There are more than a half-dozen Fire Emblem games that never came to our shores, but in 2008, Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS—a remake of the very first Fire Emblem game—here in North America. That decision gave me hope that we would start to see more of the Fire Emblem games we never received finally cross the Pacific in some form or another. Flash forward almost a full decade later, and I had all but given up on the idea. Naturally, then, Nintendo releases Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia—a remake of the second-ever Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem Gaiden—rekindling my hopes. And—if Shadows of Valentia is any indicator—the idea of continuing to bring over old games in the series remains as sound as I thought it did almost 10 years ago.
Shadows of Valentia takes place at the same time as Shadow Dragon in Fire Emblem chronology. While Marth is freeing the continent of Archanea in the east, the continent of Valentia to the west is war-torn for different reasons. The dragon gods—Duma from the north and Mila to the south—have withdrawn their boons to the people, and the respective nations that fell under each god’s purview are crumbling because of it. Two children who bear a special brand on their hands, Alm and Celica, are unexpectedly thrust into the center of it all. Each will try to bring peace to Valentia in their own way, not realizing how connected they truly are. It’s your typical Fire Emblem tale of kings, queens, dragons, and magic.
Because Fire Emblem Gaiden never made its way to the West, it’s hard for me to compare this remake to the source material beyond obvious differences. For example, following in the footsteps of more modern games in the series, every major character has their lines fully voiced (and fantastically so). There are also fully-animated cutscenes, while each character has had a more modern redesign given to them that pops off the screens of the 3DS.
Doing some research, though, led me to find that Fire Emblem Gaiden was often described as the “Zelda II of Fire Emblem.” This is because the game introduced some drastically different gameplay like dungeons and town exploration, and even side quests from NPCs that were quickly abandoned by the series as a whole after poor reactions. All of that radically different gameplay returns here in Shadows of Valentia, but what’s interesting is that since this is a first for Westerners to experience this in Fire Emblem—with features like “My Castle” in Fire Emblem Fates helping to pave the way—it actually feels like a natural progression for the series that I surprisingly enjoyed and quickly adapted to. It may have been far-reaching in 1992; in 2017, it feels like Fire Emblem is just growing in new and wonderful ways.
Getting to towns and dungeons is done via utilizing a limited overworld map with paths laid out before you, and you can see ahead to where most of the battles that mark major chapters in your adventure will occur. While Shadow Dragon displayed a linear overworld map at times, you use Shadows of Valentia’s to actually plan your next move. It is larger, has branching paths, and allows you to bounce back and forth between Alm and Celica’s different bands of characters, each traversing their own course and occasionally interacting with the other at certain points. The overworld map helps get across the idea of the duo actually fighting a war, moving the frontlines and themselves closer to their goals with each victory, and being able to see how far they’ve come in such a simplistic way gives a sense of scale that we don’t often get in Fire Emblem games.
Once you do visit a town or dungeon, you get very different experiences from anything we’ve seen before from the series. Towns are made up of a few different locations (taverns, homes, blacksmiths, etc.) and you select where you want to go from another map. From a first-person perspective, you then can look around the room with a targeting reticule to pick up items or talk with the various townsfolk to shop, learn about the world, or potentially unlock a small sidequest. Unfortunately, the sidequests are a bit dull, and are always of the “if you get me item x I’ll give you item y” variety. Often times I wouldn’t even bother with them unless I already had the item in my possession, but they do give you something else to do beyond fighting all the time.
Dungeons, meanwhile, are explored from a third-person view as you walk around in them much more like traditional RPGs. There are often exclusive treasures to be found and secrets to be uncovered in dungeons, whether they’re abandoned caves, ancient ruins, or enemy forts. If you come across an enemy in a dungeon, you can potentially avoid it; if you touch the enemy, however, the world shifts to a more traditional Fire Emblem grid where Alm or Celica and a small contingent of their allies will have to fight a tactical-RPG battle. It took some getting used to, but I found the rewards within dungeons made them definitely worth exploring.
Dungeons are also where you now can change classes for your party members. Many dungeons have statues that, when prayed to, will bestow new classes (and higher stats) on your most experienced party members. I loved this feature, because no longer did I have to spend all my coin or search desperately on battlefields for the right items (which would trigger the all-important class increase in previous games). Certain characters listed as “villagers” also have the added benefit of changing their class to whatever you wish. If your group is mage-heavy, you can force a villager to take up a sword or lance, or vice versa. Or, you can make more mages or more soldiers, and try to dominate the landscape with one offensive dimension.
Not all the changes Shadows of Valentia introduces were welcome, though. In an attempt to keep the combat process streamlined, every unit has a default weapon that will never break. Whether it’s a lance, sword, or magic tome, the traditional Fire Emblem weapon durability remains gone like it was in Fire Emblem Fates. Also removed, however, is the ability to carry multiple weapons, so no longer can you carry a variety of gear to defend yourself with depending on the scenario. You can carry a special weapon to replace the default that will never break—like a silver lance, brave sword, or a blessed bow—but you are stuck with that weapon for the entirety of a battle no matter what gets thrown at you.
This lack of improvisation was disappointing from Shadows of Valentia, and the only thing worse than this is when certain classes do get two weapons to carry—like magic and a sword, or a bow and a sword—they will always default to their original. I prefer the old way where the last thing I attacked with is what I would now defend with. This way, if my bow-carrying soldier was attacked by a mage from a distance, they could still defend themselves (had I used the bow previously), instead of being helplessly pelted by dark magic while holding their default sword every time.
That’s not the only issue with weapons in Shadows of Valentia. One of the pillars of Fire Emblem combat has been the rock-paper-scissors, axe-sword-lance weapon triangle that has always been present in Western releases of the series—yet it is noticeably absent here. Your enemies have axes, you can acquire axes (for sidequests), but none of your units can actually use them. All that your non-magic units can use are swords, bows, and lances, and a larger focus was put on black and white magic with your mages. White heals units, black is offensive, and all magic requires some sort of HP sacrifice now. The HP sacrifice was an interesting twist that added some difficulty to the game, but the balance that came with the weapons triangle and the more simplistic use of magic in previous games is sorely missed here. Even by the time I beat the game 30-35 hours after I had started it, I was still unsure of what units did well against which others.
Speaking of how long I played this game, that’s a long time to do the same objective over and over again, and not until the last couple of battles does your objective change. It is always just obliterating your opponents—no lasting so many turns, defending objectives, or capturing objectives. I miss the variety from previous Fire Emblem games that required me to change my thinking somewhere along the line beyond “strongest units on the front lines will run roughshod over my enemies”.
If you still want a more traditional Fire Emblem experience, however, fear not. There’s nothing we can do about the missing weapons triangle—which will always perplex me about this game—but exploring towns and dungeons are optional for the most part. Although I found they added a lot of depth to the experience and the world (and characters and classes to my party), I imagine some purists out there might recoil at the dramatic shifts in gameplay. It’ll make the experience even more difficult if you avoid them, but if all you want is classic Fire Emblem grid-based tactical-RPG and unit management, then don’t worry: outside of a couple of mandatory sections, you can just move from battle to battle to battle on the overworld map.
And, in that regard, Shadows of Valentia is still very much a Fire Emblem game. The main game is broken down into five acts, and while I will say the first act was a bit of a pushover, there was a huge spike back up to what we expect from this series in terms of difficulty from there. In fact, it may be one of the hardest Fire Emblem games I’ve ever played, and the Classic mode touting permadeath will still plague you and your party if you’re not precise and careful with each move you make on the grid. Casual mode—which definitely wasn’t around in Gaiden—at least also returns from more recent iterations of the series, allowing deceased party members to return after every battle. Should Alm or Celica fall in either mode, however, it’s an instant game over.
Another new feature to help with the difficulty is the Turnwheel. Both Alm and Celica get these new artifacts early on in the adventure, and they have two purposes. The first is by inserting items called Cogs into the Turnwheel, you can rewind the game three full turns; it’s a great way to save allies who you would otherwise lose to permadeath. Turnwheels are also how you utilize Amiibo in the game.
Yes, Nintendo’s cute little figurines are compatible with Shadows of Valentia, but depending on what Amiibo you use on the Turnwheel, you’ll have different effects. The brand new Alm/Celica two-pack adds character specific dungeons and battles to the world map. Meanwhile, non-Shadows of Valentia Fire Emblem Amiibo, like Lucina, can be summoned as allies in particularly difficult battles. Finally, Amiibo not related to Fire Emblem, like Mario, will summon monster creatures to your aid. It’s a nice way for Amiibo to be used in the game without really breaking it.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a game more than deserving of a second chance from the East, and a first chance here in the West. It was ahead of its time when it first released as Fire Emblem Gaiden, but now comes across more as a natural evolution of the series with an audience that should be more open to the ideas it pushes in regards to Fire Emblem gameplay. Not everything is perfect—like the noticeable absence of the weapons triangle—but it is a more-than-worthy culmination of the tactical-RPG series’ life on the 3DS.
It’s funny how a remake of a game that never originally hit the West can feel like such a step forward. There are a couple questionable choices, like the removal of the weapons triangle, and series purists might grumble over some other changes like dungeon exploration, but overall Shadows of Valentia feels like the next great step in Fire Emblem.
T - Teen
|Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is available on 3DS. Primary version played was for 3DS. Code/hardware was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|