‘Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia’ review

'Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia’ a beautiful, flawed strategy game

Fire Emblem Echoes has the best voice acting of any Nintendo game, but its strategy feels stuck in the past.

The Fire Emblem series has undergone something of a metamorphosis on the 3DS. Since 2012 Fire Emblem Awakening, new combat mechanics, a more straightforward story, and the permanent inclusion of a “casual” mode have made the story driven strategy RPG series more welcoming to new players.

For the most part, these changes have also been interesting for longtime fans, but there’s no denying that the cutthroat challenge the series was once famous for has diminished. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of 1992 Japanese NES game Fire Emblem Gaiden, returns to the series roots. Nintendo and Intelligent Systems are still more than willing to deliver a challenging strategy game, but the game’s reliance on decades-old mechanics doesn’t do it any favors.

Star-crossed lovers

Set on the titular continent of Valentia, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia stars two childhood friends, Alm and Celica. Separated at a young age as the kingdoms of Zofia and Rigel engage in a massive war for control of the land, the two initially work toward drastically different goals. Alm, who unceremoniously takes control of the “Deliverance,” Zofia’s rebel army, stars in “a rise to power” story that’s pretty standard fare for Fire Emblem.

If you’ve ever played a Fire Emblem game in the past, Shadows of Valentia’s battle system doesn’t offer too many surprises.

Meanwhile, tortured by nightmares of Alm and Rigelian emperor Rudolf engaged in a battle to the death, Celica sets off with the goal of simply stopping the war before it can destroy the continent. A fully voice-acted story – both in cinematics and standard text-based dialogue encounters – elevates the delivery of both stories.

While their stories are largely separate, you have access to both Alm and Celica’s teams of fighters on a single world map. After a brief prologue, you’re free to control either Alm or Celica as you see fit, with the two fighting their way across Valentia simultaneously.

Where Fire Emblem’s stories historically lead you strictly from battle to battle, Shadows of Valentia gives you the freedom to unfurl the two halves of the story at your own pace and experience a unique version of the tale. Beautiful hand-animated cinematics only bolster the emotional moments, particularly when Alm and Celica meet face-to-face.

For the first time in the series, the game also features free-roam sections that allow Alm or Celica to explore dungeons and abandoned buildings in order to obtain treasure or further level up allies. Enemies can often be found exploring these areas as well, and coming into contact with them will still trigger a standard turn-based battle, but these sections allow for more world-building than we’ve seen in the series before. It’s a shame that many of these areas, at least through the first six hours, look nearly identical, as it ruins some of the fun of exploring.

Strike, shoot, and blast

While some aspects of Shadows of Valentia feel fresh thanks to their old mechanics, others feel thin. The “weapon triangle,” a staple of every Fire Emblem game released in North America, is completely absent in the game. Previously, Fire Emblem incorporated a rock-paper-scisssors system for melee combat. Swords were strong against axes, axes were strong against lances, and lances were strong against swords. It created a satisfying gameplay loop that quickly became second-nature to players. With this missing, the strategic gameplay that remains is mostly based around enemy and ally positions and planning counter-attacks.

The addition of full voice-acting is so impressive that it’ll be all but required for the series in the future.

Certain character classes such as paladins and cavaliers are able to cover significantly more ground, and the game’s numerous wide-open maps often means that they’ll be separated from the rest of the group and the action will slow to a crawl as the others catch up. Once battles begin, their outcomes are entirely based on weapon and character statistics. It’s still enjoyable, but its noticeably more basic than the other games.

The dual-character attacks of the recent 3DS games are also gone, which will be a jarring change to those who haven’t played the earlier releases – for those hoping for a more challenging Fire Emblem, it’s certainly welcome, though.

The game’s random number generation for determining whether or not an attack hits also seems to be a little janky – a rating of “50” typically means that there is a 50 percent chance of landing a blow, but it feels much lower in practice. A “turnwheel” allows you to occasionally rewind time and try again if you get particularly unlucky, acting as something of a consolation prize after you repeatedly miss attacks.

Though it’s a remake of a game more than two decades old, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia still finds ways to push the series forward – they just don’t have anything to do with its strategic gameplay. The addition of full voice-acting is so impressive that it’ll be all but required for the series in the future and the game’s retro-inspired animations are absolutely gorgeous. But Shadows of Valentia doesn’t embrace the combat changes made in Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fates, and as a result, it doesn’t feel like the true successor to those games.