Review: Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

The third time is beyond a charm for this final Fire Emblem on 3DS!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 07/13/2017 12:30 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Wonderful new play mechanics introduced, like third-person and first-person exploration; solid combat that eschews the Weapons Triangle but makes better use of the terrain on each map; delectable production values; Amiibo integration is fun and doesn't exclude players who don't have the figures; rich story with a cast that's easy to love
Poison Mushroom for...
Changes to battle system might feel simplified to long-time fans

Fire Emblem has been delighting fans in the West ever since its eponymous introductory title dropped on Game Boy Advance in 2003, but the reality is that the series has been a regular staple for far longer in Japan. Fire Emblem bowed for the first time on Famicom all the way back in 1990 with Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Though it took thirteen years for non-Japanese players to finally be able to enjoy the series, it was quickly lapped up by tactical RPG enthusiasts. In recent years, Fire Emblem has become more popular than ever, with Fire Emblem Awakening on 3DS ushering in an unprecedented level of success that the franchise had never experienced in the West. The last entry on 3DS, Fire Emblem Fates, uniquely offered three takes on its campaign, emphasizing player choice and the distinct impact those decisions would have on the story. Now, we’ve arrived at the third and presumably final series installment on Nintendo’s handheld, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, and man, does this game throw one heck of a going away party.

Shadows of Valentia is itself distinct among the other two releases on 3DS, as it’s a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, the series’ first sequel. Nintendo had a propensity in the NES/Famicom days of taking sequels in wildly different directions, and Gaiden was no different, introducing a number of new features and mechanics like dungeons, random battles, and more. Shadows of Valentia takes a similar approach, bringing much of Gaiden‘s core experience while also offering a number of alterations to what players became accustomed to in both Awakening and Fates. These changes are not only fun and refreshing, but also feel like a natural evolution for the series moving forward. While the actual tactical combat on the battlefield is somewhat simplified in comparison to the two games that came before, there’s no denying that Shadows of Valentia is a polished, thoughtful bookend for the series on 3DS and hopefully an indicator of where it will go in the future.

The setup for Shadows of Valentia plays things a little straighter than either Awakening or Fates in regards to its plot. Young love is blossoming between leads Alm and Celica as the story unfolds, but fate ends up separating them unexpectedly. They live in the nominal land of Valentia, which is divided by the god Dumel in the Northern region of Rigel and the goddess Mila in her Southern kingdom of Zofia. Zofia is where our heroes hail from, and the game bounces between Alm and Celica’s bands of heroes as they travel to overthrow Rigel and bring peace to the whole of Valentia. This rollicking narrative is refreshingly straightforward, and it’s also particularly appealing having control of two different parties. This desire to experiment is what drew me in to Shadows of Valentia so fully; rather than play it safe, developer Intelligent Systems has successfully done something new with the series three times in a row on 3DS.

This is especially evident in the third-person exploration sections. In a welcome addition, for the first time, players can navigate 3D environments, cracking open crates and barrels, initiating attacks on enemies (that transition back to a traditional battle grid), and uncovering treasure chests. It has proven to be a fantastic new feature, shaking up gameplay in an unexpected way. That might have been enough experimentation for most developers, but Intelligent Systems didn’t stop with the third-person action. There are also first-person exploration segments that play out similarly to Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton. Tap on the background to uncover items, speak with people, and more as Alm and Celica make their way around Valentia. What’s more, this Fire Emblem installment has more voiced dialogue than any before it: I happily sat back with the dialogue auto-advancing and listened to the voice actors deliver a solid reading of their lines.

I loved the cast of Awakening but thought that Fates‘ assemblage of characters wasn’t quite as engaging. Shadows of Valentia thankfully offers a very compelling cast, making the tension of losing one of them in battle all the more real. It’s that fear of death that is the hook of the Fire Emblem series beyond its excellent battle mechanics; when a party member dies, they’re gone for good, which lends a real sense of high stakes to the proceedings. This can be changed of course, with players once again allowed to choose to remove perma-death, but there’s a new option available in the form of Mila’s Turnwheel. It can be used to go back in time to change decisions that were made during battle, completely altering events to the player’s liking. It’s entirely optional, but for those who’d like to have that added edge of possibly losing a squad mate forever but want just a little leeway, it’s an excellent new feature. Mila’s Turnwheel can also be made to go further back in time as the game progresses, further allowing players to optimize their time in battle.

There’s a ton to do in Shadows of Valentia besides dungeon exploration and battles on the navigable world map. It’s possible to forge weapons this time around, lending a welcome boost of power and customization to each player’s roster. Sadly, though there’s no way of customizing the romantic pairings. Relationship building is still present, along with the support conversations that also delight Fire Emblem fans—though keep in mind that this time they happen mid-battle! Keeping up with everyone’s relationships is very addicting, though for those who enjoyed wedding characters and having kids, know that this feature is absent. This seems largely due to the fact that marrying characters wasn’t a feature at the time Gaiden came out. Still, as a remake, it’s intriguing how contemporary and innovative Shadows of Valentia feels for the majority of the time, despite the absence of certain features that have become franchise staples.

This carries over to the battle system. Again, Gaiden is the blueprint from which Shadows of Valentia is built, so the Weapon Triangle (lances beat swords, swords beat axes, etc.) is out. Which isn’t that big of a deal, frankly, as in lieu of the rock-paper-scissors mechanics that have been in place since that first GBA iteration hit the West, terrain has taken on even more significance that ever before. Positioning the player’s party in thickets of foliage and tress, forts, and so on provides cover and a true tactical advantage over foes. It made my strategizing different than in games past, and opened up new approaches than I was accustomed to. I certainly had to be more mindful of where I plopped a troop down, as leaving them out in the open generally was not a good idea. I did miss being able to pair up duos of party members, but it felt natural within the confines of Shadows of Valentia‘s battle parameters.

Beyond all of the nuts and bolts of battle and exploration, it can’t be overstated how wonderful the presentation is in Shadows of Valentia. The aforementioned third- and first-person exploration segments have fleshed out the world of Valentia in a way that previous Fire Emblems never have. Neither feels tacked on, either. The third-person segments are richly rendered and beautifully lit, truly taking advantage of 3DS’s glasses-free 3D screen to make all of its assets pop. The same can be said for the first-person sections, especially when conversations begin and the stunning character illustrations are on full display. Nintendo’s graphics always are top notch, but enough is never said about the stable of consummate pros that comprise its illustration team. Wrapped with the bow that is the game’s vibrant, orchestral score, and Shadows of Valentia feels like the sort of blockbuster release that one would expect in the middle of a console’s lifespan, not its end.

Fire Emblem has come to be one of Nintendo’s premier franchises, with Shadows of Valentia further cementing the series’ sterling reputation. This is some of the best storytelling and gameplay anyone could hope for on any platform, whether home or portable. Its presentation belies the fact that the game is running on a portable console, and the clever additions to the familiar Fire Emblem formula have yet again breathed new life into a series that has never been stagnant. There are other features waiting to be enjoyed, like the addition of Amiibo that bring new dungeons and fighters, a StreetPass feature, and more. It’s likely that other than Fire Emblem Warriors this will be the last time the franchise appears on 3DS, but it’s going to be a long goodbye—expect to sink many hours into this adventure. Alm and Celica have firmly cemented themselves into the ranks of my favorite Fire Emblem characters, and I hope that when the series transitions to Switch it will be half as entertaining as Shadows of Valentia.

Thoughts on DLC

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that as has become tradition, Shadows of Valentia has a mountain of DLC available. It’s entirely optional, and the main game is packed with content, so there’s no pressure to purchase the additional material—anyone who buys the base game and plays it will get a meaty, full adventure. That said, the DLC does expand the experience with new maps, classes, story content, and so forth, so consider purchasing the Season Pass in order to save money on the whole shebang if you do end up wanting to expand the game. I’m not factoring the DLC into my final review, but I like to keep you all as informed as possible, so… that’s the 411 on downloadable content in Shadows of Valentia!

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