A remake of the second Fire Emblem game ever released, Fire Emblem: Gaiden, a 1992 Famicon title never available outside Japan through any legal means, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia stands out among its 3DS peers by employing old school mechanics and no nonsense gameplay.
Shadows of Valentia follows the story of childhood friends Alm and Celica as they navigate the same side of a conflict in opposing ways, allowing the player to control two independent armies on each side as they explore different areas of the map. The conflict in question is the sort of mostly incoherent, but loveable, high fantasy jargon, central to Fire Emblem games in general, but placing the focus on the relationship between its two characters allows for a more emotionally involving storyline, rather than it just being a backdrop to the gameplay and character development.
I have to confess, I’m a recent convert to the Fire Emblem series. I was pulled in by the stylish visuals and fun characters of 2012 title Fire Emblem: Awakening, and considered the strategic gameplay, while extremely fun, to be an afterthought to more story-driven aspects of the game, such as character supports and marriage.
This aspect of the game is far more subdued in Shadows of Valentia – there are support logs, but they are few and far between, with some (presumably extremely lonely) characters completely unable to interact with their teammates. Also, the marriage system is gone, which meant I couldn’t smash the members of my army together like Barbie dolls and had to watch helplessly from the side-lines as they made their own choices. From a gameplay perspective, this means you can’t combine units, characters won’t defend each other in battle and set up takes considerably longer in late game, presuming you’ve recruited all available team members.
The dungeon exploration element of the game, new to the series and a refreshing break from repetitive top-down battles, keeps it feeling fresh and unique, but I couldn’t help comparing Shadows of Valentia to the previous Fire Emblem 3DS titles, and I occasionally found myself wishing I was playing them instead. This is inevitable – of course a game released in 2012 has more user-friendly mechanics than a remake of one from 1992, but it still raises the question – why should you purchase this brand-new title, when you could spend less and have a more fun and up to date experience with an older game?
On top of this, without the weapon triangle now iconic to Fire Emblem, the combat mystified me and my experience barely felt strategic at all. The changes to the mage and archer classes, such as mages’ spells costing health points and the archers’ new, longer range are a great change that helped make the two classes more distinct from one another, while also adding a new element of challenge to the mage class, but this alone wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of clarity in other classes’ abilities. In fact, the most effective strategy seemed to just be partaking in reckless antics and hoping they panned out which, while fun and more aligned with my style of gameplay, is probably not the best idea with the permanent death mechanic turned on. Although, the feature of Mila’s Turnwheel makes for a great introduction to perma-death, as it allows you to turn back time and re-do a turn if anything catastrophic happens.
Despite all this, I still found plenty of entertainment in the game – there are many things about it that frustrated me but not once did I ever feel I wanted to put it down. The characters are charming and, as the first fully voiced Fire Emblem title, the voice acting made me really care about my diverse cast of teammates. The gameplay is challenging – taking risks and having them pay off was extremely rewarding, and new features such as dungeon exploration, the ability to stop at towns and explore them, and optional sidequests, were a completely welcome addition to the franchise, and something I hope they add in future games. The driving force of the narrative – bringing together Alm and Celica – drove me forward constantly and I was surprised by how emotionally invested I was in their reunion.
So, do I recommend Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia? Sure. It’s an old-school experimental RPG with a lot of heart, loveable characters and a fun story. If you’re an existing fan of the series, even just the 3DS games like me, there’s plenty of features you’ll love, even with the tragic loss of the marriage system. If you’re new to the series it could arguably be a good starting point, as the class system and gameplay are a lot more simplistic compared to later games in the series. With startlingly beautiful cutscenes, brilliant voice acting and unique gameplay elements, despite its flaws, Shadows of Valentia isn’t one to miss.