Fire Emblem Gaiden is considered by many to be the “black sheep” of Nintendo’s turn-based strategy franchise. When it was released on the NES in 1992, the game touted many changes to the underlying mechanics, much like with some other NES sequels of the time, like Zelda II, for example. Gaiden introduced an explorable world, dungeons and more complex character progression. Like Zelda II, Nintendo ultimately back pedaled when it came time to make the third entry, returning to the roots of the first Fire Emblem game. Since then, the Fire Emblem series has progressed in other forms, ultimately reaching its own excellence in games such as Fire Emblem 7 on the GBA (The first game in the series to be released in the west), and Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a full remake of this NES game that does not attempt to hide the quirks of the original, nor impose the mechanics of the newer games. The series’ staple rock-paper-scissors weapons triangle? Nowhere to be found. Marriages and love? Look elsewhere. Instead, Echoes sets out to take the mechanics of the original game and improve on them in order to make them the best that they can be.
The core to Fire Emblem Echoes lies in the structure created by its two protagonists, Alm and Celica. The two heroes are childhood friends from the kingdom of Zofia that were separated at a young age. Many years later, the evil Rigelian Empire has invaded the kingdom, and the two heroes, now living on separate ends of the kingdom, must raise their armies under vastly different circumstances in order to fight back. As such, you manage Alm and Celica’s army separately, which gives the game a good sense of variety.
Echoes of the Past
The world of Echoes, although filled with cliche story beats and bland characters, does manage to stay interesting, and serves as a nice contrast to the fantastical melodrama of the newer Fire Emblem games. That is not to say the fantasy is in short supply–you’ll run into plenty of gods, zombies and dragons here–but at its core, Echoes is the simple struggle between two warring nations, and it brings all of the necessary intrigue and complexity to keep it interesting.
Luckily, this story is complemented by the best presentation ever provided in a Fire Emblem game. The character art is just beautiful, a vast improvement over style of past games. Similarly, the visuals and environments are top of the line for a 3DS game, particularly the game’s fully 3D dungeons. Additionally, the cutscenes and conversations are highlighted by some terrific voice acting. Echoes is the first fully-voiced Fire Emblem game, and the acting is spectacularly immersive. This factor alone elevates the characters a couple of notches, and made them feel really organic.
All Out War
As I mentioned, there are a couple of departures made by Echoes that are not featured in any other Fire Emblem game. Most notably, the game has explorable environments, something that I’ve really been wanting in a Fire Emblem game for a long time. Basically, the game takes place in a world map you can travel, not too far removed from the world map of Fire Emblem Awakening. However, in addition to encountering enemies in different battlefields, you can now also visit towns and dungeons.
Towns behave like visual novels. One very close comparison I can make is that to how the Ace Attorney games handle their investigation sections. You can investigate the scenery to find items and information, as well as talk to merchants, quest givers, potential recruits for your army, or simple peasants. Meanwhile, dungeons are fully explorable 3D environments that behave like a typical RPG dungeon.
Dungeons are typically optional, but are very rewarding. Not only do you get experience from the monsters you’ll encounter, you can also find loot, fountains that boost your character’s stats, and shrines that serve to upgrade your troop’s classes like in other Fire Emblem games. This works extremely well with the Fire Emblem formula, and I’d be sad if it doesn’t make a return in some form. Dungeon crawling helps to break up the more intense strategic battles of the game’s story, and I really appreciated their presence.
Not Your Dad’s Fire Emblem
Outside of these additions, the actual core of the top-down, turn-based strategic battles that define Fire Emblem has changed too. Previous titles were defined by a weapon triangle that dictated the strategy of the game: swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. This is not the case in Echoes. Instead, effectiveness is dictated purely by the stats of the individual character, such as attack, defense, resistance and luck. Because of this change, a higher importance is placed on the actual placement of your characters, using your tanky troops to shield your squishier, but potentially more devastating units.
Unfortunately, this change, while it makes battles much more visceral, removes a lot of the strategy involved. In Echoes, it all comes down to who has the higher stats and items in their troops, especially since maps and objectives are not varied or interesting enough to keep the battles engaging. To compound this, the game suffers from sudden difficulty spikes that can catch you off guard, and the lessened focus on tactics means you can’t get by most of the time by simply playing smart.
Thankfully, the addition of one particular new feature helps a lot: Mila’s Turnwheel is a new mechanic that let’s you “undo” a turn if things turn out badly for you, and it sure is a godsend. When one incorrect move can result in the death of your troops, it’s nice to get a second chance for redemption–especially in the game’s stressful Classic mode, where your troops die permanently. The feature doesn’t feel too overpowered, since you can only use it a limited amount of times per match.
Get Ready For Battle!
Fire Emblem Echoes is a worthwhile game for fans of the Fire Emblem series. This game explored some truly interesting mechanics that were unfortunately dropped going forward. However, it makes for one of the most refreshing Fire Emblem games in many years. At the same time, this was a flawed game back on the NES, and it remain a flawed game on the 3DS. The lessened focus on strategy and stripped down gameplay make it a less than ideal experience when compared to the stellar Fire Emblem Awakening. For newcomers into the series, I would recommend that game instead.
That said, it also feels like to move forward, the series needed to take a look back. I had a blast leveling up my troops and exploring the game’s world. The presentation, voice acting and music set a new high mark for the series, I just really hope that the next Fire Emblem takes these improvements and combines them with more polished gameplay.
- The visuals are stellar, from the 3D models and environments to the 2D sprites and character art.
- The game’s voice acting is fantastic. This is easily some of the best voice work ever done in a Nintendo game. It really helps to draw you into the story and the plight of the characters.
- The addition of explorable dungeons and towns really helps to mix up the gameplay and break up the many battles it has to offer.
- I liked managing two armies, which let you switch back and forth if you were ever feeling bored with one specific one.
- Mila’s Turnwheel makes the game more fun. It encourages you try different strategies, forgiving you if you fail the first time.
- Very little variation in stage objectives. The vast majority just require you to eliminate the enemy and there’s nothing to switch it up.
- The lack of the weapon triangle makes battles feel a little less strategic, although some strategy is still possible with how you position your troops.
- The cookie cutter story and characters isn’t really memorable.
- Difficulty spikes that make the game’s momentum grind to a halt.