By Josh Speer / May 30th, 2017
|Title||Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia|
|Release Date||May 19th, 2017|
|Age Rating||T for Teen|
Being a Fire Emblem fan never used to be so complicated. Before, you fell into one of two groups. Either you lived in Japan and experienced the series from the beginning, or you lived in the West and got introduced to it later on the GBA. For us living in the US, it was a sort of niche badge of honor to not only be familiar with the series, but to be a fan of it. After all, this was a hardcore strategy game, and for quite a while American gamers weren’t seen as capable of tackling those. For a while the series made a name for itself, but was still only marginally popular. Enter Fire Emblem Awakening, and later Fates, and suddenly the series was not only saved from the brink of obsolescence, but has exploded into a sort of prominence previously reserved for such well known names like Mario, Link, and Samus Aran. Suddenly it was cool to be a Fire Emblem fan, with one caveat—the fandom was split once again, between those who grew up playing the classic games and those who started with, and quickly grew accustomed to, all the nifty bells and whistles introduced in the recent entries. As an example, Fates really held gamers hands by allowing very easy difficulty selections and implementing other gameplay features to broaden its appeal. Now we have Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remastered port of an NES Fire Emblem game never released outside of Japan. This entry looked to be unapologetically old school, especially since the original was seen as a divisive entry, much like Link’s Adventure. This was an experiment to bring the series back to its roots, but was that a smart decision? Or should the series have remained in the future, and left Fire Emblem Echoes in the past?
The story of the game revolves around two main protagonists, Alm and Celica, children who grew up in the same small village together. Their happy, simple lives are quickly thrown out of balance, and the young friends are suddenly separated. Several years later, their continent of Valentia is in disarray. In ancient days, Valentia was split between two warring gods, Duma and Mila. They split the land by divine accord into a northern and southern land, and vowed never to break that boundary. In Zofia, the people lived in splendor and had the advantage of prosperous natural bounty, while in Rigel, the people had a martial bent, focused on strength and conquest. Now, something has broken the divine accord, and both lands are thrown into chaos. Monstrous Terrors roam the land, brigands profit from misery, and the earth is barren. In Zofia, the King has been murdered by his own chancellor, and Alm is called to the Deliverance to try and save his home. Meanwhile, Celica is on a search for the Goddess Mila, who seems to be ignoring the needs of her human children. What you should be able to tell just from this brief synopsis (besides the fact it reminds me fondly of Sacred Stones) is that Fire Emblem Echoes has a much better plot than either Awakening or Fates. Awakening felt like a succession of unrelated tales while Fates was two incomplete halves of a whole story, neither very satisfying on their own. Echoes, by contrast, was the strongest story I’ve had the joy to experience in recent history. This could be because it felt more focused right from the start, though I’m sure it’s also because the protagonists weren’t avatars or suffering from amnesia. Alm and Celica have distinct personalities, as does every character in the game, villain and hero alike. Beyond that, I enjoyed how the themes of nobility, the lure of power, and the duties of gods and men was addressed in the story.
Any fan of Fire Emblem will tell you that the most important part of the game is the strategy, and that’s where Echoes becomes a bit controversial. Many series staples, such as the Weapon Triangle and marriage/children mechanic, are totally thrown out the window. Meanwhile, the archaic method of paying HP to cast spells or activate skills was reintroduced from the old Japanese games, something I had never experienced firsthand. I admit I was worried by these changes, but I tried to keep an open mind. Luckily, it turns out that the game mostly worked fine. Spending HP to cast spells or activate skills felt much more balanced and fair than I feared. In fact, it makes the game more tactical as you have to keep track of your health, so every move counts. One bonus of this was that since each magical attack has a different health cost, if you reduce a Mage’s health low enough, they will be rendered unable to cast any spells, and thus powerless (unless they cast Nosferatu, which has zero health cost). Another feature I enjoyed was that during battle, your DEF or RES stat directly affects how much damage you take. For example, if an enemy is about to attack you with a physical weapon that does 20 damage and you have a DEF of 5, you’ll only take 15 damage, if it connects. I loved this feature, as it removed guesswork from battle calculations, other than wondering when critical attacks were going to trigger (sometimes a 1% activation rate felt more like a 40% rate). Another way combat is different is that there is no weapon proficiency, though you can upgrade weapons at the Blacksmith. I actually really enjoyed this, as maxing out proficiency was incredibly time consuming, and I’d much rather spend gold and silver to make my weapons more powerful. Additionally, when any unit has an item equipped, you will slowly unlock skills tied to that item. The catch is, every character learns different skills, even if they have the same item equipped. Since you never know what those skills will turn out to be, it’s always a toss up whether it’s worth it or not. Also, magical units will learn spells automatically with nothing equipped, but with the same caveat of not knowing what they will learn until they learn it.
The confusing thing is that even though every unit has a weapon equipped from the get go, you can still equip a new weapon. For example, if a class wields a sword, you’ll always have a sword to attack with, but you can also equip something like an Iron Sword or even a protective item like a shield. This was one system I felt wasn’t streamlined very well, though it did occasionally yield amazing skills like Plenitude, which heals the unit based on the damage you inflict. As for the Weapon Triangle, while I didn’t miss it, the strategy being more than robust enough, I still feel that it perhaps should have been included. However, the upside of no Weapon Triangle is that Pegasus Knights weren’t nearly as fragile, as only archers with the Anti Flier skill were a threat. As for the marriage mechanic being gone, I frankly didn’t miss it. There are still plenty of fantastic support conversations, they just occur during battle (another throwback to the GBA FE games). Plus, previously I usually didn’t use my children units until very late game, and then I only did so when trying to take on incredibly challenging DLC missions. Without that and many other features, Echoes felt leaner and more focused than many of the recent Fire Emblem games. However, that’s not to say that every aspect of the game was met with my approval.
Early in the game, you can only control either Alm or Celica’s team individually. A couple Acts in, you’re given the opportunity to control them whenever you feel like it, though you aren’t allowed to completely ignore either team. You will encounter roadblocks as you traverse the map, which means you need to accomplish something on the other character’s route. This is where the issue of balance comes into play. Whereas Alm has a wealth of diverse units at his disposal early on, including a handful of villagers and many Deliverance soldiers you recruit in rapid succession, Celica starts with a very small team of Mages. That might make you think Celica’s route is harder, but in reality her team of Mages quickly became my stronger team. Since there was less of them, they were all more leveled up. Alm’s team reached a point around mid game where half of them were useless and the other half could more than hold their own. The villager units quickly became obsolete, and I was forced to class change them early to make them useful. While it’s true the game doesn’t force you to recruit every unit you encounter, it felt silly not to use every weapon at my disposal. Just be ready to lose units as Alm or make frequent use of Mila’s Turnwheel, the most magnificent new feature in the game. Mila’s Turnwheel lets you literally turn back the clock, undoing individual attacks or a whole turn of combat (just so long as the main character isn’t killed, then it’s still game over). The catch is you can only use this feature so many times per battle, and it can only be refreshed by praying at Mila statues strewn throughout the new 3D dungeons (more on those later). By finding Cogs hidden throughout the game, you can increase the number of times you can use the Turnwheel on any given map. Mila’s Turnwheel was especially useful since I was playing on Normal/Classic, and I wasn’t willing to lose my beloved units (until the very end of the game, anyways).
Also on the topic of balance, the distribution of healing items seemed unbalanced in the game. I found way more on Celica’s route than Alms, which was unfortunate since Celica had a ton of healers compared to the one Alm had starting out. See, there are no shops to buy items at, and besides occasionally taking an item off an enemy, all items, weapons and more are only found in two places—exploring villages or delving into dungeons. Essentially, if you are too low on healing items, your best bet is to grind in dungeons, breaking pots and boxes and hoping you find enough supplies. Any time you enter a village or abode, you can examine your surroundings and find many useful items, as well as talking with units to get background information. If you feel like exploring, you are also welcome to take on simple sidequests which reward you accordingly, increasing your renown and sometimes even netting you a new character.
The 3D dungeons are another way to expand your coffers, just at the risk of a little combat. You control Alm or Celica as you explore these well rendered areas, and will come across shambling monstrosities and many other threats. Once they see you, they’ll hunt you down mercilessly, but you can slash them to get the initiative at the start of battle. The other way dungeon combat is different is fatigue. As you explore, your units get more and more fatigued, and if they reach a certain point, their health is cut in half and their stats are reduced temporarily. To cure fatigue, you can feed them consumable items or pray at a Mila statue, offering various items to get better additional effects, such as refreshing Mila’s Turnwheel. However, since team Celica found more healing items, Alm’s forays always felt more frantic and challenging. It’s worth noting as well that Mila statues are where you class change now, and they don’t require any specialized item, just that your character has earned the right to change by leveling up enough. Just keep in mind the routes to every Mila statue are guarded by fierce beasts and brigands, so caution is always important.
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