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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review: Faithful to a Fault

A refreshingly inventive take on Fire Emblem is partly undone by poorly-balanced difficulty.

Review by Kat Bailey, .

Modern remakes of 8-bit games are often a tricky business. Change them too much and you risk them being unrecognizable; change them too little, and they might end up being unplayable.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, the updated remake of the Famicom's Fire Emblem Gaiden, doesn't quite fall into the latter category, but its lineage is nevertheless apparent in its difficulty balance. Needless to say, Shadows of Valentia is hard. Really hard.

I spent the bulk of Act 4 and beyond getting my teeth kicked down my throat, oftentimes squeaking through maps with only my main character remaining. It can be a grind even on Casual, which revives fallen characters after each map is completed. Classic mode, which introduces Fire Emblem's famous permadeath, is an outright nightmare. Needless to say, Shadows of Valentia is meant for the old-guard fans--the ones who have been following the series since before Marth and Roy debuted in Smash Bros. Melee back in 2001.

But while Shadows of Valentia may be a throwback in some respects, it's also very different from its forebearers. The rock-paper-scissors Weapons Triangle is gone, putting much more emphasis on individual unit stats. So too is the ability to equip multiple weapons. Instead of Vulneraries, characters recover health with various types of foods. And if you were looking forward to marrying off your various party members, well, forget about it. The best you're going to get are the old support conversations that spring from having two characters fight next to one another, which admittedly isn't bad.

Structurally speaking, Shadows of Valentia bears almost no resemblance to other games in the series, which generally proceed map-by-map in a very straightforward fashion. The bulk of Shadows of Valentia takes place on an overhead map, with the goal of each chapter being to travel from one end to another. Enemy units dot the path along the way, with battles taking place on Fire Emblem's traditional tactical map.

As a concept, the world map is a great turn for the series. Its richly illustrated landmarks give it an almost Tolkien-esque feel, and it makes the branching paths feel organic and interesting. It also gives you a real sense of progression as you steadily march north, the areas you've cleared lying below.

Still more interesting is the way in which Fire Emblem Echoes is split between the two main characters, Alm and Celica, whose stories take place on either side of the map. Though they follow separate paths, it's possible to take control of one or the other at any time. This offers some measure of relief when faced with a particularly difficult map, as you can usually just jump over to the other character's army and fight a different battle instead.

In typical Fire Emblem fashion, Alm and Celica build an army by recruiting and promoting swordsmen, knights, and mages, whether by encountering them on the map or meeting certain conditions during a battle. Also in typical Fire Emblem fashion, a large portion of these characters are missable, which really hurts in light of how small your armies are this time around. With certain classes, particularly archers, being at a real premium in Shadows of Valentia, it pays to be extra thorough in scouring the map for characters.*

* Don't be like me and use every available character, though. Pick the strongest characters and give them every last drop of XP, or you will end up with a weak and watered down army. Sorry, Tobin.

Alm and Celica's individual stories are very much in the mold of other games in the series. Alm is a youth who takes control of a rebellion against an empire festering with demonic corruption, while Celica is on a somewhat more spiritual journey. The dialogue is typically broad and overwrought, and the villains make their intentions clear from the start. In other words, it's pretty much pure, uncut Fire Emblem, just the way people like it.

Save me From the Cantors

It's on the battlefield that Shadows of Valentia's differences are once again apparent. In particular, its maps are extremely simple, facilitating relatively quick encounters, at least at first. The freedom they offer is initially quite heady, as it makes it easy to rush down foes and defeat them. But as you become progressively more outnumbered, you will find that you're the one being rushed down and surrounded, forcing you to fight for your life amid wave after wave of enemies.

Your opponent's numerical advantage is exacerbated by Cantors--enemy units capable of summoning a half-dozen monsters at a time. Cantors appear in almost every map after a certain point, and they are the absolute worst, making every map a battle of attrition. Worse, they're usually perched somewhere just out of reach and surrounded by defenders, making it hard to just blitz them with a Pegasus Knight and take them out.

This is where I kind of part ways with Shadows of Valentia, a game I otherwise like very much. It bombards you with powerful enemies, tilting the odds to the point of being unfun. Even if you manage to hold your own, you will find your life slowly ticking away as you cast spells, stretching your healing resources to the limit as you struggle to hold your own. Even the Turnwheel, which lets you reset a limited number of mistakes, isn't that much of a help. Once poison swamps enter the equation, it starts to feel downright unfair.

I suspect this is a holdover from the original Famicom game, where developers compensated for a lack of memory with sheer difficulty. It strikes me that in replicating the original's simplistic maps and enemy spam, Intelligent Systems may have been a little too faithful to the original source material. It's here that Shadows of Valentia feels the most dated.

With that said, I do count myself as a fan of Shadows of Valentia's dungeons, which make for a nice break from the slog of battling from one encounter to the next. Upon entering a dungeon you take direct control of Alm or Celica, guiding them in a full 3D world as you plumb its depths. Dungeons house both valuable treasure and shrines that can be used to promote your characters, and they're good for XP too, as battles take the form of simple maps with a handful of enemies. I was expecting them to be a grind; but thankfully, they work very well.

As you can probably tell, I've swung pretty wildly in my opinion of Shadows of Valentia. I really love its fresh and inventive take on the Fire Emblem formula, particularly after gorging myself on Fire Emblem Fates, and the more conservative art is a nice break from the over-designed characters of the last two entries. Shadows of Valentia also has a lot of cool little touches, like its first-person point-and-click interface for navigating villages, which gives it a distinct roleplaying flavor. As graphical updates go, it's first-rate.

But it's unfortunately really tough to ignore the poorly-balanced difficulty inherent to its design. Even expert Fire Emblem players may find its later encounters to be too much of a slog. I know I did.

That makes it tough to recommend Shadows of Valentia as anything more than a curiosity--a nod to the hardcore faithful. Intelligent Systems has done a fine job of updating the look and feel of Shadows of Valentia, and it's always nice to see developers remembering their roots. But in this instance, they may have remembered them a little too well for their own good.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Interface: I love the point-and-click roleplaying interface in the villages. It's all part of Fire Emblem's customarily attractive and polished design.
  • Sound: Even among Fire Emblem games, Shadows of Valentia's soundtrack is a standout. The voice acting... less so.
  • Visuals: Shadows of Valentia is one of the better-looking games on the 3DS. The map in particular is a standout, making Shadows of Valentia's world feel like something out of the The Lord of the Rings. Intelligent Systems did a great job on this front.

I both love and hate this game. The bulk of the package is so good that it's tempting to forgive its unbalanced difficulty. But alas, the combat comprises the majority of the game, putting Shadows of Valentia's more obnoxious qualities front and center. It's worth checking out, but be ready to be immensely frustrated.

3.5 /5

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review: Faithful to a Fault Kat Bailey A refreshingly inventive take on Fire Emblem is partly undone by poorly-balanced difficulty. 2017-05-16T16:00:00-04:00 3.5 5

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Comments 35

  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #1 SIGGYZtar 2 months ago
    I guess Nintendo REALLY cheaped out on the voice acting, especially after the brouhaha last year, like a lot of companies.

    Anyway, it won't be a Fire Emblem unless you get beaten up by an Ogre of a difficulty, whether or not IS pads out the story. Happy resetting everyone.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #2 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @SIGGYZtar I've played a lot of Fire Emblem, but Shadows of Valentia is the only time I've actually wondered whether I had it in me to finish a level.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #3 cldmstrsn 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey Damn. That always scares me in games especially tactical games. Wiegraf anyone!? Or even Tactics Advance where you got a bad "law" from a judge. So frustrating!Edited May 2017 by cldmstrsn
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 2 months ago
    I dislike the "anti-difficulty" tone in this article. It's fine if you would personally prefer for the game to be easier, but I think it's wrong to punish the game for this. For some people, the fact that it's difficult is going to be a positive, and based on your description it doesn't sound like the game does anything particularly wrong. Furthermore, calling such difficulty "dated" sounds like you are denigrating anyone who might prefer harder strategy games. That's not cool.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #5 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @brionfoulke91 There's good difficulty and bad difficulty. I take issue with how much Shadows resorts to stacking the deck against the player with what I consider to be some pretty cheap tactics. It's not anti-difficulty to be frustrated with this sort of design.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #6 Kuni-Nino 2 months ago
    Personally, I've always found difficulty complaints to be far too subjective to be used as an objective measurement for quality. I think a lot of people feel the same so be prepared for some flack, Kat.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #7 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @Kuni-Nino Good design is not subjective. Difficulty by enemy spam is not good design.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #8 Kuni-Nino 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey I guess. I'm not going to battle people on what I think good game design is. Shit, I think Twilight Princess is masterful piece of game design and people make fun of me for that.

    I just think difficulty really is subjective, and the way it's described in your review, I wouldn't be surprised if comments pop up about the difficulty being overstated. It happens all the time with hard games. Some people are able to crack these games fairly quick and rub it in your face about how good they are. That's what happened with FF Tactics back in the day.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #9 Gamer-Law 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey - Et tu, Kat? :-) Having played Gaiden several years ago, I expected to read a lot about the game's difficulty in reviews...just maybe not from you. It would be fair to say that I am one of the series' "old-guard fans" and the enhanced difficulty is certainly something I enjoy, but I was still somewhat surprised by the put-upon tone of your review.

    Listening to last week's podcast I could tell you were bothered by the game's difficulty, but did not realize it lessened your experience to this extent.

    I take it from your review that you found the difficulty to be greater than say, Radiant Dawn (Wii)? That would be saying something as RD is generally regarded as one of the more difficult games in the series.

    Either way, I always appreciate your thoughts and will try to post some of my own here after picking up the game on Friday.Edited May 2017 by Gamer-Law
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #10 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @Kuni-Nino There are people who can beat Dark Souls with DK Bongo Drums. There's always someone who will crack a game to the point that it looks easy.

    But that's not my point. My point is that FE Echoes compensates for limited map design with cheap tactics like just out of reach casters that spawn enemies ad Infinitum. Some people might beat it easily, but you'll never convince me it's good design. It deserves to be called on it.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #11 brionfoulke91 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey Things like "enemy spam" and "out of range casters" aren't necessarily bad design, automatically. These are just another form of obstacles that you the player have to deal with. What could make them bad design is if they encourage the player to play in an unfun way in order to deal with them, but you haven't really sold me on that. Finding ways to deal with large amount of enemies and out of reach enemies is standard design for creating difficulty in strategy games. Based on your description, the game isn't doing anything particularly wrong to create difficulty.
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  • Avatar for camchow #12 camchow 2 months ago
    I can definitely understand being annoyed by enemies just spawning over and over again. I just played through FE Fates Conquest and there was that one stage later in the game where you are in Hoshido that just kept summoning in waves and waves and waves and just MORE waves of movement buffed flyers. Damn that stage was annoying. I was playing classic mode and ended up losing my healer and Arthur. I wasn't about to restart that level to deal with all that again.

    Still, I'm too much of a sucker for Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. Gotta support them in hopes of one day spurring some guts into Intelligent Systems to try another go at Advance Wars.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #13 Ralek 2 months ago
    "* Don't be like me and use every available character, though. Pick the strongest characters and give them every last drop of XP, or you will end up with a weak and watered down army. Sorry, Tobin."

    I assume that is meant to be sarcastic? :-)

    Because ... I mean, managing your XP has always been a core element of playing FE games. I know that since Awakening, thanks to DLC maps, folks haven gotten used to unlimited XP, thus more or less killing of this kind of strategic aspect of the series, but other than that, FE is imho supposed to be played as much as a tactics game as well as a strategy game.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #14 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @Ralek It's worth highlighting because it's theoretically possible to bring a full party to every map, which is not a great idea.

    That said, you can theoretically grind dungeons for as much XP as you need if you have the patience (I don't)
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  • Avatar for Taesoawful #15 Taesoawful 2 months ago
    The voice acting sucked? Wow, 8-4 is a terrible company after all.
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  • Avatar for StrwbrryJams #16 StrwbrryJams 2 months ago
    I wonder if there's also a certain amount that can be seen as wrong with this game coming following on the heels of Awakening and Fates. As easier games (at least, Birthright) I wonder if the difficulty will stand out further by contrast?

    Either way- solid review, Kat. Sounds like you back up your reasoning to me.
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  • Avatar for SkywardShadow #17 SkywardShadow 2 months ago
    I agree with the sentiment that there's good and bad ways of increasing difficulty. This really sounds like the latter. I'd still like to check it out sometime.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #18 cldmstrsn 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey considering the workload you are under I definitely get that. Sometimes you just dont have time to spend hours on one battle only to lose it for some crazy reason.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #19 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @StrwbrryJams For reference, I loved Conquest.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #20 NiceGuyNeon 2 months ago
    Fire Emblem (GBA) was already super hard towards the end. I feel like making it anymore difficult than that is overkill for a guy like me.
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #21 JamesSwiftDay 2 months ago
    I think the people attacking Kat for what she's saying about the difficulty should refrain from commenting until they've played the game and experienced this for themselves...
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  • Avatar for Thetick #22 Thetick 2 months ago
    So strategy has been replaced by cheap numbers game if I get the picture. Well, plenty of other games to play.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #23 Jonnyboy407 2 months ago
    @Kuni-Nino twilight princess is a masterpiece. Time will tell on that one.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #24 Mr.Spo 2 months ago
    For me, the positive changes (town elements, dungeons, map system) sound interesting enough that I'll try it despite the potentially cheap design. I'd agree with what Kat's said about cheap difficulty being frustrating, especially if it's there to compensate for simplistic level design. I found Conquest tough in places but the imaginative level design made up for that.

    It'll also be really interesting to see where Fire Emblem goes on Switch. For me, if you can somehow combine the marriage system, the modified weapons triangle from Fates, with more sophisticated versions of Echoes's dungeons, towns and overworld map, you'd have a mighty interesting game. Maybe we'll find something out at E3.
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #25 FalcoT 2 months ago
    Hi Kat, big fan but why did you say people who like difficult games are awful and deserve to be run over and left to die in a gutter? You didn't fully validate my view on how games should be played and now I'm mad : (Edited May 2017 by FalcoT
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  • Avatar for Arvis-Jaggamar #26 Arvis-Jaggamar 2 months ago
    Glad I canceled my pre-order. I'd like to have a go at this at some point, but I can definitely wait. I just gave Wild ARMs XF a try and that game was basically "Cheap Game Overs: The RPG", so it didn't last long in my rotation. Ain't nobody got time for that.
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  • Avatar for Lonecow #27 Lonecow 2 months ago
    @Kat.Bailey Just wait until they remake Genealogy of the Holy War. One map can last hours. It's soul crushing.

    But the story is on par with Game of Thrones. No kidding, they hit a lot of the same story beats and they came out the same year.
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  • Avatar for burappi #28 burappi 2 months ago
    I played through the game in Japanese and this is actually my favorite Fire Emblem on the 3DS. Don't let the late game difficulty put you off. It's a really good game.
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  • Avatar for IPA #29 IPA 2 months ago
    Is it possible to grind to alleviate some of this difficulty? I'm on the fence.
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  • Avatar for GFoppy #30 GFoppy 2 months ago
    Is there a difficulty toggle for FE Echoes like in Fates? Normally if I get seriously stuck, I don't mind lowering the difficulty. But your review sounds like there's no difficulty selection?
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #31 brionfoulke91 2 months ago
    @GFoppy Yeah, there are two difficulty modes, normal and hard. There is also a separate one for casual vs classic, so it's just like other recent Fire Emblems in that regard.

    @IPA It is definitely possible to grind. According to what I've read, some people are saying it's necessary to grind to handle the later battles on hard mode, and others are saying it's not.Edited May 2017 by brionfoulke91
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  • Avatar for sarahdrechsel32 #32 sarahdrechsel32 2 months ago
    I'm not sure you played the same game that I am playing. This game's combat is totally easy. I mean, you have casual mode, you can even turn back time when you notice one of your moves doesn't play out quite as you anticipated.

    Mind you, I'm still far from through the game. But talking about the combat and calling it hard just because there's an abundance of foes? These foes deal around 1-6 damage to my units, and I certainly wasn't grinding in the dungeons.
    The one Thing that's annoying is the map design and that you very seldom have actual chokepoints you can work with. But even then you just throw in some Paladin's and a Knight, Faye nearly always hits with her Nosferatu and so she's good to go and knd of a "healer tank"...

    I really don't know what you (or others) did, but this game is hardly... hard? In fact, I was surprised how easy the maps are, especially compared to FE Fates: Conquest they lack interesting and diverse goals.
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  • Avatar for sarahdrechsel32 #33 sarahdrechsel32 2 months ago
    @GFoppy I think you mean like changing the difficulty within the game, right? That's not possible. Do yourself a favor and play on casual. Trust me, if you're struggling with difficulty in FE, you will need the casual mode right from the start.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #34 Mr.Spo A month ago
    I'm halfway through Act 4 and have found Echoes far easier than Conquest so far. I've paused to do a little grinding now - though that's because I want my units in advanced classes before I finish the game - and haven't bothered with any DLC (or amiibo DLC) to help grind. Generally I find it's different to Awakening/Fates because there's more actual strategy; you have to think more carefully about how to split your army up, about how to outmaneuver the enemy, and about how to use the terrain. Those issues often felt secondary to the weapons triangle in Fates/Awakening, and I'm finding the more pared back mechanics excellent. With thought and patience, Echoes can be tough but for me at least, easier than Conquest. If anything, I think Fates overcomplicated the mechanics with the revised weapons triangle.

    I'm just passed the point where swamps have entered the game, and with those maps I got through on my first attempt (before grinding to get to advanced classes). To each their own, but so far I think Shadows of Valentia is fantastic. I really love the art style too: I'd much prefer they keep the aesthetics of Valentia for the Switch entry in the series, rather than returning to the OTT Fates style.Edited last month by Mr.Spo
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #35 JamesSwiftDay 24 days ago
    I know this is super late to the party, but I've only really found the final battle and the post-game labyrinth to be what I'd say is too difficult. I think the difficultly curve was okay besides this, and even this could be gotten around with some grinding in revisiting previous map locations.
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