Platforms: 3DS (Reviewed)
Think about all the things you like about the Fire Emblem series. Maybe you like the complex, branching class tree. Maybe you are a fan of the ability to breed invincible battle children. Maybe you like item management and weapon rationing. Whatever it is you adore about this franchise, bundle it all up in a ball and throw it out the window. Then start playing Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, one of the weirdest, yet most satisfying Fire Emblem entries yet.
Echoes is a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, the second game in the series originally released on the NES. Back in the Wild West days of 8-bit NES programming, developers were still experimenting with new mechanics, and Echoes commits itself to this spirit of weird experimentation. While differences from the standard formula might be off-putting to more modern day Fire Emblem fans, they are also what give Echoes such a strong and unique personality, and are really one of the main attractions in this tight little remake.
One thing that remains familiar are Echoes’ grid-based, turn-based, strategic battles. At the most basic level, you will be doing exactly what you do in any other FE title: moving your units across a map slowly, looking for strategic opportunities to strike the enemy without getting struck back.
However, it’s the details that set Echoes apart from the rest of the franchise. For example, the classic Fire Emblem weapon triangle is gone. In fact, there isn’t a single member of your party that can use axes! Archers can now fire from a long distance, sometimes four or five spaces. Mages have less range and are absurdly powerful, but have a low hit rate and must spend their HP as a resource to fuel their spells.
Speaking of spells, you don’t equip tomes like you would in other Fire Emblems. In fact, Mages don’t equip any weapon at all. Instead, they learn their spells by leveling up, much like you would in a standard RPG. Your fighters don’t have to equip weapons either, for that matter. Going into battle unarmed simply allows them to use a generic attack. In fact, you’ll find many of your characters will spend a good portion of the game completely naked.
That being said, weapons are absurdly useful, not only granting stat bonuses but also teaching your fighters unique battle skills (which also must be cast using HP, like Mage spells). This is what takes the place of the traditional weapon weakness triangle. Learning the “Armorslayer” skill will allow you to do extra damage to armored units, for example.
Item management is far more complex and restrictive than it is in other FE titles. Each character can hold only one item, be it a piece of equipment, a weapon, a healing item, or accessory. This forces you to make important decisions constantly. You’ll be asking yourself questions like, “Do I want to give my character a shiny lightning blade to make him tear up the battlefield, or do I want to give up a star shard to increase his stat bonuses on level-up?”
While this one item restriction can be frustrating at times, it’s only because every piece of equipment in the game is super powerful. Equipping a usually fragile Mage with a huge shield, turning them into a magic-using tank feels unfair, in a good way. Forging and upgrading your equipment only enhances this ever present feeling of unlimited power. A short way into chapter 3, I had already forged a sword that let its wielder score critical hits 50 percent of the time.
There’s No Love in War
That’s not to say the game is easy. In fact, this is one of the less forgiving Fire Emblem titles. While each individual enemy is clearly weaker than you, the game has no problem swarming you with armies that are four times the size of yours. It’s easy to become overconfident in your ultra-powerful units, only to find them dying a death of a thousand papercuts as enemy after enemy impales themselves on your sword. There’s something narratively satisfying about this style of play. After all, you are the righteous paragon of justice, valuing the lives of the common man, going up against the corrupt nobility who is willing to let droves of countrymen die at your feet for no good reason.
And the narrative is the other big attraction of Fire Emblem Echoes. More modern Fire Emblem titles have you creating a protagonist and pairing off your units to create battle children. As a result, modern Fire Emblem narratives have grown somewhat shallow, needing to be flexible enough to support any kind of protagonist in any kind of relationship. Fire Emblem Echoes ditches these dating game elements in favor of a more straightforward story about war and sacrifice, and it is better off for it.
You control Alm and Celica, two childhood friends torn apart by a country at war. After their small village was attacked by the neighboring country of Rigel, Celica was sent off to a monastery while Alm continued to train in combat underneath his grandfather. Eventually, the war brings them both together once more, but not in the way they would have liked. Saying much more than that would be a huge spoiler but trust me, this story gets dark. People die.
What’s interesting about this narrative is that you actually get to experience it from both sides. You control both Alm and Celica simultaneously. Each has their own army, their own inventory, and their own missions to undertake, and you can do them in whatever order you like. You can actually see how the two characters slowly change the world in a way that has a noticeable impact on the other’s story. There are also points where you have to choose between recruiting characters and giving items to one army or the other. It’s a fantastic way to experience the game at your own pace, and focusing on whichever character you enjoy playing the most.
DLC or Hidden Fees?
And there are so many other neat mechanics that will keep you immersed in the world of Echoes. You’ll wander through RPG-style dungeons, getting into random micro-battles and fending off fatigue using food and supplies. You’ll earn renown in random battles to push you up online leaderboards. You’ll examine towns in a Phoenix Wright-style first-person perspective to find clues to your missions, as well as weapons and items. You’ll turn back time in the middle of combat using a relic of the gods (which is a fantastic boon for people who insist on playing in classic permadeath mode). It all feels so fresh and new, and that’s because Nintendo was careful to update most of the retro mechanics that made Gaiden fun, and ditch any of the mechanics that just didn’t work out. In a sense, it’s new because it’s old.
On its own, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is an incredibly fun tactics game that fans of the genre will enjoy, but there are a few things that might upset Fire Emblem fans. Outside of the online leaderboards, there is no online play whatsoever, nor are there any street pass functions. That means no online VS battles, no visiting anyone else’s base or conversing with their armies, no purchasing items or spirit units from other players, nothing. In fact, if you want to get any extra units from your army whatsoever, you’ll have to use amiibo.
The way Nintendo handled DLC for Echoes is also particularly frustrating. You may have already seen that the DLC season pass costs more than the game itself, but what’s more frustrating than that is that many of the DLC maps are necessary to fully experience the game. Not only are whole story chapters (specifically prequels) tucked away in DLC, but some of the game’s more unique items (like star shards) can only be found in DLC dungeons. Money is also incredibly scarce without access to DLC maps. You’ll only have enough funds to forge one or two items without them. Heck, you can’t even access the highest level class promotions without DLC. It’s not that the game is difficult or unbeatable without DLC; it’s just that you’ll only be seeing a fraction of the games content without it.
Still, I’d say that Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a fantastic game, despite its shortcomings. Its fresh take on Fire Emblem mechanics and compelling narrative more than make up for its questionable DLC policies and missing online content. With rumor flying around that the 3DS is nearing the end of its lifespan, ending on Fire Emblem Echoes would be a more than fitting swan song for the powerful little handheld. I, for one, would welcome “Echoes” versions of other classic FE titles, such as The Blazing Blade.