fans brought in from Fire Emblem Awakening and the latest mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo has never been better positioned to return back to the series’ roots.
And that is exactly what the infamous Japanese publisher did with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia — a remake of the quarter-century old title Fire Emblem Gaiden. Gaiden, which released exclusively in Japan on the Famicom, has been well-regarded as an interesting departure for the series. It is almost congruent to how different both Castlevania II and The Legend of Zelda II similarly departed from their source material.
This latest remake for Nintendo 3DS comes with hefty improvement, not only from the original but to the series as well. But with remarkably less polish than both Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates, the game will likely capture the hearts of series fans instead of bring newcomers into the fray.
The story to Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is at both points rich and flawed. The tale spins around two characters, a farm boy named Alm and the mysterious girl Celica. Despite being best friends and sharing a similar, strange mark on their hand, they are separated from each other the Rigelian army discovers that Celica is instead a princess and the rightful heir to the Zofian empire.
A decade passes and a war rages between the Zofians and Rigelians, with the god-like creatures watching over both nations seemingly abandoning them. That is where the meat of the story picks up — Alm joins the local Zofian militia called The Deliverance, and Celica departs her home town to find the Zofian goddess, Mila, to determine why the farmland has become so barren.
The story is rich, with twists and turns and deep characters throughout. While the gameplay was interesting, nothing motivated me to move forward in the game more than wanting to see a resolution between both Alm and Celica. On the other hand, the game is a remake of a 25 year old title — those same twists and turns are predictable to nearly anyone who has played a JRPG or videogame since then. Instead of acting as a dynamic story that sets the bar, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is more reliably an interesting fantasy title which is somewhat original.
The actual gameplay is divided into three specific portions: combat, dungeon crawling and narrative. Combat is fairly run of the mill for Fire Emblem titles. Predictably, you can move by grids and take one of many options, be it attacking, spending HP on special skills (Arts) or magic, using an item, or waiting. Some small tweaks added to the Fire Emblem formula (like environmental bonuses) help make the title more complex, but it is largely the same. And that is fine — hardly anyone wants to see Fire Emblem‘s gameplay changed too heavily.
Beyond that, the dungeon crawling aspect is the largest edition to the Fire Emblem franchise in recent memory. In Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, you can occasionally head into crypts, towers, and dungeons to take on enemies, gather some loot, and take on skill classes. While the action would always take place in third-person exploration, you would return to top-down, SRPG gameplay when encountering an enemy.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia also took some hints from Darkest Dungeon. The further into the dungeons you travel and more damage you take, the quicker your own fighters will become “fatigued” — a debuff that reduces your affected character’s health by half.
These exploration segments are some of the most interesting seen within my time with the Fire Emblem franchise, and despite easy dungeons and repetitive assets, I was always looking forward to each. My only real complaint about dungeon crawling segments is that they come so few and far between. I would go hours out between my 25 hour journey before reaching a new one.
Finally, players can explore tiny hamlets and villages, talking to their own teammates and random townspeople to their hearts content. These sections lean heavily on the worst parts of visual novels — the localization is spotty, the areas feel repetitive, and the actual character screens are static. With progress and new systems consistently added to VNs, I was hoping to see some more dynamic polish on dialogue outside of the anime scenes.
Speaking of the dialogue, I want to hammer home how uneven it is. A large portion of the game focuses on the classic battle between the proletariat townspeople and high-and-mighty, blue blood royals. The game tries to accentuate these characters with stiff, royal-like language and unbelievably modern idioms and banter. While I’m fine with two different voices, the localization on the common folk felt like Nintendo Treehouse trying to be a bit too relateable.
The game itself is pretty difficult — the main reason this review is coming out so late, was because I thought I could take my normal route of the traditional perma-death option on hard mode. Big mistake. Besides being as difficult as ever, players will often have to mercilessly grind in dungeons to get to a place where constant dying isn’t a gurantee in standard missions.
Meanwhile, in the non-perma-death mode on easy, players will likely have an easier time breezing through the game. Even still, better options for grinding for experience would likely help general playability for the game.
Smaller gameplay additions help to pad out the gameplay. Mila’s Turnwheel is a minor feature that exists to let players redo turns, based on the amount of cogs found throughout hamlets. Towards the end of the game, I could undo up to eight times per battle. Also, the weapon triangle (a rock-paper-scissor-like weakness system) often seen in other Fire Emblem games has been removed for general weapons that add abilities. While I’m not sure if either of these worked as a permanent system for the franchise, I do enjoy the diversity it brought to Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia.
But how should you take all of this? If you are a regular Fire Emblem fan and have previously experienced the other Nitnendo 3DS adventures, you are going to have an absolute blast with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. However, without the high bar of quality we’ve seen in the previous two games, Echoes may not hook newcomers the same way.