Nintendo returns to the franchise’s past, and produces the best Fire Emblem game on the 3DS in the process.
Five years ago, Fire Emblem was on the verge of being retired, with the franchise consistently having failed to attract new fans over the years, while also bleeding older ones. The series was no longer profitable, and Nintendo decided it was best for the series to end, with the planned Nintendo 3DS game, Fire Emblem Awakening, being a final outing for the franchise before it rode off into the sunset forever. Of course, then Fire Emblem Awakening came out, won the hearts of just about everybody, went on to sell millions of copies, and Nintendo was jolted awake into realizing the commercial potential of the series. Today, with an ambitious multipart Fire Emblem game for the Nintendo 3DS having released since, a very profitable mobile game, a Switch installment in the works, and a Fire Emblem/Dynasty Warriors mashup on the way, the franchise is a core Nintendo property, something that the company uses to induce players to buy its hardware.
And yet, in all the new Fire Emblem fare that we are getting, it is Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a brand new release in the franchise for the Nintendo 3DS, that probably is the kind of evolution of the franchise that fans were hoping for after 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening. I say ‘new’ and ‘evolution’ here, of course, but the interesting thing is that Shadows of Valentia isn’t strictly speaking new- it’s a full reimagining of Fire Emblem Gaiden, an infamous entry in the franchise released on the NES that was such a huge departure from the franchise’s core gameplay that it is often considered to be the worst game in the series by long time fans.
However, by updating this older game and applying a lot of polish to its some admittedly ahead of their time ideas, Nintendo has created the freshest, most unique playing Fire Emblem game we have had in a very long time, and it has made Echoes a must play for everyone who found their hearts won by Awakening.
"There is a rich, melancholic texture to this story – the beginning of the game very strongly hints that their love story is doomed – and the mythology and polity of the kingdoms and warring factions seems to suggest that this is a world in decay, falling to ruin and crumbling apart."
Fire Emblem Echoes follows the story of Alm and Celica, two childhood friends, each of whom bear a similar mark on their hand, who were separated after a childhood tragedy. The entire game is framed following these two main characters and the massive armies they command, as they fight their way across a dying land in search of a reunion. There is a rich, melancholic texture to this story – the beginning of the game very strongly hints that their love story is doomed – and the mythology and polity of the kingdoms and warring factions seems to suggest that this is a world in decay, falling to ruin and crumbling apart. There are multiple dramatic twists and turns, and those, coupled with the excellent writing, and the incredible characterization, keep you invested in the story, and the game’s nearly 30 hour plus play time.
The story is entirely unlike the well written but unremarkable Fire Emblem Awakening, and the trite and tiresome Fire Emblem Fates– the writing here is sharp, and the story is so well framed, with a premise so arresting, that you are invested in the game right away. But equally arresting is the gameplay, which seems to be like a take on Fire Emblem done by another developer, eager to leave their mark on the franchise by doing something different, but not messing with the core essentials so much. As a result, what we have here is the most different playing Fire Emblem game, but one that is still noticeably very much one recognizably from the franchise.
The most dramatic change you will notice from the other 3DS installments is the lack of the Pair Up mechanic- there are no more support conversations, no more marriages, and no more children. In a lot of ways, this is specifically the result of the game’s focus on Alm and Celica- other characters are strongly written and memorable, but the story is Alm and Celica’s, and theirs alone. This is not an ensemble game.
"Fire Emblem Echoes integrates and leverages these additions and changes so well, that it will almost feel like a downgrade if the next entry in the series doesn’t retain them."
But that apart, we also no longer have weapon durability (a change from Fire Emblem Fates), no weapon triangle (meaning swords, spears, and lances now fight on even footing), there is overworld movement and dungeon exploration, characters can now only hold one item of any type total at a time (meaning some hard choices need to be made about whether you want your character to be holding something that grants them buffs, or healing consumables, or something else entirely), your combat abilities are tied to the weapons you hold, reclassing is almost essential, you stop by towns to gather intel and complete side quests, characters on the field get fatigued, losing effectiveness in combat unless you feed them food, there are terrain effects for you to keep track of, and for mages, spells are learned by leveling up, and now use HP to cast. You even get an item that lets you turn back time for a few turns in every battle, so that if you made a mistake somewhere, you aren’t forced to either lose a lot of characters or restart a battle- you can try to contain the damage by undoing the mistake.
These are all major, dramatic changes – explorable towns and dungeons alone would be a banner feature for a new flagship entry at other times – but put together, they make for a vastly different, more strategic Fire Emblem game than any we have had in a very long time. It’s also a very hard game, all too happy to punish you if you are sloppy- though mercifully, the ‘Casual’ mode, which disables Permadeath, is still available here as an option if you would rather play without the stress of losing your beloved characters forever.
The most amazing thing is that these differences are all executed really well- they aren’t just there for the sake of it. Fire Emblem Echoes integrates and leverages these additions and changes so well, that it will almost feel like a downgrade if the next entry in the series doesn’t retain them. We are left with one of the most challenging, tactically demanding Fire Emblem game this side of Awakening (and really, in a very long time) as a result.
It’s hard not to recommend Fire Emblem Echoes to everyone. Even people who didn’t care for last year’s Fates will find something to love here, thanks to its dramatic changes to the formula, and its tight, exemplary writing. It’s 2017, and the 3DS is in its sunset years- but Fire Emblem Echoes stands as one of the best additions to its library yet, and one of the best games in a year that has so far been full of fantastic games.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.
So many changes to the core formula, and each of them is implemented and executed wonderfully well, leading to this feeling like the freshest, most progressive game in the franchise yet; melancholic, richly textured story that is written extremely well; compelling, arresting gameplay; great characterization
Extremely overpriced DLC; some changes may deter new age Fire Emblem fans
It's 2017, and the 3DS is in its sunset years- but Fire Emblem Echoes stands as one of the best additions to its library yet, and one of the best games in a year that has so far been full of fantastic games.