Nintendo certainly aren’t strangers to the notion of a game remaster, and Fire Emblem as a series has been given this treatment in the past. While the tactical RPG series originally launched on the NES, it remained exclusively locked to Japan until the arrival of the Game Boy Advance, and its accompanying Fire Emblem was one of the highlights of 2003. Once the series had been established on these shores, Nintendo then successfully returned to the first and the third 8-bit entries, at the time bringing them up to date for the dual screen DS.
Gaiden was the second game in the series, and it’s perhaps easy to see why it was initially overlooked by Nintendo, given that it removed many key aspects of the franchise which were then brought back again later on. They now seem to have laid such concerns to rest though, and Fire Emblem: Echoes of Valentia rewrites the series’ history, for better and for worse.
As part of the game’s remaster, Intelligent Systems have brought it bang up to date, and using the same engine as Awakening and Fates means it’s now just as handsome as its more modern counterparts. However, there are a number of new elements, key amongst them being the new 3D exploration of certain locations.
You can freely explore these areas, searching for treasure by smashing crates and barrels, while encountering enemies will start a normal battle. The camera can be a touch sensitive using the New 3DS’ analog nub, but they’re not overly used and can be refreshingly different in a series that’s found a groove over the past four years.
Besides the 3D sections, you’re also treated to some fantastic anime cutscenes which remain of an incredibly high standard. The voice acting extends from these portions into every single line in the game, making this quite probably the best-told story in the Fire Emblem series. Alm and Celica make for a likeable and interesting pair of protagonists, and the rest of the characters all live up to the legacy that the previous games have left, with bags of personality to spare.
As a remake of an earlier game in the series, Echoes offers a stripped back style of Fire Emblem tactics that will likely feel very different to those who’ve only played the more recent 3DS titles. Even for those who’ve played everything on the Gameboy Advance – or the original NES games – Gaiden was in itself an outlier for the series, but there are a number of differences that keep things interesting despite what some may see as a reduction or removal of some elements.
The first thing that’s gone is the Fire Emblem weapon triangle – the rock-paper-scissors system that dictated whether weapons had an advantage or disadvantage against one of a different type. It makes combat a lot less obvious to read on a purely visual basis, and you’ll find yourself feeling your way through encounters without the knowledge that your character has an immediate advantage over an enemy. To be honest, it doesn’t make as much difference as you might think – I play the Fire Emblem series in a fairly tentative manner anyway – but there’s less clarity on the battlefield.
However, with Fire Emblem Echoes you’re able to undo a limited number of mistakes using Mila’s Turnwheel, which is in essence a rewind button. It may just save you from the despair of losing a unit to an ill-thought out move. That’s assuming you’re playing in Classic mode – which of course you should be – but you don’t necessarily have to perform the age old Fire Emblem reset to take you back to the beginning of a level and can instead play in Casual mode without perma-death. Mila’s Turnwheel is not a fix-all, nor is it particularly overpowered, as you’re limited by the number of cogs which you have, so it’s a welcome addition to the series, and a pleasing nod to modernity.
What’s also gone is the teaming up of units that appeared in Awakening. The recent game’s emphasis on relationships may have eventually become a touch overwhelming – I never had any units appear on the battlefield alone – so Echoes feels refreshing in its return to earlier values. Your characters still team up, strengthening their relationship with mid-battle story skits which feel like the Tales series, but the support they provide has an increased range which means you don’t have to constantly shuffle them across the battlefield together.
The levelling system really does push you to use all of your team members, and while bonus experience is shared at the end of each battle it’ll never carry anyone to the next level, requiring you to remember who to use in your next encounter. You’ll rarely see the huge improvements your characters often made in the previous games, often only bumping one or two stats by a point each time you level up, which makes the whole thing feel more organic, or more of a slog, depending on your outlook.
Members of your team can now only hold one item each, but in turn they’ll grant you the benefit of their effect. If a character uses them for long enough, the item will often offer them a number of special abilities called Arts that you’ll unlock as you progress. Those Arts can change the course of a battle, but they cost HP to use giving it an added risk/reward factor. It also makes changing up your weaponry less straightforward, as swapping out an item could lose you an Art that you’re well attached too. It’s yet another aspect to obsess over.
Fire Emblem Echoes isn’t without a few flaws though, and a surprising one is just how long it takes for the game’s challenge to kick in. Fire Emblem has always been a tough series, particularly in its Classic, perma-death enabled traditional form, but Echoes goes a touch easier on you for longer than either Awakening or Fates did. Fans shouldn’t worry too much, as the difficulty ramps up severely later on, but for veterans it may be worth considering the Hard setting from the outset.
Some of that early reduction in difficulty could be attributed to just how powerful archers now are. Assuming that you’ve chosen at least one archer when you select your starting team’s classes they’ll serve you well with an increased range – which can get even bigger as they level up – and the newfound ability to attack units directly next to them. However, you also have to go up against enemy archers who at various points have a distinct positional advantage so perhaps there’s some balance to be found there.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia manages the remarkable trick of remaking one of the oldest entries in the series, and making it feel fresh. The major differences from the other 3DS games may take some getting used to, but long time fans will relish the return of some purity to the tactical action, while this is easily the best-told story the series has ever seen.