Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
Akin to how Final Fantasy II and III for the SNES were really the fourth and sixth installments respectively in that revered RPG series, the first Fire Emblem game to receive an official Western release (a Game Boy Advance title published in 2003) was unembellished by any numerical suffix or fancy subtitle, belying its advanced chronological placement as the seventh entry in the long-standing tactical RPG franchise. Since then, the series has cultivated a rather sizeable Western fanbase, and Nintendo and Intelligent Systems seem to have noticed the potential for capitalizing on its burgeoning popularity with remakes of the earlier Japan-exclusive entries. Until now, their only effort extended toward this end has been Shadow Dragon, a DS remake of the series' seminal Famicom installment (presumably released in the West to finally explain to Nintendo's North American audience the presence of this strange Marth guy in their Super Smash Bros. games). Now, there's Shadows of Valentia, a modernization of the series' second official entry, otherwise known to those familiar with the original Japanese release as Fire Emblem Gaiden.
My nebulous recollections of Shadow Dragon paint it as somewhat of a disappointment. All I really remember is not being sufficiently motivated to play beyond its first few battles, but I would venture to claim that my dislike for the game stemmed not from any unfaithfulness to its source's genre-defining game design. Being a reincarnation of older gameplay, it simply lacked many of the refinements and additional strategic elements to which I had been acclimated by the more recent GBA and Gamecube entries: the ability for mounted units to complete their movement after attacking, the option to pair up adjacent units to augment their attacks and shield weaker units from the threat of enemy reprisal, etc. These examples of modern refinements are absent from Shadows of Valentia as well, but my experience with this latest Fire Emblem remake has been a relatively positive one nonetheless. This is due, in large part I think, to the clever, yet evanescent innovations that the original Fire Emblem Gaiden brought to the series, and which this remake faithfully preserves. The fact that many of its novel contributions failed to find a permanent foothold in future installments guarantees that Gaiden and its remake, not unlike many of the other direct sequels of Nintendo's 8-bit era, stand out, for better or worse, as memorable deviations from their kin.
One of Gaiden's (and hence Echoes') more notable innovations is the inclusion of an overworld map, freely navigable by the player, albeit in a mostly "on-rails" Super-Mario-stage-selection-screen sort of way. A largely linear, occasionally branching pathway links together numerous prominent nodes, which represent the various towns, dungeons, roaming enemy encounters, and fixed story battles that populate the continent of Valentia, and the player is free to travel back and forth between these to advance the main scenario or complete optional side quests. Echoes' story comprises two intertwining plotlines centered around a pair of protagonists—Alm of the viridescent hair, grandson of a renowned Valentian knight, and his childhood friend, the scarlet-tressed priestess Celica. The game's first couple of acts focus exclusively on the separate undertakings of each hero, introducing the player to the members of their respective military retinues, as well as laying the narrative groundwork for their individual campaigns to salvage the realm of Valentia from the brink of chaos. Later acts still maintain a clear separation between the two armies, but the player is given the freedom to toggle between them on the overworld screen, so he can choose to conquer multiple missions consecutively in a single commander's campaign, or he can alternate advancing both characters one node at a time toward their respective goals.
"Echoes' developers have done an admirable job bringing things up to the standards established by the more modern games, and though it may lack a few features and gameplay elements that over the years have become prominent staples of the series… for the most part it feels and plays like a contemporary to Fates and Awakening."
Three-dimensional dungeons, navigable in real time and from a third-person perspective, represent probably the most significant instance of Echoes' numerous novelties, and the one that I would most like to see a future installment in the series return to expand upon. The player explores each dungeon as either Alm or Celica, controlling the hero's movements directly with the analog stick and repositioning the camera with the directional pad. You can even swing your character's weapon with a tap of the A button, essential for getting the jump on enemy encounters, pillaging the precious contents from various arbitrarily strewn clusters of pottery and supply crates, and breaking through false walls to reveal the secret passageways beyond. Battles are initiated only when the player comes into contact with the roaming 3D models that represent the netherworld's sinister inhabitants, and many can be avoided altogether by dashing quickly through while the enemy's back is turned. Similar to another Intelligent Systems franchise, the Paper Mario games, initiative can go to either the player or the enemy depending on how first contact is made with the enemy's avatar: strike your foe with a well-timed swipe of your sword, and you will deal minor initial damage to all units, start closer to the enemy, and receive the first turn; but allow your opponent to tag you from behind, and you will enter the battlefield at a disadvantage, with the enemy units moving and attacking first. Dungeon encounters are generally easier than your standard campaign battles, with the enemy army typically comprising fewer units, which makes them handy for grinding to level up any characters that have lagged behind the more popular members of your squad.
Granted, there is nothing inherently remarkable about any given dungeon's design—no particularly clever puzzles or environmental traps with which to contend—which is precisely the sort of shortcoming that I think a future game in the series would do well to address. I personally would love to see them evolve into the sprawling grid-based labyrinths of RPGs past (currently best exemplified by the Etrian Odyssey series), whose successful navigation demanded of the player some combination of effective resource management, amateur pen-and-graph-paper cartography skills, and/or a nimble knack for mnemonics. But even the somewhat pedestrian form they take in Echoes does a nice job of changing up the pace, injecting a welcome bit of free exploration into the midst of all the methodical turn-based combat. It certainly is no detriment to their appeal that they tend to contain the game's best rewards: treasure chests that hold powerful weapons, armor, and accessories; fountains that permanently augment the stats of any unit that drinks from them; statues of the goddess Mila, which provide an opportunity to promote your units to more advanced classes; even super rare gold fountains, which allow the player to restore life to a unit previously lost on the battlefield.
In most other Fire Emblem games, special abilities are uniquely inherent to a specific class, and new abilities are, therefore, only acquired when a unit receives a class promotion. This is still often the case in Shadows, but additionally, many abilities are associated with the use of specific weapons and items. Another popular strategy-RPG series long overdue for a new installment, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, employed a similar system for bolstering a unit's repertoire of skills, with characters gradually learning their job abilities from the weapons and armor that they equipped. I had always thought it was a rather clever way of giving the items in the player's inventory a stronger identity, making them seem less like throwaway objects that would simply be replaced with the objectively more powerful version of the same item class at the next shop over. In Echoes, each unit is allowed to equip one item at a time, be it a weapon, shield, accessory, or even just a health-restoring consumable. Most of these provide some sort of passive benefit that is immediately activated upon equipping them, such as boosts to a character's attack or defense, or automatic hit point recovery at the beginning of the player's turn. Other more active abilities must be unlocked by filling the item's associated experience gauge, which is accomplished simply by participating in enough battles while the item is equipped. Unlocking new abilities in this way adds an extra element of exciting reward to the process of leveling up your units, as now in addition to upgrades to basic attributes like speed and defense, there is more frequent potential of acquiring a cool new skill, like Windsweep, which entirely nullifies an opponent's counterattack at the expense of a few HP, or Shove, which pushes an adjacent unit one space in any direction, perhaps facilitating the chance to defeat a previously out-of-reach opponent without having to wait an extra turn.
Whether you regard Echoes' attempts at innovation as admirable additions or distracting missteps, the core appeal of the series' turn-based tactical combat remains. One thing I have always appreciated about Fire Emblem's combat is the elegant simplicity with which damage totals and hit percentages are calculated. Many RPGs and strategy titles have a tendency to bury the fundamental information the player needs to determine his success beneath a convoluted superfluity of statistics. Were one to browse the online forums dedicated to discussions of some of the more popular games in the genre, it is not as farcical an exaggeration as you might expect to find formulas like the following being used for determining the amount of damage dealt:
(weapon might * 0.25316 + unit strength * 0.11268 + (unit's inherent manliness stat - the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop) * the square root of -2) * (enemy's defense ^ 3 - enemy's current stack of explosive diarrhea debuffs * 10) / 100 ± a floating-point value between 0 and (unit's luck - unit's accuracy) extracted from a random number generator seeded with the date of the game director's birth
I enjoy a good math puzzle as much as the next nerd, but these sorts of deliberately oblique computations, while in theory representing the developer's well-meaning ambition to offer players a deeper, more engrossing simulation, function in practice more as an active effort to undermine the strategy genre's whole fundamental appeal. A strategy game ought to facilitate the player's ability to formulate effective tactical decisions, not sabotage his efforts by purposefully obfuscating vital information beneath a haze of arbitrary variables. Thankfully, Fire Emblem has always excelled at keeping things beautifully simple: the amount of damage inflicted by an attack = the attacking unit's base strength + the might stat of his equipped weapon - the enemy's defense. Extra wrinkles are added, of course, to keep things interesting, but they all constitute relatively minor tweaks to this straightforward equation: a unit with higher speed than his opponent will deal two consecutive blows, so the player must multiply the result of his damage computation by two to determine the full effectiveness of his onslaught; if the attacking unit is using a magic-based weapon, then the opposing unit's resistance stat is subtracted instead of her defense to determine the net value of damage she will sustain; critical hits always deal triple the amount of damage that a normal attack would inflict, so if the forecast for a pending battle shows a chance for the enemy to land a critical blow, the player can easily factor a worst-case scenario into his strategy by multiplying the prospective damage by three.
If there's one area where Echoes may have taken the whole "keep it simple" mantra a bit too far, it's in the design of some of its battlefields. The various grid-based maps on which the game's turn-based skirmishes unfold are rather stark, oftentimes consisting of little more than open swaths of grassland interspersed with a few thickets. The evasion bonuses granted by the scant handful of terrain types are slightly more pronounced this time around, which is offset by the fact that magic attacks ignore terrain effects altogether. As a result, you may find yourself taking more careful notice of even the least varied topographies, and the pivotal role that a seemingly mundane pillar or forest square plays in securing or subverting your victory might elevate it to a status of memorable distinction. Still, it's a poor trade-off for the total absence of ballistae, breakable walls, dead trees that can be felled and used as bridges, or any of the other more interesting interactive map elements that past Fire Emblem games have featured. Victory conditions, too, are more or less confined to the basic "Rout All Enemies" mandate, which might prove somewhat of a disappointment as well, especially if you are just coming off the exceptional objective variety of Fire Emblem Fates (Conquest in particular). Then again, some critics claimed that Fire Emblem Awakening also exhibited relatively poor range in the conditions that defined player victory, and that has not prevented it from being one of my favorite 3DS games. Dare I say such simplicity can actually prove rather refreshing, for without the added stress of having to identify and manage every new stage's unique gimmick, the player is free to focus on the core mechanic of effectively managing and positioning her units.
Echoes' developers have done an admirable job bringing things up to the standards established by the more modern games, and though it may lack a few features and gameplay elements that over the years have become prominent staples of the series (the patented sword-axe-lance weapon triangle, for instance), for the most part it feels and plays like a contemporary to Fates and Awakening. Highlighting units to view an overlay of their movement and attack ranges, pop-up windows that provide a detailed preview of a pending conflict's results, various options to fast forward through battle animations—all the standard conveniences and functionality of a modern Fire Emblem UI are present and accounted for, working pretty much how you would expect them to if you've played any of the more recent 3DS games. What you might not expect from the precedents set by the franchise's previous installments is fully voiced dialogue and cutscenes, yet here they are, a testament to the expanded production values that the series' surging popularity has earned.
"When a poorly positioned unit can be defeated by a single blow and lost forever, there is simply no leeway for condoning blind ambushes and special attacks that the player has no ability to predict."
Another measure to keep this revitalization of decades-old game design in sync with its more sprightly successors, the support bond system (apparently, a feature that had not yet become a series staple at the time of Gaiden's original Famicom release) has been fully integrated into Echoes' remastered gameplay. Relationships gradually develop between certain units if they execute their actions within relative proximity of one another, rewarding you with extra scenes of dialogue between said units, as well as useful boosts to their hit and evasion percentages while they remain in close proximity. It may not result in the birth of child units, who inherit their stats and skill sets from the combined gene pool of their parents, subsequently forcing a ridiculous plot contrivance involving backward time-travel or accelerated aging to explain how they are able to join their progenitors on the battlefield. Likewise, achieving the highest level of support between two units will not trigger a puerile exchange of lovey-dovey dialogue, which reads like some toddler's distorted perception of budding romance played out in five acts of Barbie Doll Shakespeare. But for those who are familiar with, or perhaps even preferred, the more platonic nature of the support system present in the pre-3DS entries, the effort Echoes' developers have made to integrate a feature altogether missing from the original should prove more than satisfactory. (All playful teasing aside, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the romantic evolution of the support system implemented in Awakening and Fates. It provides the player an extra layer of customization that is always welcome in an RPG, allowing him to establish his own personal roster of units with their own unique capabilities based on which precise permutation he chooses to construct their pedigree. I just think the concept would be better served, from a purely narrative perspective, in the context of a Phantasy Star III-style story, where the whole multi-generational dynamic plays out across multiple isolated acts, each one forcing a clean break from the one preceding and demanding that the player start afresh with an entirely new cast of playable characters.)
One of the greatest sins a strategy game can commit is springing new information on the player without giving sufficient opportunity for her to assimilate it into an effective counter-strategy. It was one of my biggest gripes with some of the battles in Awakening: often the game would introduce enemy recruits at the start of the enemy's action phase, then immediately begin using them to launch assaults against whichever player units had the misfortune of standing too close to their spawn points. This was not only incredibly unfair, but oddly inconsistent with how mid-battle reinforcements had been handled in previous games in the series, which always were careful to introduce surprise ambushes at the end of the enemy phase, allowing the player at least one turn to assess the new situation and refortify any units that may have become unexpectedly imperiled thereby. Shadows of Valentia has a few similarly perfidious ambuscades, namely involving certain "Witch" units and their "Teleportation" ability. The description for this irksome power reads thusly: "Allows a unit to warp next to a target and move again"—with absolutely no indication given as to how far away the potential target can be. From my experience, the destination of their teleportation can be any tile anywhere on the map, and I have failed to recognize any effective way to predict their behavior: sometimes they will move and attack normally, within the clearly delineated confines of their respective movement and attack ranges; other times they will trigger their teleportation ability, jump to a tile behind the vanguard you meticulously constructed to absorb their assault, and unleash their devastating magicks on your most vulnerable unit.
I suppose you could just expel a mournfully languorous "c'est la vie" and embrace the true permadeath nature of the game. Shadows of Valentia adheres to the now-standard practice of all modern Fire Emblem games, offering a range of more casual difficulty settings to accommodate a wider audience of gamers, but the "Classic" play style (and the one I always opt for when starting up a new game) enforces the permanent death rule, meaning that if a character falls in battle, he or she is removed from your roster of available units for the remainder of the game. I am a loathsomely fragile spirit in real life, utterly averse to any sort of character-building, resolve-strengthening accountability; but in the virtual world, I am an incorrigible masochist, who enjoys the added challenge and sense of taut unease that the threat of a strict and indelible punishment affords—the feeling that every tactical decision I make matters, and one false move could have lasting and costly consequences… but not really, 'cuz it's just a game, and I can instantly dispel the onerous weight of all harrowing repercussions with a craven press of the power button. Fire Emblem was the Dark Souls of strategy games before Dark Souls was the trite comparison everyone makes to every other game that would pride itself on its punishing difficulty. Such a game always treads a razor's edge between exhilarating challenge and controller-endangering exasperation, and just as it affords no forgiveness for the player's mistakes, it must expect no leniency in the critical appraisal of its own. When a poorly positioned unit can be defeated by a single blow and lost forever, there is simply no leeway for condoning blind ambushes and special attacks that the player has no ability to predict.
Perhaps to counter these occasional instances of luck-based game design, Echoes introduces a new feature called Mila's Turnwheel, which allows the player limited opportunities to reset time. If you miscalculate the attack range of your enemies and accidentally leave one of your units exposed to a fatal attack, or if you somehow miss landing a blow that had factored crucially into your strategy for surviving the current turn because the stupid liar-liar-pants-on-fire game informed you it had a 99.9999% chance of succeeding—welp, no need to tear your limb from its socket in an apoplectic rage and use it to bludgeon your 3DS into little plastic shards: simply use the Turnwheel like you would the undo button on your favorite productivity software. The game keeps a history of every action taken throughout the course of a fight, allowing the player to leap back to the precise moment when events took a turn for the worse—to put things right that once went wrong.
It cannot help but feel a little bit like a cheat, especially to the Fire Emblem veterans who adhere to the game's classic permadeath rule. The Turnwheel's uses may be limited, but not enough to make them feel like a precious commodity. Their number resets after every battle, and though you begin the game with only a maximum of three, by the final act, if you have collected all the cogs that upgrade the wheel's potential, you will easily have in excess of 10 resets available during any given fight—more than enough to undo any unfortunate casualties, missed critical hits, or even an unfavorable roll for status improvements on the level-up screen. As an attempt to add an extra element of resource management to the player's strategy, the wheel is a bit more successful in the game's dungeons, as its uses are not restored until the player finishes exploring the entire area. I could actually see this feature becoming a staple of future Fire Emblem releases, as it affords a sort of middle ground between the casual and classic difficulty settings, and being able to upgrade the wheel via cogs—like collecting Heart Containers in a Zelda game or Energy Tanks in Metroid—feels like a nice, hefty power-up with substantial benefit to the player. Still, I think the developers could stand to be a little bit stingier with the wheel's uses: perhaps rewinding past the death of a player unit could expend 3 uses of the wheel instead of just one.
Having been somewhat indifferent to Shadow Dragon, the previous remake of an erstwhile Japan-exclusive Fire Emblem, I approached Shadows of Valentia with somewhat tempered expectations. But while it may not boast every little gameplay feature that has gradually contributed to the series' strategic depth over the years, this is still classic Fire Emblem game design, with enough necessary additions to restore its contemporary relevance, and even a few long-lost innovations of its own that its modern-day successors would not be worse off for emulating. It is a solid recommendation to strategy enthusiasts in general. And if you are like me, a North American fan of the series who missed out on the first six installments due to Nintendo's early reluctance to brook the cost of localization, there is really no better way to catch yourself up on the origins of your favorite tactical RPG series. Here's hoping that equally appealing remasters of the Super Famicom releases will eventually make their way westward as well.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!