NS Review – Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia (3DS)

My love for the Fire Emblem games is well known by now, I feel. I reviewed both Awakening and the recent mobile release of the phenomenal Heroes, also the only full Amiibo set as it were that I possess is the Fire Emblem characters (and I’m looking forward to getting Corrin). I recently gave a preview about this game, and still have so much to talk about that even this review might get a little lengthy. As a little background, Echoes was originally released in 1992 as a Japan-exclusive, under the name of Fire Emblem Gaiden, Echoes is a ground up remake of the original title with additional characters, mechanics and plot threads. However, after (a lot) more time with it, what do I think?

Although I briefly covered the important parts of the story in the preview I wanted to go a little deeper in the review to cover some plot points of the early part of the game, so as a warning this next paragraph gets a little spoiler laden of the first few chapters.

Set in the world of Valentia, as per the title, our protagonists and captains of their respective armies are Alm and Celica. Friends at a young age but separated under mysterious circumstances, we join them in childhood then rejoin them in adulthood where both of them are forced into action to “save” Valentia. The reason for that being in quotation marks is simply because, after their brief reunion they go their separate ways with each believing that their path to save Valentia is the right course of action. This leads to a dual narrative with the player controlling each individual protagonist on their quests; Alm’s war to push back an invading force, and Celica’s pilgrimage of (occasionally interrupted) peace to find answers. This dual narrative wonderfully immersive but uncomplicated, allowing for a rich story to be told but without the arguable mess that the story of Fates became.

The gameplay, the more you progress in the game, strikes out as being increasingly different. The battles still take place on the familiar grid-based maps in turn-based fashion, and the world (like Awakening before it) is a map with points to move your character to and engage in battles. As mentioned before, all of the usual unit types return and engage in battles in ways that a hardened veteran would immediately recognise, for instance; an archer has slightly better movement and can attack from a slight distance or a knight has less movement but higher defence and attack. In short, the classic formula of a Fire Emblem game runs very strongly through Echoes in a very ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of way. No bad thing, but if the game doesn’t have anything new to bring to the table, it’s just a carbon copy of its predecessors.

Luckily, this game differs from the previous games in a great deal of ways. The first, and biggest, change are the dungeons. These areas of the game allow two types of movement and exploration. The first is the 3D third-person exploration in which the player controls Alm or Celica through the dungeon, collecting items and weapons, finding hidden rooms and engaging in battles. The battles take place in the usual grid-based fashion, with an advantage/disadvantage being given depending on whether the player hit the enemy in the third-person view or whether they were hit by the enemy. Also, in these dungeons the player can find fountains that can increase a particular stat of their units, giving the player greater agency over how their units develop. The second are first-person viewpoint areas where the player can interact with NPCs or members of their current protagonist’s army, recruit new characters, find items and weapons, and advance the current story arc. These two play-styles break up the gameplay and give the player a far more varied experience then quite a lot of contemporary games.

In terms of the more subtle gameplay changes, there have even been changes to the basic combat. Weapon durability doesn’t exist in Echoes, and new weapons are equipped as a held item on the character, meaning that the player can sacrifice a stronger weapon to carry a healing item should they choose. Also, the weapons can be upgraded at a blacksmith, increasing their power. Mages now, on many spells, use a set amount of their own HP to offset the fact that the tomes do not break, which stops a potential over-reliance of the player on mages (which are superbly over-powered in Echoes and their spells ignore any sort of cover unlike standard attacks). Archers can now attack from close range, as well as one or two spaces away, making them more viable units and less like to fall due to mistaken unit placement. Also, winged units usual weakness to archers only occurs against units with more than the basic starting bows, meaning that , with careful use, pegasus knights can truly dominate a battle field. Finally, and most critically, the classic weapon triangle does not occur in this game, meaning that almost every unit you have is useful to you without too much of a worry of weakness against other units.

As another small, but significant, change, the player must also play strategically on the world map. With two characters to control, both of which are controlled in an almost turn-based fashion, the player must think about where each character is on the map as certain enemies (and therefore battles) will not simply stay in place and wait to be engaged. This leads to the player needing to know where their characters are in relation to the enemies on the map, as if the player acts too many times with one of the characters the other can be attacked and engaged in a battle with a heavy disadvantage as the penalty.

The Amiibo functionality in Echoes is a very interesting affair. The (beautifully designed I have to say) Alm and Celica Amiibo figures allow the player access to exclusive dungeons, containing new challenges, equipment and items. The other Fire Emblem characters can be summoned in-game to aid the player, at the cost of a slight hit to Alm or Celica’s HP much like any other spell. Furthermore, other Amiibo can be used alike the Fire Emblem figures, apart from them summoning a monster to aid the player instead. Albeit these helpers only aid the player for a turn each time, but this single turn can really affect the tide of a map if used effectively.

Aesthetically, this game is utterly incredible. The visual style has taken the best aspects of modern and classic Fire Emblem and met in the middle with supreme gusto. The character portraits, illustrated in a beautiful watercolour style, perfectly mesh with the more anime-style 3D models in battle and the fully animated cut-scenes to give real depth and character to every unit you meet both allied and otherwise. Furthermore the (almost) flawless voice acting throughout also adds to this feeling of coherency to make Echoes feel like a complete package, as well as adding an additional emotional punch to the narrative proceedings. The music suffers from the same problems of previous Fire Emblem games in that it is utterly beautiful music, but sadly forgettable. The music is used to great effect in certain narrative points but goes ultimately unnoticed in most of the gameplay.

So, should you buy Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia? If you are a Fire Emblem fan, this is a resounding yes but if you aren’t previously, my recommendation would be to start with Fire Emblem Heroes on mobile first to test if the mechanics of this game would be for you. Echoes is an incredible, cohesive experience, but not without its harsh difficulty. The game is a beautiful, emotional ride through a well-thought out, believable world and is something I personally feel that anyone should experience. An essential 3DS purchase for those that are fans, and highly recommended otherwise.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is OUT NOW on Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo 3DS eShop.

Thank you to Nintendo for supplying Nintendo Scene with a review copy of this game.

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