Fire Emblem reaches into the past to give the series a fresh new feel with Shadows of Valentia
I very nearly embarrassed myself with my take on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. If I hadn't realized a few days ago that the latest 3DS entry in Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' strategy RPG franchise is a remake of an old Famicom game, I might have waxed rhapsodic about how it offers a "welcome burst of inspiration" or "finally helps add some interesting new innovation" to the series' formula. As it turns out, though, the "innovation" that makes Valentia so appealing was in fact laid down 25 years ago in the original version of the game: Fire Emblem Gaiden.
In fairness, it would have been an easy mistake to make. Fire Emblem Gaiden, also referred to by many fans as Fire Emblem II, has languished in Japan until now. Nintendo didn't begin localizing Fire Emblem titles until the Game Boy Advance/GameCube era, so unless you deliberately went looking for information on that 8-bit sequel, you could just as easily assume Valentia was simply the latest new work in the franchise. You could also be forgiven for simply assuming the cumbersome subtitle is a series trademark, coming so soon after last year's Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Revelation/Conquest. However, "Echoes" will seemingly serve as Nintendo's branding for Fire Emblem remakes. This comes more than a decade late for their series' first remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for Game Boy Advance, alas — though in terms of scope and effort, Valentia absolutely shames Shadow Dragon. [Correction: Shadow Dragon was released on DS — Jeremy]
If you remember Shadow Dragon, that remake simply brought the original Fire Emblem for Famicom up to approximately Game Boy Advance standards. It boasted nicer, more detailed visuals and more elaborate text than the older version, but otherwise, it felt pretty similar to the 8-bit release. Valentia, on the other hand, brings an older to the standards of the original 3DS Fire Emblem titles — and then takes it a step further. The combat engine comes straight from Fates: You shuffle your little strategy pawns as 2D sprites around a slightly tilted battlefield, and once a combat encounter commences the camera zooms in and blurs to a cinematic 3D sequence in which your characters' actions play out against a foe.
This time, however, the 3D view serves an expanded role. It's not just about looking pretty; once you claim certain map areas from the foe, you're allowed to venture into that building or dungeon. Rather than play out as a static screen with actions determined by menu, these dungeon-dives feel more like a traditional RPG. Your hero or heroine ventures into the dungeon on foot, with the camera following behind them. You can hunt for treasures, smash up destructible objects in the environment, and even take on foes. Encounters with the enemy are initiated by making physical contact with them (and you can strike as you collide during exploration in order to gain initiative), and they play out as standard Fire Emblem battles.
You don't often see this mix of classic RPG exploration and tactical combat. It calls back to older RPGs like SSI's Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance or the first few Arc the Lad games for PlayStation, and for me it makes Valentia the most engaging Fire Emblem I've played to date. The constant stream of drawn-out engagements that comprise a strategy RPG can feel like a real drudge after a while; at the same time, it's difficult to leaven things with lightweight battles, because they feel like an inconsequential waste of time. The free-roaming exploration sequences — limited as they may be here — creates just the right kind of palette-cleanser between major engagements to keep Valentia from becoming monotonous. The battles you face in most of the dungeons are inconsequential, feeling more like random filler battles in a standard console RPG than meaty tactical encounters... but in the context of exploration scenes that play like something out of a standard console RPG, they work perfectly.
This change of pacing would be a welcome innovation — the next step forward in Fire Emblem's evolution — if not for one critical fact: The dungeon exploration element comes directly from Fire Emblem Gaiden. While the 3D perspective is new for 3DS, the idea of breaking away from the map-by-map campaign for a bit of light dungeon-crawling was what made Fire Emblem Gaiden Fire Emblem Gaiden. It was something of an experiment, a creative side story excursion (as denoted by the title), and it ultimately proved to be an evolutionary dead-end; to my knowledge, no other Fire Emblem title has incorporated a similar mechanic. Even here, it's somewhat diminished from the original game; Fire Emblem Gaiden allowed you to explore towns in a similar fashion, while in Valentia you navigate those areas through a bog-standard strategy RPG menu system, jumping from scene to scene.
All of this complements a solid core game. Valentia tells the story of two childhood friends thrust into opposition with one another by the tides of war and duty. Once you play through the two introductory chapters, which serve to set up protagonist Alm and Celica's respective stories, the main game sees you playing out both hero and heroines' campaigns simultaneously. You can switch freely between both characters, advancing each story as you see fit — and there are just enough dynamic events on the map (such as mercenary teams appearing to reinforce the enemy army at critical junctures) that you have to switch up your approach from time to time to put out fires or staunch the flow of bad guys.
The free movement sequences in Valentia never last long enough to overstay their welcome, and I have to wonder why developer Intelligent Systems dropped the concept in later games. They really do add a lot to the Fire Emblem formula, and I have to hope that positive reception to Echoes will inspire IS to consider revisiting the concept in future releases.
I also appreciate the fact that IS has taken inspiration here from another incredible strategy RPG remake: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP. Specifically, Echoes incorporates that game's rewind feature to allow you to undo a botched action. As in TO, this feature is absolutely optional; and here it's far more limited, with the number of actions you can rewind strictly set per battle and parceled out based on the number of supplemental items you can locate. But given the (optional) presence of permadeath in Fire Emblem, the ability to step back two or three moves can keep the game from feeling like a huge waste of time. You're definitely going to reset the game when the random number generator breaks unfairly and, for example, you lose a beloved character forever because you whiff twice on an action with an 80% success rate while the enemy lands a critical riposte despite less-than-even odds of even landing a blow. The rewind saves you the trouble of having to start all over again — but you can't abuse it, and you can completely ignore it if you find it cheapens the game's tension.
One other nice thing about Valentia — and this is admittedly a personal preference — is the fact that its retro roots tone down the party-chat dynamic. The most recent games in the series have nearly gone full-on dating simulation, with an increasing emphasis on character romances and marriage. Valentia feels a lot more buttoned-down than the other 3DS entries in the series, with the character-pairing mechanics taking on a far more limited scope than in Awakenings and Fates. Only specific characters — those with established interpersonal relationships — can build their affinity for one another by performing supporting actions, and those connections reach their max level without the marriage-as-resolution culmination that has become the standard. While some of the character dialogue certainly has undertones (and even overtones) of flirtation, hinting alternately at both mixed- and same-sex attraction, Valentia (at least so far as I've seen) stops short of the mai-waifu trend that's come to define the franchise.
Of course, there's plenty I haven't seen of Valentia yet. I'm a long way from beating the game, and then there's the game's extensive downloadable content (which somewhat infamously costs more than the game itself). So who knows what shenanigans lie ahead? The important thing is that I actually feel motivated to find out — a new sensation for me when it comes to Fire Emblem. I respect the series and have enjoyed dabbling in the more recent releases, but the games have never truly grabbed me until now. And really, Valentia just goes to show what Retronauts is all about: The importance of looking to history for inspiration. Sometimes, the best and most refreshing ideas in games are the ones that have been laying around right under our noses, forgotten, for years and years.