27 years. For many of you, that’s a fair indicator of just how long you’ve been alive for, give or take a few years and grey hairs here and there. It’s a lifetime for many of you and an eternity for any video game franchise. Few games cross that mark, with many attempting and falling along the way. Japan’s got a different taste for legacy however, with many a franchise on that side of the globe proving to have some significant staying power that stands the test of time.
Final Fantasy, Street Fighter and Super Mario spring to mind, as does one other name familiar to anyone who enjoys a more strategic pursuit: Fire Emblem. 1990 saw the birth of the franchise, a game focused not only on RPG character-building but also its integration into a more strategic element. After a rough start, Fire Emblem founds its groove and an audience in Japan before finally making a splash on the Game Boy Advance in the West with 2003’s un-subtitled Fire Emblem.
This year’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia however, is an earlier game. Specifically 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden. At first glance, it’s an odd duck in the series. It may be remastered from an earlier chapter but it has few of the mechanical influences introduced by 2012’s lifesaving Awakening chapter, that was further built upon in Fates. It’s raw, a bigger challenge and its narrative feels more simplistic on the surface.
Dungeons ‘n Necro-Dragons
It’s also a breath of fresh air and challenging in all the right ways as I’m finding it damn hard to let go of a story about love war and loss as permadeath once again reduces me to a weepy mess.
You know how the story goes by now: Boy meets girl, girl is attacked by forces for vague reasons which are revealed later on and boy later grows up to become commander of an army that seeks to prevent the destruction of their homeland as a prophecy rears its ugly head. Think Netflix’s The Crown mixed with Dungeons ‘n Necro-Dragons.
While the path from beginning to end is set in stone, Shadows of Valentia’s biggest improvement in this remaster is in how it tells its story. Everyone has a voice (and a voice actor!), the scale of the conflict throws in an impressive amount of grey morality into the mix and the idea of just what it means to be a noble is explored in detail. Shadows of Valentia has a hell of a story to tell, with the points above being merely the tip of this Fire Emblerg.
It’s a story that couldn’t be carried without memorable characters, something that SOV excels at. The love story of Celica and Alm is the core of this epic, supported by allies who bring their own distinct personalities to the battlefield as villains chew the scenery. Honestly, I found myself leaving the auto-option on for these scenes on more often than ever done before. The voice acting is just that damn good, that I’m happy to approach SOV as both a game and as a subtitled anime episode when the mood strikes me.
Positioning, thinking two turns ahead and managing your resources feels more important than ever before
For anyone who hopped onto the Fire Emblem train after Awakening proved to be one of the best games ever released on the 3DS, you’re going to notice some core changes: Mainly, that SOV is hard. With a mechanical setup built on top of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden, there’s a lot of modern-day Fire Emblem that’s missing in action. Like tag-teaming characters up for a combo of character powering up? That’s not happening.
Have you got the rock-paper-scissors attack triangle of swords, lances and axes memorised? Yeah, that ain’t going to fly here. SOV’s gameplay favours individualism far more than it does pairing heroes for buffs of the offensive and defensive kind. Defense is a key driving factor here, as players have to balance their own attack stats against the numbers of defense attributed to each enemy. Positioning, thinking two turns ahead and managing your resources feels more important than ever before, with many a battle claiming lives if you aren’t prepared.
a high-stakes version of chess
In a way, I really like this approach. Pairing units and going for splashier attacks could be a crutch at times in more modern Fire Emblem titles, whereas SOV puts you through your paces when even one enemy enters the fray with some solid equipment. Aggressive tactics cost units, whereas actual strategy and approaching any battle as a high-stakes version of chess results in victory.
From what I’ve heard so far, the right Amiibo make these battles a doddle. I fortunately don’t have any, as that’s one rabbit hole of collectible figurines that I literally cannot afford to dive into.
What this also means, is that your inventory feels far more concrete. Gone are the days of weapon durability, replaced instead by a system where your primary means of attack and defense grow with you. Or at least until you loot an enemy corpse and find something better. Some weapons have a higher rating, other better abilities that benefit you going forward.
Class changes are earned now, with specialisation further in any given discipline once again tied to your progress. Knight better, get a Paladin upgrade. So on and so on, as you build your heroes up either through hard grafting on the battlefield or at a shrine as the experience points trickle in and the options increase. Kind of cool actually.
units who feel like they’ve earned their power
This all goes double for actual character progression. It’s far slower than what you’d be used to in Fates or Awakening, as you grind out your heroes to fill in gaps in your defense. The end result is a more effective allied force once you’ve done the initial legwork, of units who feel like they’ve earned their power and right to change classes. This is where SOV feels rewarding, as your army grows and specialises further into a cohesive platoon of heroes.
The other big addition to this remaster? Dungeons. Lots of them. Wherever you go in SOV you’ll find yourself sneaking through plenty of caves and lairs, locations which hide treasure and enemies. While the art of exploring and battling is largely fluid, there is a key challenge here as characters find themselves becoming more fatigued the deeper they venture into these dungeons. Just how far are you willing to go for that random loot?
Far enough to risk the lives of your compatriots? That’s up to you, as I’ve rolled back a save game numerous times because I just can’t bear losing certain faces. Again.
The last noteworthy add-on for SOV? Mila’s Turnwheel. The goddess does have at least one crutch ready for you, a time-turner that rolls back every turn in a battle to take you right back to the start of an engagement provided that you’ve made the necessary offering at shrine to charge it up. It’s sort of like rolling back on a save-game, yet it isn’t. It sounds weird and I can’t explain it properly, due to me having not used it that often. I kind of do want to in future sessions however, as there is definitely a friendly sign of potential here for it.
Last Updated: May 16, 2017