Widely considered the black sheep of the series, Fire Emblem Gaiden was released back in 1992 on the Famicom, bringing divisive new elements to the series. As a Japan-only release, Gaiden – translated in the western tongue as “side story” – became a rare find for the franchise fan and devised its own following over the years. It was a chance for series’ developer Intelligent Systems to veer off course and introduce untraditional elements of play, with the inclusion of dungeon crawling and the idea that mages dealing in magic would steal from their own health points to attack.
As a direct remake of the Japanese classic, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia keeps the divisive elements of the turn-based strategy game and reinvents a few new ones. For modern series players, it’s a step backwards in time. Gone are the love affairs and the marriages, the pairing of units and the gain in stat boosts and in its place are relationships that can be built on the battle field with the standard A to C ranking. Yet from what I’ve played so far, up to the end of chapter two, there’s little use for them at all. Support relationships feel somewhat hollow, leading to a false and baseless friendship. The wit and humour just isn’t there. In retrospect, perhaps it’s a feature that wasn’t needed for the remake of Gaiden at all.
For fans looking for a direct remake to Gaiden, Echoes follows the same storyline and sees childhood friends Alm and Celica waging a war against the Rigelian armed forces to recover Zofia from their grasp. Mila’s power – the legendary goddess – appears to be weakening and it’s up to the two heroes to discover exactly what the cause could be. Taking place on the continent of Valentia, the game has loose ties to Awakening and promises to expand on the lore between the two realms in later chapters. Echoes even adds a new prologue which creates a deeper connection between Alm and Celica from the get-go, something that is certainly needed to advance the emotional depth between the protagonists in the earlier hours of gameplay.
In keeping with the Fire Emblem series trajectory, Echoes presents full voice acting between characters, a first for the franchise. Scenes between characters can be enjoyed at your own pace or automatically advanced with the toggle feature, should you want to enjoy a brew and avoid pressing buttons for long scripted performances. From the ten hours I’ve played so far, all main characters have their own unique voices and characteristics, with only CPU voices recycled. It’s a neat addition and one that the series certainly benefits from.
Unlike the previous 3DS games, Echoes requires players to move the lead character on the main overworld map just like a moveable piece on a board game. In the opening chapters, there’s not much of a choice to deviate from the main path, but that’s not to say there isn’t in the game’s later chapters. Each time you move, players will have to engage with an enemy army and defeat all of them or just the boss to secure victory. As such, it can certainly can feel a little static in the opening hours. The maps, however, are much larger and contain forests for shelter, graves for a defensive stronghold, or supply spots for additional healing each turn. There’s also very little variation in terrain, compared to Fates or Awakening, which dilutes the tactical turn-based experience.
Among the differences, Echoes switches strategy for the Archer, giving arrows a wider arc on the battle field, as well as letting them attack at close range within one space of another character. It’s certainly a tactic to bear in mind when taking down flying units, but it does little to change the core gameplay given the lack of a weapon triangle. There’s also the interesting addition of Mila’s Turnwheel, a device which lets you turn back time to reverse the effects of a foolish mistake, such as killing off a character in Classic mode. While Casual mode players will find little use for it, Mila’s Turnwheel will be a true blessing for gameplay in Classic.
Even the weapon itemisation and their usage are different in Echoes, whereby they can be picked up by exploring dungeons, villages, taverns, or through battles. Just like in Gaiden, characters will be able to carry a weapon based on their class, though they won’t need to level up their skill to use stronger weapons. Instead, weapons can be assigned to characters and, should they use them for long enough in battle, they will unlock certain skills to be used as “Arts”. These function as special moves and can be used to your advantage in battle. In general though, characters will unlock skill sets specific to their class while they level up, whether that’s the Thunder tome for a mage or an Invoke spell for a cleric, there’s plenty of skills on offer.
On the other hand, exploring dungeons is a handy pace changer. You’ll take control of Alm or Celica and explore the dungeon in a third-person perspective while encountering enemies in the standard dungeon-crawler format. There’s an opportunity to grind experience in these catacombs as well, with undead creatures called Terrors respawning after a certain amount of time, particularly in the area’s nooks and crannies. And while your characters’ health regenerates after each battle, fatigue will soon set in. If a character gets burdened with fatigue, they will automatically suffer from reduced stats, harming their performance. Players will be able to visit Mila’s statues – one of which can be found in each dungeon – to revitalise their units. Otherwise, they’ll have to feed their army with food items picked up from previous exploration.
For the most part, Echoes bring some intriguing new elements to the forefront. There is sense of a lost identity here though; it doesn’t truly feel like a Fire Emblem game just yet. But maybe that will change. Perhaps it needs more time to shine.