Fire Emblem Gaiden was seen as the black sheep of the Fire Emblem series. Released on the NES exclusively in Japan, Gaiden followed the examples of other early Nintendo sequels like Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. 2 and Metroid II: Return of Samus by being so drastically different from its predecessor that it became generally shunned by those who played it. By adding towns, extra battles within dungeons, two protagonists with two different armies, and the ability to level grind rather than needing to strategically fight story battles evenly amongst your troops, many felt like Gaiden lost its edge with these new inclusions. But in a post Awakening world where making the series more accessible has led the once fledgling franchise to become one of Nintendo’s most profitable series’ someone at Intelligent Systems thought it was a good idea to bring Gaiden back in the form of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a full remake for the 3DS. While it does lose some of the charm that made Awakening and Fates international hits, the once controversial changes add so much to the game that I’m comfortable in saying that Alm and Celica’s adventure overtakes its predecessors to become the best Fire Emblem game on Nintendo’s handheld.
Celica, my heart.
Rather than focus on one protagonist, Echoes splits the story amongst its two leads, Alm and Celica. These childhood friends become separated by mysterious circumstances, growing up in separate parts of the land as Alm continues his training as a swordsman and Celica grows to become a powerful priestess. However, fate calls for them to be reunited when an evil empire attempts to take over Valentia, forcing Alm to take up arms and defend the kingdom as Celica investigates the apparent disappearance of the goddess Mila. But as their paths intersect, the pair may not stay on the same side of the conflict.
From the opening moments teasing a shocking death as soon as you hit the start button, Echoes sucked me in immediately with its connection between its two main characters to the point of making me tear up within the first ten seconds. Staying true to its original format, the game removed the dating simulation aspects found in the other 3DS entries and replaced them with defined relationships between the cast. This might be disappointing for those who enjoyed putting their own relationships together, but the result is a much more focused set of interactions between most of the characters. Fighting alongside certain teammates will give you brief interactions between them, giving you a bit more insight into what their motivations are. Most character exposition however, is found when exploring towns, which acts as a type of investigation mode found in games like Phoenix Wright. Aside from discovering side missions from the townsfolk or usable items to help you on your journey, speaking to party members gives them deeper backstories than the somewhat trope ridden characters in Fates or Awakening. Unfortunately, this also means that the interactions are much fewer, since only characters relevant to each other’s stories can speak with each other, rather than everyone having the potential to explore their relationship. Even then, the dialogue on the battlefield can often be short to the point of being useless. It’s not perfect, but in the end, the result is tighter, more meaningful storytelling.
Alm charges into battle as the game shows off its new art style.
Despite these changes, the core game play is generally the same, but with some bold tweeks that change how battles need to be approached. The game still uses a grid based turn based strategy format, where certain types of units have strengths and weaknesses to others in a type of feudal rock-paper-scissors. Except the weapons triangle has been done away with, performing like a more traditional RPG where stats are king. Weapons and spell books don’t break anymore, and instead have an unlimited amount of uses. Sticking with the same weapon type over time will unlock more skills, allowing you to use Arts on command at the cost of some HP. Most games in the series make these special abilities random as you battle, but allowing us to use them at will was balanced out by making them much weaker than what we’ve come to expect from our armies’ strongest attacks. I found them to be less beneficial than just using regular attacks in most cases, essentially rendering them useless.
The biggest change in combat however, has to be how mages are handled. Rather than losing their spells over time, casting spells now costs HP, making an already fragile character type even more susceptible to being killed on the battlefield after a bad move. Thankfully, they come off as much more powerful than normal in most cases, which makes using them a high risk, high reward type of unit. But if this isn’t your style, Alm’s side of the army allows you to customize your first few units any way you want. You’ll just want to be careful and avoid creating weaknesses in your composition, since these choices will follow you through the rest of the game.
Once you have your armies in order, you’ll have numerous opportunities to put them to the test. Lengthy story battles, optional battles on the map, and full 3D dungeons for you to explore each give you opportunities to raise the strength of your soldiers. Dungeons in particular add a few unique mechanics, allowing you to attack enemies on the field in real time, destroy objects for hidden silver, (which never gets old), and a fatigue system where fighting multiple battles without leaving leads to your characters to slowly dip in strength. These areas were the highlight of Echoes’, giving us something new to do in between the constant battles. Hidden items, well springs that let you raise particular stats, and side quests that lead to some powerful gear make you want to explore every inch of these dungeons, giving you the opportunity to get stronger while you’re at it.
Celica summoning her flame to explore is one of my favorite animations.
Which is why story battles can have severe spikes in difficulty, which is one of the game’s most glaring faults. I’ve said it before in other games, but there’s little more frustrating than being able to steamroll one army, then get completely destroyed by the next one. Echoes can be especially bad at this, where at times, a single boss unit can wipe out your whole team right after they mopped the floor with his cronies. Using the ability to level grind as a type of crutch makes moments like these a chore to get through, especially when you’re anxious to see the next page in the story turn as opposed to fighting pointless battles for a few hours before you can advance. Not to mention that the dreaded random stat boosts return with a vengeance, meaning your characters can be rewarded for that hard work with next to no benefit. In a series that already has issues with having little to do outside of constant battles, forcing the need to grind only makes the problem all the more apparent.
Luckily, Mila’s Turnwheel, a new item that allows you to rewind time when you screw up a turn, can be a literal godsend during these overwhelming moments. What will surely be the new big controversy among the portion of the fanbase who thought that adding a casual mode that eliminated the game’s trademark permanent death mechanic hurt the franchise, the Turnwheel allows you to rewind time so you can redo multiple turns. Giving you step by step reminders of what happened during each move, the game makes it really easy to find where your error was and make a different move, whether or not it was one turn ago, or ten turns ago. You can only use it a limited number of times per battle, keeping it from being completely overpowered, but if you ask me, this can only be an improvement for the series going forward. Making it all the way to the end of a battle only to miss an attack or have the opponent hit a critical at the last second, eliminating an hour plus of progress, was one of the most frustrating parts of playing Fire Emblem, so allowing us to rewind single turns instead of having to start all over is a huge plus. Besides, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it. It’s a win-win!
Mila’s Turnwheel has saved me more than I care to admit.
Controversies aside, Echoes‘ biggest flaw is its map design, which often consists of big, open fields during the first half of the game. As a problem that Awakening had while Fates was much more consistent when it came to decent maps, it’s disappointing to see such flat areas that end up coming down to which army makes the first stupid mistake. This becomes less of a problem late game, with some incredibly taxing layouts that can take an hour plus to complete. Yet, once you’re able to start taking down fortified castles full of snipers, armored knights and summoners, then work your way up to the castle’s boss without any losses on your side, it’s an amazingly rewarding experience. It just takes about 10-15 of the game’s 40 hours to get to that point.
You’ll have to sift through some plain maps before getting to more interesting ones like these.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia still comes off as an experimental mixed bag of ideas, many of which remain bold choices in the face of popular entries like Awakening. Not everyone will like the removal of marriages, children, the weapons triangle or the more detailed interactions among the entire cast. But what we gain in the process is a more focused story, better developed characters in most cases, a variety of side quests and extra areas that aren’t usually found in the series, and full 3D dungeons that break up the monotony of constant fighting. It isn’t without its flaws, namely its insistence on level grinding and some poor map design in the early game, but overall, Echoes brings enough common sense ideas to the table that make it the best entry on the 3DS. If the upcoming Switch entry can keep a Mila’s Turnwheel-esque mechanic to let us redo turns, bring back more detailed dungeons to fight our way thorough, and figure out a way to have the openness of the relationship system without constraining the story, and Fire Emblem fans will have plenty to look forward to in 2018. Until then though, Shadows of Valentia is an engaging substitute. It’s safe to say that Alm and Celica’s adventure has risen out of its black sheep status to stand tall as one of the series’ finest.
+ A much more focused, engaging story.
+ The inclusion of dungeons provides a much needed break from combat, with secret items and areas to discover.
+ Mila’s Turnwheel keeps unlucky moves from being a demoralizing mess.
+ Victory is as rewarding as always.
– The early game is full of flat, boring maps.
– Side character interaction has been severely dumbed down.
– Difficulty spikes seemingly come out of nowhere.
– The changed combat systems are more trouble than they’re worth.
Final Score: 4/5