Over the past few years the Fire Emblem series has reached new heights of popularity. In just the last 18 months we’ve seen three games in the Fire Emblem Fates line on 3DS, Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile, and now Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Looking forward we have the offshoot Fire Emblem Warriors and the first console Fire Emblem in a very long time coming to the Switch in 2018. In short, it’s a good time to be a fan of the series.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is actually a remake of the Famicom game Fire Emblem Gaiden, which released back in the early ‘90s. It was the second game in the series in Japan, and that being so it’s no surprise that it was vastly different from its predecessor. Back then many sequels departed from their originals to try something new. Games like Super Mario Bros. 2 (in the US), Zelda II, and Castlevania II implemented new ideas and mechanics, with the third in the series routinely returning to the original’s roots. The same can be said here.
This marks the first time the game is being localized for the west. While it retains some of the original Famicom game’s mechanics and story, the rest has been completely overhauled to make it more approachable for today’s audience. Fans of the Fire Emblem franchise will be right at home with its stylized anime cut scenes and familiar grid-based tactical combat. At the same time, longtime players will also be introduced to more exploration and some vast changes to cherished gameplay systems.
So, let’s dive into the biggest addition found in Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – its dungeons and towns. Similar to traditional Japanese RPGs, this game allows you to fully explore dungeons. The viewpoint is over the shoulder, similar to something like a 3D Zelda, and these areas are littered with crates and pots to destroy with your sword. You can uncover useful items and weapons in these areas of the game, but you’ll also encounter enemies and monsters lurking about. They can be seen on the screen and also show up as an arrow on your mini-map on the bottom screen. If you want to avoid them you can try to run past them, but if they catch up and catch you off-guard they’ll have the advantage in battle by attacking first and often in greater numbers. If you want to do battle, it’s best to try and sneak up on them and strike them with your sword to get the upper hand by dealing some damage to all of the enemies and getting your turn first.
Speaking of combat, once you’ve encountered an enemy the screen shifts into the now-familiar overhead field view where you’ll be able to position each of your fighters to attack the incoming forces. This is just like every other Fire Emblem game, except the strategies have been changed. No longer do you have the Weapons Triangle system, which was a huge component of prior titles. If you’re not familiar, this system was in place to offer tactical advantages depending on the weapons equipped. Sword users had an advantage over those using axes, axes pummeled lances, and lances obliterated swords. Other weapons, such as bows and magic tomes would either be neutral or good against specific units (arrows are notoriously useful against flying beasts). All of that is thrown out the window for Shadows of Valentia. Instead, weapons and shields will level up (they did so in prior games too) and unleash new skills that can be used to vanquish enemies. Eventually you might earn a skill that’s particularly useful against an enemy type, but for the most part damage dealt and health lost are simply dependent on your characters’ stats. These are improved by increasing levels via experience earned or by finding special fountains that offer up stat boosts.
While some may complain that this simplified combat system takes away some of the strategic elements found in prior games, I still found myself carefully placing my units so they’d do maximum damage to the enemy forces. There are still plenty of strategic elements built into the combat, especially if you want a balanced team of capable fighters. Like in previous installments, the person that actually kills an enemy gets more experience points than just dealing damage. This means it’s important to make sure your lower-leveled units get the finishing blows in so they earn more experience and level up quicker. Once they’ve hit a certain level they’ll be eligible for a class change, which can be done at special statues for free. Most of the time changing classes will net them improved stats, although they do start over at level one.
Like the past several games in the series, Shadows of Valentia offers Classic or Casual modes of play. If you play the former, every character that dies in the game stays dead forever, whereas the latter they’re just taken out of the battle and will return good as new the next time you fight. I prefer Casual as I’m a perfectionist and I’d just reset the game if I lost a person in battle and I don’t have time for that, although I completely understand those that do. New to this game is Mila’s Turnwheel, which allows you to turn back time in combat if something goes wrong. This is a great feature that allows you to move step-by-step back in time to the place you want to start over from. It has limited uses in each scenario, but if you’re the explorer type you’ll come across ways to increase that number. I didn’t make use of this feature too much in my play through, but it was very handy during some especially hectic missions.
As mentioned earlier, another big change in this game is the ability to visit towns and talk to various characters. And I really do mean talk, since nearly every single character in the game is voiced. This is a huge improvement over prior games where only certain lines were spoken. It’s hard to state how much better the experience is with fully voiced characters. It truly brings them to life and the acting is superb across the board. The writing is also back to the high standards set in Fire Emblem Awakening, thanks to the 8-4 localization team. These villages can also be explored via a first person viewpoint and moving a cursor across the screen to examine different items and areas. This reminded me slightly of the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright games, where a static background held secrets to discover. As you progress through the game you’ll want to come back and revisit some of these locations to pick up new quests and earn new rewards.
The heart of what makes Shadows of Valentia so captivating is its story. It’s not that it’s a completely original story that you haven’t heard before, but the way in which it is presented is simply fantastic. Very early in the game you witness a cinema that is quite shocking, with one of the two protagonists seemingly being killed, and immediately you’re whisked back in time to where the game actually begins, inching your way closer and closer to that fated day. Knowing what’s waiting at the end is part of the mystery and suspense, as you try to make sense of how the characters get to that point in the story. You play as Alm and Celica, and this dual nature of the game is a breath of the fresh air. The first chapter you’ll get to know Alm’s group of friends and the next chapter you’ll be controlling Celica and her group. Each has instantly likable party members that I immediately grew attached to. As the game progresses you’ll encounter new allies that want to join up in your cause, and I love that the two characters both have different goals and missions to accomplish.
It must be mentioned that the villains in this game are especially great. Not only are they written exceptionally well, but also the lines of dialogue are delivered perfectly. The localization team has really hit it out of the park in this regard, making me hate each new villain I encounter. Of course, not all bad guys are created equal, and there are several funny moments thrown in where the underlings must report bad news to the boss and it doesn’t go over too well. Unlike some games where I’m eager to skip ahead in the story, here I’m actually eager to see more.
For a remake of an 8-bit game, Shadows of Valentia’s presentation is pretty fantastic. The graphics are quite striking; especially the animated cinemas and the fighting cut scenes. The game makes full use of the 3DS system’s stereoscopic 3D, making the battlefields look fantastic with multiple layers of depth to add that extra punch to the visuals. The music is likewise stellar, with some truly moving orchestrated pieces. It retains the usual Intelligent Systems instrumentation, but the variety found in this game seems higher than prior installments. Plus, as mentioned already, the voices are stellar.
When it comes down to it, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is one of my favorite games in the series. It combines a fantastic story with engaging gameplay to create a magical and memorable experience. Although I do miss some of the advanced tactics found in prior games, their absence didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game one bit. I love being able to explore dungeons and caves for treasures, and hope they use this idea in future titles. If you’ve tried a Fire Emblem game in the past and thought they were too complicated, or have never played the series, this is the perfect place to start.