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[Game Review] Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Do you want to know why this review has taken so long to come out, despite me buying Echoes on launch day? Because I’ve been putting off playing it since my first few weeks with it. I might call myself a fan of Fire Emblem, but say what you like about Shadows of Valentia, it is one of the least fun Fire Emblem games I’ve ever played. This is not going to be one of those “best FE game yet” reviews that I’ve seen all over the place, because I honestly can’t say that about Shadows of Valentia without my nose growing about twenty feet. And no, you can’t call me a casual – I’ve played Genealogy of the Holy War and I like it. I’ve seen a Thracia Let’s Play and I think the game’s interesting. Yeah, I started with Fates, but I still think Fates nailed a lot of the game design even if the story is a pile of horse cankers; I like good Fire Emblem games, regardless of the era they came from. With that out of the way, let’s begin the postmortem of Shadows of Valentia.

Admittedly, when I first started the game, I too was wowed by the excellent presentation. A remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden? Voice acting for every line? Beautiful artwork and fluid animations? An interesting world, blessedly brief tutorial, and slimmed-down mechanics with no pair-up? This was sounding good. Unfortunately, a lot of the genuinely interesting opening is virtually gone by the time the first act begins. We play as Alm and Celica, two young figures who grew up in Ram Village together with Mycen, a local hero, in the country of Zofia. The northern country of Rigel has invaded Zofia, and the country is in the grip of civil warfare as the royal family have been killed. During the story, we follow Alm as he becomes leader of the Deliverance, a force aiming to recapture Zofia, and eventually becomes powerful enough to challenge Rigel itself and its fearsome emperor, Rudolf. Meanwhile, Celica defeats some pirates and bandits, and has little to no relevance on the plot. Oh dear, here we go…

This story is what I would call inoffensive at best, and hilariously predictable at worst. The first ‘twist’ is Celica – secretly the Zofian princess, escaping with Mycen when the royals are killed – getting herself rescued at several points by a masked knight with the same hair colour as her; this occurs literally minutes after she discusses her brother, Conrad, who was thought to have died in the fire. Of course, he doesn’t reveal he’s the masked knight until way later in the story, but I’d predicted it by the first or second time I’d seen him, and that’s kind of disappointing. The second is Alm, and this is even more poorly handled, if I’m honest. Alm bears a brand, like Celica, who we know is a royal princess, discovers he can wield the Royal Sword that only royals can wield, and finds that he has a familiarity with Rigel during his time there: of course, he’s Rudolf’s secret lost son, and anyone who didn’t predict that hours before it was officially revealed in an idiot. So, Alm. Alm is an idiot. He’s like Budget Marth.

However, there are some interesting parts to the story, which I feel was wasted potential. The twin gods/dragons (Fire Emblem doesn’t really differentiate between gods and dragons), Duma and Mila, who watch over Rigel and Zofia respectively, have a really intriguing dynamic. At first, Mila is presented as the ultimate good, whilst Duma is the incarnation of evil, his henchman Jedah being the most cartoonishly evil villain since Dr. Robotnik. However, it’s revealed throughout the story that both were acting for the best: Mila tried to give her people bounties and gifts, but this eventually caused them to become lazy and opulent, whilst Duma gave his people strength, but his focus on this led the nation to become strongly militant: both are flawed, and both eventually see the problems. By the end, though, Mila saves Budget Marth and Celica and gives them the god-killing blade, Falchion, becoming the embodiment of good, whilst Duma acts as the final boss, an insane dragon. It would have been nice for Budget Marth and Celica to have to fight both gods, which would make the theme of the final act – that man can survive without draconic influence – so much stronger.

So yeah, the story’s pretty generic. Whilst the animated cutscenes are quite stilted, the voice acting does give it some strength, though, and there’s nobody that I thought was horribly voiced. Budget Marth and Celica are kinda boring, but voice actors like Mathilda, Berkut, Gray and Mae really made the story feel alive. I also enjoyed the way that a smaller cast with more characterisation allowed everyone to be fleshed out more – the characters, for the most part, feel more human and interesting than, say, the cast of Fates. (Except my dear wife Kagero, who I will not hear a single bad word about.) I appreciated the way that characters commented during battle, too, with nearby characters making comments if your unit one-rounds and enemy or performs some other incredible feat, connecting them in ways other than their supports. Because, uh, the supports… they’re lacklustre, to say the least. Because they’re done in battle, it means that virtually all of them are just small talk, which is short and forgettable. I like a lot of them, but I wish they could have been expanded on more. Towns exist in this game, so why not just have supports occur in towns?

But it’s not just the story that could have been so much better in Shadows of Valentia. It seems that this game’s approach to remaking Gaiden was to take all the horrible design decisions that come with making a game on the NES in 1992 and… keep them. Firstly, characters only have one inventory slot in battle now. Whilst I think this could have been interesting, a number of the items, like shields and rings, have such little viability compared to actual weapons that there will never be a time when you feel like equipping one is the best way to go. I like the idea of characters learning skills as they master their weapon, to the point that I feel like this mechanic should return in future instalments – admittedly, I did find it weird that Scensdale, Budget Marth’s ultimate art with the Royal Sword or Falchion, was generally useless compared to Double Lion, which is just Scensdale-But-Weaker-And-Hits-Twice. Hitting twice means that he does way more damage with it, and the range of Scensdale doesn’t really matter because by the time he learns it – i.e. sometime prior to the final boss – the enemies can counter him from any range. I only found it more useful than Double Lion once in my whole playthrough.

The maps are far too large, and when they’re not large, they’re fucking tedious. Cantors that summon monsters are incredibly annoying, and despite the amazingly effective map that introduces them, where you face a single lone Cantor on a ship, they get overused fast. However, they’re nothing compared to Witches; they teleport and they can attack from 1-3 spaces away with magic. There’s no way to prevent them from warping next to your weakest units and destroying them, and it makes dealing with them an absolute nightmare. Eventually, you reach a point where they’re nothing more than minor irritations, but for a good half the game they’re the most irritating enemy the maps have to offer. Don’t even get me started on Celica’s boat maps, Budget Marth’s empty fields of super far-away Paladins, Celica’s desert maps, Celica’s swamp maps, Celica’s… wow, Celica’s route has a lot of shitty maps.

Amusingly enough though, Shadows of Valentia is still easy as hell. Mila’s Turnwheel, the tool that lets you turn back time, makes any non-lord deaths a complete triviality, removing all impact from them. Usually, a death means you have to restart a chapter, but with the Turnwheel, you can just redo the last turn and not put Silque in range of that Gold Knight, you fucking clod. Even then, I very rarely needed the Turnwheel as the maps were generally easy enough to clear the first time. The only times I really found myself struggling were the final fight of Duma Tower and fighting Jedah in the endgame – specifically Jedah, as Duma himself was easily cheesed with Genny’s Invoke skill. It’s dumb. The reason I struggled in these dungeon segments is because dungeons are stupid and I really dislike them.

Shadows of Valentia introduces dungeons to the typical Fire Emblem experience, and they’re kind of interesting. The idea is that you run around exploring a dungeon, and murderers/monsters/assholes wander around, and running into them brings you into a random encounter. The glaring issue that literally anyone should be able to realise is that Fire Emblem’s gameplay – moving around, strategising, turn-by-turn combat – is not at all conducive to short and sweet random encounters. The game tries to work with this by making the encounters very quick; just a tiny map with a few units that you can defeat in a turn or two. However, if you can destroy a random encounter in one player phase, what was the point in having it at all besides creating tedious walls between you and progress? And let’s not even get me started on the strange tank-esque controls for Budget Marth and Celica during these segments that would have felt quaint on the N64, let alone the 3DS.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a game of wasted potential, I feel. There’s a lot to like, and I found myself having spots of fun during my playtime, but that’s all it was – brief holidays into something more fun, until a bad map or dumb dialogue dragged me right back into the mire that is the general game. The animations and presentation is absolutely top-notch, and the music as always is a joy to listen to, but a cadre of boring villains (sorry, Berkut fans, I like him, but I don’t think his arc is as compelling as it could’ve been) that range from irritating (fuck you, Fernand) to genuinely mystifying (what the hell was Rudolf’s Rube-Goldberg-esque plan?) mixed with shitty maps and a generic story with predictable twists leads me to find it unappealing. However, I don’t want the Shadows of Valentia team to stop trying, they just need to learn: if you’re remaking a game from 1992, change the things that didn’t work the first time.

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