I’m going to preface this piece by stating that I am a Fire Emblem newbie. I bought a New 3DS XL for Fire Emblem Fates Birthright and Fire Emblem Awakening because of the buzz the series started to amass. Hell, I even bought the Fates 3DS because I wanted the system to match with the games. So, those two games are the only background I have going into Shadows of Valentia.

Now that that’s out of the way, I recently finished the main campaign which comprises of five acts, each divided into a various number of skirmishes depending on where you are in the plot, and I can easily say this was my second favorite Fire Emblem that I’ve played. My heart still belongs to Awakening, maybe because it was my first Fire Emblem and Birthright remains uncompleted after two aborted starts because I couldn’t get past the wafer thin narrative (I’ve heard the plot is mostly wrapped in Conquest, but I’m not ready to make that commitment yet), but all in all, Echoes delivered a straight-forward paint-by-numbers narrative that got gussied up by immaculate voice acting and a conscientious soundtrack that knows when to emphasize key moments and when to fall to the background for gameplay purposes. Regardless, after sixty plus hours, I felt satisfied when I saw the credits roll and read the character bios stating what became of these characters I grew attached to after the main villain was felled.

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Hopefully you picked up on that completion time though. Most outlets have stated that the completion time for Echoes falls somewhere between thirty and thirty-five hours. A quick glance on How Long to Beat seems to back up these claims, stating the following completion times as shown below.

And while these times are compiled across a relatively small sample size, it still doesn’t explain why it took me sixty hours to complete the main campaign, or almost double the time quoted for the “Main Story”, and well over the quoted time for a “Completionist” run. Well, I’m glad you asked. If you notice in the blurb above, the synopsis states that skirmishes in Echoes are “brutal tactical battles”, and that’s not hyperbole.

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The difficulty in this game spikes almost absurdly once you enter the fourth act (possibly the third if you were just mainlining the main story). There’s a number that shows your party’s strength compared to the units blocking your path called “Rating”.

Usually this number will be roughly around the rating for the enemy units in act three and somewhat in act four. But once you get to act five, these numbers are going to skew in favor of the enemy units, so much so that your only recourse will be to grind for experience to even the playing field. And depending on how much you’re willing to grind, Echoes eventually becomes a “beatable” game simply because of the old school aspect of grinding to overpower the enemy. And herein lies the rub.

Echoes allows you to grind for experience, but as your characters level up, the experience points awarded decline, making grinding a time intensive affair. That is, unless you’re willing to either 1) wait until you get to act five where a special enemy called the Entombed shows up to award higher than average experience points or 2) break out your credit card and purchase the DLC map that focuses solely on grinding for experience.

I chose the latter. I did this somewhere around act three, approximately halfway through the main campaign, solely because I got tired of seeing my party getting one-shotted by the enemy units because they had poor defense and resistance stats. This was about twenty hours into my playthrough when I decided to look at the DLC content. Then, after grinding for experience in the DLC maps, I came back to the main game and eventually managed to get past the first bottleneck in the game in regards to my party’s stats.

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Repeat this for the remaining two acts, wherein I would play the main campaign until I came across a unit whose rating was superior to my party’s and then dive into a DLC map to grind for experience. And while I don’t have concrete numbers, given that I’d usually grind for experience while listening to podcasts, I’d estimate that I spent anywhere between fifteen to twenty hours leveling up my party.

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So when I wrapped up the fifth act, I looked at my party and couldn’t help but notice that the majority of my party had been “overclassed” upon entering the final dungeon. Long story short, this is another DLC option available for purchase that allows characters to level past the main game’s level cap. And I’ll admit, I purchased this DLC pack because, as stated earlier, I’m a Fire Emblem noob who enjoys the games more for the narrative and less for the difficulty spikes. I’m sure you could get through the last battle with level-capped characters, but I will say, even with overclass characters, that final battle was somewhat tricky simply because of the layout of the map coupled with the enemies placed on the map. If you don’t plan out each attack meticulously, you can easily become overrun by enemy units without ever getting into attack range of the final boss.

Luckily, Echoes comes with a handy rewind feature that allows you to replay certain moves as long as you have enough “currency” to do so, but even so, that last map is a slog, to say the least. However, upon completing the game and seeing the credits roll, I felt a sense of relief in that I could finally remove the cartridge from the 3DS and move on to something else. But then the game prompts you to save, and I’m thinking, “Well, this is odd. I didn’t know Fire Emblem had a new game plus option.”

So I saved. And curiosity getting the better of me, I loaded the save to see that the title screen had changed to reflect that the game had been “completed”. I selected the “Continue” option to behold a post-game act. And that’s when I had a brief moment of uncertainty. I mean, the game literally rolled “The End” a few minutes prior. But was it truly “The End” given that there’s a definite continuation to the plot?

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I did a quick internet search to discover that this post-game content’s difficulty is even more brutal than the main campaign. I’m uncertain just how difficult this act is compared to the first five acts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the enemy units’ ratings were substantially higher than my final party’s rating at the time of the game’s ending. Regardless, I’m curious as to just how many outlets actually completed this post-game act given that until I arrived at this point in the game, it was a complete surprise. Maybe there was an outlet that mentioned post-game content, but I can say with certainty that it wasn’t one of the main outlets I turn to when reviewing whether a game is worth a purchase or not.

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But I digress. The crux of this piece is Fire Emblem Echoes and the best way to enjoy this game. If you’re a hardcore strategy fan, I’m certain that Echoes will scratch that itch for you. However, if you’re more like me, wherein Awakening was your first foray into the Fire Emblem universe, Echoes will be a bitter pill to swallow. The narrative and characters are fine, great even. But the difficulty is going to ramp up to the point that Echoes will become a veritable time-sink. But, if you’re willing to invest the time and possibly lean on some of the DLC available for this title, you’ll find a great Fire Emblem title.

Which brings me back to the original reason for my writing this piece. If you look at the release date for the DLC available for Echoes, you’ll see that the first pack was released the same day that Echoes was released for the mass public. This pack was sufficient for grinding for experience for your fledgling party. The advanced DLC pack was released a week later for parties that needed more experience had you spent the previous week leveling up your characters through the first DLC pack. And that release structure can’t help but make one wonder: Did Nintendo re-release Shadows of Valentia simply because they knew the structure of the game was conducive to DLC content for newer Fire Emblem fans? That’s a question that I can’t answer with any certainty, but I can state the following: if it wasn’t for the availability of these DLC packs, I probably would have abandoned Echoes around act three.

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And therein lies the issue. How many new Fire Emblem fans dropped off of Echoes because of the difficulty and lack of access to the DLC content? Because, the DLC isn’t cheap. Depending on what you decided to purchase, you can expect to drop anywhere from $8 to $15 for each pack. And if you purchase multiple packs, there’s a possibility you could have just purchased a whole new copy of Shadows of Valentia.

But given that Echoes is a remake of a Famicom game, one has to wonder whether this difficulty was evident in that initial title. After all, there wasn’t DLC in that era of video games. Regardless, I’m curious as to future releases in the Fire Emblem universe and the DLC model. Because I sure as heck didn’t spend the amount of money for Awakening (I purchased one DLC pack) when compared to Echoes (I pretty much bought Echoes twice). So whether Echoes was simply an experiment for Nintendo to see how this DLC model performs or a genuine remake made for both new and veteran fans of Fire Emblem, one thing is certain. Given that Nintendo is beginning to enter the world of paid connectivity for the Switch, DLC content will become more of a thought and less of an afterthought for Nintendo moving forward. Which means fans will have to remain vigilant as to just how vital this DLC content will be for future titles. Will Nintendo carve content out of titles for DLC, or will they create content that will enhance the enjoyment of the game overall. I guess we’ll find out sooner rather than later.