More Fire Emblem you say? I won’t argue.
It’s amazing to think that a few years ago Fire Emblem was pretty much finished. When Fire Emblem Awakening launched in 2012 sales had been dropping, and series Producer Hitoshi Yamagami had been all but told by Nintendo heads Awakening was it. Game over. But then something magical happened: Awakening shattered series records. It became not just a cult hit, but a 3DS hit in general. The series had a new lease of life and had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
“Fire Emblem has always been about building an army, and the big hook of this entry is having you switch back and forth between two separate groups of warriors who are all involved in the same massive war.”
That tale is actually very Fire Emblem, come to think of it – on the harder difficulties, this tactical Japanese RPG is all about that; being backed into a corner, outflanked and outgunned, before coming up with a bold new strategy to escape without any horrible permanent character deaths to deal with.
Five years on from Awakening the series is thriving. We had three different versions of Fire Emblem Fates, Pokemon style, and then just recently a slew of new Fire Emblem titles were announced. There’s Fire Emblem Warriors, a musou-style game from Omega Force, a traditional Fire Emblem for Switch and the hugely successful mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes. Then there’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – the third and likely final game to be build directly off the tech from Awakening for 3DS.
Shadows of Valentia seems perfectly poised to make good use of those new fans who joined the series as of Awakening, as Echoes is at its heart a remake. This is no remaster, however – this is a ground-up rebuild of the 1992 NES game Fire Emblem Gaiden. That’s almost taking us right back to the start: Gaiden was the second ever title in the series.
Gaiden means ‘side story’ and Shadows of Valentia lives up to that nickname in more ways than one. Yes, it takes place off to the side of the first game in the series, but more interesting and important to the structure of the game is how it tells two different stories in parallel – that of Alm and Celica, two friends who find themselves involved with two separate groups of characters. Fire Emblem has always been about building an army, and the big hook of this entry is having you switch back and forth between two separate groups of warriors who are all involved in the same massive war.
This small change is more about narrative than anything, but having two discrete armies leads to some interesting gameplay considerations too – you can build each out in slightly different ways to give each distinct play-styles if you wish, and the same strategy RPG framework from Awakening and Fates is put to good use here.
Interestingly Shadows of Valentia might now be the best beginners Fire Emblem game on the 3DS, because while it features the same basic mechanics as Awakening and Fates the fact it’s based on an older game means that some of its systems are actually streamlined and more simple than those in its more modern siblings.
Some veterans might find some of the limitations of this such as fewer classes a frustrating touch, but the game also offers a generally more punishing basic difficulty than Fates, which for my money was generally too easy. One notable omission is the rock-paper-scissors style weapon triangle – a sort of streamlining mechanic that was added to the series later on.
“Even with all the changes made, it’s still ultimately more of the same. It’s a magnificent same to get more of, however.”
In this regard in one sense this being an older game simplifies, and in another it complicates – and broadly speaking it seems like it balances out, but you’ll have to approach combat in a different way. That’s one thing that’s worth underlining in general: screens might paint it as being the same as Awakening and Fates, but there’s quite a bit different here thanks to the age of the game.
In other areas Shadows of Valentia adds all-new stuff, making it a sort of fantastic mash-up of the old and new. All-new are the new 3D dungeons – proper, traditional dungeons that you crawl from a third person perspective. There’s no strategy grid here – it’s real-time, 3D dungeon exploration. Encountering enemies throws you into much smaller-scale battles, and it’s an interesting bit of experimentation for the series that breaks up the more traditional visual novel into strategy battle flow of Fire Emblem gameplay.
Fates struggled to tell a story as compelling as Awakening and Shadows of Valentia suffers for similar reasons; the characters aren’t as interesting and some of the plotting is fairly rote. If you’re playing in English this is helped tremendously by a characterful and often funny localisation that really gives the game a lot of personality it’d otherwise lack. It’s rare that a localisation can actually elevate a game, but this game manages it and so props are due.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is ultimately still more 3DS Fire Emblem – even with all the changes made, it’s still ultimately more of the same. It’s a magnificent same to get more of, however, and the new additions and tweaks inspired by the original Fire Emblem Gaiden and more recent entries in the series offer more than enough to make it worth a look. If you’re looking to give your 3DS a victory lap before replacing it with a Switch, you can’t go far wrong with this – it’s a perfect example of the type of game that made the 3DS so special.