The Japanese-only game from the early ’90s has been remade for western audiences as a new route into the Fire Emblem series for the Nintendo 3DS. Yet as challenging as Fire Emblem Echoes may be, it’s still plagued with flawed map designs, a predictable storyline and unconnected elements of gameplay.
Released for the Famicom in 1992, Fire Emblem Gaiden has been widely considered the black sheep of the series since its Japanese-only release. Unlike the Fire Emblem RPG tactical-grid series which we’re accustomed to, Gaiden didn’t use the weapon triangle or make use of support conversations between characters, instead it added navigable towns, ports and cities and locked skill sets and the use of arts on the battlefield into the user’s only item slot. As a complete remake of Gaiden and developed by Intelligent Systems, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia follows that same path but makes interesting improvements – including the arrival of Casual mode – along the way.
Players will take control of either Alm or Celica in Echoes and will travel across a linear overworld map, visiting towns, dungeons, shrines and defensive holds in order to restore order and bring peace to Valentia. It seems the Gods of Valentia, Duma and Mila, have been driven into madness as the lands of Zofia and Rigel are left to rot, with the people left to starve. Life for the Zofians and Rigelians looks tough. While Alm, newly turned leader of the Deliverance, marches on the Rigelian Empire, Celica turns her attention to the root of the problem and sets off in search of Mila, one of the Valentian Gods. Each character will take players to different locations on the map, meaning you’ll have to build two separate armies to cope with the Rigelian Empire and dark beings known as the Duma Faithful.
Visually, Echoes is a treat to play in stereoscopic 3D. From the expertly crafted cutscenes to the point-and-click details seen in towns, there’s some neat mechanics on show here. Dungeon exploration often hides secret passageways to greater treasures or sacred water and you’ll be able to strike enemies from behind in order to get the advantage in battle. In fact, dungeon exploration is a fantastic pace changer for the tedious grind of battles that Echoes so duly relies upon, that it gives the game much more meat on its bones. Enemies known as the Duma Faithful are wonderfully designed, each with their own intricacies and debuffs, such as poison, paralysis or spellbound. While you’ll fight most of the Duma Faithful in Celica’s story, Alm will also get his fair share of them in the later stages of the game.
Fire Emblem Echoes takes approximately 45 hours to complete the game’s main storyline. And if you’re a fan of challenging combat, Echoes will keep you entertained for hours. Unfortunately, the 3DS game isn’t without its faults. Between overly large, wasteful maps to the abysmally unfair locations of enemy cantors and witches that can summon enemies that either fly or teleport, making progress painfully slow, particularly if you’re playing in Classic mode and can’t afford to make a wrong move. It’s the unpredictable nature of battles that throws strategy through the window to face-plant the floor. And when main boss battles take anywhere between one and two hours to complete, since there’s no variation in Rout the Enemy objectives, a new level of frustration digs in.
Perhaps the biggest saviour of all, then, is Mila’s Turnwheel. As a new addition to the 3DS remake, Mila’s Turnwheel grants players the ability to rewind time, ergo they can turn back to a point in the battle which was more fortuitous or safe. And since no two days are the same in life, Mila’s Turnwheel will also bring a different outcome than the one before. So even if you move your characters to the exact same places as before, they may not get targeted by the same CPUs or they may not even hit you at all. To increase the amount of times you can turn back time, you’ll have to pick up cogs, many of which are scattered across the point-and-click areas of Valentia. Though its use relies on luck rather than skill, Mila’s Turnwheel adds so much more depth to the base game that I’d personally love to see it return in future titles.
Given it’s been 25 years since the release of Gaiden, Echoes now presents full voice acting from beginning to end, even for some CPUs in the various towns players will visit. The script, which can feel quite forced upon a occasion, is brought to life by the voices of those in the PAL edition. Of particular merit is newcomer Berkut, nephew to Emperor Rudolf and a leader of the Rigelian Army, whose voice becomes more hilariously irate after each time you defeat him. Berkut, along with Alm, Celica, Mae, Leon and Fernand are characters with great emotion, fully fleshed out ideas and big hearts. Others, such as the introduction of Alm’s childhood friend Faye, are merely there to fill space. And while the plotline has some incredibly dramatic moments, it suffers from a predictable arc which dilutes the Fire Emblem experience entirely. It’s a real shame given the exceedingly good quality plotlines of recent 3DS series titles such as Awakening and Fates. In this case, it isn’t the oldest stories that make the best ones.
As we detailed in our preview, there are many differences in Echoes that you wouldn’t usually expect in a Fire Emblem game. Archers can now strike from longer distances, which can be both a blessing and a boon in some cases, while both healers and mages must steal from their own HP in order to cast spells. Characters, however, will only have access to one item slot which grants them a series of useful combat arts if they hold the item for long enough. With such a unique strategy in Echoes, players will have to think outside the tactical grid and use arts, magic and brute force to their advantage when invading enemy holds. Luckily, the game makes good use of skippable cutscenes, a good options menu for customisation and the fast forward battle button – all of which are a blessing in Echoes. Yet the fatigue system, where characters will get tired after consecutive battles, is a menial waste on resources and, in retrospect, doesn’t alter much with the reduction in stats.
Of course, no new 3DS game wouldn’t be complete without amiibo interaction. Echoes lets players use all previous Fire Emblem amiibo as an extra summon or unit on the battlefield, though at the cost of either Alm or Celica’s health points. A useful mechanic in tricky situations. Using the Alm or Celica amiibo though will allow players to traverse an exclusive dungeon for extra level grinding and treasures; an overall neat bonus.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia has vastly improved on its original, with new elements such as Mila’s Turnwheel and the addition of voice acting. Yet at its core, there’s still something missing. Echoes lacks the playful wit and the soft underlying subtleties of a grand epic that comes with following just one main character. Split in two, you have two perspectives but neither one feels fully satisfying, like a microwavable meal instead of a home cooked dish. Combine these with elements of play that just don’t seem to connect, Echoes feels oddly torn. It has the foundations to be a truly remarkable game, breaking away from the traditional format, but its identity just gets a little lost. Like an echo, parted.