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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Platform(s): Nintendo 2DS, Nintendo 3DS
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: May 19, 2017


3DS Review - 'Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on May 29, 2017 @ 10:30 a.m. PDT

Inspired by the Japan exclusive 1992 original Fire Emblem Gaiden, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia recreates classic Fire Emblem gameplay with a modern twist, mixing in exploration of dungeons crawling with enemies.

Buy Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

When a game is successful, it's often difficult to figure out why. Back in the NES era, a successful game would be followed up by a stranger and more experimental sequel. For example, The Legend of Zelda was followed by the unusual side-scroller, Zelda 2. Similarly, Fire Emblem Gaiden was the Zelda 2 of the Fire Emblem franchise. It was recognizable as a Fire Emblem game but had enough weird changes to sort of be the black sheep of the family. That's what makes it an unusual choice for a remake. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a full redo of Gaiden, but it doesn't attempt to make Gaiden more like a traditional Fire Emblem game. Rather, it updates the game's unusual mechanics for a modern era. The end result is a mixed, but engaging, title.

Echoes follows two protagonists, Alm and Celica, childhood friends who lived in a small village before they were separated by fate. As adults, both are embroiled in the tides of war. Their homeland of Zofia is being invaded. Alm joins the Deliverance army and fights back against the invaders. Celica, who is secretly the last surviving heir of the Zofian royal family, seeks out the goddess Mila to end the war without more bloodshed. The two embark on their separate paths, both hoping to end the war in their own way.

Mercifully, the Echoes plot is a step up from Fates in that it's simple but well-executed. The characters are likeable, and the story is engaging enough that I wanted to see where it went despite it being predictable at times. It began life as a NES game, and while it's obviously seen a lot of expansion, its lineage still shows a bit. That doesn't necessarily work against it, though. There's no convoluted time travel or forced setups, just a standard story about two heroes on different paths. The strong translation does a lot to help the game. The dialogue is snappy and enjoyable, and it really helps to sell the support conversations.

At its core, Echoes has the same basic strategy gameplay that's seen in Fire Emblem games. You're given a small army of soldiers and must battle your enemies. Battles are won and lost through careful positioning of units. Actual combat is automated and determined by a combination of stats and RNG. This means you win by controlling terrain and making sure weak units aren't vulnerable to enemy attacks. As with most Fire Emblem titles, death can be permanent. Losing a unit can cause them to be lost permanently, unless you play on Casual mode, though there are locations where you can revive lost characters.

A nice new feature is Mila's Turnwheel, which allows you to turn back time and redo a turn (or multiple turns) if bad luck and random numbers work against you. You begin with three uses per map, and you can find cogs to unlock more. The Turnwheel doesn't reset the randomly generated numbers, so if you go back after a bad level-up, you'll still get a bad level-up. It does allow you to rethink your strategy or avoid the unfair consequences of an unlucky crit. It makes the game easier in a good way. You're no longer harshly punished for a mistake — unless you want to be, since you can forgo using the Turnwheel. The game gives you perhaps too many Turnwheel uses in a map, but that's a minor flaw at best. It takes away some tension from a risky strategy when you know you can undo it.

One of the most distinctive and memorable elements of the Fire Emblem franchise is the weapon triangle. Normally, axes beat lances, lance beats swords, and swords beats axes. In Echoes, weapons and unit classes have distinctive traits, but no such triangle exists. It's a noticeable absence that may throw off long-time Fire Emblem players. Even after a few hours of play, I wanted to keep my swordsman away from oncoming lance-wielding cavalrymen.

This leads into another very unusual change to the game mechanics. Rather than holding multiple weapons of different types, each character can equip only one weapon or item. In exchange, each weapon or item is more significant than it would normally be.  I'm a little torn on this change. It's a neat idea, but a single equippable item doesn't feel very good, especially when you consider that includes things like healing items. Having a single strong item feels pretty neat, and with the absence of the weapon triangle, there's no genuine need for multiple weapons, but there are absolutely needs for other items. You end up with a billion healing items in your inventory that you'll never use because it's ridiculous to send someone into battle with an orange instead of a sword. They get some minor use in the endgame, but it's not enough to be worthwhile.

Magic has also seen a massive change in Echoes. Other Fire Emblem games treat magic as another weapon, but here, it's closer to a traditional JRPG. Each character has a distinct set of spells that they learn as they level up. Likewise, the spells come in a wide variety of effects. Abilities that are traditionally given to staves or tomes are learned by characters instead. You can have mages that learn to use the Rescue ability or a lord who also heals and casts spells. The major change is that these spells now cost HP. A powerful spell that summons illusionary soldiers can take most of a unit's health. It's an interesting balance concern since most mages are squishy. Even healing spells cost HP, though clerics have a spell that sucks HP from enemies.

Of all the changes in the game, the magic change is one that I hope finds its way into future Fire Emblem titles. Magic has always tended to be far too good or far too weak. Echoes' magic system is powerful, and it opens up new strategies. It might sound intimidating that magic costs HP now, but it solidifies the strengths and weaknesses of mages far better than tomes and staves do. Even characters who don't seem like traditional mages may have spells that make them a worthwhile choice.

Another large change to the Fire Emblem formula is the addition of dungeons that you'd find in any RPG on the market. You control one of your protagonists and walk around, encountering treasure chests and random enemies. You can even attack on the dungeon field to get an advantage over enemies. Fighting in Echoes' dungeons throws you into a mini-skirmish map where you fight a small group of foes. Effectively a random encounter, the mini-fights are designed to be ended in one or two turns. You can use them to farm stats and skills, but you run the risk of running out of stamina and having to sacrifice items at an altar to replenish your character's stats. There are also town areas where you can explore, talk to people, and find hidden side-quests.

I like the dungeons as a concept, and they're pretty fun to explore, but they're dragged down by the fact that Fire Emblem gameplay isn't designed around dungeon-crawling. Getting into random fights feels bad. They're not interesting and they don't feel sensible. If this mechanic were in another game, it wouldn't feel as out of place, but here, it's a clear relic of an idea from an experimental NES-era game. It's expanded from what was on the NES, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's better. I'd rather have more maps than spend time in a dungeon that doesn't showcase any of Fire Emblem's strengths.

Speaking of maps, the unfortunate truth about Echoes is that the map design is a huge step back from Fates. Some of that is understandable, especially given the small-scale skirmishes in the mix, but it's difficult to not get frustrated when so many stages are boring, flat plains where you wait for the enemy to approach. This has been in a problem in some recent Fire Emblem titles, such as Awakening, but it's even more noticeable here. The core gameplay is interesting enough to carry the weakest moments, and some levels genuinely shine, but there's also a series of desert levels that are some of the least fun moments I've had in a Fire Emblem game.

Echoes is an experimental game, and that doesn't necessarily mean that everything it does is good. It's not bad, but Echoes is remarkably inconsistent. It has moments of brilliance and great design, and it also has moments of tedium and frustration. I love some of what it did, and I was having fun more often than I wasn't, but its weaknesses really stood out. It's the sort of game you need to play to know if you'll enjoy it. Being a Fire Emblem fan may predispose you to liking the game, but its differences are enough to make you not enjoy it.

Echoes is easily one of the better-looking Fire Emblem titles. The new animation and unit designs are quite good and do an excellent job of conveying character and emotion. The character artwork is now done by Hidari, the same person responsible for the Atelier franchise, and it leads to colorful and distinctive redesigns of the NES character artwork. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the voice acting is solid. In general, the presentation is just great. For such a simple game, a lot of effort was spent on making it sparkle, and it looks much better than Awakening and Fates ever did.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is an interesting, experimental and awkward game. When it shines, it really shines, but moments of iffy design both leftover from the NES era and baked into the new gameplay changes drag it down a little. It's a fun game if you're willing to look past some rough spots. It's different enough from other Fire Emblem titles that longtime fans are not necessarily going to love it, but it's also good enough that those who don't normally like Fire Emblem may enjoy it. It's a welcome breath of fresh air for the franchise, and it's a solid send-off to the 3DS for the Fire Emblem franchise.

Score: 8.0/10

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