It’s getting hard to remember a time when I wasn’t playing a remaster of something. My recent history has been “HD update this” and “framerate upgrade that,” not to mention “Hey, here’s a game that didn’t have microtransactions back in the day but hey it does now!”
You know the one I mean.
That’s why it’s good to play an honest-to-goodness remake; Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a rebuilt version of Fire Emblem Gaiden, a 15 year old game I never got to play because I didn’t speak Japanese as a child. I don’t speak it now either, but this one’s in English and I also quite like Fire Emblem so hey, no excuses.
Echoes takes place on the continent of Valentia, where one of the two gods who ruled the land has gone AWOL, and the other is taking the opportunity to mess stuff up. There are two concurrent plots; one following Alm, a farm boy whose grandfather was/is a super cool knight, and one following Celica, a girl of mysterious origins who is obviously the last member of the royal family – c’mon guys are you even pretending to hide it?
The first two chapters are solo affairs, with the player getting used to Alm and Celica’s individual armies and squad goals. From Chapter 3, though, things heat up as you play both questlines simultaneously. Hope you’re a good multitasker.
Each army has their own strong and weak links. Celica has a ton of magic right from the get-go; Mae is an absolute powerhouse Mage, completely slaughtering anything in her way, but is also extremely vulnerable to retaliation, so needs protecting. This is only the most basic level of strategy that Echoes requires. Boey, on the other hand, is weak as a magical kitten, but much bulkier.
Alm's path is objectively more difficult, since he has less healers to begin with, forcing the player to be far more cautious. He makes up for this with more physical based attackers, including mercenaries and Pegasus knights, making it a very different experience to the other route. Alm and Celica are both, of course, legendary fighters, and damn near impossible to kill. Good thing too, as it’s an instant game-over if they fall – even on Casual mode.
If you're one of the crowd complaining that modern games are too easy, Echoes is for you. There are many concessions to the modern era, like Casual mode for those of us who don’t like permanently losing characters/the entire game because of a mistake you made six hours ago, but Echoes is still far less forgiving than Awakening. There's limited reclassing, no options to respec, and a reduced inventory for each character pigeonholes them into more or less a single role. Magic is also no longer the saving grace of everyone, requiring your warrior to sacrifice some HP to cast their spells. Sure, you can pocket your mages with clerics, but yup, healing costs HP too. It's a balancing act that's tough to manage, especially in the early game.
The concurrent paths can cause some frustration too, since acting on one can cause changes in the other. Enemy spawns move between your own overworld turns, and backtracking to a shrine for unit promotion with Celica can cause Alm's party to get attacked while they’re standing still. While this allows you to experience a map as both a defender and attacker, throwing in some variety, it also delays your goal and can cost you units. Developing a sense to know where everyone is at any given time is key to survival.
In a way, the added complexities make up for some of the simplifications in other areas. The traditional weapon triangle (sword beats axe beats lance beats sword) from recent games is absent. Axe or sword, you’ll wreck that guy over there just as much either way. The only real thing to worry about is positioning and whether or not to use magic, as damage is calculated using different stats for physical or arcane attacks. The marriage and breeding elements, some of my favourite from the previous games, are also totally absent from this iteration, as they were in the original Gaiden. You can still pair with units to gain friendship, but there will be no chance to breed godlike children this time around.
The cutscenes are absolutely stunning, beautifully animated and acted, doing an excellent job of filling in the blanks between chapters. My only complaint is that there aren't more of them; frankly, I'd watch six seasons and a movie of this.
The visuals and sound are fantastic throughout, although not exactly ground-breaking. Recent instalments like Awakening and Fates have set the base for this, and the updated soundtrack of Echoes holds the same pseudo-retro feel as the rest of the game. Aside from the aforementioned cutscenes, however, the rest of the game looks damn near identical to earlier Fire Emblem titles – not that this is bad, because they looked dope too. The conversations between units are no longer weird grunts though, now being fully voice acted. This is not only brilliantly done, but also stops you from mashing A through all the dialogue, because now you actually want to hear it.
It's not all sunshine though, and Echoes does have flaws that may deter some. The experience is greatly lessened on the original 3DS where, without the C-stick and amiibo support, the new freeroam dungeons are both less fun and a nightmare to navigate. You can't blame Nintendo for making a game aimed at their newer hardware, obviously, but it's certainly something worth considering if you, like me, are using the same 3DS from five years ago. To be totally honest, the dungeons never felt amazing regardless. Sure, they were a nice break from the main game, but never really lived up to their potential.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that the DLC inexplicably costs more than the actual game, with an awful lot of it available almost immediately after launch. Money grabbing? Yes. Worth it? I don't know. Chances are I’ll probably break soon and buy it, but it's a dick move by Nintendo and it's very much unappreciated.
The worst part about Echoes is that there isn’t more of it. It’s not a short game by any means, but it’s not long enough. I want more. This is simultaneously the best thing about Echoes, and probably the reason a lot of us will end up spending way too much on DLC.
Fire Emblem Echoes is the second best entry in the new generation of Fire Emblem games, ranking lower than Awakening, but higher than Fates. Tight storytelling, paired with challenging gameplay, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience, as accessible to new players as it is inviting to old. Watch out for tantalising-but-expensive DLC, and a bit of a nerf on older consoles. It’ll be hard for the next Fire Emblem to step out from under the Shadows of Valentia.
Brian received a digital copy of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia from Nintendo for review.