Despite coming from one of Nintendoâ€™s most consistently highly-rated internal studios (Intelligent Systems) and plugging one of their biggest genre gaps (the strategy RPG), the Fire Emblem series never gets the support it deserves from its own publisher. The only positive step in the last few years has been the long overdue western debut, and that was only due to Marth and Royâ€™s popularity in Smash Bros Melee. With a bigger budget and some marketing it could be a jewel in Nintendoâ€™s gleaming crown and one that could help attract some of those hardcore gamers that jumped ship after the Wii took Nintendo down the more mainstream road.
Instead the series continues to be ignored.
Even the most dedicated Nintendo fan would be forgiven for wondering if the latest title, Shadow Dragon, was actually being released in New Zealand, such is the lack of any marketing push. But arrived it has and the few people aware will be more than happy with the latest offering.
For those who have yet to be exposed to the Fire Emblem series, the most simplistic way to describe it would be Advance Wars with medieval knights and RPG undertones. This, however, belies the depth of what is still one of the best strategy series available. Each new entry has slowly added new features but the core gameplay has mostly remained the same from day one: each unit has a set movement and attack range; choose to fight an enemy unit and youâ€™ll be whisked away to a quick battle scene, win and your unit will get experience points, lose and theyâ€™ll be lost forever. This last bit is probably the seriesâ€™ signature mark and the reason the games can be frustratingly difficult at times, with reset buttons in constant use. Itâ€™s certainly a brave feature but can really test the patience of the calmest of gamers when a simple mistake at the end of an hour-long campaign can result in the permanent loss of a character that youâ€™d grown to love and invested many hours levelling up.
The seriesâ€™ DS debut is a redux of the very first NES game, starring afore-mentioned Smash Bros alumni Marth and featuring a full makeover. The character art and the levels look great on the small screen, but itâ€™s the impressive battle animations that are more worthy of a mention. Even after seeing them for the hundredth time, watching your mounted Knight fluidly stab at an enemy is still entertaining. The re-mastered soundtrack is another high point and one of the best in the series.
Intelligent Systems have also integrated some of the newer features that have shaped the series in recent titles. Units get an attack boost depending on their equipped weapon and can be reclassed (which is very handy if you suddenly find yourself short of a particular type of fighter). And brand new save points are liberally spread across levels which can be a godsend if you canâ€™t commit to the 45 minutes or more needed to finish a single level. Sadly the skits and support conversations that played between battles on the more recent titles are missing and this accentuates one of the big problems with this remake.
The 15 year old plot was unlikely to stand the test of time as well as the gameplay; hero Marth battles a rival country to regain the throne of his Kingdom and avenge the death of his Father. Not exactly Bafta worthy. The brand new prologue fills in some of the originalâ€™s gaps but the lack of character development outside the two main characters is very disappointing. By the end of the game you could be forgiven for wondering just why you should care for Marth and his battle hardened ensemble; including the skits would have gone some way to helping fleshing out the plot.
Another negative is the extreme difficulty level, which again could have been eased by one of the newer features. Unlike the GBA, Gamecube and Wii games you donâ€™t get the chance to dole out bonus experience points gained after battle to the units you wanted to concentrate on upgrading. In a way this isnâ€™t a bad thing as the temptation to rely on a heavily armed â€˜tankâ€™ unit is no longer there, but it also means you will lose key units a lot more often. Levels arenâ€™t especially quick or easy to get through so if you do lose someone youâ€™d rather keep youâ€™ll be faced with the agonising decision of whether to hit the reset button or leave it alone and soldier on.
The game takes a minimum of 25 hours to get through but factoring in the inevitable resets on a first run can push your actual playtime to nearer 40 hours. But even with the often-tortuous difficulty this still remains a compelling game. The length of the single player campaign and the online battle modes, which are a first for the series, mean that Shadow Dragon will remain in your DS for a good few months.
Itâ€™s not the best title for newcomers (who should try Path of Radiance on Gamecube or Sacred Stones on GBA if they want an easier route into the series), but veterans of Fire Emblem, or strategy games in general, should at least consider this purchase.