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.

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.

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 <em>The Lord of the Rings</em>. 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

Tagged with 3DS Handhelds, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, Intelligent Systems, Nintendo, Reviews, Strategy.

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