Fire Emblem fans have a lot to look forward to these days. Last year they received a Fire Emblem game which essentially consisted of three games in one, and this year they will get their hands on a mobile game, a Dynasty Warriors clone, and a re-release of one of the oldest games in the franchise. The question concerning the last game, which is now available on Nintendo 3DS under the name of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, is whether anime fantasy from the early '90s still has any entertainment value.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a full remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden from 1992, the second game in the series. Like other Fire Emblem games of the time, Fire Emblem Gaiden only saw release in Japan, and like a lot of other famous sequels for the Famicom/NES, such as Zelda II and Castlevania II, the game took some unorthodox steps in order to find itself. With the new 3DS version it finally gets an overhaul and an international release, in the process making the 3DS the first platform since Gameboy Advance to receive three Fire Emblem games.
If you've never played a Fire Emblem game before, there's nothing stopping Fire Emblem Echoes from becoming your introduction to the franchise. This is a tactical role-playing series where you move troops on a grid, during which your soldiers gain experience points, level up, and may be upgraded to more advanced classes. Each soldier has their strengths, weaknesses, and a unique personality, meaning that you might feel some heartache if they're lost forever on the battlefield in the harsh classic Fire Emblem mode. If this seems too hard or unforgiving for you, then Echoes features a casual mode which only incapacitates your soldier for the rest of the battle, but still, to win a Fire Emblem battle without losing a single soldier is truly a moment of triumph.
If this is your first Fire Emblem game, you might want to spend some time learning the game's core mechanics in the hints and tips section, as there are little or no in-game tutorials. While a little bit daunting, the plus side is that it means that you're thrown right into the action.
An imminent risk when releasing several games in a franchise on the same platform is that the formula may become stale or that the games may end up too similar to each other, and considering this, the choice to remake the old Fire Emblem Gaiden is a strategic one. The game stands out from most of the other games in the series, and though many of the game's mechanics have become part of the series' trademark gameplay later on, there's still enough uniqueness left in Echoes to make it stand out from both Awakening and Fates.
Unfortunately, many of the new elements introduced in Awakening and Fates have been left out in Fire Emblem Echoes. Intelligent Systems appears to have kept this remake as true to the original mechanics as possible, and this means that newer strategic features, such as placing two units in the same position on the battlefield or having two soldiers next to each other so they can back each other up during combat, have been left out in Echoes. If you've grown accustomed to these, then, you simply need to recalibrate yourself to an older state of Fire Emblem mentality. On top of this, simple mechanics such as a rider's ability to pick up and transport other units are gone as well, and even though Fire Emblem Echoes sports tactical depth, the lack of said features feels like bringing the series back a step, especially after two brilliant predecessors on the same platform.
Other classic Fire Emblem mechanics have been removed or scaled down too, the most controversial of which is the weapon triangle system, which is now entirely gone. To give a short summary, most Fire Emblem games have featured a system where one kind of weapon beats another in a rock-paper-scissors pattern, but Fire Emblem Echoes says goodbye to this setup, meaning the series also loses a lot of tactical depth. Another feature that's scaled down several notches is the relationships between characters in-between fights. Granted, some may have felt that this feature became too much of a waifu simulator in the previous two games, but personally, we found the increased focus on this element of the series to be both fun and entertaining. Fire Emblem Echoes doesn't remove this feature completely, but the whole thing is scaled down to a level more reminiscent of older games.
In addition to what has already been mentioned, Echoes has several smaller issues as, while the game is certainly engaging, the reuse of several maps puts a certain limit on its overall entertainment value. The music is well-composed and at times truly impressive, such as during the final battle, but this too lacks the variation needed to stop it becoming too repetitive. The characters and story have a certain charm and memorable moments, but altogether this isn't a memorable Fire Emblem cast or story. The voice acting is well-performed, and for the first time we get a Fire Emblem game where all the lines are voiced, but we still miss the opportunity to choose the original Japanese voices.
Now let's talk about everything Fire Emblem Echoes does right. To start with, there's the story about the two childhood friends, Alm and Celica, who get caught up in the conflict between the nations Zofia and Rigel. This might not be the most creative or original story in the world, but the narrative approach where you follow two separate storylines with different missions in this conflict certainly gives a good sense of variation. Variation also applies to the two distinct groups of allies, and a lot of credit is due here to the localisation team. After a somewhat weak localisation of Fire Emblem Fates, it's good to see the team has had a whole lot of fun playing with words in Echoes.
Another element that ensures variation is the rotation between classic Fire Emblem battles on the one hand, and dungeon crawling on the other. A little bit of the latter now and again creates a greater sense of exploration, excitement, and diversity, and it's a new feature we certainly hope to see again in future instalments of the series.
The greatest innovation offered in this game is still Mila's Turnwheel, a sacred and magical relic that allows you to turn back time on the battlefield. Suppose that you're out of luck and end up losing a soldier - you may think that another strategy would have prevented this loss. Well, Mila's Turnwheel allows you to do just that. With the Turnwheel you can turn back time as many moves as you want, and it's easy to see move by move what will be reversed when you activate the mechanism. The number of times the Turnwheel can be used each battle is limited but may be increased by finding cogs in dungeons and towns. This feature encourages more daring tactics, and even though it replaces the option to save mid-battle it's definitely something that should be considered as a permanent part of future Fire Emblem games.
This doesn't make Echoes an easy Fire Emblem game though. On the contrary, the game throws you right into one difficult battle after another, and it can be quite brutal if your aim is to be victorious without sacrificing a single soldier. If the challenge is too much, though, you can always do some grinding in the nearest dungeon, though this might be too time-consuming and tiring for some.
When it comes to weapons and classes, the game makes some changes from the traditional system. Weapons aren't worn out in this game, for instance, and there's no need to equip each unit with a weapon, since each class come with a pre-set weapon skill and a weapon already equipped. Each soldier will learn new attacks when hitting certain levels, although spellcasters will learn more than the others. You may, however, give a unit a special weapon, which will unlock special abilities called Arts after a time. For example, an archer will always have a bow and arrow at their disposal, but equip him with a silver bow and he will learn an Art specific to the silver bow. The system may feel unfamiliar at first but is surprisingly comfortable to use in the long run.
All in all, we can't escape the impression that Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia feels like an old game with a new look. This isn't a negative thing in itself, but even though it's nice that Western gamers may finally acquaint themselves with this classic, there are several small issues you may notice if you're used to newer games in the series. A lot of it comes down to the fact that Awakening and Fates are two very good games. Echoes might stand a little in the shadows cast by its two predecessors, but it also has several qualities which make it worth checking out.