I was expecting a few things of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, which comes out May 19 on 3DS, but I'm not sure I was expecting this: It might actually be easier than Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates.
Fire Emblem, of course, has been trending in this direction for a bit. The accepted wisdom is that it didn't really take off until the more forgiving Casual Mode appeared, making the trademark permadeath optional. But then again, Shadows of Valentia is a retro remake, which brings with it certain expectations.
Shadows of Valentia, as you may recall, is based on Fire Emblem Gaiden, an NES game that some liken to Zelda II. In the wake of the original game, Fire Emblem Gaiden dramatically changed up the formula, introducing a world map, explorable dungeons, and unbreakable weapons. Like so many NES games of that period, it was a weird one-off experiment, though some of its innovations did end up sticking in the long run.
Shadows of Valentia is a largely faithful update of Gaiden, retaining the attractive 3D engine of the past two games, but dispensing with familiar mechanics like the Weapons Triangle. Some have likened it to the GBA games in the way that it brings back the old Support system, where relationships are built by putting two characters in close proximity to one another and eventually having them talk. That feeling is heightened by the updated art, which has more of a watercolor look to it than the bog standard anime style of the past two games.
Nevertheless, it figures to be easier than any of the GBA games. Aside from the aforementioned Casual Mode, Shadows of Valentia has a couple key features that figure to smooth the way for less hardcore fans of the series:
- Mila's Turnwheel: Shadows of Valentia introduces a rewind function, allowing you to go as far back as the beginning of the stage if you want (it's not advisable). More likely, you will want to use it to go back a couple moves to avoid having your healer step into the path of an oncoming Pegasus. With the Turnwheel, rewind functions are now somewhat in fashion: There was a similar mechanic in Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and The Disney Afternoon Collection has one as well.
To be clear, Shadows of Valentia is more judicious than either of those games with its Turnwheel. The item has a very limited number of charges, so you can't exactly spam it. Mostly, it's there if you're deep into a level and you accidentally screw up and let a character die (a common occurence in Fire Emblem). In that, I think it's actually a rather smart addition that will help cut down some of the frustration of losing a character later. But all that said, it's another step down the path to making Fire Emblem as accessible as possible.
- Grinding is back in a big way: One of the main critiques of Fire Emblem Awakening (and Birthright) was that it introduced a way to grind experience, in turn breaking the carefully calibrated balance of the map design. Intelligent Systems threw hardcore fans a bone by removing it from Conquest—arguably the superior of the two initial Fates games (I haven't played Revelation)—but it's back in a big way in Shadows of Valentia thanks to the dungeons, which mostly seem to exist for the purpose of grinding levels.
Dungeons serve a variety of purposes: they contain shrines where you can change character classes; they are a useful source of items, and they have lots of enemies to fight. Shadows of Valentia's dungeons feature full 3D movement, making them somewhat reminiscent of the levels in Persona, down to the fact that you can surprise an onscreen enemy with a first strike. Once in battle, Shadows of Valentia shifts to the more traditional overhead view, where you battle as usual.
What makes dungeons significant is that you can enter them anytime, making them useful spots for leveling up your characters. With that, you should have no trouble getting your best units up to a level where you can take on any challenge without much trouble. And if your squishy healer accidentally dies, you can always use Mila's Turnwheel.
- You can revive dead characters: If worse comes to worst and you actually lose a character, Shadows of Valentia offers one more option: You can actually bring them back to life at a revival well. It's unclear how many of these revival wells are actually in the game, but the bottomline is that permadeath is no longer quite so permanent, even in Classic Mode [Update: As some readers have pointed out, Fire Emblem Fates also has the endgame Bifrost Staff, which will also revive fallen characters].
Still, "easier" doesn't necessarily mean "worse." Revival wells might take the edge off the permadeath; but in return, they offer some interesting choices, such as whether to temporarily sacrifice a powerful character in the name of finishing a map in a timely fashion. Mila's Turnwheel helps make up for dumb mistakes, but its limited charges keeps it from making maps trivial. Actually, I'm less concerned about the new mechanics than the map design, which seems pretty simple at this point; a function, perhaps, of the simpler "kill everything on the map" design of the original game. I really hope that there are some nice, intricate, Conquest-style levels down the line.
However it turns out, Shadows of Valentia is certainly fresh and different, which ought to keep the series from becoming stale amid the sudden rush of Fire Emblem games. But if you're hoping that Shadows of Valentia being an old-school remake will mean an old-school challenge, you might want to reset your expectations.