I was so sure I was screwed the first time I ran into an enemy I simply could not kill.
It was a mercenary carrying a Leather Shield, one of a handful of enemies in the world map's third mob. "No problem," I thought. Up until that point, I had been mostly rolling through the various bandits and mercenaries standing in my way, so I thought it would be a cinch.
But no, my paltry four-character party was no match that mercenary and his Leather Shield. My attacks pinged harmlessly off his armor while he relentlessly wore down and killed my group one by one. It was only by virtue of a couple lucky criticals that I was able to take him down.
It was only later that I discovered my mistake: I had forgotten to recruit the magic user from the main village. I had missed her because I had forgotten to talk to everybody before leaving.
I understand that this is RPG 101 and all, but it's not something I'm used to dealing with in Fire Emblem, which is generally very linear and straightforward. Occasionally you'll miss a recruitable character during a battle; but for the most part, Fire Emblem puts everything right in front of you. I'm simply not used to walking into a battle with only half a party in a Fire Emblem game.
But that speaks to how different Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is from the rest of the series: the structure, the mechanics, even the navigation. I missed out on the initial batch of characters in part because I wasn't used to Shadows of Valentia's first-person point-and-click interface, which is straight out of an old-fashioned adventure game.
This makes sense for Shadows of Valentia because it basically is an old-fashioned adventure games. It's a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, a sequel/spinoff for the Famicom that was never released in America. It's best-known for dramatically altering the Fire Emblem formula by introducing a world map, changing the way promotions work, and even allowing you to move freely through towns and dungeons.
To be honest, these changes have taken some getting used to, as I noted above. Its differences were apparent from the moment I stepped out of my village for the first time and saw the world map, which was presented as a gauntlet of enemies, each one a discrete battle on its own. Whereas the maps in Fire Emblem Fates have intricate layouts, most of Shadows of Valentia's battles take place on a basic plain with a few terrain features. It's not until the end of Act 1, a battle around a castle, that it begins to feel a bit more familiar.
This battle-by-battle progression makes Shadows of Valentia feel choppier than other Fire Emblem games, where each chapter is a self-contained map that can take up to an hour to complete. The very basic layouts of these encounters feel akin to the maps in Fire Emblem Heroes, making them feel short and grindy. I've missed the Weapons Triangle, an innovation from later in the series, and it lacks the flavor of more recent entries. It's... different.
But as I've delved deeper, my original irritation has started to fade. It's even started to feel novel. I've been enjoying the story, which switches between the perspectives of two characters-Alm and Celica-while hitting on the usual themes of knights, nobility, and rebellion. I've been enjoying the instant gratification of the progression, which has seen my characters rapidly grow and get promoted to new classes. And I've even enjoyed the old-school point-and-click interface now that I've gotten the hang of it. I rather like collecting weapons by way of plucking spears from suits of armor and grabbing swords leaning against the wall.
What's surprised me the most, though, is Shadows of Valentia's dungeons. When I first saw them at Nintendo's event last month, I thought to myself, "Oh, this isn't going to be much fun." I hated the idea of every random encounter being an actual map battle.
But in the early going at least, the dungeons haven't been too bad. They remind me a fair bit of Persona's dungeons, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. Wandering enemies will try to ambush you from the shadows; and if they succeed, a handful of enemy units will be added to the opposing army when the battle shifts to the tactical map. Usually, though, you can sneak behind them and get in a first strike, which does a bit of damage to start while keeping the enemy count low.
It's similar to Persona's dungeons in another way as well. If you fight too many battles, your characters will start to get tired and you'll have to feed them food to get them going again. This hasn't been an issue thus far, but I suspect that will change the further I get into the story.
One last detail, but one that I like: When you enter a dungeon, you see a line of descriptive text about the dank air and lingering dread, giving it the air of a D&D campaign. It goes a surprisingly long way toward establishing the atmosphere.
At the end of each dungeon waits a goddess statue where you can cure fatigue (yes, please) and promote your characters, which is where things get really interesting. Class changes have long been a major part of Fire Emblem's progression, and Shadows of Valentia is no different. But it's even more noticeable this time around.
Your initial handful of characters start out as Villagers and Soldiers-weak classes that stand little chance against later enemies. You will want to promote them immediately into something more useful, and again once they've reached a high enough level. The rapid speed at which characters level up, as well as the fact that promotion doesn't require a special item, increases the overall party churn and keeps things interesting in the early going.
By the end of Act I you should have a handful of reasonably strong promoted characters. I made one of them a mercenary and gave him a Lightning Sword, and he's been carving up foes at a rapid clip ever since. I also have a pair of mages-one of Shadows of Valentia's most overpowered classes-though no archers. Ranged units in general are very strong in Shadows of Valentia, not the least because there's no weapon or spell degradation, making it easy to spam attacks and heals without much worry.
With my upgraded party in tow, I was able to power through the rest of Act I without much trouble, albeit with a bit of chagrin over all the trouble I had against one shield-wielding mercenary. Like I said, it's RPG 101: Always talk to everyone.
So is it Good?
I was initially a little bit worried about this Fire Emblem, which after all is regarded as something of a "black sheep" owing to how different it is from the rest of the series, but I'm finding myself falling for it as I move through Act II.
To be sure, I'm reserving judgment on a few elements. The dungeons, for example, could easily end up overstaying their welcome. I'm also given to understand that Shadows of Valentia eventually gets quite hard.
More importantly, I'm not sure how well it's going to be received by the broader population. Shadows of Valentia's understated art style recalls '90s PC dungeon crawlers more than your average anime, and its support mechanics are a simple matter of having two characters stand next to each other long enough to have a conversation. No cheesecake in this one from what I can see. Moreover, its maps are extremely simple, at least right now.
What's drawn me in so far is the rapid churn offered by the promotions; the more interactive point-and-click mechanic, and the simple novelty of playing a Fire Emblem with a vastly different structure than before. If all of that holds up, and the maps improve, then Shadows of Valentia, descendant of a lightly-regarded Famicom spinoff, could end up being far better than I ever expected.