Fire Emblem. Cool name, very long-running and heralded series — but one I have always avoided. I knew these games were special, and some colleagues at Digital Chumps enjoy them. Unfortunately, none of them were available to take on this latest entry for review which is actually a remake of one of the very first in the storied franchise. Fire Emblem: Gaiden was first released in 1992 and only in Japan. With Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, that original game has been remade and brought to the 3DS, and to the West for the first time.
As a retro gamer and small-time collector, I love it when rare, old games, especially ones previously not released in the West, finally get their chance to shine again. Handhelds like the DS line and PSP/Vita have been great for precisely that. To that end, hats off to Intelligent Systems and Nintendo for bringing Fire Emblem: Gaiden to the forefront again. There’s no question the Fire Emblem series has become more popular in the West than it has been before, but I still can’t get into it because like other grid-based tactical RPGs, I knew it just wasn’t for me. The pacing, difficulty, and investment in the story and characters is off-putting, and I discovered I was in the same situation with Echoes before long.
Echoes tells the tale of two armies but also two characters — Alm and Celica. Opening cutscenes reveal a deepening friendship between these two who decide at a young age that they’re going to stick together forever. They share common goals, but they also share a strange, matching impression on their hands that’s way too much for just coincidence. Anyway, an enjoyable afternoon outside soon turns violent when invading forces threaten their village, and it’s Alm’s grandfather who steps in to help lead the tutorial to guide the characters and the player through their first battle.
The story unfolds across chapters that have you controlling the two armies that these two command as they attempt to push back a third faction that’s vying for supremacy. All the while, the continent of Valentia is being destroyed. You can play in Casual or Normal mode, with the important difference (which is explained as you select) being that in Casual, your characters that die during battle come back afterwards. In Normal mode, it’s perma-death. I played on Casual mode and found it plenty challenging in terms of tactics and winning, but also in staying interested. My lack of interest is not due to a lackluster story as much as it is just me struggling in this genre.
Getting a handle on the gameplay mechanics and strategy comes with time and practice, but also with a lot of headaches, at least for me. The difficulty spikes can be infuriating and, taken with a lack of interest in the story and characters, made the game a lot harder for me to play. That said, from what I have read this is easier than some other Fire Emblem game and there is a rewind mechanic that can be used at times to help undo bad decisions on the battlefield. Furthermore, if you have the two new amiibo characters released with this game, you can call upon Alm or Celica sometimes in battle, and an apparition version of them appear to help turn the tide your way. Battles take place on the map in grid-based scenes that are turn-based, but also in 3D dungeons, too. The dungeons provide a good place to explore to find new items and tackle difficult dragons.
Regardless of where your army is at, you can expect a quality presentation. Nearly every character is voiced and animations are quite good. One of my primary turn-offs for the genre remains the tiny avatar like representations for characters on the battlefield, but again that’s more of a genre trait than something specifically with this title.
Overall, while I don’t feel at all qualified to really place this game above or below others in the series, I feel confident that it’s an interesting title for series veterans who never got to play Gaiden and newcomers alike. With a blend of old school and also lacking many of the modern nuances of today’s games, it gives players a straight-forward, yet stout challenge.