As we enter the halfway point of 2017, those of us in the North American gaming world find ourselves with Nintendo's Fire Emblem series for a longer period of time than when we were infamously without it. Fire Emblem came to the Game Boy Advance in 2004, almost fourteen years ago.
Before that, North America was deprived of Fire Emblem since 1990… fourteen years.
While Nintendo has done a fabulous job making up for lost time, an imperfect world still surrounds the fanbase. The series's new life on the Nintendo 3DS gives us hope that only bright times lay ahead, but by and large, fans who go exploring beyond the realms of the English-speaking world hold the Super Famicom games, specifically Fire Emblem 4 and 5, in the highest regard.
It is these games remain elusive from our shores.
Likewise, the original Famicom releases have not made their way over here either. However, unlike the Super Famicom games, both have been remade in recent memory, and Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia is Nintendo's latest attempt to help close the gap in its checkered history.
As a remake of the second game in the series, Fire Emblem Gaiden on the Famicom, this reimagining might not look like a game with roots from the early 90s, but it certainly does feel like it.
Purposefully old school in every way
Playing Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia feels like an awkward time slip that can never choose which direction to pull. Sure, Intelligent System's graphics engine powering this game is the same one used in the more recent games, Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates, but a good deal about Fire Emblem Echoes just feels… old. That's kind of the point, I know, but you'd be surprised how loyal this is to the original game.
For example, Fire Emblem Echoes mirrors its Famicom source material so perfectly that it doesn't even add the series' lifeblood: the weapon triangle. If fans of the series know anything, they know that swords beat axes, axes beat spears, and spears beat swords. It's a rock-paper-scissors affair that keep the tactics constantly rotating on themselves and is more important to Fire Emblem than dramatic capes.
Fire Emblem Echoes doesn't even have axe users! You can look high and low throughout the character roster, but only baddies thought to bring axes into battle. The reason for this is that Fire Emblem Gaiden came out before the first Super Famicom game, and that is the entry which introduced aces and the weapon triangle into its formula.
It might be inseparable from every Fire Emblem game since 1994, but Intelligent Systems had no problem cutting it for the sake of being old school.
The list goes on for modern Fire Emblem mechanics you'll find yourself without. Flying units, like Pegasus Knights, being weak to arrows? Nope, no such luck. Unless allies and enemies employ a very specific ability learned much later in the game, the Pegasus Knights, the most overpowered job class in the entire game, can soar into a barrage of arrows with no sweats or worries.
Fire Emblem's weapon durability has also be replaced with upgradable and permanent weapons, making Echoes feel more like an RPG than a strategy game, and magic also drains your own caster's life as opposed to a limited number of charges through a book or a staff. Small decisions like these completely flip Fire Emblem's usual tactics, allowing players to spam powerful weapons without the fear of losing them and forcing magic casters to be more cautious with their strongest attacks.
Most noticeably for the modern fans, Fire Emblem Echoes brings back Gaiden's original idea of random fights, sub-quests, dungeons, and towns opening up the game for further exploration. These are all traits that helped set Gaiden apart from the original Fire Emblem back in the early 90s, and to their credit, they help Echoes feel more like a modern game, similar to Awakening and The Sacred Stones, which also share a more open sense of progression.
On the flip side, many of these choices don't allow for the strict, rigid Fire Emblem games that I prefer, much like the original Fire Emblem on GBA and Fire Emblem Fates Conquest. Random battles mean that you'll be grinding through countless repetitive battles, turning the game into an exhausting hack fest rather than a tactical RPG, and exploring dungeons, again, means lots and lots of needless fights.
Come the final dungeon, you'll really be dreading the zombies that await below.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia also doesn't have very smart enemy AI either. Each battle is setup in a way so that it's easy to manipulate baddies, and luring them into obvious ambushes will make up a majority if your plans. Even that is unnecessary on occasion since powering through maps is an option for half of the battles in the game.
Job classes are limited in their evolution, a trend from the old days of the series, and even the story is very simple. There's nothing particularly wrong with Alm's and Celica's sweet little romance and their destiny to save the kingdom, but in spite of a few modern touches, the central pillar of this game's plot clearly comes from the days of video gaming when storytelling took a back seat.
Interestingly enough, the sole new mechanic added to this game is a stopwatch, which allows players to rewind time in battle, going back to fix mistakes or take a gamble on that critical hit they might have missed out on. Needless to say, this makes Fire Emblem Echoes, already a pretty easy game, so much easier to the point where I only got a Game Over twice in my 30 hours with it.
If I died only twice in Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword, I'd call myself a genius! It's a bit on the easy side, especially if you're looking to keep all of the colorful characters alive.
Where is the original game?
I'm sounding harsher than I really feel, but comparing it to other modern Fire Emblem games is the only reference we have. After all, we never got to play the source material and can't really compare to it.
Nintendo specifically stated that the main purpose of this game was to give newcomers a chance to experience an older "black sheep" game from a series that has seen unprecedented revival over the last few years. Fire Emblem is bigger than ever, and fans want to see what they missed out on! My only complaint with Nintendo's logic is that if it decided to make a game this antiquated, why not just give us the original?
When playing a game that is clearly within the mindset of 8-bits, I want the whole package with those beautiful pixels and sweet chiptunes. Why this isn't an added bonus in the final product is beyond me, but it would have been much appreciated.
On its own, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadow of Valentia is a fine little strategy RPG that comes up short on the other Nintendo 3DS hits, Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates. Its graphics feel like a budgeted version of the high production values we saw in those games, and overall, its adherence to Fire Emblem Gaiden holds it back just as much as it helps it stand out.
I get the feeling that this remake was just created as a side project to hold Intelligent Systems over while Switch development kicked into gear, and Nintendo used it to cash in on the presumed success of Fire Emblem Heroes and Fire Emblem Warriors. Nintendo revealed the game, translated it, and delivered a full product in well under a year, and ultimately, Fire Emblem Echoes feels like it was rushed out of the gate as an afterthought for the final days of the Nintendo 3DS.
I have no real problem with it. I felt it drag a bit with the excessive random battles, but overall, it's a sturdy little game.
The big question is whether or not it's an acceptable replacement for the original Famicom game, which we never got. The answer is "No." As much as I liked Shadows of Valentia and am happy that it exists, remakes should only ever compliment their source materials, never replace them. And sadly, we might never get to make those comparisons… unless we turn to nefarious methods of gaming that Nintendo openly decrys.
Disclaimer: Nintendo provided us with a copy of the game for our review. We spent 30 hours of gameplay with it prior to writing.
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