FIRE EMBLEM ECHOES: SHADOWS OF VALENTIA Review
It’s hard to imagine that Fire Emblem nearly died five years ago. Since 2012’s AWAKENING singlehandedly saved the franchise, Nintendo has breathed new life into its tactical RPG series with a surge of new titles, from last year’s FATES on the 3DS and February’s highly successful mobile entry FIRE EMBLEM HEROES to numerous other spinoffs in development. Among this bevy of new releases comes FIRE EMBLEM ECHOES: SHADOWS OF VALENTIA, an updated retelling of the Japan-only FIRE EMBLEM GAIDEN. With an expanded narrative and myriad tweaks to familiar gameplay mechanics, ECHOES harkens back to classic Fire Emblem while offering a fresh take on the series for newer fans.
The Jon Snow to Fire Emblem’s Stark family, GAIDEN is an NES classic that is somewhat infamous for introducing a plethora of new mechanics to the series, like dungeons, towns, and a navigable world map with random battles much more akin to a full-fledged RPG than its predecessor. ECHOES’ faithfulness to its source material is astounding, if curious; all of GAIDEN’s gameplay quirks remain intact, and there are so many oddities among them that the game almost feels like it should be part of a different series. Towns in-game are reminiscent of visual novels: players can pick up items and talk to residents or party members for some exposition or hints. Dungeons play out a la Final Fantasy, with random encounters that send the party onto miniscule maps for brief skirmishes. Characters can grow fatigued from overuse, lowering their maximum stats until they consume food, not unlike the Mystery Dungeon series. Mages learn powerful spells separately from tomes and consume HP to cast them, not unlike Persona. The laundry list goes on, but it’s important to recognize that all of the peculiarities present in ECHOES (and by extension, GAIDEN) add up to form a truly unique experience.
Dabbing remains a Fire Emblem staple, however
Image Source: Screenshot
Unfortunately, not all of these carry-overs are fantastic choices. Map design in ECHOES is largely forgettable, and weather effects or objects like FATES’ Dragon Veins are nowhere to be found, with stages either containing large swaths of emptiness or narrow spaces crammed with enemies that besiege the player’s army from a distance. Units’ base stats commonly prevail over tactical prowess (I praised the GBA FIRE EMBLEM for the opposite), making it oftentimes more of a grueling gauntlet than a chess match. That isn’t to say the game is completely devoid of strategy, however; some of the more cleverly designed levels in the game rely rather heavily on using terrain and shelter to weather some devious challenges.
To merely call ECHOES a simple graphical update, however, would be negligent—new items like Mila’s Turnwheel allow players to literally turn back the clock if they make a silly mistake that results in a character’s death, eliminating the frustrating need to reset that plagued my Fire Emblem playthroughs in the past. Support conversations make a return here, although more similar to their BLAZING BLADE incarnation: characters relationships are all predetermined by the story, so it’s impossible to have some of them interact outside of their social circles. Finally, the narrative has received a major overhaul with the key addition of some new characters and a full voice acting treatment; it’s a first for the series that truly elevates the game’s ability to engage the player, considering the lack of an avatar unit like in AWAKENING or FATES. I can’t stress this enough—having these characters actually speaking to one another in cutscenes and during battles amplified my emotional connection to the game’s events, even more so because of the high quality of localization and talent coming from the voice cast. The experience is made even better by a compelling, nuanced story that deviates thematically from Fire Emblem’s typical good vs. evil slugfests.
In fact, ECHOES’ story is one of the strongest the series has to offer. It follows star-crossed best friends Alm and Celica as they embark on two separate quests—Alm transforming from wide-eyed peasant to the leader of an upstart rebellion against a coup, and Celica undertaking a pilgrimage of sorts to plead with the goddess Mila to quell the violence and misfortune plaguing her home country of Zofia. It reflects appropriately in the gameplay, too, by making players take control of both protagonists in tandem, with events on one side frequently affecting the other directly. The two heroes have starkly different methods of achieving what amounts to roughly the same goal, and their relationship—more specifically, the tension between them as they both fight to attain their ideals—served to propel me through the campaign.
So close, yet so far
Image Source: Screenshot
Fire Emblem is no stranger to romance—many fans have praised it for its support and marriage mechanics, which allow players to pair off their favorite units with one another—but to see it take center stage and largely drive the plot forward is a most welcome change. It even explores themes of oppression and the morality of war, making it a deeper, more thought-provoking scenario than its predictable brethren. Its lone shortcoming is its brevity; the main campaign doesn’t take any more than about 30 hours to complete, a paltry sum for a JRPG, although level grinding and sidequests can pad the game time a bit. Considering that both previous 3DS games pushed the 50-hour mark, it is a bit of a disappointment that this one isn’t longer, but Nintendo supplements that with the addition of some DLC chapters and extra content.
The DLC strategy is where this game trips me up, though. Without having actually shelled out for the extravagantly-priced Season Pass (at $44.99, it costs more than the actual game!), it’s impossible for me to say whether or not it expands on SHADOWS OF VALENTIA’s successes in any significant way, but allow the rant for a bit, because even as a fervent Nintendo fan, it screams ill to me. I thought it was bad when STAR WARS: BATTLEFRONT did it just a couple years ago, and I was even a victim (or a shill, whatever works better for the narrative) when FIRE EMBLEM FATES essentially hid its harder difficulties behind a pay wall. I’ve read that some of the DLC for ECHOES is quite enjoyable, but it doesn’t justify the price point, especially when these bits could have been added somewhere to the base game. I could even understand if they released a sequel’s worth of content for the same price, but for a few extra classes and items, and a prelude to the main story, 45 dollars is too much to ask for. I had hoped Nintendo wouldn’t jump onto this ridiculous trend so willingly, especially considering that most of their other DLC endeavors have been reasonable, but it seems like their integrity has been compromised by the promise of a few extra bucks.
Pictured: me being stabbed in the heart by Nintendo
Image Source: Screenshot
That being said, I think the good outweighs the bad here. ECHOES has enough going for it that it’s hard to shy away from such an ambitious reimagining of the series’s black sheep. I quickly became enamored with the characters and their struggles thanks to some fantastic voice work that brought out their personalities without feeling forced, and the plot gripped me from a tearful opener straight to a touching payoff at journey’s end. Given its similarities to FIRE EMBLEM: THE SACRED STONES, which was heavily inspired by the original GAIDEN, I can’t say I’m surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s a solid outing for the series despite its drawbacks, and a good entry point for new fans…as long as nobody’s fooled into paying double the price for the “full” experience.
Reviewed on 3DS