Developer Intelligent Systems has been on a roll with Fire Emblem content lately. Little more than a year after the mammoth-sized Fire Emblem Fates released—with its three separate single player campaigns—and just months after Fire Emblem Heroes hit mobile devices, we're now getting what may be the most surprising game of the year: a glorified remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, originally released on the Famicom.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia brings the story of that second Fire Emblem game to the Nintendo 3DS family of systems. For gamers outside of Japan, it is the first time we can experience an official version of it too, and in that sense, this game undoubtedly delivers.
But this is not just a simple re-release of a twenty-five year old Fire Emblem title. Frankly, it is somewhat ironic that a remake of all things features so many firsts for the franchise. Echoes boasts full voice acting for the very first time, third person dungeon exploration, a revamped world map that actually matters, and lots of gameplay tweaks—for better or worse.
In regard to the meat of the typical strategy gameplay the series is known for, Echoes delivers many worthwhile changes to the way characters are handled on and off the map. Gone are the stale weapon triangles and pairing up units. This time around, more emphasis is placed on the class system of evolving units, using the environment to one's advantage, and smartly using arts and newly learned abilities to get an advantage.
This style is definitely new and also not necessarily better or worse. But personally, I found myself not leaving some units to the wayside shortly after recruiting them this time around because every character the player has to command is available for use in every battle on the world map. Not only does this help the feeling of connection to the characters in Echoes, but it also means there is more reason to battle with all units equally, making the balance of experience among one's armies more paramount than ever.
That being said, I feel this is a good time to mention that this review is coming from the perspective of a normal, casual player of the series. And having made my way through Awakening and Fates' three campaigns first, I can safely say that Echoes starts off far easier than those titles on this difficulty. It certainly did not stay that way, however. Things really ramped up in Acts 3, 4, and 5 of the adventure, but it is worth noting for fans who might want an extra challenge this time around or who simply play through to experience the story without the headaches.
Speaking of which, there are not many headaches to be found. The new act system of breaking up the game's story is a welcome adjustment compared to the chapter formula of past Fire Emblem games; the beginning of Act 3 is where Echoes uses it to its fullest potential, allowing the player to command two different armies simultaneously on two different sides of the map. Each army has their own units, inventory, and story progression. As such, I found flipping back and forth between the two adventures an enjoyable way to not feel like I was doing the same thing over and again.
That is not to say that the problem of repetition does not exist in Echoes. That is far from the case at times, especially so because the main campaign of Echoes is hours longer than those of previous 3DS games in the series, not counting side content or DLC. Unfortunately, Echoes' length gets padded with its usually-optional shrines, which are this game's showcase of the new dungeon exploration. The concept itself of exploring shrines in real time is a nice thought, but in execution, they often feel far more repetitive and, therefore, more boring than the main game.
This is because running into enemies in dungeons triggers the usual grid-based battles, just with far less flair and compelling map design to take advantage of. It might not sound like a problem since shrines are a largely optional means of exploring Valentia, but the rewards compel one to take advantage of them. Changing classes, plundering for cash and other goods like healing items, and farming experience are all benefits of the shrines, so they might as well be mandatory most of the time.
Another area in which Echoes falls out of the engaging repetition fans of the series love and into the grinding-esque type of repetition is the enemy variety. Monsters called Terrors in the game can often divide over and over again, and cantors that summon said monsters are plentiful. It can often be a lot to ask to take out summoning enemies in a timely fashion. As a result, some maps feel slow and uninspired in execution.
For the few problems Echoes does have, it largely makes up for in other parts of the game. As one can expect of a 3DS Fire Emblem game at this point, the audiovisual presentation is masterful given the limitations. Compared to Fates' three-dimensional look, more traditional, anime-style cutscenes give an equally as exciting sense of action, battle animations and scene transitions are crisper than ever, and the general character and environment art on display is gorgeous.
Not to be outdone, the game's soundtrack is the one thing that is even more beautiful. From tracks fans might recognize like With Mila's Divine Protection (that was actually included in Super Smash Bros. Brawl) to the haunting title screen music, the game's soundtrack delivers in elegance and divine-sounding style, matching the epic tone of battles and conflicts well.
I cannot mention Echoes being epic without mentioning the tale told either. Echoes has another intertwining narrative full of twists, peaks, and plateaus just like most installments in the series, but compared to previous 3DS games in the franchise, this story feels a little more restrained—in a good way.
Your take on the narrative will really depend on what kind of Fire Emblem fan you are. If you like having the myriad of opportunities to romance other characters and spawn child units, this game's way of handling relationships might not be your preferred way of things. Thankfully, support conversations and romance are still well-executed in this game, the main difference being that only certain units can talk with other units, which allows the narrative to take on a more focused and ultimately a more fulfilling approach across the board for how the journeys of the men and women in Shadows of Valentia are handled.
The Verdict: Shadows of Valentia Is a Superb Remake, Showing Future Promise
If it had to have another 3DS game so soon after Fates, Echoes is exactly the change of pace the series needed. Now there are options for fans who want different things from the best strategy RPG series out there. For those that are just getting into the franchise, Echoes introduced a lot of new positives. From class changes that felt better worked into the gameplay and pace of the adventure to story tweaks like memory prisms that—à la Breath of the Wild—allow the player to experience extra pieces of the plot on their own terms, Echoes brings enough to the table to make the series feel exciting evermore.
As a beautiful, emotional, 30-hour-plus ride, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia gives anyone who likes strategy games or fantasy epics a reason to still play a Nintendo 3DS in 2017.