For better and for worse, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is not more of the same. It doesn’t evolve from the previous Fire Emblem entries; it devolves from them. Even though it can still get quite difficult, Shadows of Valentia strips itself from many of the series’ staples to create a simpler experience in many regards. And I love it for doing so.
I finished all three campaigns of Fire Emblem Fates after over a year of playing it, and realized that I didn’t have much to say about it other than what I’d already written about. It was just Fire Emblem, almost like comfort food that I didn’t really take seriously but enjoyed for what it was. I figured I’d take a little break from Fire Emblem before jumping back into it with Shadows of Valentia, but here I am. Partly, I decided to pick it up because I knew I was about to go on a week-long vacation to Las Vegas and a nice, long 3DS RPG would be the perfect thing to occupy me for all the plane rides, waiting for meals, and for relaxing by the pool. But another part of my reason for purchasing it was that I didn’t want to stop playing Fire Emblem. I’d gotten into a groove where playing Fire Emblem became part of my way of life whenever I had a minute or so to spare, and I didn’t want that to stop.
One of the things about the game that absolutely delighted me was the voice acting. For the first time ever, Fire Emblem has full voice acting, not just the voice clips from previous games. And, for the most part, the voice actors and actresses nail it. As is typical in most video games, the NPCs’ voice actors unfortunately retain the unwanted cheesiness that’s been associated with the poor voice acting from older games, but the main cast is almost perfect. Alm and Celica, the two main characters, play their roles perfectly, being able to show a wide range of emotions. Alm seems more passionate whereas Celica is more introverted and subdued, but they both are easy to sympathize with despite their differing points of view.
Shadows of Valentia is a remake of the second Fire Emblem game that was exclusively released on the Famicom in Japan, Fire Emblem Gaiden. Much like Super Mario Bros. 2 (western version) and Zelda II, Gaiden was apparently a bit of a black sheep compared to the other games in the series. And while I can’t go and prove it by playing the original, it appears that Shadows of Valentia retains a lot that made the original so different.
Instead of mountains of text followed by a long fight to be replaced by the next wall of text before the following long fight of Fates and Awakening, Shadows of Valentia slices the story and combat into nice bite-sized pieces, which are perfect for playing on the go. They’re not quite the one-screened maps of Heroes, but they’re still small enough for you to feasibly complete one a ten-minute bus ride. There are occasional mountains of text and maps just as large as their predecessors (or successors, depending on how you want to look at it), but these are exceptions to the rule, not the norm. At any rate, I appreciate the variety in scope so that it doesn’t fall into the often- monotonous pattern of reading, doing a chapter, reading, preparing for the next chapter, etc. Along the map, some stops will have a map with combat but not a line of dialogue, and some will be towns filled with people and things to do but with no strategy at all. It keeps the game fresh.
Another addition to keep the game fresh are the dungeons. For what I believe to be the first time in Fire Emblem, the characters can move in three-dimensional space. Much like what I’ve seen of Persona and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, the enemies also move around in 3D space, but if either of you touch, you’ll transition into the normal top-down strategy combat, only it’s even more bite-sized than usual, usually only taking a few minutes to complete. Dungeons are semi- rare, and they seldom overstay their welcome, at least in my experience with it.
There are support conversations that you access on the actual battlefield, but no marriages. I guess it would be a bit difficult to have a whole wedding while people are actively trying to kill you, but it’s a shame that all of the characters I’m starting to ship (Mae x Boey, Grey x Tobin) won’t ever get out of the friend zone. I imagine that a higher support rank means that the individual units will fight better when placed alongside their “friends,” but I can’t say that for certain.
The strategy itself has changed (or hasn’t, again depending on your point of view) from what I was used to with Awakening and Fates as well. Features such as units fighting together if placed side-by-side or having one defend another if they’re paired together have completely disappeared, as they weren’t in the original game. Archers can now shoot people directly in front of them or up to three spaces away, making them useful in a lot more situations. Not even healing items are degradable, meaning that you have absolutely nothing to lose by healing one health other units for more experience. You can only one item, which can be a second weapon, a shield, or food, probably among other choices I have yet to discover. The list goes on and on, and but most of the changes simplify rather than complicate the modern Fire Emblem mechanics. It doesn’t make the game easier in terms of difficulty, but it does make it easier to understand.
My list of negatives for this game thus far is short. For one, I’m not a fan of the new art style for cut-scenes. I absolutely adored the beautiful animation for the cut-scenes in Awakening and Fates, whereas those in Shadows of Valentia look almost mechanical. Whenever someone makes a sudden movement, they look stiff. If I pause the video on any point, it looks great, but the half anime/ half CG-I style just isn’t doing it for me. I recognize that this is probably just due to budgeting, and I’d much rather have the budget go towards full voice acting rather than three minutes total of cut-scenes in a 40-or-so hour game, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
While I like the simplification of Fire Emblem in Shadows of Valentia as a whole, there were some omissions to quality-of-life that left me scratching my head. These are mainly tiny issues, such as having to manually place a healer next to a unit, select “white magic,” and then the spell, instead of just placing the cursor over the desired unit and confirming in Awakening and Fates. The actual UI seems to have devolved as well, which is quite jarring after coming from almost 100 hours of Fates. It still provides all vital information, but it looks a lot less elegant than it did in Fates particularly, leaving a lot of empty space on the bottom screen.
All of these are just minor nitpicks, however. Overall, playing Shadows of Valentia is almost as new an experience to me as playing my first Fire Emblem game in the form of Awakening was. I’m loving the new (or old) take on the series, and I sincerely hope that my experience continues to be as enjoyable and fresh as the opening hours have been.
I didn’t get “more” of the typical Fire Emblem I knew, but instead I got a shock to the system. I could no longer go on autopilot. Everything has been flipped on it’s head and I have to figure out how to do everything all over again. Fire Emblem is new again, and I couldn’t be happier.