Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light Review – Step Forward Prince Marth
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light lays the foundations for the Fire Emblem games of present, unfortunately, however, as a 30-year-old game, feels incredibly obtuse and slow and really shows its age. For anybody interested in the Fire Emblem series, this is worth picking up. For anybody looking to play a genuinely fun strategy RPG, maybe give this a miss.
For the first time since its release on the Famicom 30 years ago, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light has been localised in the West. The strategy-RPG was the introduction into the world of Fire Emblem and the birthplace of Marth, who is most notable for his appearance in Super Smash Bros. Melee.
The game takes no time throwing you straight into the action. With little explanation of anything, you take control of Prince Marth and his army. Your first job is to repel invading forces from a nearby castle. Something which, as you progress, you’ll need to get used to as this is the overall crux of the game.
Marching across the continent of Archanea, you fight to liberate various kingdoms from evildoers and ultimately regain the throne for yourself. The problem with the story is it sadly gets lost, most often due to the limitations of the time in which the game was released. While it tries to tell an epic tale of a prince fighting for what’s rightfully his, it ultimately fails.
Every story beat plays out at the start of each of the game’s many chapters. However, once you enter the battle all becomes forgotten. There’s maybe a solitary reminder per chapter of why you’re doing what you are, but otherwise, it’s left by the wayside.
This leaves every mission feeling repetitive. Although the game tries to build grandeur at the start of each mission, fundamentally you’re dragging your troops from point a to point b, fighting enemies and reclaiming either a castle, a throne, or something similar.
It’s true that, ultimately, the majority of strategy RPG’s follow this similar formula. However, they at least have engaging characters or dialogue to help drive you forward. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light sadly doesn’t have that. You can go for significant periods of time without ever really interacting with anybody, except when you engage in combat or visit a shop.
As you boot up Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light for the first time, it immediately thrusts you into battle. The game explains nothing. While to those who have a storied history with the Fire Emblem franchise, this may not be a problem, to somebody like myself, who fell in love with Fire Emblem: Three Houses last year, as their first Fire Emblem game, this is far more of an issue.
I got about six painstaking missions in, fumbling around like a lost sheep, before I really started to understand the intricacies of the game. Sadly, by this point, it was too late. I didn’t realise you could visit buildings and just thought they were there for decoration. I didn’t realise you could recruit certain members of the opposing forces during battle or enter villages and find new party members. And I certainly couldn’t initially tell the major benefits of all of the different classes. Yes, a lot of it could be put down to my naivety (see: stupidity); however, some sort of explanation would have been nice.
My breaking point came during the sixth mission when I encountered the boss. I’d played the game so poorly to this point, that short of rewinding back through almost an hour of gameplay (one of the nice additions to this rerelease), I wouldn’t be able to beat him. So I restarted the game.
On the second playthrough, things ran more smoothly. I had a much better understanding of the classes, the systems, the enemies, maps, and buildings. So much so that I actually started to enjoy the game a little.
It wasn’t this stressful experience that I’d come to feel through my first few hours of play. I could strategically plan my way around the map, figuring out which of my party would be facing off against certain members of the opposition forces. I could focus on my plan to level up my weaker party members, readying them for the next battle. Finally, I could actually play the game as it was designed. There finally were some generally enjoyable moments. Whether it was entering a village and unlocking a party member of a new class or building one of my team up to be an absolute tank. I was finally having some fun.
But it shouldn’t be like that. I understand that this is a 30-year-old game and I respect that. That said, the obtuse nature and lack of explanation will certainly be enough to put off more than a few newcomers to the franchise who are looking to jump in from where it all began. When localising the game, the devs were presented with the perfect opportunity to add a few lines of dialogue that help to ease players in, something which they neglected to do.
The obtuse nature isn’t only limited to the lack of explanations either. You can certainly see the foundations that Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light laid for the future games in the franchise. However, in this iteration, these foundations are mostly a meagre brick, waiting to built into what the series is now.
Each of your party can only hold four items each. Sometimes, the game forces them to pick up certain items during play, taking up a precious slot. While this isn’t the end of the world, you either need to visit a convoy (which could be located anywhere on the map) to drop off an unwanted item, or you have to use a turn to land on a square next to a party member to hand them the item. However, if their inventory is full, then it’s a no go. There is no ability to swap items one for one. Instead, you need to just ensure that the person you’re handing the item to has a free space, which causes problems of its own.
You could also only have one party member enter a shop per turn. When controlling 13 or 14 different characters, each of whom could use a new weapon or healing item, meant either you had to be very selective with who got upgrades or had to play the very long game.
There is also no outline in the game that shows the movement range of your team. This isn’t a massive gripe. However, it does mean you’re constantly spending time moving your cursor, fumbling around to figure out their best move. Overall, these were some of my biggest problems. The archaic nature of the game and its systems slowed everything right down.
Not only did the different systems, features, and design choices slow the game down, but it was just generally slow. You control a lot of party members at any given time. Figuring out where each of them can move, waiting for their move animations, and then waiting for the enemy took forever. The team added certain functionality to help speed things along. That said, even playing the game at double speed with battle animations off still felt lethargic.
I take no pleasure in being this critical of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. The most recent entry into the franchise was my game of the year last year. This is certainly a culturally important game, but going back and playing it now is tough. It definitely scratches that strategy itch and it’s undeniably cool to see the origins of some of the weapons, characters, and systems I came to love last year, especially for under six bucks. However, can I truly say you’ll have a good time with this one? Unfortunately, almost certainly not.