The world of Valentia brings wonder and personality to your clamshell handheld.
Fire Emblem Gaiden remains one of the strangest games in the Fire Emblem universe. It pioneered so many interesting concepts that never came together in a single package. It included aspects like dungeon crawling, a modified item system and a simplified focus in the strategy components of the game. Despite the limitations of the Famicom, it stands tall as one of the most intriguing games I've ever played. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia intended for me to relive those moments and see them through an updated lens. The result is a game that takes risks that pay off.
For starters, I enjoyed the personal tale that the dual protagonists Alm and Celica brought to the table. The new prologue offers insight in how they got to know each other and makes their break up more special. Both of them will go on their seperate journeys that sees them trying to end a continent-wracking conflict. That is easier said than done as both stand on opposite sides when it comes to solutions. Celica wants to seek aid from the Earth Mother Mila, while Alm wants to bring the battle directly to the opponent's doorstep. The road to that answer was one of the most profound and dynamic stories found in a Fire Emblem game.
While the storytelling is grand, it is only part of why Shadows of Valentia works so well. This is the first Fire Emblem title that is voiced from start to finish, even for minor characters. No matter their actual importance to the plot, almost every character is voiced within this game. From the moment you realize this, it is sort of a shock to the senses. Previous entries only voiced a line here or there and forced you to read most of the way through. I wanted to keep the sound on, which is the first time I felt this way. This is because the voice acting is excellent and the characters sounded exactly like I imagined them. Nothing beats that feeling of joy.
The gameplay of Echoes is built on three specific pillars. The first part is the Fire Emblem strategy mechanics. You move your units on the grid based battlefield, attack your opponents and make harsh judgement calls at times. Personally I find it fulfilling to see a plan come together, but the solutions in Shadows of Valentia are easier to grasp. I certainly struggled at moments on Normal, but overall I found the difficulty curve less high than before. That isn't to say I disliked the maps or scenarios, but if you are confident, you might want to go with Hard right away. The AI will zoom in on the ally that is likely to fall first, so a mistake can still easily be made.
On the flipside, this is a fantastic stepping stone for who found previous entries too difficult. The team up mechanic from Awakening/Fates has been removed, so you can freely experiment with units. The removal of the weapon triangle and introduction of Mila's Turnwheel for rewinding mistakes also give more room for practice. Newcomers and veterans both will find certain challenges intriguing as well. There is no traditional item system, which slims it down and forces you quickly to pick favorites by letting them hold a single item. Weapons grow along with the unit, so that it can offer more skills and solutions for that character. The way you upgrade is changed up as well, as you go to a Mila statue and pick new classes there. There is a lot to discover.
The second part to Shadows of Valentia is the dungeon crawling, in which you explore 3D environments. The dungeons feature narrow hallways with a decent amount of branching paths to uncover. It is here that we encounter items, shady locales and naturally enemies. Once you interact with an opponent, the game takes you to the usual grid map to partake in a battle. An important note here is that your characters can get fatigued from battling too much. It could cause a huge drop in statistics, so you will need to know when to hold units back. If there is anything missing in the dungeons, I would say that I would've liked them slightly larger in scope, but that is a minor complaint. They usually don't distract much from the overall experience and mostly serve to find rare items or further plot points. What helps is that the movement in them is incredibly smooth. It is fun to move Alm and Celica in a 3D space and use the New 3DS' C-Stick for optimal camera control.
When you are heading into dungeons, building or towns through the world map, there are plenty of reasons to explore. You will talk to NPCs to further the plot or get to know more of the ins and outs of Valentia, or learn about allies or enemies waiting nearby. The search function is a fast way to find items, and you’ll want to use it a lot. The items can be sacrificed to Mila or given to your characters, and they crop up in odd places such as a lightning sword I found propped up against a table.
This brings us to the looks, which is the thing that has been improved upon the most. The new character designs sport original features that make them both look classic as well as appropriate. The transformations from Alm and Celica to the modern era are especially impressive. The graphics during gameplay can be compared to the previous two Nintendo 3DS outings. Shadows of Valentia combines Awakening style maps with Fates’s art quality. The big change that wasn't in the previous games are the character animations. Your units and the opponents will more freely in every direction to block any incoming attack. The attacks themselves are more spectacular as well, with the attacker running up to the opponent and taking the battle up close. It looks super cool. The music has all been remastered from the Famicom days and the sheer amount of change in the melodies is fun.
Overall, I really enjoyed what Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia had on offer. The sheer amount of quality is impressive and delightful. You can see it in how the story, presentation and scenarios are set up which are on the top of their game. I flew through the game in 18 hours and am already ready for another playthrough. That being said, there are two knocks I have against the experience. The game felt somewhat on the easier side and the dungeons could've had a little more to do. Those are minor things in a journey that doesn't slow down from start to finish. If you’re here to be enchanted, Fire Emblem Echoes delivers in spades.